in conversation with
The kitchen table
Bad places to write:
Robert Altman’s wooden tower in California with Plexiglas windows and gulls all around you
“Barry Hannah is America’s greatest living writer” is something I started saying when I first read Hannah’s work in the late 1990s. I’m sad I had to stop saying it on March 1 of this year, when Barry passed away.
In July 2008, Barry invited me down to Oxford, Mississippi, where he lived. I spent three days in Oxford, riding around, chatting with the tape recorder, rolling and smoking cigarettes, a habit I picked up for the weekend. It wasn’t a convenient time for Barry to entertain a guest. His wife, Susan, was going through chemotherapy, and Barry’s health wasn’t too good, either. He ran out of breath a lot. His oxygen tank kept clanging around in the back of his Jeep. Still, he was a gracious and ambitious tour guide. He showed me Faulkner’s home, and took me to Square Books, Oxford’s venerable bookshop, and one afternoon he took me out to the catfish pond of the late writer Larry Brown. Larry’s gravestone sits near the shore of that pond. While we were there, Barry started talking to the stone, telling Larry how much he missed and admired him, an affirmation of love between friends that puts a rock in my throat when I think about it still.
Barry’s work drove people to fanaticism. I know a writer who memorized the first five pages of Hannah’s novel Ray, and someone else who claims he’s bought two hundred copies of Airships just to hand out to people who haven’t read it. Yet it bothered Barry that he didn’t have a broader audience, that he had only one “airport book” with his last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan. Why he didn’t have more airport books is a mystery to me. Even though Hannah populated his novels and stories with serial killers and devils and a guy who kills his lover with a razor strapped to his loins, I’d argue that any one of Hannah’s sentences picked at random holds more hope and joy than the entire self-help section at the O’Hare Barnes and Noble. Hannah loved Flaubert as a fellow member of the mot-juste tribe, though Hannah wasn’t satisfied with just the right word, it had to be the fiery, ecstatic word, too, a Molotov cocktail against syntactic dreariness.
I. PRETENDERS V. SONS OF BITCHES
[It’s a weekend afternoon in Oxford, Mississippi, July 2008. Barry Hannah asked me if I’d ever been to Rowan Oak, Faulkner’s estate. I never had. Barry seemed to think it was important that we go have a look around. We’re driving over in Barry’s Jeep.]
WELLS TOWER: Do you still read much Faulkner?
BARRY HANNAH: Yeah, there are only about five books I re-read. I reread As I Lay Dying. With the insanity and tragedy, it’s the best dysfunctional family ever written. There’s not a speck of love lost there. I taught at Middlebury, and since I was Southern, I had to teach Faulkner. I’m glad I discovered Faulkner late, it would have messed with my style. I’d have felt inadequate. I like Hemingway much better. It gave me life. I wanted to go to Paris so bad after reading The Sun Also Rises, just to have a Pernod or a coffee or something.
[We drive past a banner advertising the upcoming McCain-Obama debate.]
Hey, did you know we’re having the presidential debate here? We’re gonna be on the map some. We’re having McCain and Obama, there’s gonna be three thousand journalists here in two months.
WT: Why Oxford, I wonder.
BH: The country’s just running out of places that are decent, and Oxford’s very decent. A handsome town, very literary.
WT: How do you feel about the election?
BH: Waiting, still waiting. I like Obama. There’s the Grisham house. My publisher Sam Lawrence loved Oxford so much that he lived there, and when he died, Grisham bought it. Grisham’s generosity has totally changed my teaching; the MFA program’s almost totally John. It’s highly ranked and everything. I don’t care. I really want to be below the radar, but hell, all this money from John—I didn’t wanna let him down. Two Grisham fellowships. We’re not ever going to be Iowa, but we’ll be good in a small way. Georgia State was a drag. On the third floor there were these gypsies selling fake silver shit. It was crazy.
[At Rowan Oak. We walk over to the house to peer in the window of Faulkner’s office.]
