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Meek School grad Jesse Holland talks Star Wars, Black Panther and nonfiction writing

Posted on: March 27th, 2018 by ldrucker

University of Mississippi senior Brittany Abbott had not planned to attend the latest Meek School event featuring writer Jesse Holland, but the experience proved serendipitous.

“I, honest to God, came into this talk because my teacher told me to,” Abbott said Tuesday. “I had no idea who he was. I saw the posters around class. I did not know we were coming to do this today. And when we came in and sat down, and he started telling us who he was, I was like, ‘No way. No way.’ And it just kept getting crazier and crazier.”

Abbott learned Holland was from Holly Springs, graduated from H.W. Byers High School, and was a longtime comic book fan. She is also from Holly Springs, graduated from H.W. Byers High School and loves comic books.

“This is too surreal for me,” she said, Marveling at the coincidence. “There’s no way that someone from my little nothing of a town – I mean, I graduated from a class of 40 people. He is probably the only person who understands that. I mean, nobody even knows where H.W. Byers is, so this is just crazy.”

Abbott, who plans to graduate from UM in May, also discovered she and Holland were both double majors in English and journalism.

“He is practically like related to me at this point,” she said. “I feel like he’s really an inspiration to me. We came from the same place, from the same school. We practically know all of the same people. I’m getting the same degree as him, and he’s successful.”

Holland, who has spent much of his career as an Associated Press journalist, spoke at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media Tuesday at 2 p.m. discussing his career as a journalist and nonfiction writer, his journey to writing fiction novels for two successful movie franchises, and tips for aspiring writers, including Abbott.

Holland, who grew up on a farm about 15 miles outside of Holly Springs, said he was recruited to attend UM from H.W. Byers, but college was not his first Ole Miss experience.

His mother, who was once his own English teacher at H.W. Byers, taught during the school year and spent five summers working on her master’s degree in English. While she attended classes, Holland and his older sister hung out in the campus library and took swimming lessons at Ole Miss. “So I basically grew up on campus,” he said.

Holland later worked as editor of The Daily Mississippian, as a talk show host, and ran one of the campus TV station cameras.

“The great thing about Ole Miss for me was it allowed me to experiment and learn about all types of journalism,” he said. “I got to pick and choose which one suited me. It was the only place at that time that had a student run newspaper, TV station and radio station.”

Holland always knew he wanted to be a writer, but coming from a small Mississippi town, he said he wasn’t sure what to write about. “That’s why I got into journalism,” he said, “so I could go to interesting places, meet interesting people, do interesting things.”

Holland said UM professors emphasized the value of internships. He interned locally at The Oxford Eagle, at the Birmingham Post-Herald, with the Meredith Corporation working in the test kitchen for Better Homes & Gardens, at The New York Times, and with the Associated Press in South Carolina.

After several AP reporters quit around the same time for different reasons, Holland advanced from intern to full-time journalist after graduating from UM in 1994. He has remained with the Associated Press for almost 24 years.

His first book Black Men Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington was published in 2007. Ten years later, his second book The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House was published.

“Part of my story is taking advantage of opportunities when they present themselves,” Holland said. “When it does, you have to grab it.”

Holland said he’s a proud “geek” who discusses science fiction on social media. That’s one reason a Lucasfilm book editor contacted him and asked him to write Finn’s Story, the backstory of one of the latest “Star Wars” characters. Holland, who has been a “Star Wars” fan since elementary school, said it was the first movie he saw in a theater.

A month after Finn’s Story came out, Holland received a call from a Marvel book editor who had read The Invisibles and asked if he had heard of “Black Panther.” Holland had been reading Black Panther, one of the first comic books he’d ever read, since he was 5 or 6.

“I’ve been following this character my entire life,” he said.

The Marvel editor, who had read Finn’s Story, asked Holland if he would be interested in writing Who Is the Black Panther?

“Would I be interested in doing it,” Holland asked, enthusiastically. “Am I supposed to be paying y’all, or are you paying me?”

Holland said his “Black Panther” book focuses on the character’s classic comic book mythology. He said the origin of the character was written in 1966 and stayed the same until Marvel hired a writer to update the origin in 2005. Holland was asked to take the 1966 and 2005 origin stories and update them for 2017.

