BOOK

"Your Art Must Have Its Own Edge"
An Interview with Barry Hannah
By Eric Maxson


Barry Hannah first stormed onto the scene in 1972 with the novel Geronimo Rex, for which he won the William Faulkner Prize and was nominated for a National Book Award. Since that point, Hannah has managed to be one of the most consistently adventuresome writers in all of American Fiction. Larry McMurtry proclaimed him, "The best fiction writer to appear in the South since Flannery O’Connor." Perhaps best known for the short story collection Airships (1978), Hannah was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction for his 1996 collection High Lonesome. His work has always been marked by the fact that it is short on exposition and high on electricity and portent. Like his Oxford predecessor Faulkner, his sentences are musical and original. But unlike the sonorous outpourings of Faulkner, Hannah’s sentences often leave you looking at your feet, wondering what happened to your pants. Occasionally he misses the mark, but it’s one of his endearing qualities. Of the writers working, very few can match his risk quotient.

His latest book, Yonder Stands Your Orphan (Atlantic Monthly Press), explores a lakeside community in rural Mississippi and could be Hannah’s most brutally funny novel to date. Man Mortimer is the Conway Twitty-resembling pimp whose reach extends to everyone surrounding Eagle Lake. Mortimer is moved to violence when he finds his woman is not his woman at all and unleashes an adolescent fury on the town. As the violence escalates, Mortimer becomes more and more specter-like. And with little help from the college-educated, thespian sheriff, the townsfolk must fend for themselves.

The cast of characters includes an African-American Vietnam Vet; the nurse and her feral children; the ruined doctor/saxophonist Max Raymond; the ex-biker and drug abuser turned pastor; and the elegant widower, Melanie Wooten. Not to mention the camp for indigent orphans, which plays a central role to the story of the community and the conclusion of the novel. Violence, sex, religion, and vice infuse the jumpcuts that slash through the novel. But what Hannah knows best is how to tell a story, and you are pulled in to the seeming inevitability of the characters’ march toward their fate.

I recently had a chance to speak to Barry Hannah via telephone and hear what he had to say about his latest work.

When did you really start writing? When did you start getting your stories down and know that this was what you were going to do?

I think that was...um, in graduate school. I loved it in college—I had a wonderful professor. But in graduate school at Arkansas, I committed wholesale to writing books and stories. Yeah, about 1965 (laughs)...if you can believe that. That’s the Ice Age.

It’s been awhile.

Yeah, it’s been awhile

In a 1998 interview with the Black Warrior Review, you talk about working on a book that you’re so obsessed with that you can barely write. Is that book Yonder Stands Your Orphan?

Yes it is, yeah.

Roughly, how long did that take you?

It took me about three years. And in the meantime, while I was obsessing, I got cancer. So they give you huge amounts of steroids... I’m cancer free now. By the way, it was lymphoma. They give you steroids, and I was working off these steroids. It was my only strength; I was the weakest man in the world. So I’m kind of proud of this book, that I could do anything, you know? And finish what I intended. In fact, I wrote twice the amount in this book, and my dear editor cut it down for me.

So you’re proud of what you were able to do with this one?

I am, but also frightened. I’m always frightened when a book comes out. It’s a lonesome activity, writing. I don’t know how it’s going to be received. I personally am proud of it.

In the prologue of the book, you have the characters of Cecil and Robbie bring up the topic of nostalgia. Do you think that Americans have quit living? That we’ve lost sight of things?

Yes, I do think that they’ve quit living (laughs). I do think that the modern world is crowded with zombies who are always in another place besides their own. They’re always looking to something future. There’s less congenial living as itself. There’s less talk between people.

You explore that with some of the characters throughout the book. Max Raymond seems to come to mind.

Yes.

The picture you paint in some interviews and in the book is that you’re amazed that we can even get out of bed in the morning.

Yeah, that’s true. It probably comes from just years alive. You’ve got to fight more to be human. You’ve got to struggle more...make your own fun.

As you mature and become more established, is maintaining your edge something that you really have to work at? Or is that something that comes natural, being a writer and being an aware human being?

Well, yes...events, as Philip Roth pointed out in the ‘60s, have long gotten so grim and awful that they’ve outdistanced novels, and so you do have to have your own personal edge, your own personal vision. You’re not gonna shock anybody anymore. The shock value of novels has really passed. With these Columbine shootings, Oklahoma City bombing, mothers killing their children...things I’ve never seen in history, just neglect or killing babies.

Yes, and it’s not just hearing about them. We actually see these things on TV now.

Yes, and so your art must have its own edge, it’s own...I would call it vision. And you have to stay sharp and look for it and keep it up.

In Yonder Stands Your Orphan, you have the sax-playing Max Raymond. Music and musicians are focal points of some of the other stories that you’ve written throughout the years. What is it about music and musicians that draws you in?

I’m envious of their lives. To be a good musician and to live the music is, in the case of my favorite, Bob Dylan, I think is such an enviable place. After all, these guys can produce a decent song in 30 minutes, you know? And it will be remembered, if it’s good enough. I think that music is the highest of all art forms–always have. And I’ve been interested in the different people in the profession. You know some of them are just as unhappy as we are, except when they’re playing. Unhappy and desperate. But good music comes out of that. So yes, I’ve always been interested, even in high school band. That was my only culture in Mississippi, high school band. By the way Eric, I believe I’ve seen Gadfly on the bookshelves. Is it a new magazine?

No it’s been out, but it’s currently a strictly online magazine.

You know, I did this with Esquire. They wrote the review on Esquire Online, so I’m slowly getting used to that.

So you’re adapting to the new medium.

Right, one hopes that the people online read books.

Kids that I talk to, kids who have grown up with this stuff, it’s like second nature to them. It blows me away.

Oh yeah, listen, I haven’t even started. I still use a Smith Corona. Don’t worry if you feel antique, man. You know, login, boot up– I have to learn all that stuff (laughs).