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First Person

Reconstructing Harry Crews

May 24, 2012 | by

Still from The Rough South of Harry Crews.

I was making a film about a local author when I met Harry Crews. He was not my subject; he was my subject’s inspiration. “You oughta put a camera on this guy,” the local author urged. “Get him while you can.” “While you can” meant “while he’s sober.” Evidently Crews had been especially lucid lately, not drinking and willing to talk. So we set up a day, loaded our cameras and drove nine hours south from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to a gridded section of suburban Gainesville. When I knocked on his door, he yanked it open, eyes wide, like I’d caught him in the middle of some desperate act.

“You Hawkins?”

“Yes.”

He threw his arms out like a flagman on an aircraft carrier.

“We got a pisser on either end of the house. You can set up out back. Let’s go.”

I’ve always thought of interview as dance. Someone leads, someone follows, and we more or less do it together. Not so this day. Crews led, followed, led again, followed, all rapid fire and to the point. I’d ask a question and he’d toss it aside, preferring instead to ask himself the more interesting question, the one I should’ve asked. I said very little, and after an hour and fifteen minutes he abruptly closed.

“Well I don’t know when I’ve had a more pleasant afternoon.”

“The interview’s over?”

“Sure is, bud.”

I turned to my crew: “The interview is over.”

We wrapped and left town. Total time, less than two hours.

When I reviewed the footage I realized that of the time he’d given me, a full hour was interesting enough to present to audiences untouched. Crews on writing: “Writing is a moral occupation, practiced by not necessarily moral men and women.” Crews on violence: “I wrote this piece called, The Violence That Finds Us. This young boy cut me for nothin’, and I said in the piece, ‘It’s a good thing my ball of wax wasn’t bigger because he might have felt it necessary to kill me.’” On sports: “The thing about sports, if you tell me you got 4.2 speed in a forty, we’ll just put some watches on you. If you tell me you can bench four hundred pounds, we’ve got a bench and we’ve got four hundred pounds. You cain’t bullshit.” Roll credits. It would’ve worked.

It would’ve worked, but I’d read half of Blood and Grits on my way to Gainesville and the stories had hooked me. This was my kind of writing: first-person accounts with no hiding behind objectivity; edgy scenarios in which the author is wounded—physically, psychologically, or both—by the subject he’s there to investigate. Every mission, whether a trip to the Pipeline Club in Alaska or to a pit bull fight in Boca Raton, or even to a speaking gig at the University of Texas, the assignment reshaped itself into a predicament and the reportage slipped into a confessional.

I tackled the books next, but it wasn’t until I reached page six of the eighth book that I found what I needed: “What has been most significant in my life had all taken place by the time I was six years old.” The line is from Crews’s autobiography, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place. I read Childhood in a couple sittings and found my blueprint there. The poor son of a sharecropper in Bacon County, Georgia, Crews amused himself by making up stories out of a Sears & Roebuck catalogue and holding blackbirds captive in a spare room in his house. At night, he walked in his sleep, sometimes deep into the cotton field, and suffered the most horrible visions. One night he even saw himself burn up a school bus full of children. When he contracted infantile paralysis, a former slave named Auntie told him that he had fallen ill because of the trapped blackbirds, that one had gotten loose and spit in his mouth while he slept. Horrified, the young Crews had the birds released, and gradually he recovered.

The structural conceit of A Childhood relies on a shoebox full of yellowed photographs. “I reach into the shoebox, “ Crews writes, “and I take out a picture of Uncle Alton …” When I asked Crews for the shoebox he told me it had burned up in a house fire. I’m not sure I believed him, but it didn’t really matter. If he couldn’t provide the imagery I’d dream it up myself.

I found an old, abandoned farmhouse in a rural township called New Hope (dubbed No Hope by the locals). Our first big shot there was an image of Auntie gazing into the bird room. Around noon we released about a hundred grackles into the bird room and waited for our Auntie to arrive, but she didn’t show. An hour later we were beset with gale-force winds, a storm so intense we were forced to remove the interior doors from their hinges and nail them to the window frames to keep the panes from blowing out. The winds died down. Still no Auntie. So at sunset we released the grackles and drove home. I learned that night that my actress had suffered a stroke on her way to the shoot. Her granddaughter called from the hospital and left a very nasty message: “If anything happens to my grandmother,” she said, “I’ll own your butt and your television station’s butt, and …” I began to wonder if maybe the original Auntie wasn’t right. Maybe there is something fundamentally, metaphysically wrong with keeping blackbirds in your house.

I went looking for another Auntie and found her in my own hometown—Thomasville, North Carolina—at a grocery store called Trotter’s. I walked in and said to the cashier, “You’re gonna think I’m crazy, but do you know a ninety-five-year-old black woman who weighs ninety-five pounds? I’m making a movie.”

She turned to the store and yelled, “Hey! Ya’ll know a ninety-five-year-old black woman who weighs ninety-five pounds and wants to be in a movie?”

The store yelled back, “Lucille Epps.”

“Who’s that?”

“Come on,” a customer said, “I’ll take you down there.”

I sat with Miss Epps and offered her this deal: “You come with me Saturday to a house in the country and yell at a boy for keeping blackbirds in his room, and I’ll pay you two hundred dollars cash.”

She said if I’d throw in a six-pack of tall boys, she’d do it. I told her no problem. But those tall boys were almost my undoing.

Still from The Rough South of Harry Crews.

We drove Lucille to No Hope and stocked the bird room with another hundred grackles and got our shots, but somewhere along the way she came a little unhinged—which is to say, she became Auntie. The first time I called “action” she worked herself into a frenzy and stayed there. When I called “cut” she ignored me.

An hour or so later we escorted an agitated Auntie out of the house and drove her home. I don’t know who bought her the tall boys or if she bought her own, but late that night Auntie Epps wandered out of her house in a bathrobe and started screaming at oncoming traffic. The next morning I got another nasty message, from a son this time: “If you ever bother my mama again …” There had to be easier ways to build these dramatic reconstructions, I thought, without everything getting so damned Crewsian.

Eight months into the process we found ourselves in need of voice-overs, so we paid Crews another visit. We drove nine hours to his house and knocked on his door, but the man who answered it this time was sixty pounds heavier and sporting a Mohawk. I’d heard that Crews was prone to slip into new identities the way the rest of us slip into and out of our clothes, but I hadn’t imagined anything so drastic. When I asked why he’d affected a road-warrior look, he said it was because he’d begun to feel too loved in Gainesville, like too much of a mascot. “When folks see me now,” he said, “I can feel the hate comin’ off ’em like heat off a stove.”

We set up in his back yard and began to talk, and that’s when I realized that something was fundamentally different now. The laser focus and rapid-fire delivery were gone. I’d raise a topic and he’d address it, then he’d digress, then he’d digress from that digression, moving further afield until he grew bored and rolled to a stop. If the first interview was a lean, mean final draft, the second was a meandering first draft.

After four hours I ended the interview, and we recorded the voice-overs. At this point Crews came alive and delivered an elegant, energetic reading of his own work. He’s not just a brilliant writer, I thought, he’s also an enormously talented actor.

We returned to No Hope for the burning bus shot. This would be our most elaborate undertaking. I found the bus in a soybean field near a Little League baseball field, almost hidden from the main road. When I asked the owner if I could burn his bus he said, “Sure, just don’t hurt it any.” I consulted a few effects experts and they assured me that burning a bus without hurting it any is easier than it sounds. First you coat the bus with rubber cement, insulating the surface from the flame, then you add a coat of kerosene for a long burn, then you dowse the whole thing with high-octane gasoline just before ignition. The petroleum products burn off, they assured me, in layers of descending intensity.

It took me the better part of the day to paint the bus. A few of the locals dropped by to ask me what I was doing, and by late afternoon word had gotten out that a bus would be burned that night. By sundown a considerable crowd had gathered: bored teens, beer-drinking couples in jeeps, tobacco farmers, and a self-appointed fire marshal to make sure the burn didn’t spread. When the ball game let out, a bunch of ten-year-olds showed up, and with them, a trained deer named Pistol who chased them around the bases.

At nightfall my camera crew rolled in. I climbed to the top of the bus and dowsed it with the kerosene and the gas and we lit the bus. Up it went, with a big swoosh. Two minutes later the big burn died and the party was over. The locals drove away, a bit disappointed, followed by the crew, and soon I was alone again, watching the rubber cement burn off. It was lovely: the surface simmered a translucent blue that stretched and flickered like heat lightning. I lost myself in the eerie flux of the blueness, the quiet of the field, the expanse of sky. At times like that, when nothing was happening, I felt closest to my subject. I’d connected more to the boy than to the man: a sleepwalking child conjured a burning bus one night, and a half century later a grown man has abstracted it into a soft, blue glow. For a moment, I was standing in Bacon County, just me and the bus. Then somebody licked my ear. I whipped around and saw Pistol galloping away.

A year or so later we finished the show and sent it to Crews, and he liked it. When I expressed partial regret over the need to fictionalize the characters from his Bacon County childhood, he said, “No, no, man, it might as well have been those folks. Might as well have been.”

When Crews died, a few from my former crew asked me if I’d stayed in touch with him over the years. I hadn’t, and I don’t have a good reason for it. Maybe The Rough South is what we were meant to do, and once it was done we were done with each other, too. The Rough South belies an intimacy that Crews and I never shared. When I added up our hours together, they only came to six. “There’s only one thing a writer has,” Crews warned me the first time we met, “and it’s not money. It’s time.”

Footage from The Rough South of Harry Crews is provided courtesy of UNC-TV.

3 COMMENTS

1 Comments

  1. Emmie Birkas | May 26, 2012 at 9:53 am

    Now that I have read this commentary, I wish I could revisit the film. It has been years since I have seen it. I remember so many haunting images. Not only Harry Crews, but also Larry Brown were fine writers who lived the “Rough South” in ways most of us cannot fathom. Sadly, we will hear from neither again.

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