Faulkner bought this place for twenty-five thousand dollars after he had a hit with Sanctuary in 1929. The curtains are parted. No, they’re not, goddammit, how rude. I’ve got a handkerchief for the dew…. It all has to be air-conditioned to the right temperature to preserve it.
It was not in this good of shape when he was here. Then he went up to Charlottesville. He said he liked Charlottesville because everybody was a snob, like him—they left you alone—and he rode horses. His death was brought on by a combination of alcohol and horses—he fell off one. He’d ruptured a disk. He was drinking for pain (as well as for his alcoholism) at the end. The dry-out clinic is up the road, below Memphis, about an hour from here—Byhalia. His back was killing him. He died in Byhalia. It was just his time.
There’s a deer. Look at the deer. Sweet little yearling. I don’t know how people shoot ’em.
WT: I feel like shooting them. They eat everything I plant.
BH: They’re just incredibly beautiful. I think they’re wonderful. He’s not trained to survive. I could walk right up to him. Do you see any spikes?
WT: No, I think it’s a doe.
BH: The males know you wanna kill ’em. Every now and then one comes by with a rack. They’re just so glorious. They beat each other to death to get to mate.
Here’s the marker for his Nobel Prize. Around here, no one even knew what the hell that was. Some Swedes give him a prize. Shit, why’s that important? I’m not kidding.
When I first came here, I just heard Faulkner Faulkner Faulkner. His kinfolk and all of it—I was just bored by it. But then I grew to like to have these ghosts around. I find it amenable. He was a little man who did a hell of a lot. Underdog story.
I spent about six or seven years outside of the South. Two years in Vermont at Middlebury, a few in Montana, California. I didn’t think I’d come back here at all. I grew up during the civil rights era and I’d had it with these horrible goddamn cowards killing blacks and all the rest. It was a shame. But there are certain worthy things about the Mississippi. It’s one of the most integrated states in the Union. Oxford, at least on the surface, is very gorgeous. It wasn’t Faulkner or any of that that brought me back. It was the people.
WT: So you don’t feel an urge to flee the company of other writers, or their ghosts?
BH: The good ones are so few. But fiction writers are good people, usually. There’s a lot of pretenders, but I haven’t met a lot of sons of bitches.
WT: Well, if you stick with it, it beats you into a certain humility.
BH: Right, humility.
II. A CANNED DREAM OF THE SOUTH
[I spent the afternoon with Barry riding around on the small roads outside Oxford. We paid a long, warm visit to Larry Brown’s grave, which lies on the shore of a catfish pond Larry owned. Afterward, we went to Barry’s house, a modest 1950s ranch in a suburban neighborhood not far from the university.]
BH: Kawasaki 1500. It’s the best bike I’ve ever owned. It’s just a joy. You want a beer?
WT: Sure. That’d be great.
BH: I got Miller in glass, and I got straight Bud in a glass.
WT: I’ll take the Bud.
BH: Sit here. It’s a good chair.
WT: Are you mostly working on the typewriter these days?
BH: Always. That’s all I use. Pencil, pen, and typewriter. I put a tin roof out here just for the rain.
WT: It’s a great sound. I wish you could get it on a white-noise machine.
BH: We got a pool out back, so it’s a better house than an Eisenhower house. We put the decks around it, added a pool. I’ve got very musical students so we play some over here. I play bass and flugelhorn but I always envied the guitar, the way you handle it. When I got very ill and almost died Susan built this library, all the shelves. I came back and Susan wants to give me an environment to write in. It’s not necessary, I told her. I write in motels. I write at the kitchen table, but she’s from Southern California money and you’re supposed to look like a writer. I don’t get off on being imperial. I was just flat bad when I tried to write for Robert Altman [Power and Light]. At his house, I was in a wooden tower with Plexiglas windows and gulls were all round you and the Pacific Ocean came under the house and I said, Shit, this is heaven, I don’t have a subject, it’s just too good.
WT: He optioned Ray?
BH: No, he didn’t. He liked Ray, but I went out there. I thought there was gonna be a future in it but there wasn’t.
