When I first encountered Barry Hannah’s writing in the late 1990s, I began to proclaim him as America’s greatest living writer. Sadly, on March 1 of this year, this phrase became obsolete as he passed away.
In July 2008, I was invited down to Oxford, Mississippi, where Barry lived. During my three day stay, I picked up a habit of smoking cigarettes, and Barry showed me around the town. Although it was not a convenient time for him, with his wife undergoing chemotherapy and his health not being the best, he was still a hospitable and zealous guide.
He took me to the house of William Faulkner, the renowned bookshop of Square Books, and the pond of the late writer Larry Brown. At the pond, Barry spoke to the gravestone of Larry, expressing his admiration and missing him, which still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.
The passion that Barry’s work evoked was remarkable. It was not uncommon for fans to be so devoted that one writer memorized the first five pages of Ray, and another purchased two hundred copies of Airships to give away.
However, he felt that his work had limited exposure, as he only had one “airport book” in circulation with his last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. The reason behind this is unfathomable.
Even though his works feature dark topics such as serial killers and devils, the sentiment in any of his sentences is more optimistic than anything in the self-help section of the O’Hare Barnes and Noble. Hannah admired Flaubert for his use of the mot-juste, but wanted his to be more than just the right word – it had to be electrifying and a metaphorical explosive against mundane syntax.
— Wells Tower, an author renowned for his works, is known for crafting stories that captivate readers. He is highly acclaimed for his ability to create vivid and compelling narratives. Tower’s works have been praised for their vivid and captivating descriptions that transport readers to a new world.
On a weekend afternoon in July 2008, Barry Hannah and I were in Oxford, Mississippi. He questioned me if I ever visited Rowan Oak, the estate of Faulkner. It was something I had never done before. Barry felt it was important to take a tour of the area. We drove to the location in his Jeep.
Do you still spend a lot of time indulging in Faulkner’s works?
Barry Hannah has only a few books he rereads, and one of them is As I Lay Dying. He found it to be an excellent example of a dysfunctional family with no love lost. He taught Faulkner at Middlebury and is glad he discovered him late, as he felt it would have disrupted his own style. Instead, he prefers Hemingway, and reading The Sun Also Rises inspired him to want to go to Paris just to have a Pernod or coffee.
As we drove by, a banner promoted the upcoming McCain-Obama debate.
Greetings! Have you heard? Our town is about to get a lot of attention since the presidential debate is being held here. McCain and Obama will be participating and we can expect three thousand journalists to arrive in two months. We are going to be on the map!
One might ponder why Oxford was chosen.
BH: With the lack of quality locations in the country, Oxford stands out as both attractive and literary.
What is your opinion concerning the election?
BH still lingers in anticipation. He has a great admiration for Obama. The Grisham home was originally owned by Sam Lawrence, a publisher who was quite fond of Oxford, and after he passed away, John Grisham purchased it.
The MFA program has been greatly affected by Grisham’s generosity, and it is now almost entirely dependent on him.
Despite this, BH still wishes to stay off the radar. This newfound wealth from Grisham is a source of pressure for BH, as he doesn’t want to let him down. As a result, two Grisham fellowships have been created, which will help the program become successful in a smaller capacity than Iowa. BH talks about his experience at Georgia State, and how the third floor was filled with gypsies selling fake silver items. It was a strange sight.
We ventured over to Rowan Oak and peered into William Faulkner’s office window.
After Faulkner’s success with Sanctuary in 1929, he purchased this property for $25,000. The curtains were opened, however; they weren’t, which was incredibly vexing. I had a handkerchief to wipe away the moisture…. Every thing must be air-conditioned to an optimal temperature in order to maintain it.
The condition of things wasn’t as great when he was there. He then went to Charlottesville. He expressed that he found it appealing because people there were just like him—they didn’t bother him—and he went horseback riding. His demise was caused by the combined effects of alcohol and riding on horseback—he fell off one. He had ruptured a disk and was drinking to alleviate his physical pain as well as his alcoholism. The dry-out clinic was located up the road, near Memphis, roughly an hour from there—Byhalia. His back was hurting a lot. He passed away in Byhalia. It was just his destiny.
I spotted a young deer and I can’t understand why people would want to shoot it. It’s so adorable!
WT: I feel so strongly that I could shoot them; they consume all of the things that I cultivate.
BH: These creatures are unbelievably gorgeous. I think they are amazing. He has not been taught the skills to get by on his own. I could go right up to him without any danger. Are there any sharp points visible?
I disagree; I believe it is a female deer.
BH: The males are aware that you’re out to get them. On occasion, one will come by with a good-sized antler. It’s an amazing sight. They’ll even fight each other to the death just to find a mate.
This is the badge for his Nobel Prize. In this area, no one was aware of what that was. Some people from Sweden gave him an award. What’s the significance of that? I’m not joking.
When I first arrived, I found all the talk about Faulkner and his family tedious. Yet, eventually, I grew to appreciate having these apparitions around me. I find it quite agreeable. He was a rather diminutive guy who managed to achieve a considerable amount. It’s a classic under-dog story.
I lived away from the South for six to seven years, including two in Vermont at Middlebury and a few in Montana and California. I originally thought that I would not return. Growing up during the civil rights era, I was disgusted by the violence against African Americans. However, Mississippi is one of the most integrated states in the US and Oxford was very beautiful. It was not Faulkner or anything related to him that made me come back, but rather the people.
Do you not experience the desire to depart the company of other authors, or the presence of their spirits?
BH: Despite the small number of truly great fiction writers, most of them tend to be good people. Although there are many who claim to be writers but don’t measure up, the majority of those I’ve encountered are not bad people.
WT: If one persists in it, the process instills a certain type of modesty.
BH: Thus, being humble.
Barry and I took a trip to the outskirts of Oxford in the afternoon. We paid respects at Larry Brown’s final resting place, situated near a pond he had owned. When our visit was over, we returned to Barry’s house – a humble 1950s ranch close to the university.
I can’t say enough good things about my Kawasaki 1500. It’s the most wonderful motorcycle I’ve ever had and I’m so pleased with it. Would you like a beer?
WT: Absolutely. I’d be more than happy to do that.
BH declared that he had Miller in a glass, as well as Budweiser in a glass.
WT: Budweiser is my choice.
BH suggested that the person should take a seat in the chair, noting that it was a comfortable one.
Do you typically utilize the typewriter in your work as of late?
BH: Constantly. Those are the only materials I use: a pencil, a pen, and a typewriter. I even put a tin roof outside specifically for the rain.
The sound is really good. If only it was possible to get it on a white-noise device.
BH: We’ve made our house more than an Eisenhower one with a pool and decks. My students love music and I play bass and flugelhorn – although I’ve always been envious of the guitar. When I fell ill and almost died, Susan built a library with shelves. She wanted to give me a space to write, but I told her I could do that anywhere – motels, the kitchen table. She’s from Southern California so she thought it was important for me to look like a writer, but I don’t get off on the imperial role. I had a hard time writing for Robert Altman’s [Power and Light]. When I visited his house, I was in a tower with Plexiglas windows and the Pacific Ocean was visible from the house – it was too good and I couldn’t figure out what to write.
Did he choose the option of Ray?
My brother had no intention of going to Ray. I, however, decided to go there because I felt that it might have a promising future, but I was wrong.
There’s an excessive amount of junk here. I had envisioned spending my days surrounded by books, but when I moved I realized that I was taking with me things that I would never look at again. I’m donating a lot of these items now – it’s my time to let someone else that will actually read them have them. Most of these books are historical, by authors such as Cormac McCarthy, Bukowski, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, and Faulkner.
I’m an old-fashioned modernist. The idea of Postmodernism is a hollow one for me. I’m not comparable to John Barth or Robert Coover. I’m not a fan of writing-related activities.
I recently stumbled upon an interview with a person who repeatedly referred to you as a “challenging author.” This clearly seemed to anger you.
BH expressed disappointment upon hearing others characterize them as difficult to read. They had assumed their writing was accessible to an audience of hip, intelligent readers, yet it seemed these people were not in abundance. Instead, the American audience found more entertainment in television. There have been successful writers who studied at Iowa, but they are few and far between. BH concedes they do not prioritize plot, preferring instead to engage readers in a different manner.
WT: Yonder had a rather intricate plot, but the main source of gratification of the novel did not come from the plot.
BH: My narratives have a goal and are not just a haphazard collection of words. I have a genuine fondness for telling stories. My approach is quite traditional. It seems that I am not reaching the anticipated audiences. I think this could be because I was raised with highly educated peers; people who were well-versed in music, science and the world at large. They were incredibly sharp, and this could have hampered me as a scribe. One had to be quick-witted.
Do you have any interest in magazines?
When it comes to reading stories, I’m only interested in the ones that have been praised in the New Yorker. But a lot of the fiction that is associated with Woody Allen, the New Yorker, and the Hamptons is not usually that captivating. That’s why I advise my [students] to submit their work to the small magazines. I get the feeling that only grad students read those.
What literary figures are authors themselves?
BH: The phrase ‘musician’s musician’ isn’t something I’m fond of because it implies one is only creating music to please other musicians. I create my work to be enjoyed by all, not just those in the writing or music industry. I don’t want to be a writer or musician who is only appreciated in the ‘little-magazine’ realm.
Labeling can be harmful. It is not always a flattering title. In some cases, it can signify a dismissive attitude, as if to say, “Why bother, it’s going to be the same old thing.” This is particularly true of the South, where there is a predefined, oversimplified idea of what it is supposed to be like, and I have consistently refused to accept it in my own “career.” In fact, this manufactured, artificial version of the South nauseates me. I am so sick of hearing that same slide guitar in every movie.
WT: Despite the fact that you have earned a higher appreciation, you have simultaneously traded in the readership for your works. In the next half-century or century, it is probable that Airships and Geronimo Rex will still be read, but chances are slim for The Firm to be read.
John is very straightforward in his work. His ability to recognize his target market is what made him successful. His books appeal to a wide array of demographics–African-American, Asian, and whatever is currently popular in the entertainment industry. For example, if he has a story about an alcoholic living in a rundown trailer, he can call on Cate Blanchett for the role.
Grisham isn’t typically considered a literary author, but that fact actually worked in his favor. He was able to reach an audience that other writers had not been able to before. People who didn’t often read books, such as lawyers and Wal-Mart customers, ended up reading Grisham’s work.
The potential of [“A Creature in the Bay of St Louis”] to draw in a crowd is obvious to me and if I wrote more stories like this, I could become much more famous. My wife is an astute critic: she always reminds me to keep the story progressing and ask myself, “Where’s the plot? Where’s the story?”
What technique do you use to revise?
BH: I always tell my students not to revise something that’s of poor quality. This is especially true for short stories, which can range from 4-12 pages. I don’t think it’s wise to rewrite a story that isn’t any good. The first draft has to have the bulk of the content and needs to be interesting.
At the age of sixty, I acquired my first novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. It hasn’t been a big hit, yet I still adore the short story. I am perplexed as to why more readers do not pick it up and give it a try. They are simply invigorating.
It is an issue that has been present for a while now; the question of the pistol.
Lunch today is being enjoyed at Proud Larry’s, which is located near the Oxford city centre.
BH never expected to be a teacher, modeling himself after Kerouac in On the Road. The idea that he could publish a book, get a New York publisher, and make a hundred thousand in sales was his goal. He was unaware of the realities of the situation. With the exception of the three years he spent in California with Altman, he has been teaching since. His stint with Altman was an informative experience but had no artistic value. He is grateful for his time there and for the knowledge he gained about California. He was actually dismissed from a job in Alabama due to his drunkenness.
WT: Did you mean the gun?
BH expressed that although he had never pulled a loaded pistol on anyone, it was turned into an urban legend. As a result, he has distanced himself from guns as the idea of them isn’t so amusing anymore. Furthermore, he mentioned that during his school days, no one ever talked about going on a killing spree. Although he appreciates teaching, it has also been a great distraction when writing isn’t going as well. Recently, he found the answer to a novel he was writing, but he initially made the same mistake with another book as the reception to Yonder was so positive. He then concluded by saying that it’s always nice to see his book in an airport and asked if he could receive a copy of the interviewer’s book as he was sure he would enjoy it.
I’m not sure. My book is more of a learning experience in the style. There are some decent stories and a few absolute failures.
BH: Do you stand alone in calling them dismal failures? They were all featured in magazines, so why were they published?
In my opinion, the stories are quite well written. I paid a lot of attention to the language. I believe it is evident that a great amount of effort was put into them.
BH expressed their optimism that their product would be successful, remarking that it could potentially be sold in airports and make a lot of profit.
WT: Sure, we’ll see what happens. I’m not expecting to make a ton of money off the fiction. It’s difficult to write something I think is worth anything without wondering if a lot of people will want to buy it. I did a lot of work and several revisions, trying different ways of telling each story.
I’m familiar with the concept that a story can be improved and varied, and I accepted the concept that there is not one single definite way to communicate a narrative. Is that right? You earned your MFA at Columbia, did you enjoy it?
WT: Absolutely! The program I was part of was quite comprehensive and I had the great fortune to have Ben Marcus as my mentor. He was an outstanding instructor and a remarkably supportive champion of my work.
In my opinion, a degree in creative writing is a beneficial one. It can inspire discipline and help one discover their resilience. I am of the opinion that a creative-writing major should not be taken on as an undergraduate. I believe this to be a bad decision. I have encountered many creative-writing majors from other schools, and they lacked adequate knowledge. In fact, they were often the worst students, as they were able to pass their classes simply because they thought they were talented.
WT commented that the stories they create are often well-protected, concise, and difficult to analyze due to their lack of purpose.
BH: It is too early in life to choose a major in something that requires knowledge of the world. In spite of the fact that there is a handful of novelists in their twenties, the average age for publishing a first novel nowadays is forty-two.
Do you suspect that Boomerang will be the closing of your nonfiction writing in a strictly chronological order?
BH hesitated to publish the book as he felt it was not sufficiently mature. It was composed with a slight structure to the narrative, which enabled him to share the truth about his friends and the locations he had lived. Despite his initial doubts, the book has been praised by many readers.
At the New School, WT recalled a reading session where the room was filled with aspiring writers. He spoke to them, suggesting that they should think carefully before dedicating their limited years to the unique pursuit of writing. Looking back on his own life, does WT have any regrets?
BH noted that there is a flip side to this “riches.” While you may be able to experience more life than those around you, it can be challenging to maintain relationships. Success often leads to the ability to travel to distant places, however, this can be a double-edged sword.
In your opinion, what was the impact of the “bad Barry” years, the more reckless ones?
BH: I regret having spent so much precious time in vain. No matter if alcoholism is a sickness or not, I am still responsible for the awful words I uttered. I wish I could take back some of the hurtful comments I said to my second spouse. Regrettably, that is not possible. The intoxication of alcohol is greatly overrated. It does not give you a sense of pleasure all the time, rather it can bring a lot of sorrow. If only I had just surrounded myself with beautiful women, it would have been fantastic; however, it was not the case. All my idols were alcoholics: Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner. How many more do you need?
The notion that alcohol was a writer’s drug, cloaked in a mysterious aura, has been debunked, although I find that a bit sad. What I hate to concede is that drinking could help the work. The first two drinks were always very freeing. Your thinking becomes sharper and you become more confident, saying things you would otherwise not. If only I could have managed to stick to two or three drinks, the situation would have been ideal. Unfortunately, I could not.
The next days after drinking were awful, so you kept returning to the same solution: consuming more alcohol. I was studying a book about Led Zeppelin, and there’s an extract in which Jimmy Page talks about his ten-year-long heroin addiction, and not understanding how close he was to wellbeing. He was astounded by the length of time he had been dependent on drugs.
It was dreadful. I’m loath to be pessimistic about it, however, my family had a genetic predisposition to alcoholism and it caught up with me.
For the Oxford American, what was the article you wrote entitled “Christ in the Room” that described your experience with Jesus?
BH: I was not taking any medication and the dream I had was so vivid that I woke up in tears. It made sense and felt so real; it was Christ with mountains in the background of a red and brown hue. It was very significant in my life and I think it made me a better person. I’m not sure which part of the brain is responsible for this experience, and I’m not sure why it had to be Christ when I’m agnostic or even a pantheist. But when I started reading the Bible, I could understand why people would go to divinity school and come out as atheists. It’s not that the education promotes atheism, but that they’ve read the book and are left feeling confused.
WT: How do you handle an experience like yours?
BH: It evolves into something that resembles prayer, recognizing the power of words, but one doesn’t have to be religious to understand it. Yet, if someone is a youth in the Baptist church, they may as well be a young communist, as they are taught to believe the same things from an early age. Kids are likely to take in whatever an elder instructs, and if they were raised without an elder telling them of a divine being, what did their parents tell them? Nevertheless, I no longer wish the religious ill as much as I used to.
I was never raised with any kind of belief system. Still, I think it’s not a terrible idea to believe that life has more value because of the things that have been created – books, music, etc.
BH: Music is definitely my Achilles heel; I always strive for perfect sounds, but never reach my goal.
WT: I’m not in agreement with your views on your work, and I’m willing to challenge them.
When compared to music, all other things can seem like a disappointment.
The ferociousness of the wit, the intensity of the language, and the exacting composition of the stories in Bats Out of Hell appear to me to be more courageous and more rigorous than the prior works.
In my opinion, that’s my most successful work. The public, however, prefers Airships more.
WT: What I’ve always been impressed by in your writing is that the words themselves are a source of cheer. Each expression is completely electrifying and carries an energy of its own. Much like the work of Melville, it is not the subject matter that stands out but rather the enthusiasm within the language. Every phrase is so filled with jubilance that it feels like it is about to burst with enthusiasm.
BH: I’m one of those who never made it to the end of Moby-Dick. I had a hard time with the dense, Shakespearian writing. If it had been edited down, it would have been easier to get through and could have been great. People who are die-hard fans want to make their way through all the cetology. Even though, I really appreciate the water and fish. Maybe I should give Moby-Dick another chance.
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