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King of Grit Lit

An Interview with Larry Brown

by Pam Kingsbury


It's hard to imagine contemporary Southern literature without the influence of Larry Brown. His books have been eagerly anticipated, widely read, and praised by critics. His characters reflect the raw elements of the South, where they need "grit" to survive.

Brown a native of Oxford, Mississippi is often compared to the town's literary icon William Faulkner. Both attended the University of Mississippi without graduating, and both learned the craft of writing by ardent reading.

A firefighter for seventeen years before retiring to write full-time, Larry Brown has also worked as a carpenter, lumberjack, fence builder, carpet cleaner, housepainter, hay hauler, and store employee. He knows the working man.

Which character or image from The Rabbit Factory came to you first?

Arthur was the first character who came to me. It was just an image of an old guy trying to catch a wild kitten in a cage trap. That first paragraph was written in 1994, and the following six or seven chapters, and then I laid it aside since it was getting bigger than a short story, which was what I originally intended.

Why did you change publishers?

I was with Algonquin for eight books and fourteen years. I think they tried very hard to market my books, and I did win a lot of prizes. This book was something different, something of a departure, I guess, and I had to go elsewhere.

Each of your books has been radically different from its' predecessor. Have you ever felt forced to write for the marketplace?

I don't really worry about what politically correct people are going to think about my books.  I'm not writing the books for them.  I'm writing them for the person who likes to read fiction about people they can relate to, not judge, but maybe understand and have a little compassion for.

As far as writing what you want to in the midst of all the politically correct bullshit in the work, it's imperative.  I've always felt that people ought to talk (I'm talking about characters in fiction.) the way they really would depending on where they live, because geography shapes language and the lives of the people who live there.  Your concern should be creating a real world on paper.  To do that, it has to have authenticity to the time and place, and it has to reveal the many intricacies of the human heart, which is sometimes twisted and bent.  The main thing you have to do is tell a good story.  That's all there is.  Anything less sucks.

At one time you sponsored a reading series in Oxford. How did it come about and are you still involved?

No, the readers series I had going has been over for almost two years now.  I was living on a Lila Wallace-Readers Digest Award that gave me a very generous $35,000 per year for three years and also provided $10,000 per year to finance the program I chose, which was to bring in writers from all over the country to give readings and writing workshops at our local library.  it was a great opportunity to get a lot of my friends down here for a weekend while exposing local readers to fine writers they might not have encountered before.  It also allowed me to live and write mostly unmolested for three years.  Priceless.

Do you want to discuss living in Oxford?

The Oxford connection.  Well.  It gets asked about a lot.  I don't get up there much because I'm usually working in here every night.  I don't really have much time to get out and see friends the way I wish I could and still get my work done.  It's not good for me to go to a bar and drink.  I'll stay all night, have one hell of a good time, and feel bad the next day.  I sued to hang out all the time.  And sometimes stretched into months.  This always accompanied lots of guitar playing, which earns nothing and is only entertainment, or diversion, or a means of not working, like drinking.  I 've found after all these years that I can't drink and write at the same time, so most of the time I choose writing.

There weren't many young writers in town when I was coming up.  I think there are a lot of them now.  Lots of young people come up and introduce themselves, and say they appreciate my work, and that's always nice to hear.  It's a good thing for young people to like what you do.

Faulkner, Grisham.  Hannah.  All of them in Oxford.  John not so much any more.  I just happened to be born here and loved to read.  There are more writers coming here all the time to live and write, some of them established.  The bookstore, Square Books, draws thousand of people.  It's one reason Oxford is such a popular place for writers and readers.  Jim Harrison loves it here, loves the food.  Arliss Howard and Debra Winger shot Big Bad Love here.  It's getting to be a very popular place to move to.  It's weird seeing what it's like now, the square full of bars and restaurants, and remembering what it was like back in the fifties and sixties when I was a kid and there was absolutely nothing going on at night.  It's a whole new world.  And sometimes it's hard for me to move around in it.  But that just goes along with what I do with my life.  Most of the time I stay out here in the country and write.  And work on my shack.  And feed my catfish.

Which writers do you consider your literary influences?

Flannery O'Connor, Charles Bukowski, Raymond Carver, William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and Harry Crews.

Who are some of the younger writers readers should be reading?

Silas House.  Nancy Jean Peacock.  June Spence.  Brad Watson's got two wonderful books.  Daniel Wallace.  George Singleton's good.  It's hard to keep up with everybody.  I get a lot of books here from publishers wanting blurbs, and I just can't read them all.  I'll be interested to see what Charles Frazier does next.  John DuFrense.  There's a lot of good writers out there.  It's hard to come up with a list because you'll surely leave somebody good out.

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
Trial and error.
Make lots of stupid mistakes.
There are no shortcuts.
You have to learn to write fiction that grabs the reader by the throat and doesn't let him go until you're through with him.
And the only way to do that is to sit down and spend years writing and failing and writing again.
If you quit, nobody's ever going to hear from you.

Are there any questions you're tired of being asked?

Gee, I've been asked the same ones so many times it's hard to remember.  A lady interviewed me for some tape recordings one time and she had good questions about Joe.  I was able to sit there and talk not only about him, but about the environment and what happens to the woods when big timber companies cut hardwoods down and replant with pines, and how the animals all have to leave, because there's nothing for them to eat if the oaks and acorns they produce are gone.  I was able to talk about the evolution of the landscape around here I've seen since I was eighteen and how much it's changed.  How Faulkner foretold it.  How lives get shaped.  How fate interferes with plans… all that good stuff.

What's the one question you've always wanted to be asked?

I can't think of anything I'm waiting to be asked.  I just try to give a little encouragement to young writers without taking them personally under my wing, although I have taken more than a few and tucked them under there already.  But I try to do it in a way that gives them a realistic view of what they're facing if they want to be fiction writers.  It is not easy, and I've seen people quit their jobs over it, then fail.  I didn't quit my job until I'd published some books and had some more writing gigs lined up.  And I failed plenty before than.  Five novels.  Burned one.  I've written about 150 short stories.  Poetry.  All bad.  I've done a ton of nonfiction, and love writing it.  There are boxes and boxes and boxes of unpublished stuff in my attic.  That's what it takes -- boxes and boxes of stuff that's no good for anything.  But you have to sit there and write it anyway to learn how to do it right.  That's the rules.  No way around it if you want to be a really good writer.

Where will your book tour take you?

The book tour.  Austin, Oxford, Memphis, Blytheville, Jekyll Island, GA, Jackson, MS, Birmingham, Asheville, Louisville and Lexington, KY, Atlanta, Athens, Milledgeville, GA, Nashville, Seattle, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Iowa City, Minneapolis, where I'm going to stay an extra day and do a reading with my friend Ben Weaver, 24, who is simply one of the finest young singers and songwriters I've run into in years, and then I'll finish up in New York, and get to see my unofficially-adopted son's baby boy McCaslin, who was just born a few days ago. He weighed 7 pounds and four ounces and has "curly blondish" hair.

What do you enjoy most about your book tours?

It's real good to see people who have read your books again and again in other cities.  You look forward to eating in favorite restaurants in Seattle, and giving a reading at Elliott Bay or a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.  There's no telling who may show up. I've got friends all over and it's good to see them.  It's nice to be able to go to L.A. and stay with a friend at his house. I hear from people all over this country, and they turn out when you hit their town. It's a wide world with lot of good people in it.  Independent bookstores have supported the shit out of me, and I worry about their future. They will hand sell a book they like, and that's how good books get on the bestseller list, by sheer weight of numbers sold.  A book that is too good to ignore.  But it doesn't happen to every good book. It even happens to bad books. But that's just the world. You can't have everything perfect.

Would you like to write another book of non-fiction?

Sure, I'd love to write about the little house I've been building for five years by myself, and the eight acres of woods and pasture land it sits on, and the birds and animals that live there, and the fish I raise and catch in my pond, and all the work I do over there with a  tractor and chainsaw and a log chain and shovel, but non-fiction doesn't sell nearly as well as novels, so I'll probably just keep writing novels.

I plan to write some original screenplays. Right now, I'm writing my third screenplay. This one is about the life of Hank Williams.

I also have two novels in progress. My new publisher likes them. This is good.

Larry Brown on Mississippi Writers Page

Larry Brown at Simon & Schuster

The Rabbit Factory
By Larry Brown
The Free Press/Simon and Schuster, 2003
Hardcover, $25.00 (352 pages)
ISBN: 0-7432-4523-7

     Southern Scribe Review



They Write Among Us:
New Stories and Essays from the Best of Oxford Writers
edited by Dick Waterman
Jefferson Press, 2003
Trade Paper, $16.95 ( 272 pages)
ISBN: 0971897417

     Southern Scribe Review



© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved