"Crying Like a Fire in the Sun"
A Conversation with Barry Hannah
In Barry Hannah’s short story “Drummer Down,” Drummond tells his writing professor and friend, a man whose own work and life have been destroyed by a nasty separation and a remarkable drinking binge: “We need your big heart, Paul. The forces of good need you. Technique and facts and indifference are out there winning. Money is winning, mere form and tightasses are winning. Commerce is making the town uglier and uglier.”
To be sure, the creative mind faces an unwinnable war against fact, reason, IRA accounts—the juggernaut of heartlessness. But there is joy for us: Hannah’s work strikes a deep blow on behalf of language and art, and though he passed away yesterday, March 1st, we will always have the gaping hole his work punctured in banality’s armor to point to, to admire.
I met with Barry Hannah in October 2007 at his home in Oxford, Mississippi. Barry bore my cloying praise and inane questions with grace and kindness. “My dear lad,” he called me, as I’m sure he did the hundreds of students he worked with at Ole Miss, Middlebury, University of Montana, University of Iowa, Sewanee, et al. My relationship with the man lasted all of fourteen hours: six or so in person, the rest by phone. But I’m grateful for that time, grateful for his generosity, and grateful for his work. —Andrew Brininstool, 3/2/10
This interview took place the day before Ole Miss' homecoming game. The Square had been quiet for much of the morning but by early afternoon the sidewalks ﬁlled and there was the steady noise of early ceremony. Our original venue changed because of the clamor; the conversation transpired in three locations: Ajax Diner, Mr. Hannah's office, and ﬁnally his backyard, where he practices bow ﬁshing and enjoys the company of his six dogs. Our discussion varied widely, from Samuel Beckett to Tejano music to whether or not adding cheese to a Po' Boy sandwich is ever a bright idea. The interview has been only lightly revised with the hope of keeping the tone as informal as the meeting itself. Mr. Hannah is interested in good conversation. "I've done [interviews] so long now," he said at one point in the afternoon. "I'm sixty-ﬁve. I've been over the ground of my work and life too much, and this 'me-ism' makes me feel awkward."
Andrew Brininstool: We've been talking a good deal about music today. It plays a major role in much of your work—short stories, novels, even essays. What can a writer learn from music?
Barry Hannah: A writer can learn that there is a kind of grace, a measure to how you say things. Somebody said that the best writing was idealized conversation, and I like that. Mark Twain is a favorite of mine because he just seems to start talking. That's the ideal to me, and music is like that, too. You just start strumming and then you ﬁnd the words. Bob Dylan, they say, used to cut out pictures of people from magazines and spread them all over the ﬂoor and sit down and look at the pictures and strum his guitar and write his songs by looking at the pictures.
AB: Wow. I didn't know that.
BH: Yeah. Is that [the recorder]? Wow, that's tiny.
AB: I know. I hope it works.
BH: That's state-of-the-art.
AB: The more advanced these things become, the more apt they are to screw up. I wish they had one of those reel-to-reel recorders; those seem reliable. Anyway, I hope this one works. I'm guessing reading and writing is an auditory experience for you.
BH: Yeah, it is. It's an auditory experience; it has much to do with the voice and cadence, and with melody. I'm not a poet but I want to say as much as possible in a short space and have a rhythm I feel through the story or the book. No, Nell, Nell [one of Mr. Hannah's dogs]. That's the one that went to Texas with me. She's been with me to San Marcos. She saw Willie [Nelson] and all the good places we went to. Her name is Nell. She's my bedmate and she puts her head on my pillow. [Laughs.] I love them to death and our backyard is ﬁlled with the graves of our little friends that are dearly departed. I shoot the bow out there just for fun. It feels good to be out there with their spirits because it just kills you when they die, as you well know. It kills you. We just lost one. There was a huge hole in me. His name was Jack and he was killed right in front of the house by some woman coming back from horseback riding and speeding, no doubt. You can't kill a dog going twenty like you're supposed to.
BH: You cannot do it. All night he fought for his life. He was a little greyhound terrier.
AB: I've never seen that type of mix, but he sounds pretty.
BH: He was beautiful. Boy, he could run. That was what he was doing—he was just running in his own yard. In my novel and a couple of articles I say, you know, I am a follower of Christ; I cannot shoot anybody, but I can damn well shoot a car [laughs]. And I'd love to blow out her tires and windshield. It was a big Suburban. It would just sell more copies of books, even if I went to jail. I have nothing really left to lose. Temporary insanity. Except that it'd be premeditated [laughs]. I was in Knoxville, Tennessee and Susan called me on the phone. God. It was like hearing your brother died. That poor little dog. We'll get off this subject, but they give you so much in their short lives. Spiritually and emotionally, and we adore that. They've been wonderful for me in bad health.
AB: You said in another interview with Daniel Williams that you learn more from your dog Nell than you do by reading interviews—that there's more to learn from the animal world than from reading these kinds of things.