There’s too much crap in here. I always thought I’d live among books, you realize when you move, you’re moving stuff you’ll never read again. I’m just giving away a lot of stuff now. It’s my time in life to give it away to someone who’s gonna read it. Most of these books are history, all of Cormac McCarthy, Bukowski, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, Faulkner.
I’m just like an elder modernist. Postmodern is a very flat, meaningless term to me. I’m nothing like John Barth or Robert Coover. I don’t like games about writing.
WT: I recently came across an interview with someone who couldn’t stop calling you a “difficult writer.” It seemed to piss you off.
BH: I’m disheartened by others who’ve said that. I never thought I was that difficult. I thought I was writing for a fairly hip, intelligent crowd; I just thought there were more of them out there. But they’re not. They’re not out there waiting. They’re not gonna use their intelligence on your book. They’ll use it on television or something—so I was kind of brokenhearted that I was called difficult. I always intended to be light and open. I misjudged the American audience. On the other hand, I’ve had students at Iowa who’ve sold a lot of books, there just aren’t huge numbers of writers who are doing well. It’s not impossible. I guess it’s the plot element that I don’t care enough about. I don’t really care about plot; I want to have a page-turner in a different kind of way.
WT: Yonder was pretty complexly plotted, but it wasn’t a book whose satisfactions were necessarily in the plot.
BH: My stories do have plot. They’re not just scattered language; they’re controlled, toward an end. I do love storytelling. I start out in a very plain, old-fashioned way. I’m obviously not connecting with the thousands of people I thought were out there. Maybe because I grew up with smart peers, people up on music, science, the world. I grew up with some smart damn people, and that might have hindered me as a writer. You had to be quick.
WT: Do you read magazines?
BH: If someone would rave about a story in the New Yorker, I’ll read it. But you get a lot of that Woody Allen–New Yorker–Hamptons fiction. My [students] have to send off to the little magazines. I get the sense that only grad students read those.
WT: Writer’s writers?
BH: I don’t like that term, because I wouldn’t buy somebody’s album on a dare if they called him a musician’s musician. I don’t write to be a writer’s writer. I don’t want to be like the little-magazine writer. I don’t want to be that.
Categories are bad news. Being Southern will just kill you sometimes. It’s not always a graceful adjective. Sometimes it means, don’t bother because it’s gonna be [sings a lick from dueling banjos]. It’s gonna be: porch, banjo, Negroes. There’s a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I’ve resisted that stuff my entire so-called career. Ready-made Southernism just disgusts me, just makes me nauseated. I mean, you can’t see a movie without hearing that goddamned slide guitar. Shit, I’m just so tired of it.
WT: Well, at the same time, you’ve exchanged in readership what you’ve gained in esteem. Fifty or a hundred years from now, it seems pretty likely that people will still be reading Airships or Geronimo Rex, but they probably won’t be reading The Firm.
BH: John is honest about what he does. Knowing his audience is what made him rich. His novels plug into anywhere—black, Indonesian, whatever’s hot in Hollywood, let’s ram it in there. Got something about a drunk in a busted trailer? Call Cate Blanchett. Put her in.
But Grisham, he’s a lawyer. He’s not literary, and that helped him. He found an audience that none of us knew existed. People who have never owned a book. Lawyers don’t read and Wal-Mart people don’t read, but they will read a Grisham.
[“A Creature in the Bay of St Louis”] is the kind of story that’s gonna have an audience, that’s the kind of thing, if I wrote more of those I’d be a lot more famous. I think my wife even finds me too literary, she’s a good critic: “Where’s the plot, where’s the story, let’s keep it moving.”
WT: How do you revise?
BH: I tell these students there’s no use in revising something that’s bad. I believe that, for short stories. It’s brief, very brief, from four to twelve pages, getting something done. I don’t believe in rewriting this one goddamned story. If the first draft is no goddamned good, it’s no good. It’s stupid to revise it, to me. The first draft has got to be loaded with most of it. Does it not? It can’t just be a shell of what’s going to be. I think it’s got to be exciting.
I had my first airport book with Yonder Stands Your Orphan when I was sixty. It’s going to be a middle seller, but I love the short story. I don’t know why more people don’t jump on them. They are the breath of life.
