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Still Worth Shoutin' About
An Interview with Rick Bragg
 
by Pam Kingsbury
 
 

Rick Bragg may be a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, but perhaps his most lasting contribution to literature will be saving the stories of his family and the disappearing blue collar culture of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, just outside of Jacksonville, Alabama, his birthplace.

Every interview with you has to start with the question -- how is your mother?

(Laughter.) She's doing pretty good. She's becoming ornery and obstinate in her old age. All Over But the Shoutin' was written specifically to honor her which made her a little uncomfortable. Being called the finest momma on earth embarrasses her.

How did AVA'S MAN come to be?

At every booksigning, it seemed like 1,000 little old ladies told me I'd left out the good part. And when so many readers -- people are smart down here -- were telling me that, I thought I might ought to listen.

I was talking with my editor about writing a book about the disappearing of the blue collar workers in the south which are as much an endangered species as anything in the rain forest. I wanted to write about the homogenization of the deep south. She suggested I find a way to tell it with only one person and capture time.

The only man I wanted to tell a story about died a few months before I was born -- my grandfather Charlie Bundrum. I wasn't sure I could do it until I started talking with my kinfolks.

Ava's Man was much more fun to write than All Over But the Shoutin' because it didn't have the unremitting sadness.

It seems like every time my family would start to talk about Charlie, my grandmother (Ava) would not be denied. She intruded on every memory.

Forty-three years, later, Charlie's children still cry when they say his name. Now, I guarantee you, no one will cry for me like that when I'm gone. The way they miss him is extraordinary and I thought a man liked that deserved a book.

Writing Ava's Man was much more fun for the family, at sixty-five and seventy, they've enjoyed telling the stories.

Was your extended family (aunts, uncles, and cousins) happy with the memoir?

I gave the manuscript to my mother, aunts, sister-in-law Teresa, and cousin Jackie, with crossed fingers because I knew if I ever let his wings drag in the dust, his surviving daughters would have done more than forget my birthday. If they had not approved of the book it would have never seen the light of day.

Talk about the difference between writing SHOUTIN' and AVA'S MAN.

Writing Ava's Man was ten times easier than writing Shoutin' and I had more fun doing it.

Shoutin' is three books cobbled together. It's the story of my mother's sacrifices, our childhood, and my career in journalism. I wanted to show what my momma had won and the sadness that shaped our family.

Ava's Man took two years to write. I got to build me a grandfather and what's better than that?

I hope Ava's Man is a complete story of a life and time -- the first fifty years of the last century and how a man could slay the dragon of poverty. I got to write about people who aren't usually written about in fiction.

Ava's Man dovetails neatly. Hopefully, it answers the question, "Why did my mother marry my father?" and will satisfy the readers who insisted we do it. There's nothing better on the planet than a booksigning or seeing people in the airport who smile and keep walking while telling me, "I read your book."

Which book is closer to your heart?

Shoutin' will always be the book I'm most proud of and affected by because it is a story for people who love their mothers. My mother REALLY did go eighteen years without a new dress so her sons could have more.

In the August edition  of VANITY FAIR on the "Night Table Reading" page, documentarian Barbara Koppel mentions she's reading AVA'S MAN. Would you like to see movies made from either of your memoirs?

We're (the Bragg family) uncomfortable with making a movie from Shoutin' because it's still too deeply personal to the living.

I think about my grandfather's image and the tough actors seem weak. I laugh out loud thinking about an actor drinking Perrier with a twist of lime and then playing Charlie beating the hell of the state troopers.

You've won a Pulitzer Prize, your newspaper work has been anthologized (SOMEBODY TOLD ME), written two bestsellers, garnered both critical and popular acclaim, and been nominated for a Grammy. What do you still want to do?

In Ava's Man, I hint at writing about the generations beyond me, what it means to be a blue collar Southerner in 2002.

When I moved to New Orleans, people said, "Oh, you'll write about New Orleans now." No, I'm not an expert on New Orleans. I'm not an expert on anything. But I know the foothills of the Appalachians and I don't have to elbow anybody out of the way to write about the people who walked out of the cotton fields, put down their cotton sacks, and went into the mills that ate them alive. If I have a mission, it's to write about their strength of character.

Hootie, Jesse Clines, the simple-minded man Charlie adopted, has always fascinated me. There were some great stories about him. He almost never spoke but I keep thinking, "What if all the lies told him were the truth?" So little is known, I'd like to write about him in fiction and bridge the genres.

Rick Bragg signing books at Alabama Bound.

After five years of being interviewed, what would you still like to be asked?

My favorite question came from Scottie Vickery at the Birmingham News. She asked my momma about the best day of her life. (And my momma is still uncomfortable with being interviewed.)

I hoped maybe she'd say, "the day my boy wrote the book about me, or the day my boy won the Pulitzer Prize, or the day my boy gave me the keys to my house," but she actually told her about (dramatic pause), "the birth of my FIRST son."

(Laughter.) Books and houses are just paper and wood to her. What matters is her sons.

I always ask the question now and I like thinking about the best hour and the best day. It's my favorite question to think about.

 

The paperback edition of Ava's Man will be released on August 13th, 2002.


 

 Ava's Man
 Knopf, hardcover, 2001. ISBN: 0375410627
 Random House, paperback, 2002. ISBN: 0375724443

         Southern Scribe Review

 

All Over but the Shoutin'
Pantheon Books, hardcover, 1997.  ISBN: 0679442588
Vintage Books, paperback, 1998.  ISBN: 0679774025 

Photo of Rick Bragg at 1999 signing, from Alabama Bound.                  

2002, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved