A photo of a man speaking while gesturing his hands in front of him.
Author and VCU alum Jeffrey Blount visited Cabell Library to discuss his new novel, “Mr. Jimmy from Around the Way.” (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU alum Jeffrey Blount shares the inspiration for his new novel – and a life lesson that still resonates

Author and 1981 graduate highlights panel discussion about creativity, redemption and the power of connection.

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As a kid, Jeffrey Blount learned a valuable lesson  – one so powerful that it stuck with him and eventually came to serve as the inspiration for his latest novel.

The Virginia Commonwealth University graduate, whose fourth book, “Mr. Jimmy from Around the Way,” was published recently, recounted the story during a panel discussion Tuesday at James Branch Cabell Library.

“One day, a boy who is 13 walks into my second-grade classroom. Twice our size, twice our age, and he comes into the class carrying the books of a second-grader and sits down,” Blount recalled. “It turns out that he had never been to school before.”

Even then a voracious reader, Blount, who grew up in Smithfield about 90 minutes from Richmond, was swiftly recruited by his teacher to help his new classmate work on his reading during recess that year. Years later, Blount would learn that his parents had gone to the teacher to ask her to put him in that position.

“When I asked why, my father said, ‘Because it was your time to understand that you are in this world for something other than yourself,’” Blount said. “And that we all have a duty to recognize when our fellow human being is in trouble and we need to step up and do something about it.”

That incident, and the conversation that followed, inspired Blount to write “Mr. Jimmy from Around the Way,” which was published in January by Beaufort Books.

During the panel, which was presented by VCU Libraries to celebrate the new novel, Blount was joined by his wife, award-winning journalist and security correspondent Jeanne Meserve, as well as longtime friends and fellow VCU alums Dabney and Joe Cortina, both also award-winning journalists, and Emmy Award-winning director Jesse Vaughan.

In the book, the titular character, James Henry Ferguson, is a multibillionaire on the run from the chaos in his own life. He finds himself living in a neglected community in the fictional town of Ham, Mississippi, where he eventually confronts his past to fight for his neighbors, culminating in a story about self-discovery, empowerment and the possibility of redemption.

Blount described the book as raising awareness about poverty in America and the lack of services such as health care, education and government aid that exist in underprivileged communities.

A photo of five people sitting on a stage. The man in the middle is speaking while the four people next to him listen.
VCU alum Jeffrey Blount (center) was joined by (from left) fellow VCU alums and journalists Joe and Dabney Cortina; VCU alum and director Jesse Vaughan; and Blount’s wife, journalist Jeanne Meserve. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“Jimmy steps up to help empower people to see something in themselves that they can use to change their lives,” Blount said in an interview before Tuesday’s panel. “I’m hoping that that acts as a road map for people who read it, to show us that we all have the capability to go in each other’s lives and each other’s communities and help each other.”

The biggest takeaway he hopes readers get from his book is the activism of kindness —not just random, sporadic acts of kindness, but in everyday interactions.

“To the best of your ability, let kindness be your lead,” Blount said. “We are in a time in this country, and it doesn’t matter what your political feelings are, where we can’t see each other and we don’t relate to each other as human beings first and foremost. And I think if we can find a way to see each other’s humanity when we first meet, we can get past a lot of those things and we can feel for each other and learn to allow people to live their own lives.”

Before becoming a novelist, Blount, an Emmy-winning television director, spent 34 years at NBC News, where he directed “Meet the Press,” “The Today Show,” “NBC Nightly News” and major special events. In 2016, he was inducted into the Virginia Communications Hall of Fame. He has also won awards for his documentary scriptwriting, including for films and for interactive displays at museums such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

As a journalist, Blount was required to be objective. But as a fiction author, Blount embraces the freedom to shout what he thinks.

“I’m trying to make a difference through the written word. ‘A word after a word after a word is power,’” he said, quoting author Margaret Atwood. “Understanding that leads me to writing these books about these issues that I hope will change minds.”

In 2019, Blount was honored by VCU as an Alumni Star, which recognizes the achievements of the university’s most notable alumni in their communities and industries. He graduated in 1981 with a degree in mass communications.

Blount called his time at VCU “one of the most important stops in my life” and emphasized the quality of his professors. In particular, he cited English professor Karin Larson, who decided early on that Blount was too good of a writer to continue taking her class during his freshman year.

“She thought I wouldn’t be getting enough out of it, so instead she brought me into her office as class, where I would go a couple days a week and we would work on my first novel that I was trying to write in my freshman year,” Blount said. “She really gave me the belief that I could write fiction. She felt I had talent, and that went a long ways for me.”

Years later, Blount still loves returning to VCU.

“It was such a comfortable place for me when I was at my inflection point and my crossroads,” he said before Tuesday’s panel. “It was an amazing place for me to become Jeffrey. I love the individuality that was supported, and so when I come back here, I feel that. It’s a little bit of home.”