III. THE PISTOL THING
[We are having lunch at Proud Larry’s restaurant, off Oxford’s downtown square.]
BH: I didn’t ever mean to be a teacher. I thought I’d sell a hundred thousand and be off. My model was Kerouac, and On the Road. You write a book, get a New York publisher, and sell a hundred thousand and you’re set up to smoke opium out in the casbah and write book after book. I’m not kidding. I was so blissfully ignorant. But I’ve taught consistently except when I was with Altman, which was a good life experience but it meant nothing to me artistically. Nothing. But I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I got to know California pretty well for three years. I was there because I didn’t want to teach anymore. I’d been fired in Alabama for drunkardly behavior.
WT: Was that the pistol thing?
BH: Yeah. I never pulled a loaded pistol on anybody, but it got around that I did. It got turned into lore. It’s a myth. There’s so much bad gun stuff. I’ve pulled away from guns. They’re not funny anymore. There was no one, when I was in school, who talked about going in and blowing up students. The teachers were very stern and hateable, but nobody ever mentioned murder. But I do enjoy the teaching, and it’s also a pleasurable distraction when the writing’s not going well. It keeps you going. I’m reenergized, though, I think, having found the answer to this novel. I did this with a Jeb Stuart novel I thought I wanted to write, and I spent months and months on it, and I ended up with three short stories, which was all I was interested in, and the Jeb Stuart stories are in Airships. I’ve made this mistake before, it was just that reception to Yonder was so good that I wanted to do another novel. That was the market talking, it wasn’t me. It’s fun to see your book in an airport. It’s fun. I hope we’ll still see yours in there. Will you send me a copy? I imagine I’ll like it.
WT: I don’t know. My book’s really an apprenticeship at the form. I mean, there are some OK stories and a few dismal failures.
BH: Are you the only one calling them dismal failures? They were all published in magazines. Why would they print them?
WT: I think they’re fairly clean stories. I cared a good deal about the language. They show some effort, I think.
BH: You never know, man. It might get in the airport and sell a bunch. I sure hope it does.
WT: Yeah, we’ll see. I’ve got no illusions about making a lot of dough with the fiction. It’s tough enough trying to write something that I believe to be worth a shit without worrying about whether lots of people will want to buy it or not. I did a fair amount of work on it, lots of serious revisions, trying out different ways of telling each story.
BH: I know that feeling of knowing that a story could be better, different, but I got used to the idea that there’s no inevitable one way to tell a story, there are always a number of ways, third person, first person, and often it’s worth trying. So you went to Columbia for your MFA? Did you like it?
WT: Sure. It’s a pretty vast program, but I had a great mentor there with Ben Marcus. He was a brilliant teacher and an incredibly generous advocate for my work.
BH: I think it’s a useful degree. It should teach you discipline, and you should find out whether you’ve got endurance. I don’t really believe in a creative-writing major as an undergraduate. It’s a bad idea, terrible. I’ve met creative-writing majors from other places and they don’t know a goddamn thing. They’re the worst students. They just think they’re good because they could pass.
WT: Yeah, they get very good at building these well-armored little stories, elliptical and spare and hard to wedge your critical pry-bar into, mainly because the story’s not trying to do anything.
BH: They’re too young. Why would you major in something you’re not ready for? That you wouldn’t be ready for until you know the world? There are no seventeen-to-eighteen-year-old novelists and very few in their twenties. The average age for a first novel now is forty-two.
WT: Do you think Boomerang will be the end of your straight memoiristic writing?
BH: I almost didn’t release that one. I didn’t feel it was all that mature, but I just didn’t have anything else to say at the time. So I just structured the book with a slight plot that allowed me to pretty much tell the truth, a book about my friends and the places I was living. I was very hesitant to print it, but since then many people say they’ve enjoyed it.
