Friday, March 05, 2010

The Maddest Writer in the USA Has Died

On Monday, Barry Hannah, author of some of favorite short stories, died of a heart attack at his home in Oxford, Mississippi. Truman Capote famously called Hannah "the maddest writer in the USA." When I met him at the Oxford Conference for the Book, shortly after the publication of his brutally gorgeous novel Yonder Stands Your Orphan, he was stoic but generous. At Georgia State, I was an assistant to Pearl McHaney, who interviewed Hannah for Five Points and asked me to transcribe the tape. Inside my copy of High Lonesome, he wrote, "Thanks for the transcript." One of a convention's main speakers, he seemed embarrassed by the attention.

But in his earlier life, Hannah had been a heavy drinker. Stories of his personal life (such as, the time he launched a note at his ex wife's door with a crossbow) were almost as well-known as his writing.

Poet David Bottoms tells a story about Hannah. In the late '80s, when Hannah was paid to give a lecture on writing. I forget the school, but I want to say it was Vanderbilt. The scheduled time for the lecture comes and goes. Hannah is nowhere to be found. His handlers from the English department have lost all sense. They do their best to smooth over the situation and exhort the audience, mostly MFA students, to stay put. Mostly they do.

Hannah finally swaggers into the lecture hall 45 minutes late and trailing a cloud of whiskey perfume. He grabs the lectern to keep himself upright, and says, "Hi--sorry I'm late. I understand the theme of this lecture is 'How to Be a Writer.' The main things you need to be a writer are talent and something to say. After that, the first thing you need is a big dictionary." Hannah takes a step back, turns to the blackboard, and writes, "BIG DICTIONARY."

"It should cost at least $10," says Hannah and turns back to the board. He writes, "AT LEAST $10."

Hannah walks back to the lectern, straightens himself up, and says, "That's all I can tell you. Thanks for having me."

It seems Hannah actually had a good deal more to say about writing, which he taught at Ole Miss for two and a half decades.

I've often tried to push Barry Hannah's writing on my friends, and what I've found is that you either get Hannah or you don't. He often wrote crude things about tasteless, ignorant characters, but he made them real and wrote them with more feeling and energy than any other writer I know. In his story, "Love Too Long," one of Hannah's characters is so heartbroken over the loss of his marriage that he threatens God, saying that if there's not something like his wife in heaven, he will "appear in public places and embarrass the shit out of You screaming that I'm a Christian." All I can say is there better be something like Barry Hannah in heaven.


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The Rumpus

Fiction Writers Review



Fresh Air

Tin House

Mississippi Review

Larry Brown and Mark Watson

Wired for Books

UPDATE: Quote corrected.

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