Home / Culture / The Atkins Diet: Catfish, coffee, and crime fuel Auburn football icon’s pursuit of That Perfect Novel

The Atkins Diet: Catfish, coffee, and crime fuel Auburn football icon’s pursuit of That Perfect Novel

Auburn Magazine ran a version of this in its latest issue. It was the cover story. Here’s the original.

Taylor, Mississippi’s about 15 minutes outside Oxford down Old Taylor Road. The road twists and bends through pastoral greenery and sudden tilled fields toward the town. Might be best to say Taylor’s a village. Population’s right around 500. The main street, much as it is such, is a 100-yard bend in the road consisting of what might be an antique shop, a house, two abandoned buildings, a brown-bricked post office, and a restaurant. Standing in the street, it’s hard to tell the difference between in use and out of service. Of course, standing in the street isn’t something one should do, as it’s 103, breezeless, cloudless, and the sun’s radiating hate for all flesh.

The black-on-white text reading Taylor Gro. & Restaurant (taglined That Catfish Place) is bleached almost all white. The two once red Enjoy Coca-Cola ads emblazoned on either side now spotted pink and sporting rust spots. The whole façade’s sun-faded and paint-chipped. An empty glass fifth of whiskey hangs from a white string. The bottle lifts when the door opens. Hard to decipher purpose here. Which might itself be purpose. There’s an empty church pew. A single naked light bulb adds illumination.

Inside’s all wood: wood floors, wood tables, and wood chairs. The walls are covered in black marker signatures declaring love or hate or simply pinpointing a single person’s existence in time. “Hey pretty girl,” a man wearing a navy blue Marine “Semper Fi” hat and sandals with socks says with a smile to a table of two. “Your daddy’s ugly as heck. You know that?” A waitress asks the cashier—a girl of 15 or 16—about her boyfriend. “He ain’t my boyfriend,” she says. Knowing laughs reverberate through the restaurant. A piano sits silent and closed in the rear. A yellow CBS banner hangs next to a white and red ESPN banner. The Manning family has been known to eat here. Food Network’s made stops. Taylor Grocery is something of a local landmark. The sweet tea is very very sweet.

In walks Ace Atkins. Ace Atkins is a big man. This is something that should be established from the start. He’s a big dude. He looks every bit the ex-Auburn defensive end he is. In fact, he’s wearing a navy blue hat stitched with an interlocking orange AU as he walks through the door. He removes the hat once fully inside.

“I’ve got my Auburn hat,” he later says. “I love Auburn. But I’m not there at Tiger Walk in my old 99 jersey. That’s not really me. I’m very proud of that time, but I’m more concentrated on things I’m working on right now.”

Right now he’s being led outside by the front table of elderly patrons for a picture. Ace has just returned home to Mississippi from a nationwide book tour to promote his two latest books—The Lost Ones, the second novel in his New York Times Bestselling Quinn Colson series, and Lullaby, the first of his novels continuing the late Robert B. Parker’s famed Spenser mystery series. Taylor and Taylor Grocery is a place where people know other people. Often people know all the people. Ace knows just about all the people. He’s stopped for hellos and how-are-yous no less than three times on his journey from front to back of the restaurant.

This is a result of both the South’s inherent friendliness (or perhaps the South’s incestuous nature) and Ace having lived in Taylor, on his farm, for 12 years. He moved from Tampa to Taylor at 30, having decided to be a novelist. He had been working the crime beat for the Tampa Tribune. He published his first novel, Crossroad Blues, which chronicles “ex-New Orleans Saint turned Tulane University blues historian” Nick Travers’ attempts to discover the murderer of famous bluesman Robert Johnson. Crossroad was the first of Ace’s Nick Travers novels. Ace started writing the series while he was at Auburn and Crossroads was published when he was 27. He’s even got a finished manuscript of his first unpublished work. (“There’s a reason it’s unpublished.”) The series of four books explore a younger Ace’s passions: New Orleans, the blues, history, the crime novels of Robert B. Parker, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Ross Macdonald, drinking beer, and talking to good-looking women.

“My wife read [Crossroad Blues] recently and she said, ‘This book is basically all the stuff that you like to do,’” he will say with a laugh.

Ace met his wife, Angela, in Tampa. He moved to Tampa in 1995. Up until that point, post-graduation, he wrote whatever he could whenever could—author profiles, articles for small magazines, freelance newspaper assignments. Not too long after his Tampa move he was hired by what was then the St. Petersburg Times.

“One of my proudest moments was getting business cards saying I was a staff writer covering the crime beat.”

His time at the Times led to the Tampa Tribune. The Tribune is where Ace really began becoming the writer he is now. There he continued to cover the crime beat and wrote two or three stories daily. The end goal was the same, had been the same since high school. He wanted to be a novelist, would be a novelist. His writing heroes had made their way through journalism. Hemingway comes to mind. Ace Atkins has a bit of Ernest Hemingway in him. Maybe it’s the size or the jawline, or maybe it’s the sense of ex-athlete swagger. Maybe it’s statements like, “You learn as a journalist that words are cheap. You have a little bit of space to say a lot. You get a lot better at saying a lot with a little bit of space.”

Words for Hemingway were just the tip of the iceberg. The meaning of the words—the collective meaning of a story or novel—was transmuted by what wasn’t said. We see the tip, but underneath the water’s surface is the actual immense iceberg. Crime fiction works much the same. Think of Chandler’s Philip Marlowe or Hammett’s Sam Spade . . . not the most loquacious of men. (“Ace Atkins” would be a great crime novel protagonist. Instant visions of a large laconic man standing in a streetlight-lit doorway smoking an almost dead cigarette as large drops of rain slap New York City sidewalks.)

“Some reporters get into reporting for the information and you could see Ace got into it for the story,” says Carole Tarrant, current editor of The Roanoke Times. Tarrant was the assistant features editor at the Tribune when Ace was doing his original reporting on the Wall stories, which would become White Shadow. “You could tell he had a literary mind. He wasn’t just writing about man kills wife. He could really tell it like a yarn.”

More than once Ace will refer to his hope of creating “a good story well told.” Sometimes truth and fiction meld. His Quinn Colson series, which started with The Ranger and continued with this May’s The Lost Ones, is fiction based on reality.

“At the time when this came out I was seeing tons of people coming home from the war and I was seeing a lot of people coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. I didn’t want to write about a supersoldier. I wanted to write about the American GI returning home from the front and dealing with issues like corruption and greed in the modern South.”

Take White Shadow. One of the novel’s epigraphs is from Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The narrator is 26-year-old St. Pete Times reporter named L.B. This is about the age of Ace when he started in Tampa. L.B.’s love interest is a reporter for the Tampa Tribune named Eleanor. There’s this line from L.B.:

Leland Hawes from the Tribune was there. And although I liked Leland, I’d hoped they’d send their new female reporter, who I liked a great deal.

Angela, Ace’s wife, was once a crime reporter for the St. Pete Times. This was during his time at the Tribune. The two had a playful rivalry. They’d see each other at scenes. They’d compete to break stories. Not unlike . . .

“Except she wasn’t killed by the mob,” he says as we walk toward his office.

But first Ace Atkins sits down. He’s taken his pictures and chatted with the local fans and friends. Well, before he sits down he almost breaks my hand. Ace Atkins has big hands. His hands, his right hand at least, is very strong. He’s wearing his Auburn hat, a blue and white striped button-up with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, khaki shorts, leather sandals, and aviator sunglasses. He has very hairy legs. I know because he sometimes lifts one leg and rests it atop the other as he talks. Ace Atkins is a hirsute man. This is an odd thing to notice and note . . . but there you go.

He spends the first five minutes of his interview asking me questions. He’s the type of man who instantly makes a person feel known. Before we parted he gave me four or five different names of buddies and family members scattered throughout Mississippi and Alabama. Restaurants were named and menu items recommended. My afternoon activities were suggested and all but planned. He said he’d have invited me to stay in the guest bedroom of his house if it wasn’t already occupied. I believe him.

Taylor Grocery is famous for its catfish.

“I can’t eat it like I used to,” he says. “I’m an old man now.” He might’ve looked down and patted his stomach. We will later walk to the office where he writes daily. He takes breaks during the middle of the day to eat lunch or workout.

He orders water and the 2-piece catfish with double slaw and no dessert. I order the catfish as well. The older gentleman with the sandals and socks is now talking to a husband and wife. “How ya’ll doing? Ya’ll ain’t eatin’ too much are you?”

We talk about Auburn. We talk about football. We talk about his father.

“I’m very proud but very aware of my dad’s place at Auburn,” Ace says. “He was the Cam Newton of the ’57 team. He was the MVP and the leading scorer, everything. His place in Auburn history was firmly etched.”

So etched that when Ace walked into Jordan-Hare for the first time, for the last time, any time, there’s his father’s face, big and bold, on a banner outside. Billy Atkins, the first Atkins “Ace,” was Auburn’s all-time leading scorer following his senior year. The San Francisco 49ers drafted Billy in the fifth round in 1958. Billy played for the 49ers, the Bills, the Jets, the Broncos. He led the American Football League with 10 interceptions in 1961 playing for the Bills. He also punted. He later coached in the pros and college. He led Troy State University to an NAIA National Championship in 1968. Billy Atkins was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

Ace was born in Troy, Alabama in 1970. His father traveled around the country, coaching here, coaching there, scouting some as well. (Billy is known as the man who convinced the 49ers to draft Jerry Rice. There was actually a line in his obituary referencing his recommendation.) Ace was right there with him traveling around the country as Billy coached and scouted. Of Ace’s four non-fiction crime novels, three are set in locations he lived. The fourth, Infamous, which Ace says is probably his best book, follows the multi-state flee from justice of Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn Kelly after the kidnapping of
George Urschel.

Ace’s always been interested in stories, and he’s always been a reader. He read Ian Fleming’s James Bond series when he was 15 or 16 and “loved the travel, loved the intrigue, loved the way they were written.” Other non-crime writer influences: John Steinback, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the aforementioned Hemingway, and William Faulkner. Faulkner’s a big one, especially for a writer living 15 minutes outside Oxford. More on him soon.

“I think a lot of the ways I work, the ways that I approach my work as a novelist, is the same way my dad would approach coaching football,” he says between bites of catfish. “He had that passion and that drive for football—loved it. His work ethic was unparalleled. I think I look at my writing career in the same way he approached football.”

At some point in high school Ace decided he would be a writer. After high school he chose Auburn. Or Auburn chose him. Perhaps there was destiny involved. Billy in ’57, Ace in ’93 . . . the two Aces each with perfect seasons . . . Ace was recruited to Auburn to play outside linebacker. He was recruited after his graduation in ’89 but left the team before playing. Perhaps having the legend of Billy “Ace” Atkins (literally) staring him in the face was too much for a young man, a young Ace, a young wannabe writer trying to make his own way in the world. Whatever the reason, he rejoined in ’91 as a walk-on. Billy died suddenly in the fall of 1991 before Ace, a sophomore, ever played a game at Auburn. “Not a good time” is all Ace says. He began taking tae kwon do. He bought a motorcycle.

Ace existed in a kind of no-man’s land at Auburn. Stereotypes battered him from both sides. Some professors thought of him as football player who couldn’t be taken totally serious as a student. But then he was a football player and he had coaches who thought he couldn’t be taken seriously as a football player because he was interested in English lit, though he graduated in communications. (“I had a position coach who thought I was ridiculous for reading books for fun. He thought it was ridiculous that I’d carry around a novel.”)

“I try to avoid those stereotypes,” says Dr. George Plasketes, who still teaches in the Department of Communications at Auburn, “but he was a bright kid and well-read and articulate. He had a good sense of humor and was very conversational. Sometimes undergrads can seem distracted. He seemed to be less distracted and very aware of the world around him.”

Education or football? “I’m not necessarily going to go back to the practice field. But I would probably go over to Haley Center and see some of my old professors.”

But there’s always football. (Auburn: There’s always football.) Ace finished Auburn as a 215-ish pound defensive end, which isn’t big for a defensive lineman bumping up against 300-pound+ SEC offensive linemen. He is certainly a big man, was a big man, but there are and were bigger. His role at Auburn was to rush the passer. He only really played when the other team was likely to pass.

All right. Now think back with me to ’93. Auburn’s an unlikely 6-0. Enter Danny Wuerffel and No. 4 Florida, also undefeated with one of the top passing offenses in the nation. Wuerffel attempted 50 passes in that game—Spurrier at his Spurrierest. Ace sacked him three times. It was the only meaningful action of his career. A month and four days later Jim Fyffe screamed, “Eleven and O! Eleven and O!!!” There’s the son of Billy Atkins, Ace the 2nd, standing over the crumpled defeated body of his foe, slamming fist into flattened palm with enough fury and force to wake the dead. A Sports Illustrated photographer captured this moment. There’s Ace forever celebrating “That Perfect Season” on the front of the ’93 commemorative issue. Fans in Alabama still bring the issue to signings.

