Interviews

Barry Hannah, The Art of Fiction No. 184

Interviewed by Lacey Galbraith

There’s a line in Barry Hannah’s most recent novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2001), that nicely describes his life and career thus far. “You need to see a bit of hell now and then,” he writes. “That and great joy.” In the years since he published his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972, a National Book Award finalist), Hannah has experienced a lot of both. His reputation as a hard-boiled drinker from Mississippi who liked guns, rode motorcycles, and sometimes raised a little too much hell was of a piece with his early fiction—the stunning and painful prose, the raucous characters, the furious energy. These days, Hannah is considerably less hell-bound, and his work more sensitive, though none the less powerful for it. As he likes to say of the book he’s working on now, “There’s a lot of Christ in it.”

Hannah has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and critics herald his work for its postmodern complexities. Graphic violence often rides side by side with great humor, and, in keeping with the postmodern aesthetic, his work is more attuned to language and voice than strict plot. During the eighties and early nineties, he wrote prolifically, publishing a new work nearly every two years—Ray (1980); The Tennis Handsome (1983); Captain Maximus (1985); Hey Jack! (1987); Boomerang (1989); Never Die (1991); Bats Out of Hell (1993); and High Lonesome (1996).

After many years teaching in universities across the country, Hannah returned in 1982 to Mississippi, where he was born in the small town of Clinton in 1942. He now lives in Oxford, where he is a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. Oxford is the former home of William Faulkner and a place where you can’t walk two feet without stepping on a writer. John Grisham and Willie Morris lived here. Until his recent death, Larry Brown made his home on a farm just outside of town. Even the mayor owns a bookstore.

In the winter of 2001, in keeping with the town’s tradition of hosting and honoring writers, a hundred or so gathered for a celebration in Hannah’s honor. Calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Barry, they grouped in an old schoolhouse outside of town to drink beer and eat catfish, watch a late-night fireworks show, and toast the man whose work had affected them all.

I first interviewed Hannah in his home, where I was greeted by no fewer than five extremely friendly dogs. His office is in the back of the house, in a room lined with books and pictures, an antique gun or two. We spoke for several hours, and then made plans for subsequent interviews, most of which took place over the phone. We did manage to meet again one morning on the balcony of Square Books, across the street from the courthouse so often fictionalized in Faulkner’s novels.

In conversation, Hannah speaks deliberately, his accent distinctly Southern. He’s a man who’s lived through more than his share of battles — lately several rounds with cancer—but who still manages to be both modest and charming, a gentleman to the last.


INTERVIEWER

I’ve read that you didn’t grow up in a house full of books.

BARRY HANNAH

No, only the Bible. My dad read history, about a book a day, but only after he retired as a successful bank and insurance man. Before that, he read Faulkner. He went to school with Faulkner, tried to read him. But I guess Dad wasn’t literary. He loved everybody, but even he thought Faulkner was a snoot.

INTERVIEWER

Count No’ Count.

HANNAH

Count No’ Count. Dad was from low circumstances—farm people—and art snobs were not in his universe. He knew Faulkner only as an aloof, bohemian figure. He’d say to me, “Son, he was hard to know.” And his report was not unlike others. They didn’t know what to do with Faulkner; they weren’t unkind, they just didn’t have a category for him.

I put off reading Faulkner because I was afraid of him. As a young writer you automatically want to ignore what’s in your backyard because you feel if it’s from here, it ain’t good. It just can’t be that damn good. It’s overrated. But I peered into Faulkner long enough when I was about eighteen to know that he was such a consummate genius with a comprehensive mind for history—he scared me. I didn’t want to be anything like him and I was also afraid that he might be too much of a genius, that he might just blow me away. I wanted to be a writer in my own right, and I felt just on reading a few pages that he would be very contagious, oppressively influential.

INTERVIEWER

Are there other writers who shut you down? Were there writers who were helpful when you were starting out?

HANNAH

My immediate idol was Hemingway, who wrote in a deep boy style, with much white left on the page. He was approachable, yet demanded a good piece of your head. Nabokov said Hemingway wrote books for boys, but that’s just a pompous disreading of genius. “Aesthetic bliss,” so identified with Nabokov, is a frequent blessing in Hemingway, too. I love both authors, by the way, and found my own way between them. Lolita released me into truth and beauty. It did not paralyze me. Nobody paralyzes me anymore. I needed age, wisdom.

INTERVIEWER

Did your father discourage you from being a writer?

HANNAH

He would rather I’d been an M.D. or a Ph.D. Said he wanted a doctor to cut his lawn.

INTERVIEWER

So how did you get into writing?

HANNAH

I became interested early on because my third-grade teacher would let me write little stories instead of the assignment, and then credit me for them. She was Harvard educated, and it was very experimental and progressive in those days to reward creativity. She even had her son come in and tell us stories. He was a grown son of, I don’t know, twenty. She was also right across the street from us, almost a next-door neighbor.

INTERVIEWER

Did you listen to stories at home, too?

HANNAH

My aunts told wonderful stories. Not to me, but to each other. We had a very strong family. My mother’s sisters loved each other intensely. The uncles loved each other intensely. Those were the days when it meant something to travel, when people were still grinning because you could drive a car over a hundred miles. So when they got together they really narrated. Children were supposed to be quiet, so we’d all go to bed, but I’d still hear these stories going into the night and people’s laughter. It was a delightful way to go to sleep on Christmas or Thanksgiving. They had huge senses of humor. Humor meant everything to them because they had all been through the war and the depression, and now they had decent work and jobs. I think there’s no kind of happiness and laughter as after you’ve made something after a tough grade.

I was born in Clinton, Mississippi, which had 1,500–2,500 people when I was growing up—a village. Now it’s impossible to go back to these places because they’re not there anymore. My generation, we were the war children, and so there’s just hurt all over the continent because there’s no place to go home to.

Today, there’s no present to people. Nobody wants to listen for very long to anybody talking, except in certain places—in a bar, in a confessional, or maybe a shrink’s office. All they say is, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Men don’t even tell dirty jokes much anymore.

Nobody stops to talk except the instructors at college who’re paid for it. So it was a much more primitive time back then. More heartfelt. A more patient time, and I was the beneficiary of that.

INTERVIEWER

So it was good to grow up there.

HANNAH

Absolutely. I had absolute freedom to create things on my own and in silence. No rush, the artificial rush by media. Certainly no rush to grow up. We had plenty of boyhood, plenty of girlhood.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about the many changes taking place in the South? There’s so much homogenization and the casinos, which played a part in Yonder, have really changed things. There’s not as much of that rural landscape.

HANNAH

Well, there is from a motorcycle, and that’s why I have one. There’s still a lot of good rural landscape. But yeah, I don’t respond to casinos. I don’t go to them. I liked them at first because Mississippi needed more fun. For adults, there wasn’t enough fun.

Bad movies at the Cineplex. Fishing and hunting. Sports. But now I despise casino culture. I’ve known people ruined by it. Deaths on the highway from drinking at the casinos. I don’t even think the state has benefited nearly as much as was promised. All that money goes elsewhere.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think you can still say there is a Southern literature? That people aren’t just hanging onto something that no longer really exists?

HANNAH

Yes. Remember that the South—and this is what people forget—the South is sixteen states and it’s the biggest region. It and the West are enormous country. Of the sixteen states, from Texas on up to Virginia, there is a stamp that means love of language and stories. But that might be the extent of the similarities. Texas lit is nothing like Virginia lit. The Tidelands is nothing like Appalachian. We’re talking about an enormous nation. We’re talking about people who love blacks more than Northerners. We’re talking about people who deeply hate them more than anybody in the world. So, yes, that’s Southern lit but that’s like saying—oh, let us say German lit. Heavily philosophic is what we usually think.

But the Germans also command that you have fun. So we can say certain things about Germans but there are huge varieties, and Germany’s much smaller than the South.

INTERVIEWER

Did you have mentors early on?

HANNAH

Lois Blackwell, a wonderful high-school teacher, taught me jazz and gave me respect for writing poems. She played records of Dylan Thomas. I never thought I’d write poems, but I really got interested through him. So I started writing them and published a few in the literary magazine in college, little things like that.

Poetry, for a young person, is natural. It’s short and doesn’t take a long attention span. You don’t know much, but you can make it travel with images and arrested thought. It’s natural, as it would be to a songwriter. But my poems went on too long. They had no meter, no measure. Then when I was a sophomore in premed and failing, I found that I loved stories most of all.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

HANNAH

I took a course in creative writing at Mississippi College when I was about nineteen or twenty and, frankly, I got such respect from the professor—and I know my stories were not that good— that I started loving it. I had been going through a kind of religious conversion to lit from premed, so it was a liberating, huge feeling. Literature had that great unknown quality because you gave yourself to it without any promises. It was very existential. I liked that. Just risking your whole self for something there’s no guarantee for. The risk is its own end.

INTERVIEWER

Who were some of the people you read?

HANNAH

The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, and then, best of all, Tropic of Cancer, which at a Baptist school was very contrary.

INTERVIEWER

Could you even buy a copy?

HANNAH

You didn’t buy a copy. I never bought a copy. The one we had, the paperback, was so thumbed and handed around, it was smudged. We couldn’t believe a man would say those things in public. Like porno, but I thought it was wonderful.

INTERVIEWER

Was the excitement about discovering writing that goes against the grain?

HANNAH

It’s exciting to explore the First Amendment for all it’s worth.

Outside of saying, “I’m going to blow that president’s head off,” everything is pretty much allowed in this country. I couldn’t believe that, you know. I’d never seen it explored as with Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence; then Catcher in the Rye really got me into it.

INTERVIEWER

What about Catcher in the Rye?

HANNAH

My partnership with Holden Caulfield. I thought everything coming out of the woodwork was phony. Phony adults, the whole world.

INTERVIEWER

Any regrets about quitting premed to be a writer?

HANNAH

Not really, no. I get in an elevator with a doctor—and I’ve been in the elevator with a hell of a lot of them in the last two and a half years—and I wonder, Could that be me? I just turned sixty, Is that me? What would I have been like had I just really gutted it out and passed organic chemistry. And botany, biology, and algebra, all the stuff I hated. I love biology now, read it at leisure. But memory work wasn’t my best skill, except for poetry. I could memorize poems beautifully. Professors had you memorize poems all the time. When I was in grad school, I memorized a poem a week.

INTERVIEWER

You read biology at leisure? What’s the appeal?

HANNAH

Awe and wonder for the savage and beautiful life around me. I’m drop-jawed like an idiot, and delighted. Unknown and hidden, ambitious tissue. I tell my students it’s living tissue we are wanting on the page. The rest is nonsense.

INTERVIEWER

Do you still read much poetry?

HANNAH

Yes, I do. Yeats and Eliot. Bishop, Dickinson, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Hugo. Not a lot of current writers. I guess I’m kind of antiquarian right now in my tastes.

INTERVIEWER

You have a master’s in British literature.

