Oxford, Mississippi has been home to some of the most prolific writers in American literature. To live and write here is a privilege, something that both Calley Overton and Sarah Frances Hardy know all too well. Despite differences in their genres and publishing methods, Overton and Hardy have used their creative connections to Oxford to further their craft.
Overton is a junior international studies major at the University of Mississippi’s Croft Institute with a minor in creative writing.
“Spanish and creative writing seemed like a good combination to force me out of my comfort zone,” said Overton. “I want to be able to travel and find new stories.” Overton does not find herself drawn to any particular genre of story. Instead, she likes to write fluidly, expressing whatever first comes to mind.
“My first novel is loosely based on my life experiences,” she said. “I felt like I needed to tell it and get it out of my system before moving on to anything else. I want to tell the stories that have messages people need to hear, and that’s what inspired this book.”
Overton’s first novel, Spring, Where Art Thou, tells the story of high school senior Sawyer Donovan as she grapples with her father’s death. As events force her to reflect on how his passing has impacted her life, Sawyer sees her circumstances, relationships, and even herself through different eyes as she realizes she is not alone.
According to Overton, much of herself can be found in the main character. Overton, whose father passed away when she was a young age, considers the writing process to have been “therapeutic”.
“This is the book that my 15-year-old self needed to read,” she said. “If you know me and you read it, you can see a lot of myself and my story in it. My faith and my Southern heritage play a big role in this novel because those things play a big role in my life.”
What is particularly unique about Overton’s novel is the method of publication. Instead of using the traditional route, Overton decided to self-publish through Amazon. “I did a bit of research into traditional publishing and just found it very overwhelming,” Overton laughed. “Once I finished the book, I wanted to have something tangible. I learn best by doing and I used this book as my guinea pig to figure out how the publishing process works.” Hardy, an alumna of the Ole Miss Law School, writes children’s books rather than novels. Her publishing process also looks a bit different. She has written and illustrated several children’s books that have been published traditionally. Hardy’s bibliography includes Dress Me! and Puzzled by Pink. Despite being a veteran of the process, Hardy admits that traditional publication is never easy.
“For a lot of writers, the first book isn’t the one that sells,” she explained. While the publication process can be daunting, it is all a part of fulfilling a lifelong dream of achieving this title of “author”. This dream was instilled in her from an early age. “I vividly remember being in the third grade, and I had a wonderful teacher, Miss Evelyn Carter,” said Hardy. “She pushed me to do a lot of creative writing, and that’s really where that seed was planted, but it took me a while to get the courage to dig in and commit to the work it takes to become a published writer.”
According to Hardy, children’s literature is where she feels most at home. It is natural for her to get into the mind of a child and find the voice needed to communicate with young readers.
To her, literature is the most important thing for children, and for her to be a part of that world is an “honor.”
“One of the things that strikes me is when you read interviews with famous people and they are asked to name their favorite book, most people name a children’s book,” she said. “And, if you think about the books that have stuck with you for your whole life, a lot of the time, those are children’s books.”
Hardy admits this can be a daunting role as it can often be tricky to print content that is responsible and does not preach to its audience. To avoid this, Hardy dedicates herself to being “honest and truthful” with her writing, to creating a connection with her young readers and giving them exactly what they want: a story.
“Children are getting preached to all day, being given rules to follow and things like that,” Hardy said. “At the end of the day, all they want is a story. And so, that means children’s books must be written not from the perspective of an adult, but from the perspective of a child. And I think I am able to do that.”
Like Overton, Hardy draws inspiration from the South, particularly from the town of Oxford, Mississippi, a place she considers a cultural and literary haven.
“I love living in Oxford. To be able to live so close to Square Books and meet these world-famous writers and to be constantly exposed to a literary community is so enriching,” she said. “My writing education has come from not only writing conferences but from just being in the town, going to book signings, and hearing the faculty at Ole Miss speak. It is such a privilege to live here as a writer.”