March 4, 2010 – TERRY GROSS, host:
March 4, 2010
Award-winning author Barry Hannah died of a heart attack in his home on March 1, leaving behind an impressive body of work that includes nine novels and four collections of short stories.
Hannah’s favorite setting was the American South. Born in Mississippi, the author imbued his novels with a fresh, Southern flare. His talent was compared with such giants of Southern literature as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.
Hannah broke onto the literary scene in 1972 with his debut novel, Geronimo Rex, a coming of age story that won the William Faulkner prize and was nominated for the National Book Award. He followed that with the short story collection Airships, another award-winning literary work which explored the Vietnam and Civil Wars and the modern South. His final work, a collection of stories called Sick Soldiers at Your Door, is set to be published later this year.
Hannah’s style was described as intensely personal, frenetic and comedic. In remembrance, we listen back on an interview with the novelist and short story writer who Truman Capote once called “the maddest writer in the U.S.A.”
This interview was originally broadcast on July 31, 2001.
The novelist and short story writer Barry Hannah died of a heart attack Monday. He was 67. We’re going to listen back to excerpt of the interview I recorded with him.
Larry McMurtry called Hannah the best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery O’Conner. William Styron described Hannah as an original, one of the most consistently exciting writers of the post-Faulkner generation.
Hannah wrote about the American South. He grew up in Mississippi and taught for many years at the University Mississippi. He won the William Faulkner prize and was a National Book Award finalist.
When I spoke with him in July 2001, his book “Yonder Stands Your Orphan” had just been published. The title borrowed a line from the Dylan song, “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue.” There are orphans and guns in the novel and plenty of evil as a killer changes the lives of everyone around him. Hannah wrote the book while getting chemotherapy treatments for lymphoma.
Here’s Hannah introducing a short reading from the book.
Mr. BARRY HANNAH (Author): This is Man Mortimer, who is the evil that lurks in this book and he likes to cut people. He comes from Missouri, and this little piece about him.
At this juncture he had no plans to hurt people around the lake. He did not like bodies of water much, had never seen the ocean. He was indifferent to trees. Soil was hateful to him, as was the odor of fish. But like many another man, forty-five years in age, he wanted his youth back.
He wanted to have pals, sports, high school girls. This need had rushed on him lately. He lived in three houses, but he had no home. He did not like the hearth, smells from the kitchen, an old friend for a wife, small talk. It all seemed a vicious closet to him. He moved, he took, he was admired. But he had developed a taste for young and younger flesh. This was thrilling and meant high money. Men and women in this nation were changing, and he intended to charge them for it.
Religion had neither formed nor harmed him. Neither had his parents in southern Missouri. But he despised the weakness of the church, and of his parents, whom he had gulled. He was a pretty boy born of hawk-nosed people. It was a curse to have these looks and no talent. Long and lank. Hooded eyes, sensual lips that sang no tune. Still, he quit the football team because of what it did to his hair, claiming a back ailment that had exempted him from manual labor since age 14. There are thousands of men of this condition, most of them sorry and shiftless, defeated at the start. Many are compulsive and snarling fools, emeritus at 20.
GROSS: Is this character of Man Mortimer based on anyone?
Mr. HANNAH: No he’s not. He’s a compound and I’ve gotten just by looking around and believing that I perceived evil in front of me. So it is imaginative but a collected history of my impressions, I believe.
GROSS: You describe him as a quiet man, a gambler, a liaison for stolen cars and a runner of whores, including three Vicksburg housewives. Describe his kind of crime.
Mr. HANNAH: His kind of crime is the kind of crime that begins out of laziness and being admired by women. He finds he can make a living at it, and he continues since he ran away from home in high school. He’s not been particularly violent but he has induced violence and suicides in others. He is a thief. He has a stolen car ring, especially expensive SUV’s. He’s a man who doesnt like to work and he doesnt like much of what’s offered by nature. So I’ve seen him as an alien without real pals and only a commercial connection to women.
He wants to join in society now but he only knows how to hurt, and that’s the basis of the book – evil when it reaches out to you and when it befriends you. And in Mortimer’s case, he likes to use a knife. He’s dangerous and he has made quite a deal of money off the casino life around Vicksburg.
