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Motorcycles, Hamburgers, and Lines You Can't Forget

An Interview with Barry Hannah

by Robert L. Hall 

 

 

If I were asked, “Who would you like to interview most of all in your region of the south?” one of the names that comes to mind first is Barry Hannah.  Is that because he has been at Ole Miss (or the University of Mississippi at Oxford for the uninitiated) the last twenty years, teaching creative writing? No.

Is it maybe that he is both a craftsman by training with writing degrees and also by trade, in that he is hugely successful in his book sales?  Again, no.  Perhaps the reason is that he is perceived by many as among a handful of truly literary giants in the south today?  No, once more.
 
My knowledge and familiarity with Hannah’s work is fairly recent. Of course I knew of his predominate standing in the field of literature. However, it wasn’t until I finished Yonder Stands Your Orphan last month, then attended his book signing and reading at Burke’s Bookstore in Memphis to hear him speak that I became hooked on Hannah.  That was when I was attracted to his work.
 
I have an admission here to make; sometimes I become quite jaded upon meeting some other authors--snooty-tooty types who present a book for publication and then act as if John and Jane Q. Public’s life won’t be fulfilled completely until they have read his/her latest novel—cover to cover. It is as if these authors feel they hold the keys to the literary world in their hands alone.  But let’s get real for a minute--there are plenty of books out there!  You can pick and choose anything you want; from blatant rubbish to unmitigated works of genius.   And with the advent of relativism and the “One Man’s Trash is Another Man’s Treasure Syndrome,” a lot of good books don’t get read and a lot of garbage does.  It just doesn’t pay for a contemporary author to get uppity about either their art or their acceptance by the reading public.
That is why I like Barry. He’s ‘just people’ (as the colloquialism goes.) Only…he ain’t cheap. No. You have to invest yourself in order to read his short stories or one of his books.  Sometimes you may have to feel something, like emotions, or even become thoughtfully sensitive in trying to understand the lines he creates, which at times resemble dreams or music or poetry.  As to whether they can be appreciated—well, that is another matter entirely.  But nevertheless, it will cost you to read Hannah.
It was a Friday afternoon and I was browsing the stacks, looking for the latest releases, when he saunters into Burke’s, singing the praises of the burger joint across the street’s fare.  “There’s nothing better than a good hamburger!” he declares, then proceeds to wax philosophic on the unappreciated beauty and glitz of motorcycle parts.  Next comes a nostalgic apologetic on the days of yore and people and things gone by.  The names of landmarks, dates, and people issue from his lips like a torrent.  As others engage him in conversation, you can hear him pop out from across the room with, “I know that guy!” or “I’ve been there before!” in an loud, enthusiastic voice.
When a former acquaintance re-introduces himself, Barry brings up the name of a mutual friend and spends several minutes going over the emotional or social interaction of the friend in detail, mulling over trivial details with what seems to be considerable relish and pride at his remembrances.
At another point, a young person in the store, who Barry does not know in the slightest, comes forward to praise the author’s efforts.  The two of them wind up sharing stories of schools, alma maters and classes in art and music and writing, Barry leading the way and tangentially ending up praising and encouraging the novice.  Although I could not but help hearing the give-and-take between them, (and feeling like a voyeur) I learned a lesson in that room.  One can be talented, even touched by fame, and still be graceful.   At least, this man was.  
After all, he did accept my request for an interview without even checking my credentials or asking for a business card.  To his credit however, he did wait until I had revealed the recent projects of interviews that the Southern Scribe staff had completed before he said ‘Yes’ to me.   In this he proved himself amiable, but not in the least stupid.  And guess what?  Not surprisingly, he knew every person I had interviewed for the last several months! 
 
His reading comes next and he settles down in a wooden chair behind the same arcane wooden table that John Grisham does when he reads there.  With few perfunctory remarks, he launches into a brief reading from Airships, the collection of short stories from 1978 which is considered a contemporary classic.  He establishes a link between a short story within it and several characters in Yonder Stands Your Orphan.   It is an interesting and telling connection, displaying some of the author’s mind think about composition and characterization.   
 
Next, a reading from the book.  He pulls Yonder Stands Your Orphan, (the British edition with a different cover) to the front of the table and opens it.  His voice lowers, turning to gravel and sounding like an old Pontiac equipped with glass packs grinding down a hard-scrabble road.  He rarely looks up, his eyebrows arching at interruptions to his read, as when the crowd laughs at his invective or witticisms of text.   The session ends, but not my curiosity does not.  I am looking forward to interviewing him.

 

My chance comes a week later, after a perfunctory call first, setting up an appointment time to speak to him.   Even during that short exchange I find him busy reading manuscripts--not his—and we agree to speak several days hence. 

 

My time to call for the interview is at hand and I am culling over the several interviews I have found on the Internet about him.   To get the short course on Barry Hannah, go to the Mississippi Writers site.

 

Suffice it to say he has influenced and is himself influential in the contemporary literature of the South, and has produced an array of short stories and books that would be well worth the avid reader’s time to peruse.  

 

Some of the interviews he has done in the past are excellent, such as the one done in Oxford by the Mississippi Review in ’96.  Then, I read others, not so well done.  I ponder one interview in particular where Barry has given only several words or a phrase in answer to the questioner.  “I wonder if he was mad that day, or just not in the mood for an interview?” I ask myself.  I hope he is willing to express himself totally to me today.  On the other end, the phone rings.  I take a deep breath.

“Hello?" 

“Hello, Mr. Hannah.  Robert Hall calling for the interview.  First, I want to thank you for sharing your time and talent with the readers of Southern Scribe.”

“Thank you.”

I just have a few questions this morning.  Is there anything you would like to ask me before we get started?” 

“No. (laughing hard) Just shoot away.  I’m ready to receive and not transmit yet.”    

"Okay.  Here’s the first question for you." 

You have been quoted as saying of some really fine writers such as Flannery O’Connor, that “You can’t explain their writing by outlines.”   There are special ‘feelings’ to them.  What feelings do you think readers have about your work?

Gee, I don’t know about other readers, although I can tell you what I feel about it.  I’m never satisfied with what I read.  I feel jubilant when I do it well, here and there, and I feel happy when the whole story still holds up after I pick it up again after several of years.  But I have no idea what the readers, other than those who write their criticisms, think about it, you know?  I always think that I, and any writer, is incomplete so that everything like a great shape…that many of us will never get to those great ideals that are in our heads… those things that still linger.   So there is always that feeling of incompleteness, but sometime or other joy at getting something almost right.”  

Obviously physically demanding, in what other ways was your latest novel difficult to write?

It took me about four years to write anyway.  I was ill.   It had many people and I wanted to keep them in one place basically.   I have never tried anything quite like that.  I wanted to get into multiple lives—wanted to see if I could write with enough fire, with them together.  It was tough, and trying to think of these things; it took a while.

Are you more comfortable writing a short story, rather than a novel?

Comfortable?  I would say yes, basically.   I take the short story seriously.  Well, actually you can do more with the form of the short story than the novel.  The novel does have to have a semblance of a plot.  It has to have a page-turning quality of some kind.   The fun of the short story is that you don’t have to carry it on so long.                 

I’ve always loved the short story.  It’s all the audience can take at one sitting.  They take it in at one time, so it has all that extra power there.

I know that you prefer to write about explosive circumstances with interesting people and that you have said that the best art is close to dreams anyway.  If Orphan is a dream, what are you telling us through it?

It tells what it tells.  It tells what it tells by fine line.  I hope it relays power and desires and visions.  I hope it terrifies in some way and shows evil.  And I hope it relieves when evil sort of peters out, where there’s a way.  I hope it is a very evil book, so that people can share their own experiences and can see similarities in the novel. 

You have the residents who live around Eagle Lake in Mississippi isolated and encapsulated, so that they bounce off each other like billiard balls on a pool table.  Was this a mechanism for heightening tension in your novel?

Well a pool table is not a bad analogy at all.  They can’t go outside the bounds apparently.  And there is much interplay, and yeah, they bounce against each other—that’s fine!  

Dee Allison, a woman who has liaisons with three different men in the course of the book, intrigued me.  She seems to have no vision whatever for herself or her life, yet she has tremendous sexual power over all the men she is involved with, including the main character.  What is the mystery surrounding this woman and would you describe your treatment of her?

She is possessed of visions herself, although they are destructive.  She sees destruction coming ahead but she doesn’t even turn on a television.   She stares at a blank screen; it paralyzes her.  But she is a good nurse to the old men; and yes, she is a creature of sexual power, especially in her nurse-like qualities.  That is what I saw in her. 

She wonders why she is there?  Why her children are there?  She is kind of disassociated but a theme throughout the entire book, yes.

Man Mortimer, your main character, is like a snake, drawing various knives from his vast collection (which he is obsessed with) and cutting the residents of the lake, one after another.  However, my question is…why did you let him progress in this mayhem for so long in the course of the book, for I know that you personally hate bullies, as you have said on a previous occasion?

Well, he traveled a course that I feel.  I don’t think that evil ever is truly punished.

