In his young adult series, The Jackalope Stories, Hattiesburg native Jake Nickens recently released the third book entitled The Lost Prairie BBQ.
Nickens spent his childhood listening to tall family tales and reading comic books that turned him into the kind of adult who now writes stories about jackalopes, vampire-librarians, voodoo, and Southern cooking.
The Jackalope Series began as a nod to his late grandfather.
“As I was finishing up grad school, I spent most of my weekends helping take care of my late grandfather,” Nickens explains. “Several years back, he had some serious health issues that made him require full-time care. It was a surreal experience because growing up, my grandfather and his brothers were these larger-than-life figures who shaped who I’ve grown into today. Acting as a caregiver for him brought up many memories and stories from my childhood. As someone that’s always had an interest in storytelling and writing, I thought it would be therapeutic to explore those feelings through narrative. Gradually that turned into this idea of a mystical boarding house for monsters run by a seemingly immortal pair of grandparents. The book is from the perspective of the owner’s visiting grandson and becomes a coming-of-age story centering on the lessons he learns from his grandparents and their house guests. But the core of that first one was really the relationship between this kid, representing me, and the adults who shape his childhood.”
Initially, Nickens thought it would be just one book, but as he developed the characters, he realized there was potentially a larger story to tell.
The Thin House was released in 2020, followed by The Hinderwood in 2021, and his most recent book, The Lost Prairie BBQ, last month. There will be a fourth book to the series, and readers will be glad to know that it is expected to release early next year, if not sooner.
Like many writers from Mississippi, Nickens attributes his love of storytelling to where he was raised and his childhood.
“There’s such a reverence in the South for the art of storytelling,” he said. “Growing up, my parents often taught me through stories. I have vivid memories at family get-togethers of grandparents, aunts, and uncles telling these gripping tales about their childhoods, our ancestors, etc. Also, as someone that loved to read, I always wanted to write books that felt like those stories- books that could make you feel like you were sitting around a campfire and being pulled into another world.”
Southern cooking is a theme found throughout the series as Nickens believes cooking is a central pillar of Southern culture.
“I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by excellent cooks,” he said. “My mom, in particular, but most of my extended family on both sides, has culinary talent, and what I’ve realized is that truly good cooks use food to communicate. With certain dishes, we can say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ or ‘I’ve been thinking about you.’ Since my stories all at least somewhat explore the idea of hospitality, I really wanted to have characters who used food to say, ‘I love you.'”
Most of the series’ characters are an assortment of qualities pulled from real people who influenced Nickens and his writing.
“The Blacklocks in The Thin House, for example, are kind of amalgams of different aspects of my grandparents, parents, and in-laws,” he said. “Buford and Cash are all of my great uncles. There’s a lot of my wife in Eden from The Thin House and Kat from Lost Prairie. But some characters are pretty direct translations; for example, Jack and Jimmy Doe are heavily based on my brother and me, respectively. A fan-favorite character from the first book is a vampire librarian named Mr. Gareth, who I based on a friend of our family named Blair Pack who had a home library that always really impressed me as a kid.”
The Oak Grove library recently hosted their hometown author at a book signing. This month, he is speaking at a virtual event that will benefit Innova Prep, a private special purpose school for dyslexia, language disorders, anxiety, ADD, and other learning differences.
So, what’s after the Jackalope Stories series? Along with finishing the fourth book, Nickens has also begun working on a more adult-oriented mystery series. Set in the fictional town of Opossum, Mississippi, which readers will recognize from his second book, “the story will feature mostly new characters and won’t contain the more supernatural elements from the Jackalope Stories books. I would describe it as a combination of ‘True Detective’ and ‘Fargo’ with a pinch of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?'”
The Thin House, The Hinderwood, and The Lost Prairie BBQ are all currently available on Amazon. You can also stay up to date with Nickens and his stories at www.jackalopestories.com.