Vince Dooley, who was Auburn’s backfield coach in 1957, once said Billy was one of the “most determined and hardest working boys” to ever play at Auburn. (Dooley also said, “Atkins stands as a symbol to all those boys with only average talent who have worked to make themselves outstanding athletes.”) I ask Ace how often he writes. “Every day,” he says. Every day? “Every day.”

At some point during this conversation or another (I’ve lost track) we stand to leave. My sweet tea’s been refilled five times. Ace takes the ticket and refuses to let me pay. He introduces me to a local writer. Ace is well acquainted with the Oxford literary scene. He was a friend to the late Larry Brown. He’s pushed both his children—Billy age 5 and Jess age 1—around in a stroller gifted to him by the “master of the short story” Barry Hannah. We’re near Oxford. We talk about God.

“Where we’re standing, right here in Taylor, there’s this book called Sanctuary,” Ace says. The empty whiskey fifth’s lifted and lowered and we’re outside. “A large part of Sanctuary takes place right around Taylor. In fact there’s a scene at the old Taylor train station right down the street. Where it was, not there anymore.”

We can still see the tracks crossing the stream. Three cars are parked in gravel in front. We don’t wave; they don’t wave. No breeze. Stagnant, cloying heat. We walk toward Ace’s office.

“He was a terrific crime novelist,” Ace says. “Some of my favorite crime stories are by Faulkner—Intruder in the Dust. Sanctuary is one of the best noirs of the 20th century. There’s a lot of connection in crime novels and what Faulkner did. So it’s very inspiring.”

Ace read Faulkner, really read Faulkner, when he moved to Taylor. Our path is narrow and beset by culverts. One behind one. An old dog with a muzzle hoary like a dusty white mask and wearing a bright orange tick collar comes barking at the edge of a fenced yard. A man in front of the house nods and waves; we nod and wave back.

“Faulkner didn’t write naval-gazing kind of books,” Ace says, head tilted up, chest out, aviators reflecting. “He wrote about the Civil War, madness, and all kinds of crossroads of society.”

During my time with Ace, the words used with the most disdain—“naval-gazing.” He says it like another man would say “sin.” He’s a man of expansion. His own inner turmoil is not the stuff. He thinks of himself as an entertainer—“I think all artists are entertainers.” But at the same time he has the journalist’s need to uncover and expose—“Let’s face it, the world’s a corrupt place.” The two meld and voilà—“Crime lit to me was the ideal place to go.” Maybe it’s best to say he’s a craftsman, like his father before him. He’s a Southerner. The South’s complicated.

The sleepy dusty road opens to a cultivated trail surrounded by pre-ordained trees. Ace’s office is down this trail and behind these trees on Tincan Alley. The area’s known as Plein Air, and it’s based on a similar community in Seaside. The buildings are new but made to look old.

Faulkner posters line the stairs and the walls. There’s a common area. Ace shares his office space with a couple buddies. His office is back and to the right. Inside’s a collection of books, his and smattering of Robert B. Parker novels he’s rereading for the new Spenser book. On the desk sits a typewriter and a computer. He writes on the computer.

He offers coffee. I ask how much he drinks.

“Dude, it’s all day,” he says with a grin.

Ace’ll drink his coffee and write and write and write and in Oxford, Oxford proper, in the Square will sit the bronzed statue of William Faulkner, hollow dead eyes looking out into the nothing and somehow seeing the everything. Cars will circle in the slow summer heat and fat clueless pigeons will drop droppings onto his wide-brimmed hat.

Related: Dr. Travis S. Taylor: Attempting to Understand Auburn’s Ubermensch.

Keep Reading:

* J. Wes Yoder on writing, Auburn, and the surety of youth
* The tale of the A.U. “Squirrel” Club
* Celebrated Playboy photographer loved first visit to Auburn in ’81
* Auburn Parkour face plant featured on Tosh.0
* War Eagle Moment at the SAG Awards
* Twisted Metal developer is an Auburn fan
* “My wife was the Auburn Tiger.”

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