HANNAH

I wrote a thesis on Blake. I liked the way he made visions earthly. I liked his ideas about innocence and experience, how experience bespoiled everything. In college we made fun of Blake, “Little Lamb, who made thee?” We thought that was just really a hoot, a grown man writing a poem like that. But then later when you compare it to “Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night,” and you see that naked beauty and strength, you won-der, Did the same one who made the tiger make the lamb? Some beautifully deep stuff. So I like Blake’s visions and how much he hated reason.

After that, I was going to do a Ph.D. but I didn’t want to, really. The M.F.A. saved me. Doing that, you didn’t waste time. Every day you were working on what you were going to do with your life, whereas in regular grad school you’re writing long dissertations that are going to sit in the library and gather dust.

INTERVIEWER

You got your M.F.A. at Arkansas, right?

HANNAH

Yes, and it was like my Harvard or my Sorbonne. I wasn’t even a good student in college. B- or something. Made a D in typing. And that’s my trade. But by Arkansas, I was ready to learn and needed to learn because I had to work. I had to be a professor. Scared, hungry, and full of deep desire to write stories. I was Arkansas’s first M.F.A. in fiction in 1967.

INTERVIEWER

In addition to stories, didn’t you also write your first novel, Geronimo Rex, while there?

HANNAH

About half of it, but I finished it at Clemson, where I got a job as an English prof and creative writing teacher.

INTERVIEWER

Why did you decide to write a novel?

HANNAH

It just seemed like everybody should write a novel. That was kind of the rule. You could publish a few short stories but you wanted to write the novel. I don’t remember having any second thoughts. It took me about three years and was not the work of an instant genius. At some point, I realized I had made about a three-hundred-page error so I had to back up and change the point of view. It seemed like I was an old man then because I was typing at night and in spurts with quite a bit of anguish, you know, writing a couple hundred pages in the wrong voice (I started it in third) and then going back to first person. I also had a family and four courses to teach at Clemson. I remember those years.

INTERVIEWER

What was wrong with the third-person voice?

HANNAH

In my case, a third person just led to too much wisdom I hadn’t earned. And I like the first person—just a guy blasting through with the little he knows.

INTERVIEWER

So switching to third person is a rite of passage?

HANNAH

Third-person singular, past tense, is most natural and inevitable, I guess. But you’d best beware the monotone in it and the temptations toward false wisdom, cleverness. First person is where you can be more interesting as a fool, and I find this often leads to the more delightful expedition. You don’t have to be much but a stumbling fool. The wisdom there is more precious than in the sage overview, which in many writers makes me nearly puke. I’m also wary of the glibness that third person invites.

INTERVIEWER

How did the novel start?

HANNAH

It started with a character, a character who was apt to get in trouble. That was about what I had. A man who wanted to define himself.

INTERVIEWER

Many of the characters from that novel reappear in the short story “Mother Rooney Unscrolls the Hurt.” What’s the appeal of writing up the same people in different books and stories? Is it ever strange having a character continually reappear?

HANNAH

I don’t think many of us can tell whole tales until we’re older. Usually we don’t have enough time, and our lives are fairly chopped up. Causality and plot have not revealed themselves yet. Time is what makes good stories. Much has been cooking for a long time, and at last finds an out in narration one day. That’s a supreme joy. And why the characters keep showing up.

INTERVIEWER

I think it was William Styron who said that finding your voice or your style is a work in progress. Did you find yours right away?

HANNAH

I remember the writer Bill Harrison saying, “Hannah, three metaphors a sentence.” He was always trying to cut the work down toward Hemingway, toward something tougher. I was always kind of florid. And full of rhetoric. That was my flaw. My whole time writing, I’ve had to work against that because it can be a wrecking posture. And as I age, I’m really watching the metaphors because I want to be exact. What I’m writing now is a quiet book with very few literary devices, to see if I can tell a good story in a short novel without the metaphors and the high rhetoric I love too much.

INTERVIEWER

What’s the appeal for you of high rhetoric?

HANNAH

I don’t know where that came from. I think it would be ruinous for me to study my influences.

INTERVIEWER

But the Bible is an obvious place to look.

HANNAH

Yes. Because of the beautiful English in it, there’s a temptation to believe everything it says. Some hicks, as you know, think it’s absolute Christ speaking English. As far as I knew, it was. Those beautiful proverbs. These are the things that were beautiful in my life. There weren’t many.

INTERVIEWER

You once wrote, “I wanted to write long before I had anything to say.” Where was the turning point when you actually did have something to say?

HANNAH

That voice is just about finding your own past valuable, the people and conditions you have observed, usually close to home. As for the style of that voice—the talent of word facility—it is unteachable and uncoachable. You’ve got to find that on your own some way. It’s either going to come or not. You’re either going to be an indifferent, mediocre speaker or talker the rest of your life, or you’re not. I’m speaking of language consciousness.

INTERVIEWER

Can you practice and get better?

HANNAH

Of course you can, but you’ve got to have something to start with. If words get in the way of your story, you are in trouble. I believe you should have the words handy. Not that they all have to be perfect—there’s a lot of cross-outs—but language-to-hand is the sine qua non. You’ve got to have that before anything. That’s why writing when you don’t have anything to say is still good practice. At least it keeps you in the game. Almost like playing scales, which, by themselves, are meaningless. But you do have to play the scales.

INTERVIEWER

What about editors? I know Gordon Lish was a help.

HANNAH

Gordon Lish was a genius editor. A deep friend and mentor. He taught me how to write short stories. He would cross out everything so there’d be like three lines left, and he would be right.

This is your good stuff. This is the right rhythm. So I learned to write better short stories under him.