He said the “Black Panther” book has sold out internationally. “It’s gone,” he said. “It’s been very well received by everyone, and I have been very well treated by Marvel.”

Holland, who fielded questions from the audience, said he credits his success to UM professors who told him he could do anything he wanted as long as he worked for it.

What does he do when he gets writers’ block? Holland said he rarely has that problem because he has worked as a journalist for the past two decades.

“One of the things you learn as a journalist is that you can’t afford writers’ block because a deadline is a deadline,” he said. “I think that’s one of the reasons I was chosen by Lucasfilm and Marvel, because they knew I was a journalist, and I knew deadlines.”

Holland said he had only a month to write the “Star Wars” novel. They wanted a junior novel of 20,000 words, but he turned in more than 40,000, and editors cut it. For “Black Panther,” they wanted 90,000 words in six months. Holland said he blew the deadline, turning it in one day late. He apologized for missing it.

Is it difficult to transition from writing nonfiction to fiction? “It is not as difficult as I thought it would be,” Holland said. “For years, I refused to write fiction because I actually have a master’s degree in creative nonfiction. When I started working on Finn’s Story, I discovered there was a common thread through my fiction and nonfiction. We, as journalists, are basically all historians.”

Holland describes his Lucasfilm and Marvel writing as “fictional history,” an oxymoron. “For me, the fictional history was easier,” he said. “I didn’t have to do any interviews. I could make up quotes that fit where I needed them to without going out and making the story fit around the quotes. I could make things happen the way I needed them to for the story.”

He said the “Black Panther” book didn’t require a lot of research because he had unknowingly already been doing it his entire life. He had most of the comic books in his basement. But writing Finn’s Story was different.

“There are fans of ‘Star Wars’ who know every single detail in that universe,” he said. “There are people out there who know exactly how many rooms there are in the Millennium Falcon. I was warned by Disney that there are people who know all of this, and you better be correct.”

Holland said this required a lot of detailed, technical research.

He’s now in discussions with Marvel about another project, but he can’t announce it. He’s also writing an outline for his next nonfiction book about a village founded by freed slaves, and he’s working on an anthology of African American narrative journalism. He also predicts he’ll be writing more graphic and science fictions novels.

Holland said it’s important for students to get hands-on journalism experience, and they can do that at the University of Mississippi.

“You can leave campus with actual journalism experience,” he said, “not just the classes and the grades. You can leave with experience running a radio station, being a live host, with camera experience, or with actual media experience where you have gone out and reported stories, published stories, and even worked on the advertising side. You can have the experience media companies want you to have without leaving school, which makes you doubly valuable to media companies.”

What is his biggest career triumph? “I consider the publication of the first Daily Mississippian with me being the editor as my first triumph,” he said.

But there’s another story. In 1994, the year he served as DM editor, it was the first year the student newspaper had Macintosh computers. Holland said the week before the semester began, S. Gale Denley, head of the Student Media Center, brought in eight Macs and told the DM staff they had a week to figure out how to network the computers and put out a newspaper.

“So, for seven days, we had to teach ourselves computer networking, pagination and printing in addition to writing the stories that had to be in the newspapers,” Holland said. “… That was fun, but I will admit, that was difficult. Just the fact that we were able to get it done was my greatest triumph. It’s a good example of what you can do when you don’t stop to think about why you can’t.”

In other words, “Do or do not, there is no try.” – Yoda

By LaReeca Rucker

Who is the Black Panther? Former Daily Mississippian Editor Jesse Holland wrote the book

Posted on: February 21st, 2018 by ldrucker

Holly Springs native Jesse Holland crafted his most recent novel, “Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?,” using skills he honed during his undergraduate years at Ole Miss.

Holland started at Ole Miss in 1989, immediately going to work for The Oxford Eagle. There, he covered the town of Water Valley, high school sports, and just “whatever had to be done.” One of his most memorable moments was when a writer came in the office asking if anyone wanted to interview him. That writer was John Grisham.

UM alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. has written a novel for Marvel to reintroduce its 1960s superhero ‘Black Panther,’ the main character in a new blockbuster film.

Later, Holland worked for The Daily Mississippian as a news editor before climbing to managing editor and all the way to editor-in-chief. He helped craft a comic strip along with two other students called “Hippie and the Black Guy” that made light of stereotypes for the paper, all while a full-time student double majoring in journalism and English. He also worked for Rebel Radio as a DJ for his rap show and talk show, and was a cameraman for the school’s TV newscast.

“All of the professors at Ole Miss insisted that we all learn different forms of journalism. I went from room to room in Farley Hall,” Holland said. “I tried to stick my finger in every form of journalism I could, and Ole Miss encouraged it.”

Meek School of Journalism and New Media Dean Will Norton found Holland when he was in high school in Mount Pleasant and encouraged him to come to Ole Miss.

“I would have never been at Ole Miss if it wasn’t for Dean Norton,” Holland said. “He has been to a great mentor to me all of these years.”

Norton described Holland as “exceptional” and credited his success to his work ethic.

“I wish I had his character. He is so honest and hardworking, and he never complains. If he talks about something being bad, he does so with a smile on his face,” Norton said. “When Jesse Holland tells you something, you can trust that it’s the truth. I look up to him, not just because he’s taller than me.”

Ever since his time at Ole Miss, Holland has been writing books and for The Associated Press and now lives in Washington, D.C.

Holland has been writing since 2005. His books mainly focusing on African-American history, and he was approached by an editor at Lucas Films in 2016 about writing the backstory for a character named Finn in the “Star Wars” trilogy.

“(Star Wars) was one of the first films I saw in a theater,” he said. “I jumped at the chance, and ‘The Force Awakens: Finn’s Story’ came out.”

After reading the story, an editor at Marvel contacted Holland about writing a story for the latest film about the Black Panther. A comic book fan, Holland readily agreed.

“Marvel wanted a novel retelling the origin of the Black Panther in time for the 2018 movie release so people wouldn’t have to read all of the comic books to figure out his history,” he said. “I’ve been reading them since I was 5 or 6 years old.”

Holland said he had an advantage because he wouldn’t need to be sent the comic books – he already owned them all.

“Back at Ole Miss, I used to drive from campus to Memphis to be there when the comic books came out on Wednesdays. It was a weekly pilgrimage for me and my friends,” he said. “When Marvel came to me, I said, ‘I have all of the comic books down in my basement.’ It was a great experience – it gave me an excuse to read comic books.”

Dex McCain, Holland’s fraternity brother with whom he pledged the Eta Zeta chapter of Omega Phi Psi Fraternity, Inc., the first black Greek-lettered charter at Ole Miss, remembered Holland’s love of comic books in college.

“We knew he was destined for this. The things he’s done have prepared him for this, and he has always had a passion for comic books,” McCain said. “Even in college, he would read comic books. He’s just the right person for it. I’m so proud of him. He’s always been a perennial all-star. Anything he did, he did well and with passion. To me, he tells every story like it is, and that’s what you see in his books, including ‘Black Panther.’”

Holland drew inspiration for his novel about the Black Panther from his own life, something he’s learned to do with his fiction writing over the years.

“A lot of people in my life are represented from the book. You write what you see and you write what you know. I pull from every source that I can,” he said. “The speech patterns come from people I see on a daily basis.”

Marvel gave Holland free reign to work on the book, so he started it in Washington, D.C., where he lives at places he’s familiar with, like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“If you’re the king of Wakanda, where else would you go?” he said.

Marvin King, professor of political science and African-American history, met Holland as an alumnus and said he believes his background in history research has made his fiction writing stronger.

“He brings a lot of knowledge about the subject,” he said. “He’s done so much prior research about historical matters of race in America. He’s worked in a lot of different places, so he’s been exposed to a lot of different stories as a reporter, and I think that’s all coming together in his latest project.”

Holland said he incorporated as much of the real world as possible, but shied away from including much politics.

“I did do a little flavor of what the world would be like if these characters were real. How would the politics of a hidden country in Africa play with America?” he said. “But this is a superhero story – I had to make sure there were enough punches being thrown. I don’t delve too much into ‘meat grinder’ politics. I tried to look at it from the point of view from someone from Wakanda.”

The movie shattered box office records and is expected to earn $218 million domestically and $387 million worldwide for the four-day holiday weekend. Malco’s Oxford Commons Cinema Grill was overflowing with crowds to see “Black Panther” for the film’s opening. Holland went to go see it with his kids Thursday night.

On the film’s significance, Holland stressed the importance of having an African-American superhero protagonist.

“Growing up, I didn’t have those type of heroes on the big screen. There were very few African or African-American superheroes on television or movies when I grew up. Today, kids will have these characters – they will be able to say, ‘I want to be that,’” he said. “I got the chance to take my kids Thursday night, and they were transfixed because out of all the superhero stories they’ve seen, never have they been to a superhero movie where everybody looks like them. That’s so important for the kids, and I’m just happy that I got to play a small part in crafting this character for the new century.”

Meek School alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. Pens ‘Black Panther’ Superhero Novel

Posted on: February 1st, 2018 by ldrucker

University of Mississippi alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. was tapped by Marvel to reintroduce the world to the 1960s “Black Panther” superhero franchise through a new novel ahead of this weekend’s release of the blockbuster film about T’Challa, ruler of Wakanda.

Holland, a Holly Springs native who graduated from the university in 1994 with a degree in journalism, was tasked in 2016 with retelling the story through a 90,000-word origin story novel based on material in six comics. The goal was to create a new world for the main character, T’Challa, set in modern times.

The novel was released last fall as part of efforts to promote the new $200 million movie, which stars Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, and features Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o. Rap megastar Kendrick Lamar produced the soundtrack.

Jesse Holland Jr.

Being asked to write the novel, “Black Panther: Who is the Black Panther?” was a dream come true, Holland said.

“I’ve been reading comic books my entire life,” Holland said. “When I was at Ole Miss, me and my friends would drive from campus all the way to Memphis to comic book shops on Wednesday or Thursday nights when the new ones came out and pick them up.

“I told Marvel I’d love to take it on and they offered to send me some Black Panther comic books for research, and I said, ‘Don’t bother. I already have them all in my basement right now.”

The movie is poised for a majorly successful box office opening weekend. Drawing attention as one of the first superhero movies to feature a person of color as the main character, it follows the release of “Wonder Woman,” which featured the first female superhero star on the big screen.

Audiences are clamoring for something different from traditional Hollywood superhero movies, and there’s a much broader appeal than normal that is driving the high expectations, Holland said.

“This is not a recycled superhero story,” he said. “It is not the third different actor playing the same character. This is something that is completely new, completely different as far as superhero movies go.

“One of the things we are going to see behind the success of this character is that we as Americans don’t need to see the same story over and over. We are accepting of new heroes and new mythologies, and in fact we’re more accepting of heroes of all colors and genders. America is ready for a different type of hero.”

In the film, T’Challa returns home to the isolated, but technologically advanced, African nation of Wakanda to succeed the throne that was recently vacated when his father, the king, died. The country is able to be technologically advanced because it’s the only source of an advanced metal known as vibranium.

UM alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. has written a novel for Marvel to reintroduce its 1960s superhero ‘Black Panther,’ the main character in a new blockbuster film.

When another nation attempts to invade Wakanda to take the ultrarare material, T’Challa is forced into a role as his nation’s protector.

He is a complicated character, Holland said.

“When people ask me about T’Challa, I tell them to imagine if the president, the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the pope were all the same person,” Holland said. “On top of that, he’s a superhero.

“His superhero outfit is bound with vibranium, which makes him almost indestructible. He also takes a special herb that gives him super powers.”

“Black Panther” is drawing high marks from critics. The New York Times called it, “A jolt of a movie,” and said it “creates wonder with great flair and feeling partly through something Hollywood rarely dreams of anymore: myth. Most big studio fantasies take you out for a joy ride only to hit the same exhausted story and franchise-expanding beats. Not this one.”

Over six months, Holland wrote the updated origin story based on a 2005 version.

“It’s actually pretty cool to not have to start from scratch and to take a storyline by an absolutely great writer like Reginald Hudlin,” Holland said. “He based his work (in 2005) on the great work that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby started with.

“To be able to take that work and make it your own and be able to add and subtract and mold it to something you’re happy with is just fabulous.”

Doing this kind of work is nothing new for Holland. Disney Lucasfilm Press commissioned him to write the history of the Star Wars franchise’s newest black hero, “Finn.” He told his story in the 2016 young adult novel “Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Finn’s Story.”

He’s also penned award-winning nonfiction. His book “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slavery in the White House” (Lyons Press, 2016) won the 2017 silver medal in U.S. History in the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

He teaches creative nonfiction writing as part of the Master of Fine Arts program at Goucher College in Townson, Maryland. He is also a race and ethnicity writer for The Associated Press.

