Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

November 28–December 5, 1997

20 questions

Barry Hannah

By Neil Gladstone


Barry Hannah's southern gothic yarns combine the easy speech of back porch gossip with winding, baroque complexity. His latest collection of short stories, High Lonesome, is filled with stories about losers who weave through scandalous circumstances and has been nominated for a Pulitzer prize. In "Get Some Young," an unhappily married couple falls in love with a teenager they've seduced into a mnage trois. The title story recounts a bit of family history about the author's uncle, a drinker who was wracked with guilt over a murder he committed.

Born in Clinton, MS, the 54-year-old Hannah is a writer in residence at the University of Mississippi. He's also been an instructor at Bennington, Clemson and Middlebury colleges. Right now, however, he's at the Iowa City Holiday Inn and my phone call has gotten him out of the bathtub.

Critics have compared the soulfulness of your work to the music of James Brown and Jimi Hendrix. Who would you say you're more like and why?

I've admired Jimi longer and more, though I have nothing against James Brown. Jimi is sort of Mozart with volume — a true musician and revolutionary. Both of the comparisons are very flattering, but I have been deeper into Hendrix and I still listen to him. Music informs every sentence I write. But that music may be closer to classical and jazz; rock 'n' roll and prose really don't mate up.

Are you a musician?

I used to play trumpet but I kind of put that away when I was 21. I wanted to be the white Miles Davis which God did not allow. I had only adequate talent and that hurt more than having no talent. I was in the Jackson Symphony and a decent jazz player, but there are thousands of those.

When did you get into writing?

Around the same time that I stopped playing trumpet. I had a great teacher down in Mississippi that gave me a lot of respect and you tend to do things where you get respect. I had a conversion experience — I changed my studies from pre-med to literature.

What do you think of writing programs?

Iowa City and about seven or eight others in the states are very good. There are too many MFA programs now. But they're such money makers that they let in anybody who can write a letter.

What's the hardest thing to teach the students you work with?

Most people don't have a full good story and absolute precision of language. Language isn't treated as reverently as it was when I grew up. It's more an expedient thing, now. Most people are content with a middling newspaper style. But there's so much you can't teach. You can get a bunch of people to be competent, but there are too many competent novels in America now that are just replicas of each other.

Do any students enroll in your classes who want to write like you?

I hope not. I think Ray Carver still has the biggest sway in America as far as I can see. People are still imitating him which is unfortunate. I don't want people to mimic me or anybody, but when you're young it's not a bad idea to latch onto somebody you're going to copy for a while, it's not going to kill ya.

Do you find any difference between the students from the North and South?

There's less attitude in the South. In the Northeast there are attitudes that kids usually have when they're 18. They either pretend or they know about the world in a certain way. Southerners tend to be day-to-day pragmatists. There's more philosophy in the Northeast, while in the South there's religion.

Did your writing always have a personal voice or did you develop it over the years?

I don't know. I do know that I love voice and early terror stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Faulkner's baroque successes. I was also very influenced by the plain-spoken men such as Hemingway. I was never for obscurity and ornament. Who knows how your voice grows? You read a bunch of books, you go to church, play jazz and it all comes together in a way that you hope is fresh.

There's a lot of racism bubbling in your work. What do you think about the current state of race relations in America?

I grew up in segregated high schools during the civil rights movements of the '60s. It's very tough to talk about it these days. In some ways, the dialogue is less than it was in a segregated society. It's very unfortunate. There's willful segregation in both races. These are curious developments for me. It's tough for me to know if I can engage a black person in an airport for just a regular chat about children or sports without suspicion. There are very terrible shields around us.

Are you reading something now that you enjoy?

Right now I'm reading Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth about Hitler's architect. I'm fascinated by his covenant with evil and how culpable he was in murdering the Jews. That whole era still fascinates me. I read a great deal of war history even though at heart I'm a pacifist.

In the story "Uncle High Lonesome" the main character is let free after murdering someone. What do you think about revolving-door justice?

Well, that event actually happened — it was the '30s or '40s. That story was based on my uncle and father. My father went and spoke to the judge and jury to try to influence them to let my uncle free. Who knows, if my brother had shot someone I might tamper with the jury. It's not nice, but it happens. I was always kind of ashamed of that fact, but my Dad came clean with me about it.

You've done some writing for George and Spin lately. How do you like being a journalist?

I don't like it at all. Don't tell my employers. I don't like to invade anybody's privacy. I don't like to provoke people or quiz them. I also find journalism at its best to be kind of false. You really can't cover a scene in two weeks. What do they call it, "literature in a hurry"? I'm always having a feeling of incompleteness about it.

Barry Hannah will be reading on Tuesday, Dec. 3 at Borders Book Shop, 1727 Walnut St., 568-7400.

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