GROSS: Has evil like Man Mortimer’s kind of evil ever come into your life?
Mr. HANNAH: I’ve been around it. Usually evil is something you can’t face. It simply has to wear out. Sometimes you work for evil unwittingly. And I can’t think of a particular person right now, but I think I’ve felt the closeness of evil in casinos and it brings out the old Baptist in me. I find the wretched excess and the sort of zombified folks that attend and participate in casinos pathetic and also dangerous in many cases.
GROSS: Now what about violence? There’s some violence in this book. Has violence come into your life? Have you witnessed it? Have you ever had a violent streak yourself?
Mr. HANNAH: I liked to throw knives back in my drinking days. But no, I’ve never been personally violent. I can’t be an honest man though, and tell you -but that I am occupied by violence. It seems to be out of my nightmares. And my wife wishes I wouldnt write about violence, but as soon as the pen starts going I become interested in it all over again and as if it’s almost dictated to me. I’ve been writing for 35 years and it’s attended a good deal of my work. At this point, I dont think I can do anything but confess that I am a student – and of violence, because of what it does – because of how it quickens the character of those around it.
GROSS: Youve also collected guns, right?
Mr. HANNAH: I’ve collected guns. Yes.
GROSS: And have you used them? What kind of things do you use them for?
Mr. HANNAH: I have not used a gun in 10 years.
Mr. HANNAH: If I used them right now I’d shoot beer cans at the city dump. It’s a 22 rifle. Now, I dont have any real personal urge to shoot anymore. It just past, and I’ve never shot at a human being, never threatened a human being, if that’s covering the subject.
GROSS: So what did you use the guns for?
Mr. HANNAH: You know, this is a difficult thing to explain to others about how a gun is a piece of art. Guns are history. I like to look at the mechanism. I like to feel the heft. And they are a kind of history. So that’s about all I can say. I dont collect guns anymore but I’m not sorry for the ones I have. They just feel like a decent hunk of the past hanging on the wall.
GROSS: Describe where you grew up.
Mr. HANNAH: I grew up in Clinton, Mississippi, which is right outside the state capital in Jackson. But it was a distinct village; about 2,000 people with a little college – a little Baptist college. So that we had professors and for neighbors. And the culture of the Baptist church, the high school band, and the football team. That was it. That was civilization as I knew it. Also there was no crime. We disappeared sometimes in the summer at eight o’clock in the morning, didnt come back until seven at night. There was no fear because we -the whole village took care of us.
GROSS: Did you go to the Baptist church?
Mr. HANNAH: Oh yes, I did. Yeah.
GROSS: What was the oratory like in the church and do you think that that influenced your sense of storytelling or the way you write?
Mr. HANNAH: The preachers did not, but the Bible itself has. I just, the rhythms of the Old and New Testament, the King James version, are just as solidly set in a person of my era who went to church as a moral foundation. I make sentences, I’m sure, from Biblical rhythms. I’ve been called post-Modernist but I doubt it. I think I just write in more fragmented ways and narration. But the base of my sentences, although they are sometimes Baroque, is I think from the Scriptures as far as I can feel it myself.
We read a lot of the Bible. We knew Scriptures by heart, especially Psalms and a great bit of the Book of John, the Sermon on the Mount, and – from Matthew and certain things like that were memorized. And I had them memorized until I was 15-16 years old.
GROSS: Can you think of a line or a passage from the Bible that has the kind of rhythms that youre speaking of, and how they influenced you?
Mr. HANNAH: Yeah, it’s something like the 23 Psalm. The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow and so on. But this had just a such wonderful basic human poetry in it. And I never was sophisticated enough to consider the Bible as literature until I was – I never even heard the term the Bible as literature until I was way into graduate school. So I – in fact, I’d stopped going to church. But the church is – the Scriptures are very much with me and more and more now I’m reading Mark and John in the Bible. Not all the time but I just love the clarity and the mystery at the same time.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. HANNAH: You bet.
GROSS: Barry Hannah recorded in July 2001. He died Monday of a heart attack at the age of 67. His work is the focus of this year’s Annual Oxford Conference of the Book, which began today. The conference is dedicated to him.