INTERVIEWER

Is an editor still helpful?

HANNAH

Oh, yes. This last book, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, was delivered to my editor at Grove /Atlantic—Amy Hundley—at about five hundred pages. It was a mess, and I didn’t have the strength to edit it. I was just too weak and I could not concentrate. Plus, I hate editing. I love to write, but I hate to reread my stuff. To revise. And most students do, too. It’s a killer.

INTERVIEWER

Was Ray heavily edited?

HANNAH

Yes. A lot of pages were thrown out, which made it a short novel. I love the short novel. It’s my favorite form of all. And they are hard to do. I’m struggling right alongside my M.F.A. students to say a great deal in about a hundred and fifty pages.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the novella lends itself better to experimentation than the novel does?

HANNAH

I do, yes. The mentality of a reader, including mine, just will not hang forever for a largely experimental novel. It just won’t.

INTERVIEWER

What is it about time that you were trying to do in Ray?

HANNAH

I didn’t realize how old-fashioned it was, and how much it had been talked about before, but I was after the presence of all time in one moment. Hardly anybody is in the moment. You go buy something at a counter and you see the clerks staring away. They have a past, they have a future but no present. The past is never over, you’re still in it; or you’re projecting yourself into the future. So there’s hardly room for a present. Ray was supposed to answer that.

But, you know, I don’t think I have the, let us say, psyche that I had when I wrote Ray. I was drinking heavily and almost manic-depressive. Up down, up down, and fragmented. Now I’m very sober, for twelve years now, and clearheaded. I can concentrate longer, yet I still believe what I was doing with logic in Ray. I was trying to skip logic, trying to make time and place and space move quickly. Real quickly. I still like that. Randomness I love. And I still love just a holler right in the middle of an ongoing narrative. Pain or joy, ecstasy.

INTERVIEWER

Yonder has that randomness in it. The people are pained, there is random violence. Didn’t Beckett have the same idea about how life can just turn and change? Was he an influence?

HANNAH

Beckett liked knockabout drama. Vaudeville acts where somebody just gets pummeled. Trapped, insulted, or kicked. Punch-and-Judy. I love Beckett. I also like the Three Stooges.

Beckett once said, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” and he was thinking about Charlie Chaplin, the genius of unhappiness. And Beckett’s own work is that, too. It’s failure, unhappiness, ignorance. When you’re not involved, other people’s unhappiness seems to be about the funniest damn thing on earth because you think you can solve it, that you are God, that you are above this, and that their unhappiness is just such useless toil and agony. If it’s you, it ceases to be a comedy.

INTERVIEWER

With all that misery, though, how do you make the reader still care?

HANNAH

I don’t know. Miserable novels bore me. I don’t want to read a miserable book about misery. I do tend toward a tragicomic view, which is, I guess, a modern mind-set—that things can have the capacity for huge comedy and awful pathos at the same time. I think if you’re true as a writer, that’s going to come out. I don’t think it has to be a conscious worldview. I mean, the comedy is readily there if you are alive, but it’s something I never strain for, I promise.

INTERVIEWER

The women in your fiction are often hilarious. Do you think they know something your male characters don’t?

HANNAH

Quite often, yes. I believe they understand men better than men do, in that they are objective observers, more so than men. They have a sense of life’s process, so it’s less surprising to them than to men. I do believe that. But on the other hand, they’re fools, too. They make stupid mistakes. They marry the wrong people. They keep marrying alcoholics or they keep marrying stupid rich boys or no-goods.

I’m putting more women in my work now that I know them better. Getting older you have a better perspective on women because you’re not trying to get them all in bed. As a young man it was very disturbing to teach beautiful girls because it was lust, and putting on a show, peacocking. But you just calm out if you’re around sixty—most of us, anyway. Now I feel like an uncle to the young beauties I teach. So I’ve learned more about women, let’s say, in the last decade by the normal process of aging and mellowing.

INTERVIEWER

How do you feel about comments that say some of your earlier work is misogynistic?

HANNAH

I do not think I’ve been that misogynistic. No, I don’t think that dog will hunt. I don’t reread myself, but I worship women. Somebody may point to five instances, you know, where there’s misogyny, but the main theme has always been love of woman that is so overpowering, the fellow hurts himself. Modern feminists take it amiss when you idealize women. So I’m guilty there. I idealize women. And in doing so, you want too much woman. You want the Madonna, the whores.

INTERVIEWER

Like in your story “Love Too Long.”

HANNAH

Yes, that story is just a man crazed by jealousy and love. His wife is taking flying lessons, she’s flying over the house, and the accomplishment is just killing him, the fact that she can do things on her own. But that’s also what he fell in love with her for. Still, he’s knocking croquet balls off in the weeds. He’s become a total loser. He has to take his sunglasses off when he reads. So there you go. Pain and a woman above who can do things. So I don’t think there’s true misogyny in my work. It may just take more under-standing. Remember, I started writing in the sixties. I have changed through the decades.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think the culture of the sixties affected your work? Were you paying attention to what was going on?

HANNAH

I participated. But I was working too hard to be a real conscious hippie. I was against the war but so what. Many people were. I did love the music. I think the music of the sixties freed me. Like Tropic of Cancer, I found it utterly freeing. Especially Dylan, Hendrix, the Beatles. The Beatles were the first people I was conscious of who were actually writing, writing tunes. Sgt. Pepper actually brought stories and intellect to a concept album. So I loved that hugely. And then a little later, 1969 or something, the Rolling Stones, Beggars Banquet and then Satanic Majesties. That was enormously influential for its freedom.