It has its own end.  I have also noticed that the law…as much law as we have…often can’t touch really the evil, and that evil itself is absorbed by a community and it lives with it.   And it just sort of ‘wears out’ the evil.  Raymond and Egan try to be Christians but are still absorbed sometimes.  Peden harms him (Mortimer) physically.  So, I mean, they do what they can, but it’s all accidental.

And, the community itself sort of catches up with him.  There is a scene where Mortimer screams in a high-pitched tone like a woman upon being frightened and the retirees make fun of him and cut him off from the group. 

Yes, they did.  There’s no club.  This is strange (he takes a breath and pauses thoughtfully)  He …he (Mortimer) is trying…he’s trying to have friends, and he wants in a club.  He buys a Norton motorcycle like the Sheriff and he wants to get on the launch with the older people.  Then, he’s turned down because of that scream.   But, of course there never was any club that he could ever join.  Only, he really starts hurting people after this.  So, I think, you saw what you saw there and just—that’s it.  It means a lot to him and it activates evil in theory and toward it’s own end in time.

Most of the residents, as we have said, are retirees.  But, even at that age they seem to be trying to ‘re-invent’ themselves, always coming up with new things and new relationships.  Do you think the modern era has exacerbated this in older people—that they are sort of ‘looking for miracles,’ as I have heard you call it before?

Sure.  I think that because so much money is available, probably humiliates and bothers people, exacerbating things and giving them a feeling of uselessness because the media makes everybody feel like a worm if he isn’t worth three million or so.  Amongst other things, yes, that our culture makes older people, like those of   Eagle Lake, feel miserable and like failures.

Lines of yours in the book; I go back and pick them out.  Some are so funny or insightful.  Some are golden.  How do you come up with them?  Do you write them down from conversations with others or do you sort of brainstorm over them?

Yes, conversation with others and sometimes I create them.  You ask me how the lines come?  Usually sort of prophetic…you have the people living together, and the lines will come.  I feel a community; the voices will speak for me.  But, sometimes it is actual folks talking out in the world.

Everyone has critics and admirers.  I know from Esquire, Sven Birkets says of your work, that there is “sizzling poetry of his every phrase and sentence.”   Yet, from Salon.com, Dave Reilly cites some authors and you in particular, when he speaks of works with, “A lot of pretty words strung together as the writers struggle to make poetry out of every sentence and the result is gibberish.”   He also suggests that today’s so-called ‘literary’ writers are responsible for the abandonment of the genre to non-fiction, mysteries and science fiction by readers.  How do you respond to that comment?

There was a writer who had a real point, who wrote an article in The Atlantic, a plea for the common reader.  And it said that if the sentences don’t mean things--if they are only an artists’ poetry, that would be a great shame and I hope that is not true of my work, but it can happen.  I mean, it’s an honest read I guess the guy is giving.  I don’t know whether others are producing gibberish, but I’ll watch out.  I certainly never intended to.   You must make sense.  I don’t like poetry that just wants to shine instead of capturing the moment.  If I were to hear that I were guilt of it, I would probably cringe.  I do think we should be up to the utmost clarity.  I would try rhythm…clarity with rhythm.  But if they (the readers) don’t get it, it’s a shame.    

Let me ask you a ‘Larry Brown” question (another prominent writer from Oxford).  I got this interview idea from a newspaper account of a story he did in which he states that he gets the same questions over and over again, and get bored with them.  So, let me ask you this: can you come up with your own question—a question that you always wanted to be asked and then answer it for me?

I would like to know why I can get no rest between books.  I seem to always feel guilty when I’m walking around rather flat without ideas, and yet my history has proven that I will write a book and I don’t think that the world needs that many more books.   Yet I feel guilty, not only for the money, but I feel like I’m wasting time when I’m not writing and I don’t know where it comes from.  Maybe it’s a Baptist guilt…or just a writer’s guilt.  It’s just something that I wish somebody could answer for me.


Barry Hannah Bibliography

          Novels:  

           Yonder Stands Your Orphan. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001.
                        Southern Scribe Review

Never Die. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1991.

Boomerang. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1989.

Hey Jack!. New York: E. P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, 1987.

Captain Maximus. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Geronimo

The Tennis Handsome. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983.

Ray. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980.

Nightwatchmen. New York: Viking Press, 1973.

Rex. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

 

 

Short Story Collections:

High Lonesome. Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Bats Out of Hell. Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1993.

Airships. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1978.

 

Nonfiction:

Men without Ties. Abbeville Press, 1995.

"Faulkner and the Small Man." In Faulkner and Humor: Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha. Fowler, Doreen, and Ann Abadie, eds. Jackson: UP Mississippi, 1984.

 

Other:

Power and Light: A Novella for the Screen from an Idea by Robert Altman. Small Press Distributors, 1983.  


© 2001 Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved