And now he endows a great
fellowship for emerging southern writers here at Ole Miss.
Correct. And he did that because he wanted to try to build on what Willie did with all the people he brought in.
Speaking of nurturing young writers,
I once heard that when Larry
Brown was working as a firefighter he came into the store and asked you whom he
Is that not correct?
Was he already writing on his own?
Firemen work twenty-four hours and then they're off for forty-eight hours. And then they're back on for twenty-four and they're off for forty-eight. So all firemen have other jobs. They're usually painters or carpenters or builders or something. Larry worked at a grocery store. He was also a plasterer; he was a Sheetrock guy; he was a painter; he was a carpenter. He did all of this stuff. And he'd always been a pretty big reader. Larry's mother, especially, was a really big reader of romance novels. So Larry had this idea that he could supplement his income by writing a book that would make money. And he would go to the Lafayette County Public Library and check out books on how to be a writer, how to get your book published. He went through all of those. And I think he read that you start by getting published in magazines, so then he began to read magazines—fiction especially. He would read Harper's and Esquire. Larry was a complete omnivore of music and film and literature.
He took it all in.
Took it all in and he had an incredible memory. You would talk about a movie; he knew the producer, the director, the actor, the actresses, the location; music, the song, the group, who was on bass, the drums. On and on and on. And at some point, yes, early on, he came into the store. When I first opened the store, I was the only person who worked there. So I was talking to everyone who came in. And we started talking and, you know, I didn't give him a reading list and say, "Read these ten books and that'll make you a writer." Larry was already reading Raymond Carver and Harry Crews. Cormac McCarthy very early, long before Cormac broke out. Flannery O'Connor. So we talked about those authors, but Larry completely found his own way. He was completely self-taught. And I did later on help him in a specific way when he was kind of stuck. But he would've gotten out of the jam that he thought he was in at the time.
What was that?
Well, he had had one or two stories published and then he kind of couldn't get anything else published. He kept sending off these short stories and they kept coming back. Then he called me one day—and, you know, I hadn't read anything he'd written, hadn't asked to; I don't go there with writers unless they ask me. It was a Sunday. He said, "I don't know what else to do. I'm sorry I'm calling you, I don't mean to bother you, but I think I must be doing something wrong. Everything's coming back." I said, "Larry, I'd be happy to read them. Bring me a few of your stories. I'm no editor or agent or anything, but I'd be willing to read them."
So he came over with a manila folder. It was raining outside. We sat down at the dining room table and I opened this folder. He was sitting right across from me, and I just started reading. The first story was "Facing the Music." You know, I read maybe four pages and I said, "Larry, this is an incredible story. You're not doing anything wrong." And then I finished reading it and chills went down my spine. Because I knew that it was a great story. It still is a great story. And I told him, "This is going to be published. I don't know when, I don't know where, just don't despair." Actually I was looking the other day at a note he'd sent me. He thanked me for helping to make it better, that specific story. But I don't remember what that was. I may have said, "You might move this sentence from here to here," or something like that.
But mostly you were telling him
to keep the faith.
Exactly. Also, I suggested he contact Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry at the Mississippi Review, who'd published his first serious publication, a story called "The Rich." I said, "What about this story? Where have you sent it? Have you sent it to the Mississippi Review?" And he said, "No, ‘cause they've already published me."
That's a good thing! [Laughter.]
So he sent it to them and they published it and he dedicated that story to me. And then later on I helped him meet Shannon Ravenel, who published his first book.
It seems like so many of the greatest writers of American letters have
come out of the south: Tennessee Williams, Faulkner, Eudora Welty, Flannery
O'Connor. And, more recently, Tom Franklin, Larry Brown, Barry Hannah. All these
people whose work I deeply admire. They share something...an intimacy with place
It often gets explained in phrases like that, but I think that for the moderns...well, Faulkner was a genius. But I think he also realized early on what he could do and in contrast to the many things that he could not do.
What do you mean by that?
Well, he was a failure as a student. But I think with someone like Eudora Welty, who was an intelligent and independent woman of that time, there were limited opportunities for things that she could do. But writing, writing was one of them. And photography was one. So I think it's tied to economics in some way, but I also think that all of the rich and conflicted history of the South has a lot to do with it, all the various tensions. Because literature is built on conflict. There's also the whole war thing, the Civil War. Being the loser in that war makes us akin to other literature-producing places—Ireland, Russia.