I laughed when I heard this, because there’s so much truth to it. But my second thought was an observation I heard my grandfather make, hundreds of times, over the years: “I’m guessing that feller ain’t from around here.”
In my experience, Southern writers are as hospitable as anybody could wish. There are a bunch of them I consider friends, though most I never run into except at (you guessed it) a writing conference somewhere or other.
The only thing we all have in common is that we spend the majority of our waking hours on our rear ends typing words onto a blank page that, most days, seems to resist our efforts. I wouldn’t exactly call us “melancholy,” but writing is in general a humbling pursuit, and even when you finally make something you know is pretty good, there’s nobody in the stands to applaud. And you may not even get any money for it, ever.
I’ll never forget running into Mississippi writer Larry Brown when he was somewhere signing books. Somebody had told me the new novel he had been working on for years was almost finished, but that each page was coming painfully slow.
I asked him about the manuscript and he said, matter-of-factly, “You know, when I wake up every morning, I’d rather take a pretty bad whuppin’ than to go in there and work on that sucker.”
A few months later, I was in a local bookstore and saw Brown’s novel on a shelf. The title is “Father and Son,” and the original cover is a sepia-toned closeup photograph is of an old man’s wrinkled hand, holding a cigarette. It’s a work of art.
The son in the story is an ex-convict with a cruel streak. The father is a spiteful sort of man also, and you know from the beginning that the two are bound to collide and the result won’t be pretty. The writing is dark and foreboding, but I couldn’t put it down because the place and people are so real the paragraphs hypnotize you, and you can no more stop reading than you could look away from an imminent train wreck. By the end, I felt like I’d lost a member of my family. Even now, just seeing the book on our shelf puts a lump in my throat.
To say that Larry Brown paid his dues is an understatement. He worked for 17 years as a firefighter in Oxford, Miss., and wrote five novels and a couple of hundred short stories that nobody wanted to publish, and which never saw print, before he “broke through.” I had the good fortune to see Larry at a conference not long afterward and tell him I thought the book was his masterpiece. I told him that whenever I passed away, if they could just mount a copy of a book that good on my tombstone and chisel the line “Dale wrote this,” I’d feel my life had been well spent. The world lost Brown way too soon. He had a heart attack at home, when he was only 53 years old.
Worse, his death seemed to have started a chain reaction. In just the past year or so, we’ve lost Kathryn Tucker Windham, Barry Hannah, Doris Betts, William Gay, Harry Crews, Lewis Nordan, Reynolds Price and more. The amount of talent their passings have subtracted from the world boggles my mind.
Every time I hear of another death, I go back to the small memoir Larry Brown wrote in 1993 called “On Fire,” to the page on which he describes his writing process:
“I’m home, in the kitchen, supper finished, Mary Annie and the boys up in the front room watching television, trying to let me alone, let me work, let me write. I sit at the typewriter, a new Smith-Corona that I will type on until it is completely useless, until the keys don’t work, until the return carriage slips.
“I have chosen this thing to do, away from my family, the doors closed, characters who form in my head and move to the paper, black symbols on a white sheet, no more than that. It may seem senseless to anybody else, but I know there is a purpose to my work: the spending of years at the typewriter writing until I become better than I am now, until I can publish a book, until I can see that book in a library or bookstore.
“I love this thing, even if it does not love me back.”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.