Holland recently saw a screening of the movie, which he said is “fabulous.” He expects the release will create a major payday for everyone involved.

“From everything we’re seeing – all of the sold-out movie theaters, pop-up bars, pop-up art shows and pop-up screenings, it seems like this is going to be a record-breaking weekend for Marvel, and maybe the movie industry,” Holland said. “It’s going to be amazing to see the final numbers.”

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‘Black Panther’ writer Jesse Holland to speak tomorrow at MSPA Convention

Posted on: January 26th, 2018 by ldrucker

The author of Marvel Comics’ graphic novel reboot “Black Panther” will encourage high school students from around the state as the keynote speaker for the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s 2018 spring convention and awards ceremony.

High school student journalists from around Mississippi will have a chance to advance their skills and hear from “Black Panther” graphic novel writer Jesse Holland Jr. during the Mississippi Scholastic Press Association’s annual spring conference being held at the University of Mississippi Oxford campus March 27.

.PDF OF CONFERENCE SCHEDULE

Over 500 students representing their school newspaper, television program, yearbook, literary magazine, and social media outlets will also have the opportunity to compete in the “Best of Mississippi” awards and hear from professionals in their respective fields.

Jesse Holland, Jr., the author and University of Mississippi School of Journalism alumnus, returns to his alma mater to headline the event being held on the Oxford campus on Tuesday, March 27.

“Jesse is a guy who not too long ago was sitting right where these students are, and now he’s a part of something big,” MSPA Director and UM Journalism faculty member R. J. Morgan said. “He’s someone with a broad range of skills who has honed his craft and found a sweet spot.”

UM alumnus Jesse Holland Jr. has written a novel for Marvel to reintroduce its 1960s superhero ‘Black Panther,’ the main character in a new blockbuster film.

A native of Holly Springs, Holland is an award-winning journalist himself who earned his bachelor’s degree from UM in 1992 before going on to write for the Associated Press. Last year his non-fiction book “The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slavery in the White House” won the silver medal in U.S. History at the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

 

“It’s exciting to give high school journalists access to someone who’s so in demand in his career right now,” Morgan said.

Now in its 71st year, the annual MSPA convention is the largest gathering of high school journalists in the state. The association works to equip area high school students to research, write, and share true stories through journalism.

Professional journalists, photographers, videographers, and educators from across the southeast will be training students in a variety of skill and roundtable sessions slated for the day’s event. Students also find out who the coveted “Best of Mississippi” award winners will be for 2018.

“Attending MSPA as a sophomore confirmed my decision to pursue a career in graphic design,” Tupelo High School Senior Sawyer Tucker said. “The classes offer a variety of learning opportunities for me and my classmates to better ourselves and our publication. The competition aspect provides an environment that makes us strive to do our best work all year long.”

Tupelo High School Sports Information Director and Student Media Adviser Braden Bishop said that since most of his students love social media, taking those skills and honing them into a journalistic approach is something students are finding both exciting and challenging.

“The MSPA classes are hands-on and interactive,” Bishop said. “As an adviser, I enjoy talking to my staff in the days following the event. They bring back great new ideas that we can implement.”

Director of Communications at St. Joseph Catholic School in Madison, Terry Cassreino, recently said that he felt participation in student media gave his students an edge in both college and career preparation.

“Regardless of what mediums students ultimately study in college, they will leave a strong high school media program with the skills they need to be successful college students and productive adults.”

Research conducted by Jack Dvork, a professor at Indiana University’s School of Journalism compared academic achievements and scores on the ACT college entrance exams of students who were on the staffs of high school newspapers and yearbooks with those who did not have those journalism experiences.

His research found that almost 20 percent of students involved in student media achieved higher grade point averages in high school, scored better on the ACT, and demonstrated better writing and grammar skills in college than students who did not have those journalism experiences.

“The skills learned through student journalism are essential tools that are transferrable to any career,” Morgan said. “Learning how to organize your thoughts, meet deadlines, and communicate effectively in verbal and written communication is key, no matter what field a student may pursue.”

For more information on the 2018 Mississippi Scholastic Press Association spring convention at UM please visit outreach.olemiss.edu/mspa2018.

By Pam Starling