Some writers are curiously unmusical. I don’t get it. I don’t get them. For me, music is essential. I always have music on when I’m doing well. Writing and music are two different mediums, but musical phrases can give you sentences that you didn’t think you ever had.

INTERVIEWER

What do you listen to now while you work?

HANNAH

Anything, but especially classical. I hope you understand that I mean instrumental music gives you sentences. Some movement in your head begins and an English you did not know you possessed comes forward. Bob Dylan, Hendrix, Miles Davis, they have been my allies it seems a century now. God bless them.

INTERVIEWER

You played trumpet in a high-school band, kind of like the character in Geronimo Rex.

HANNAH

Yes, and in the Jackson Symphony. Third chair in the Jackson Symphony. You had to be good. I was in the Mississippi Lion’s All-State Band and went to New York. That was part of the honor, marching in some parade in New York. That’s where I met the beatniks. Greenwich Village.

INTERVIEWER

What did you think of New York then?

HANNAH

I loved it. Real hot, and I was unused to hearing literate blacks. It was a shock. Literate, Yankee-talking black folks.

I was raised by gentle segregationists. My dad hated the Klan and the violence, but he was still a separatist. So yes, at that time I was a segregationist and I couldn’t get over literate blacks mixing with, like I said, regular people. It was a shock. This was back in 1959 or 1960. But I learned early on to love black folks. We were much closer, even in the days of separation, because they were yardmen and maids. Whatever you say about that, we talked. Took care of each other.

INTERVIEWER

Did you ever want to address race directly in your books or did you shy away from that because you are a Southerner?

HANNAH

I did shy away from it. It was the subject of so many news accounts, television accounts, that I remained mute on the issue. I really didn’t think I had anything to contribute, either. I couldn’t put myself in the shoes of a black person, truly. I do have a black fellow in my first novel who is a self-made genius of sorts, so I did deal with a black guy who was different, who had class, who had some pride. In that novel, I did address the fact of institutional racism in the newspapers and in this wild Whitfield Peter, who calls blacks “monkeys.” The fact is, there were black folks in my books and an insane racist who was the uncle of a desirable niece—which is not an uncommon subject in the South. So I did what I could, but no, I wasn’t going to be the chronicler of the Civil Rights movement. It wasn’t my bag. People have always interested me as people, and issues tend to bore me.

INTERVIEWER

What about the idea some critics have proposed that your characters are trying to live up to the burden of the Lost War and a masculine code of honor? That they seem to be searching for something, going after the heroic, but never getting there.

HANNAH

They have grand dreams. Men and women. A lot have ideas of masculinity, but they’re distinctly not living up to a code. They are not striking out each morning trying to fulfill a code. No, I reject that. They are just trying to live and they’re not aware of burdens or of expectations.

For instance, I have a motorcycle and do I need it to be a man? No. I’ve gone for years without a motorcycle. The thing is that the motorcycle is fun. There’s a part of it that is a peacock, but there is nothing to prove by driving it. It’s a very casual activity for anybody who’s ever been on one. It’s just a bike for adults and it’s lovely. I went up to Shiloh and there’s nothing better than going on little roads by yourself or with one buddy. A motorcycle doesn’t mean a goddamn thing to me as far as showing off my manhood at sixty years old. You’re not threatening. You’re the least threatening thing on the road. You’re the sissy. You’ve got to drive more defensively than anybody. I also have guns, and they mean nothing to me except nice little mechanisms that shoot beer cans. They are a skill, history, and it’s the same thing with a motorcycle. It’s a sort of skill through which you are able to experience more life. There’s no heroic code there.

INTERVIEWER

But about the guns. When you left Alabama, there was an incident . . .

HANNAH

Yes, I was a tenured professor there, and I was fired. I had just been voted in, but I was too heavily into drinking. I was holding class at home or in my studio and they said, Don’t hold any more classes in your studio. And I said, Well, I will. I brought in an empty pistol once and, as I recall, twirled the chambers to explain six movements in a short story. And that is where the gun—pointing a gun at a student—rumor started, but I never pointed a loaded gun at anybody in my life. Even dead drunk. Never, never. I really don’t like that rumor now because of the school shootings. The world has changed so much. I still love my old .22’s from my youth, for shooting beer cans and rats in the city dump. I love the instrument. It’s just a beautiful, clean instrument—and the history —but I have never had any interest in pointing a gun at a person.

INTERVIEWER

Do you remember what the six movements were?

HANNAH

No. I could make up something, but it would be untrue. There’s just three, anyway: beginning, middle, and end. I was com-plicating something that didn’t need to be any more complicated. At one time I’m sure I had six points in my head and they may have been decent, but I refuse to remember them because they’re not necessary now.

INTERVIEWER

The rumor about pointing the gun was that you were playing your trumpet, trying to get their attention. When that didn’t work, you brought out the gun.

HANNAH

I did play my trumpet in class at Alabama. And at the University of Chicago. Blues solo. Ta da na tee. And I was pretty good sober but real loud and inappropriate in a small chamber. The people at Chicago enjoyed it, but a student complained at Alabama. Still, the trumpet’s a much better idea than bringing a pistol. It’s all alcoholism.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said you learned something from your drinking. Most people wouldn’t admit that, that it got them somewhere. What was it you learned?

HANNAH

It’s unfortunate that I learned something through booze. Everybody does, but ultimately on the level I was using, it was sickness. Jail, hospital, DUIs. Briefly it worked, to be frank, but that was on three beers and exactly where, if I was to appear on television today as a spokesman for anti-alcohol, I’d say, Listen, if you need more than three beers, worry.

INTERVIEWER

So it got your creativity going?

HANNAH

Right. Gosh, I hate to publish this, because young people will do anything it takes. But at first, yes. Teaching at Clemson was very hard work. I’d come home, put down the babies—and I was trying to be a good father and I think I was—but then that freedom, it was astonishing, my God. Every man or woman who comes home and takes a glass of wine or a couple of hits of bourbon on the rocks knows what I mean. Just this total loosening and release from the white noise of the day, so that you enter another zone. Instead of going to sleep I would hit the typewriter and sometimes write until four and teach my classes very haggardly. But I was often taught that everything is worth it for art. Everything. It was a cult. I remember Bill Harrison saying, “Don’t play with your child that much.” In other words, don’t be that good of a father. Get to that book. The ideal was Flaubert, who labored seven years on Madame Bovary and sweated out every word, le mot juste, the right word. So yeah, I learned things that way, but on the other hand I would have learned things had I been sober.

Right now, it’s just what life gave me. It’s my backyard. Thank God I never ran over a child or had a car wreck. I scared my young children, driving fast and being loony. That’s the most regrettable thing, that I scared my young children.

Today, I’m well out. I couldn’t do it physically. I wish my genes were different, that I could have taken three beers max, like most people.

INTERVIEWER

When you quit, was it cold turkey or did it take several times?

HANNAH

No, I was in a program in a hospital for three weeks. Then I went to yet another hospital about twelve years ago in Jackson. It’s a horrible thing to break. It’s vicious. Please don’t ask me anything about addiction. I’m just tired of answering. Drink is a blessing at first, it’s social, but in the end it’s a hateful and stupid disease. You can’t even change the channel on the TV, you have such disinterest and nausea until you have another drink, which gives you fifteen minutes of relief. And back then, I would have driven a Harley into class. I just wanted a change. Even if it was bad.

INTERVIEWER

I know you went to Hollywood after Alabama. Have the movies influenced your work at all?

HANNAH

I pretend that they contribute, and perhaps I’ve gotten a line or a scene out of one hundred videos. I buy the two-dollar ones that are just so tasteless because I learn more from those than from the finished, wonderful movies.

INTERVIEWER

How did working with Robert Altman come about?

HANNAH

It was in the early eighties. He had read Ray and found out I was in town. I had gone out there with another guy to write a movie about an Alabama governor, Jim Folsom. It didn’t work out, but I was around town, driving my buddy’s motorcycle. And I was broke. Then a guy gave me a $10,000 advance, an option for Ray. In 1980, $10,000 was pretty good. Altman loved Ray, but he didn’t want to shoot it. He just wanted to meet me. I was there only a year and a half, and I made just enough money to get by, to kind of restore my soul, get sober and healthy. But the most beautiful part of it was just being around Altman. I learned things from his imagination, yes.

Turns out, I’m not a good screenwriter. Maybe I have too much ego that just won’t bend to the form. But that was okay. I didn’t have a bad experience, maybe because I couldn’t write films. I wanted them to have writing. But writing in a screenplay is almost always a mistake. You’ve got to rely on what the actors bring to it naturally. Also, there were no big broken promises to me or lies, which is what Hollywood is: People who sleep very well after lying all day. I wasn’t that foolish. I knew that after having the option taken on Ray and its not being a movie and its not ever becoming a movie that this was a strange business. It’s all about money and stars. Has nothing to do with the writing or even the story. The story, yes, but on a very simple level.

INTERVIEWER

After Hollywood, you went back to teaching. Why?

HANNAH

I thought I had worn myself out teaching. But after Hollywood, when I was sober, I went to Iowa because the Iowa workshop invited me. And it was a godsend because I had no other job. So I went there, and then, in 1981, Evans Harrington, the chairman, invited me down to Ole Miss. The writing was so bad here I almost went right back to Iowa, but I got one genius, Donna Tartt. Willie Morris was a writer-in-residence in journalism and he said, “Hannah, I got a little genius for you.” She was a freshman in my graduate workshop. She was well read; all she needed was life and a story. She says I was her best teacher—introduced me that way in New York at a reading—but if you come here that loaded, not much teaching is required. Most people at eighteen haven’t read much. They haven’t read Keats or the French poets as she had. Poe. She was deeply literary when she got here. I wasn’t like that and I hardly ever see the species. Perhaps in the East, where they go to boarding school. Just a rare genius, really. A literary star.

INTERVIEWER

So back then it was the trumpet and a gun. How do you keep things exciting for yourself and your students now?

HANNAH

I think people may be unaware of how interesting they or their friends or their family are. So as much as possible, I use life itself because I’m more and more convinced that a subject matter of quality is what gives you words. The subject itself will dictate better nouns and verbs if you’ve got a good story. That’s as thorough a theory as I can give you now about waking up someone to words. Just reminding people what they have overlooked in their own experience.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said elsewhere that at some point you got “committed to people who could never tell their own stories” and that you were “no longer ashamed of being from the most derided state in the Union.” Is that how you wake up? Through the stories in your community?

HANNAH

Right. Lack of shame and being committed to those about you who would never tell their stories. People who lived in a home and just carried out their lives, totally oblivious to any literary qualities in it. So you find it. Somewhat selfish but it’s what you have to work with. The truth is, you can’t speak for others very often unless you’re God. That’s the problem the young writer finds— that he barely knows himself and he can’t speak for others—but eventually you find a confidence about life and about giving it stories. Being in life, yet having a distance from it. Just a few hundred miles helps. Not too far, but just far enough. As one of my professors said, You’re just far enough to get away from family. A few hundred miles can give you a great vantage point on what you’ve lived and witnessed.

INTERVIEWER

It seems many Southern writers have felt this need to leave.

HANNAH

They have indeed, and they write their best Southern fiction when they’re in Vermont. I’ve written many a good tale in Vermont during a blizzard. I mean my better stuff has come from frigid Vermont because of the nostalgia. Intense nostalgia breeds stories.

INTERVIEWER

I think it’s in Yonder that you say people in the South are nostalgic by age eleven.

HANNAH

Yes, I do believe that. Probably what we’re nostalgic for is an intensity we felt as children that we can never have again. Houses were bigger, people were bigger, women were bigger. Civilization was larger and more intense.

INTERVIEWER

Some writers turn away completely from their origins, though. Like Cormac McCarthy.

HANNAH

Right, he turned western when he went out to El Paso. He’s one of my favorites. He invests a region. Learns it so thoroughly it’s as if God visited that place and made no mistakes about the botany, flora, fauna. He has about three thousand books, I hear. He had so many books on this upper story of this little concrete house he has, the floor was about to cave in. So the man reads everything there is about the place and you can tell that. Nobody else like him.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever do research?

HANNAH

Yes, for “Dragged Fighting from His Tomb” and a couple others, I read books on Jeb Stuart, the Confederate cavalry general. Also many many books on the Civil War. But I’m taken by the books first, am deep into them, before the imagination begins to work and I start writing.

Modern writers of history are so far superior to fiction writers lately that the domestic psychologies we’re supposed to wade through that pass for art are only high dreariness. I get much from the courage of men and women in history. History is story, of course, and good history will invest you. So there’s no need to worry about deliberate research, which is a drag.

INTERVIEWER

When you start working on something, do you have it plotted out? Do you know where it’s going?

HANNAH

I’ve never prepared an outline. And I know only about half of the story because I like to be surprised. I don’t know what a story wants to do. I’ve got a big start and a big middle. Sometimes I have just an end, as do a lot of students that I read. They write for the end. But I count pages carefully to keep myself in line for the story when it takes hold.

INTERVIEWER

Does that mean you rely more on voice or tone?

HANNAH

Yes, and I try to make natural passages from one scene to another. I can’t write thrillers because I can’t stand mechanical coincidences. Contrived coincidences. I’d be a much wealthier writer if I could learn, but I just can’t.

I have friends who do it beautifully, though. Grisham, King. I asked King about it once, How do you plot? Give me some tips. But he told me he has no interest in plot. He just has interest in writing. He has such fun he’s started writing on Sundays, too. He’s just a boy loose in a candy store.

INTERVIEWER

But if you’re moved by nostalgia, why go for plot? How do you reconcile the two?

HANNAH

Sure, sure, there’s no plot to nostalgia. Nostalgia is just a number of points of intensity. I just read Nabokov’s autobiography. He was born rather royally and he says, “It’s not the banknotes I miss, it’s the ecology” of a certain year, a certain time when everybody was twelve.

Many of us have been writers since we were ten because we’ve been hams in one way or another. We want our times dramatized. We don’t want to be erased by time, and I think that’s what it’s all about. I think everything’s a monument, every piece of work we do, to a past. And that’s the story. That’s the plot.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a writing schedule?

HANNAH

Very early morning is when I work the best, after a cup of espresso. That’s when I did most of Yonder, out there on the porch. I built a tin roof so I could listen to the rain. I’m a little town boy. I’m country, truly.

INTERVIEWER

Do you write every day? Are Sundays off limits?

HANNAH

Just right recently. I was on medication for two years for my neuropathy. It was a mild narcotic, and I think it dampened my creativity. Soon as I got off them, my creativity came back. I started enjoying music and I was much more tender with my wife. On these pills, I was tired at seven every night. Dragged Susan away from every party at eight. Watched television or put in a video and fell asleep.

INTERVIEWER

Were you able to write while you were being treated for cancer? I’m sure those drugs were even more powerful.

HANNAH

What I felt was the steroid—the prednisone. It evens out those vile killer chemicals and revs you up to where you’re a talky man. Like speed. This is high-dosage pred or cortisone or whatever they use. So it’s an artificial strength. That’s the strength I worked on to write Yonder. Chemo really just knocked the hell out of me.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it changed your writing style?

HANNAH

I can only go by other people’s descriptions. Susan typed it up in the end. She was a good reader, a wonderful reader to help me. I needed help. And she said, “Gosh this is just so dark and mean.” But there’s also hopeful religion in it. I had a vision of Christ in a hospital when I was weak after almost dying of pneumonia. I’ve repeated this, I don’t want to be a bore. But it’s a big experience in my life. I was shocked. I had never dreamed of Christ. It was more than a dream and he was there saying nothing. A beautiful man of about six feet tall, dark, with a workman’s body. I think a robe where you could see the chest. I spoke in the dream and I said, “You know, I’ve neglected you.” He didn’t answer. But I was given to feel that it was all right and that he was there. I got so sad in the dream about the world’s hurt and misery, and then I saw Christ and I woke up crying, weeping. But at peace. I was stunned that he cared, that he cared for me singly, that he had the time, all that. So he said nothing, no message, no agenda. I have become a Christian, yet I am confused about God. That’s where I am. I grew up a Baptist but scoffed at the church ever since I was seventeen or so, like a lot of folks. But I don’t scoff as much—except at the obvious frauds. I am renewed by the Gospel of John and Mark, Matthew. It’s the freest speech in the world.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve gone straight to the source.

HANNAH

You must do that. That’s what the Baptists were supposed to be about. There were no priests. You read the Bible yourself, and that part of it I like. Not many people read the Bible. It’s the biggest seller in the world but not many people actually read it.

INTERVIEWER

I noticed in Yonder that as much as there’s evil and horror, there’s also redemption with the church. The people gathering around it, gathering around the lake, the water.

HANNAH

Yes, the water and the church are positives. Deeply positive in the book, even to a confused Christian like Ray. He can’t find faith but he wants a vision. So all kinds of people come to church. Just for the gathering. For hearing somebody remind us of the principles of Christ. I’ve yet to go back to church, but I believe in it.

INTERVIEWER

In much of your other work, especially in some of the short stories, there’s the presence of water.

HANNAH

Plenty of water, yeah. My uncle’s lake is in Scott County, Mississippi, and our family was a fishing family. I spent a lot of summers with my relatives, especially in Bay St. Louis down on the coast. So yeah, it’s such a constant, washing in. I didn’t know until I was well along that water was three-quarters of the world at least, that there was more of it than of us by far. I love the eternal quality of the water. Everything in it is eating each other. A kind of savage, but also quiet, beauty.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think it’s healing?

HANNAH

Indeed, I think it is. And literally it is. If you have cuts on your body and take a swim in the good ocean it will heal them.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve taken some flak for Yonder being such a dark book. Do you think that when writers write about evil, they have to justify it?

HANNAH

No, I don’t have to justify it. I was thinking very fatally. I thought I was probably going to die through half the book. It’s not a mystery why it’s especially dark and close to death. But it has exuberance too. Many people said they laughed all the way through. So there are different reactions.

INTERVIEWER

Do you ever listen to your critics?

HANNAH

Frankly, I’m such a veteran of criticism I skim the bad reviews and the good ones. Unless it’s a person I know or who’s intelligent and I’ve read before, I don’t listen that much—to either the praise or the blame and the attacks.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned Cormac McCarthy as one of your favorites. Who are some other contemporary writers you read?

HANNAH

I like Denis Johnson very much. Padgett Powell is a powerful writer. But I don’t read all males. I’m reading Barbara Tuchman, the great historian, and her book about the Stilwell experience in China, our experience with China as our ally during World War Two.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think there’s a difference in writing or style between men and women?

HANNAH

No. Grace Paley is one of my favorites. I thought she was like twenty-five when she was around sixty because her stories were so bouncy, fresh. I like Joy Williams a good deal. Annie Proulx sometimes. But everybody’s prejudiced. White males are much less read than women nowadays, but I was raised up mainly on white male literature and I still am not that sensitized to who the truly great women are. Who are they? You tell me. In the short story, Ann Beattie? Flannery O’Connor was probably the biggest influence in my mature writing life. I didn’t discover her until I was at Arkansas, and I didn’t read her until I was around twenty-five, twenty-six. She was so powerful, she just knocked me down. I still read Flannery and teach her.

INTERVIEWER

What was it that got you? Was there something specific?

HANNAH

“A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and then I read everything.

I thought the author was a guy. I thought it was a guy for three years until someone clued me in very quietly at Arkansas. “It’s a woman, Barry.” Her work is so mean. The women are treated so harshly. The misogyny and religion. It was so foreign and Southern to me. She certainly was amazing.

INTERVIEWER

When you write, do you think of a reader? Do you ever try to make your work accessible?

HANNAH

No, I don’t think of a reader. I can imagine friends who will read it, who I know will read it. Five or seven. They’re very smart folks. Very hip. And they’ve got hearts, good hearts.

INTERVIEWER

You’ve said elsewhere, “What you’re writing should always be extraordinary in one way or another.” Do you still agree with that, at all costs?

HANNAH

There’s a lot of redundant mirror realism out there. I’m tired of the photographic story that depicts a romantic couple or domestic strife, that’s done almost perfectly, is true, but who cares. Why are we reading? You live that. I don’t want to read exactly that. It’s true, but it’s dull. That’s what I teach and try to avoid in my own writing. Good truths always have fantasy attached. The deep stuff has fantasy automatically. The awe and wonder of a child. That’s why you don’t have to be an intellectual to write, you just have to wonder about things and want to know.

A lot of writing nowadays is very intellectual. Very wussy. Correct, wussy, and too much rationalization. That was my experience at Iowa when I was teaching. Stories had simply become too small, they took such low altitude. Take a couple, and then someone would acknowledge something in a Kroger parking lot about their relationship and he’d get back in his car and drive on. People were not going for much. They were going for very limited American realism, which is a bore to me. I really want stories that are rippers in the old sense. Tales of high danger, high adventure, and high exploration. Tales that are as wonderful as frontier tales. I want more adventure.

INTERVIEWER

Is that why your characters are so extreme at times?

HANNAH 

Yes, and they will probably stay in the extremes, sometimes against my better wishes. They do want the answers to desperate questions like, What’s it matter? How should you marshal your forces? Where should you march? Where’s it good to go? I want ambition and I don’t mind failing at it, taking raps from The New York Times or whoever. My wife says, “You have so many people and so much stuff.” I say, “Yeah, I know.” I want writing to be a lot. I think I can resign myself to fewer characters, but I do want higher matters. Matters of salvation, matters of getting love. Matters of spiritual ecstasy in nature or the cities.

I still work off the principle of beginning, middle, end. But also thrill me or thrill us. Then the other principle of, Why are we watching? Why are we reading? Is it worth watching? For my taste there’s a ghost in every story. Something haunts the story and you’re turning those pages to find out what it is. And it better be good. I’d better be good, or just shut up.