There’s a line in Barry Hannah’s most recent novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (2001), that nicely describes his life and career thus far. “You need to see a bit of hell now and then,” he writes. “That and great joy.” In the years since he published his first novel, Geronimo Rex (1972, a National Book Award finalist), Hannah has experienced a lot of both. His reputation as a hard-boiled drinker from Mississippi who liked guns, rode motorcycles, and sometimes raised a little too much hell was of a piece with his early fiction—the stunning and painful prose, the raucous characters, the furious energy. These days, Hannah is considerably less hell-bound, and his work more sensitive, though none the less powerful for it. As he likes to say of the book he’s working on now, “There’s a lot of Christ in it.”
Hannah has been honored by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and critics herald his work for its postmodern complexities. Graphic violence often rides side by side with great humor, and, in keeping with the postmodern aesthetic, his work is more attuned to language and voice than strict plot. During the eighties and early nineties, he wrote prolifically, publishing a new work nearly every two years—Ray (1980); The Tennis Handsome (1983); Captain Maximus (1985); Hey Jack! (1987); Boomerang (1989); Never Die (1991); Bats Out of Hell (1993); and High Lonesome (1996).
After many years teaching in universities across the country, Hannah returned in 1982 to Mississippi, where he was born in the small town of Clinton in 1942. He now lives in Oxford, where he is a writer-in-residence at the University of Mississippi. Oxford is the former home of William Faulkner and a place where you can’t walk two feet without stepping on a writer. John Grisham and Willie Morris lived here. Until his recent death, Larry Brown made his home on a farm just outside of town. Even the mayor owns a bookstore.
In the winter of 2001, in keeping with the town’s tradition of hosting and honoring writers, a hundred or so gathered for a celebration in Hannah’s honor. Calling themselves the Sons and Daughters of Barry, they grouped in an old schoolhouse outside of town to drink beer and eat catfish, watch a late-night fireworks show, and toast the man whose work had affected them all.
I first interviewed Hannah in his home, where I was greeted by no fewer than five extremely friendly dogs. His office is in the back of the house, in a room lined with books and pictures, an antique gun or two. We spoke for several hours, and then made plans for subsequent interviews, most of which took place over the phone. We did manage to meet again one morning on the balcony of Square Books, across the street from the courthouse so often fictionalized in Faulkner’s novels.
In conversation, Hannah speaks deliberately, his accent distinctly Southern. He’s a man who’s lived through more than his share of battles — lately several rounds with cancer—but who still manages to be both modest and charming, a gentleman to the last.
I’ve read that you didn’t grow up in a house full of books.
No, only the Bible. My dad read history, about a book a day, but only after he retired as a successful bank and insurance man. Before that, he read Faulkner. He went to school with Faulkner, tried to read him. But I guess Dad wasn’t literary. He loved everybody, but even he thought Faulkner was a snoot.
Count No’ Count.
Count No’ Count. Dad was from low circumstances—farm people—and art snobs were not in his universe. He knew Faulkner only as an aloof, bohemian figure. He’d say to me, “Son, he was hard to know.” And his report was not unlike others. They didn’t know what to do with Faulkner; they weren’t unkind, they just didn’t have a category for him.
I put off reading Faulkner because I was afraid of him. As a young writer you automatically want to ignore what’s in your backyard because you feel if it’s from here, it ain’t good. It just can’t be that damn good. It’s overrated. But I peered into Faulkner long enough when I was about eighteen to know that he was such a consummate genius with a comprehensive mind for history—he scared me. I didn’t want to be anything like him and I was also afraid that he might be too much of a genius, that he might just blow me away. I wanted to be a writer in my own right, and I felt just on reading a few pages that he would be very contagious, oppressively influential.
Are there other writers who shut you down? Were there writers who were helpful when you were starting out?
My immediate idol was Hemingway, who wrote in a deep boy style, with much white left on the page. He was approachable, yet demanded a good piece of your head. Nabokov said Hemingway wrote books for boys, but that’s just a pompous disreading of genius. “Aesthetic bliss,” so identified with Nabokov, is a frequent blessing in Hemingway, too. I love both authors, by the way, and found my own way between them. Lolita released me into truth and beauty. It did not paralyze me. Nobody paralyzes me anymore. I needed age, wisdom.
Did your father discourage you from being a writer?
He would rather I’d been an M.D. or a Ph.D. Said he wanted a doctor to cut his lawn.
So how did you get into writing?
I became interested early on because my third-grade teacher would let me write little stories instead of the assignment, and then credit me for them. She was Harvard educated, and it was very experimental and progressive in those days to reward creativity. She even had her son come in and tell us stories. He was a grown son of, I don’t know, twenty. She was also right across the street from us, almost a next-door neighbor.
Did you listen to stories at home, too?
My aunts told wonderful stories. Not to me, but to each other. We had a very strong family. My mother’s sisters loved each other intensely. The uncles loved each other intensely. Those were the days when it meant something to travel, when people were still grinning because you could drive a car over a hundred miles. So when they got together they really narrated. Children were supposed to be quiet, so we’d all go to bed, but I’d still hear these stories going into the night and people’s laughter. It was a delightful way to go to sleep on Christmas or Thanksgiving. They had huge senses of humor. Humor meant everything to them because they had all been through the war and the depression, and now they had decent work and jobs. I think there’s no kind of happiness and laughter as after you’ve made something after a tough grade.
I was born in Clinton, Mississippi, which had 1,500–2,500 people when I was growing up—a village. Now it’s impossible to go back to these places because they’re not there anymore. My generation, we were the war children, and so there’s just hurt all over the continent because there’s no place to go home to.
Today, there’s no present to people. Nobody wants to listen for very long to anybody talking, except in certain places—in a bar, in a confessional, or maybe a shrink’s office. All they say is, Yeah, yeah, yeah. Men don’t even tell dirty jokes much anymore.
Nobody stops to talk except the instructors at college who’re paid for it. So it was a much more primitive time back then. More heartfelt. A more patient time, and I was the beneficiary of that.