IV. “ALL MY HEROES WERE ALCOHOLICS.”
WT: I remember this reading you did at the New School, and the room was crowded with all of these young writers, and you said, “Before you all embark on this weird career, I’d encourage you to ask yourselves whether you really want to spend your scant years on the planet stalking life in the peculiar way that writers must.” How do you feel it shook out for you? Is there much to regret?
BH: No, because the other side of the coin is so rich. You get to live more than others, too. You get to be more people, and certainly, if you’re successful, you get to go more places, but it does make your relationships difficult.
WT: How do the “bad Barry” years—the wild years—look to you now?
BH: I wasted a lot of time. I don’t care whether alcoholism’s a disease or not, you’re still guilty of the ugly things you said. Some of the ugly things I said to my second wife, I’d love to take them back. But it’s too late. The wild stuff is all so overrated. Drinking, you don’t feel good all the time. There’s a lot of down, a lot of misery. Had I just had a series of beautiful women and that had been the extent of the wildness, that’d be great, but it wasn’t like that. But, you know, all my heroes were alcoholics: Joyce, Hemingway, Faulkner. How many more do you want?
The alcohol had the code and mystery about it as a writer’s drug, but I’m glad that’s been debunked. But the trouble with the drinking, much as I hate to admit it, is it helped the work. The first two drinks were always wonderfully liberating. You think better. You’re braver, and you’ll say anything. If you could just hang in there with two or three, it’d be beautiful. The trouble was I couldn’t.
And the hangovers were terrible, and to stop them you go back to the hair of the dog, eventually, and then you’re drinking more and more. I was reading this book about Led Zeppelin and there’s a bit where Jimmy Page is talking about his heroin habit of ten years, and he never realized how close health could be. He was shocked he’d been strung out for so long.
It was terrible. I hate to be fatalistic about it, but alcoholism, man, it’s just in your genes. We had some of it in my family, and it just got me.
WT: What was that piece you did for the O.A. [Oxford American], “Christ in the Room,” where you said you’d had an encounter with Jesus?
BH: I was not on any hospital drugs, I know the mind plays tricks, and this was such a close-up, tangible dream that I woke up weeping. It made sense; it was not surrealistic; it was Christ with the mountains behind him, red, brown. And it was just a big thing in my life. I think I became a better guy. I don’t know, I’m still thinking about what lobe of the brain gives you that. Why not Buddha? Obviously it’s cultural and I’m generally agnostic. I’m a pantheist at best, but I love Christ—who doesn’t? But when you start getting the Bible you understand why young men and women go to divinity schools and come out atheists. It’s not that these places are cradles of atheism, it’s that they finally read the book, and they’re just confused!
WT: What do you do with an experience like the one you had?
BH: It transfers to something prayer-like, an appreciation of the word, but you don’t have to be religious to get it, but if you’re a young Baptist, you might as well be a young communist, they get to you early and indoctrinate you. Children will listen to anything elders say to survive, and if you grew up without an elder telling you there was a god, what did your parents say to you? Still, I wish the religious less ill than I used to.
WT: I grew up without any religion. Though I guess the faith that life matters more because of stuff people made up—books, music—isn’t a bad approximation.
BH: Music, absolutely. That’s where I’ve always felt like a failure, you want the pure music and you never get it.
WT: I’ll fight you on that one about your work.
BH: Everything’s a failure, when you compare it to music.
WT: Bats Out of Hell, there’s something about the fierceness of the wit, the electricity in the language, and structural rigor of the stories that seems to me both braver and more disciplined than the earlier stuff.
BH: I think that one’s my best work, frankly. People love Airships a lot more.
WT: Well, the thing I’ve always admired in your work is that the language itself is a force of joy. The vitality and gunpowder in every word is itself an agent of life. It’s like Melville. It’s not about the whale; it’s about the pleasure with language. There’s so much joy and exuberance packed into the wordcraft, every sentence is about to blow six gaskets.
BH: I’m one of those who never finished Moby-Dick. I couldn’t get through the thick Shakespearean stuff. I would have advocated for editing that. If it had been, it’d be accessible and great. The purists want to read all that fucking cetology, man. You know, though, I love the water and fish. I should adore the whale and fish. Maybe I should try again.