BH: Oh, sure. When I was a young writer I got a great deal out of interviews with the greats: Faulkner and Hemingway and O'Connor. They're probably good for young people, young writers like you. But I really get tired of talking about myself, frankly. I've done it so long now. I'm sixty-ﬁve—the subject of "me" is really redundant. I try to be fresh. I just bought a new bow this summer, just to try something I hadn't done in a long time and be sort of good at it. But if I can say something of worth that would help or give comfort to some young writer, so be it.
AB: In one of your essays, "Mr. Brain, He Want a Song," you say that if an image is intense enough, it always brings a narrative with it.
BH: I'm still a small-town boy, a gawker. A rubbernecking peckerwood [laughs]. My wife and I go to Paris, and I like to just drink cafe au lait and look at folks—better than the Louvre—and imagine their lives. I get these images, hard, hard, like an artist does. I can't draw or paint. Very primitive is all I can do.
AB: So it's the image ﬁrst and the narrative will come with it.
BH: The narrative will come.
AB: In that way maybe ﬁction writers need to be part poet? Poets are often interested in image, maybe no narrative at all.
BH: I think it's the natural way your brain works. The way you dream. Your dreams are intense. William S. Burroughs was right when he said if we didn't dream, we'd die. That's our release. The brain needs fun. It needs absurdity and the surreal. It is not space-and time-bound like we are. I think we all work off of images. I don't think it's unique with me or musicians or poets.
AB: I want to ask about your health—how you're feeling. Your last novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan was written in the midst of a physically trying time. You were ﬁghting lymphoma and have said that the only thing that kept you going were the steroids.
BH: Right. Prednisone. That's why I wear long sleeves in weather like this. The medication messed up my arms. It made my skin real brittle—capillaries burst, like you see on old people. They go away, but all of it was caused by Prednisone in massive, massive doses. It's speed. It puts you up. It was the only medicine I had that put me up.
AB: How has the new novel, Sick Soldier at Your Door, differed in process?
BH: Yonder was much harder to write. Disease really interfered. I couldn't concentrate. I couldn't ﬁnd a story. I couldn't ﬁnd joy, mainly.
AB: I teach your work in my literature and writing classes. I'll hand out a packet of stories to my students and they invariably say, "This guy had a hell of a good time writing these." There is a lot of joy in your writing. How important is that to the process?
BH: It's absolutely essential. I'm lucky to be doing what I love, and I'll take being broke like I was when I was young. I'll take worrying about the electric bill; I'll take it all because I love what I do at sixty-ﬁve as much as I did when I was eighteen. Most people hate their jobs.
AB: But I've heard some writers say they don't necessarily like writing, not at certain points, anyway. Sometimes they ﬁght through it to get the book out, to get paid.
BH: The process can be drudgery. I don't understand why they write, though. Anyway, I tend to be a dash-man. That's why I like the novella as in Bats Out of Hell. There are several near-novellas in that collection. Incidentally, I have no interest in literary games or metaﬁction—any of that conscious messing around with form. I love the easy voice, the clash through what the mind gives you. When I'm any good, I'm usually rapid. The work rushes on without urging in a zone of sudden joyful combinations.
AB: So that you are not interested necessarily in experimentation per se.
BH: If it doesn't come from the gut, the heart, then it's not real experimentation. Occasionally I'll see an intellectual quickie that's good, but mainly it's because the writer had to do it that way.
AB: Would you mind speaking a little more about the new novel? Max Raymond, from Yonder, plays a role?
BH: Max Raymond's son, probably. He ﬂew in Desert Storm, in '91.
AB: And you've described him in the past as a "sincere Christian"?
BH: He's a lay minister. He's lost everything. He's gotten into drug trouble as an MD after the war, after being a pilot, and been kicked out, much like his father. He prescribed the drugs to commit suicide for his rival and the guy just managed to give himself a stroke. So he's very guilty. But he's better than I am. I had to write about a character that goes to hospitals and helps people. He's got an old motorcycle, a Triumph, he has only about ﬁfty thousand dollars left and a plane he hides from the IRS that he claims went down in the Gulf of Mexico. He's still shady, but....
AB: Mary Gordon said in an interview that she's interested in what "good" characters can do to narrative, to conﬂict and tension. How hard is it to write about a "good" character?
BH: It's difficult. Evil, or the grotesque, is much easier to dramatize. Ray is good but he realizes that he has no god, really. He has only Christ to follow, and Christ is an impossible example. He has nothing to do with the Old Testament God who bids you to murder. And then we get the ten commandments: Thou shalt not kill. Go ﬁgure! [Laughs.] If you read that book, you'll go nuts.
AB: It [the Old Testament] is extremely violent.
BH: Violent, with dietary insanity.
AB: The New Testament isn't exactly G-rated, either.
BH: It's violent, too. The way [Jesus] is put down and the way He was betrayed. But He hasn't been surpassed; I'm like Thomas Jefferson on that issue: His ethics are the most sublime we've been handed. I rediscovered Him when I had a dream when I was in that hospital.
AB: With pneumonia?
BH: Right. I almost lost my life. I lost thirty-ﬁve pounds in two weeks, a machine breathing for me, taking in no food. Three doctors gave up. But I was getting better when I had the dream. I don't know. Maybe if you're close to death it prompts dreams of that sort.
AB: It was a spiritual dream?
BH: It was a dream of the physical Christ. It was hard-edged, realer than a dream. He said nothing. But I still remember it vividly. I said, "I haven't paid much attention to you." He said, well, He said nothing; but He was there, looking like a working man with a parted robe, red sand hills, kind of blowing weather like the surface of Mars or maybe the Judean desert. And I felt a great peace and joy that if I trusted in Him, things would be simpler.
AB: And you wrote about that—
BH: Yeah. Yeah. I had to write the dream ﬁnally.
AB: Do you think religion has played an increasing role in your work?
BH: Not religion. I don't go to church. Christianity, yes.
AB: That shows up in Yonder, and it seems to as well in Sick Soldier at Your Door with the church burnings.
BH: It's in both books. I'm getting closer in Yonder to the church, people who need help gathering. I'm not against church, people just meeting: Ex-bikers who are preachers or whatever. Some rough sorts and some smooth sorts. Rich and poor. We all need help, for God's sake. And fellowship sometimes.
AB: A lot of people have talked about the violence in your work. But your work is also very funny, often at the same time. I'm thinking of the short story, "Bats Out of Hell Division," a farce on the sentimentality that often accompanies the Civil War. Like much of your work, it's graphically brutal and macabre, and yet funny. Do you feel there's a connection between violence and humor?
BH: I must [laughs]. If it's not happening to you. I keep quoting the greats, like an English teacher does, but I'm thinking now of Samuel Beckett: "Nothing is funnier than unhappiness." Someone else's [laughs]. That's what we watch at the movies: "I am so glad I am not in that reality. My God, I don't have any problems." Yeah, there's something hilarious about human agony, at a certain distance. I include my protagonist in hurt; he's not exempt. I try to put myself in grim positions and feel what I would do in a situation like being shot to pieces in a ﬂoating balloon, as in "Bats Out of Hell Division." I had a lot of fun writing that.
AB: You chair the MFA program at Ole Miss. The landscape of the MFA has changed quite a bit since Flannery O'Connor went up to Iowa with some of her stories, asking Paul Engle for admission. By different accounts, some two thousands folks will graduate this year with a Master's in creative writing. I am in that horde. Any advice for us?
BH: No. You just have to write well. Publish a few stories; maybe a young editor will read them and be interested. That's why the little magazines are good, besides just being good. But they [in publishing] all want the novel, and too many people start writing novels when they shouldn't. Almost every ﬁrst novel is awful, and sometimes third novels. And novel segments are impossible to teach in a workshop. We can admire graceful writing, but we don't know what to say about where it's going or how good it's going to be. It makes no sense—thirty pages just taken out of the middle. They should learn to write the short story before they try to write the book, for God's sake.
AB: Many of your early stories were published in Esquire when Gordon Lish was the editor. It seems, though, that the big magazines are changing their attitude toward short ﬁction.
BH: They certainly are.
AB: The big boys are less and less attracted to the form and the small magazine is the only venue for short story writers. Is there any silver lining to this shift?
BH: It looks pretty grim. The big commercial slicks don't want ﬁction. Magazines now are usually devoted to celebrities and advertisements of rich gear: big leather and vodka; totally bored models hanging around. You know the scene. These magazines are as thick as novels with only two good essays or articles. It's horrible.
I just engaged Playboy, though; I put out my ﬁrst piece there since the eighties, an article about leaving Tuscaloosa in the seventies, back when I was a drunk. My daughter and her husband are still there and when I visit I'm haunted by old ghosts of that life. Everything fell apart for me. I was too drunk to really know it, or a snob. Both, really. But I sobered up in California, and I've been essentially clean since 1990.
BH: It had to be done. I had the disease. And I'm having a wonderful time being straight. I like it here in Oxford, came twenty-ﬁve years ago. My son went to school here. He and I were roommates. It was nice. It was weird, but nice. [Laughs]. He had girlfriends, and I didn't want to enter the home; I'd drive around the block a while. [Laughs.] You had issues like that, but usually they were just cooking in the kitchen, and it was fun.
AB: My last question: You said you like it when young writers tell you how much they loved Airships, and you've called it the "rallying point of my efforts." But do you ever feel, like a Bob Dylan, that you have a long list of other works and all people want to hear is "Like a Rolling Stone"?
BH: Yes. It's always Airships, or Geronimo Rex, my ﬁrst one. But you can't do it again. Airships was 1978. I'm nothing like that person. I never reread myself, but I still like the quick hit and grotesque farce of Airships, so I'm not worried. It does get a little like "Rolling Stone," on a smaller level, of course. I had my ﬁrst "airport book" when I was sixty years old, with Yonder. That was a mild commercial success. But I'm proud of all of them and have had many happy trips in my mind.
An excerpt from Barry Hannah's forthcoming novel, Sick Soldier at Your Door, can be found here.