WHEN THE GREAT WRITER Barry Hannah passed away back in 2010, he left behind a body of work that remains amongst the most vivacious and electric fiction America has ever produced. The short story collections Airships and Bats Out of Hell, along with the novels Geronimo Rex and Ray, contain some of the wildest, most original language of the last half-century. Hannah was a writer who Truman Capote once famously labeled “the maddest writer in the U.S.A.,” which — in the heyday of gonzo, new journalism, and densely layered metafiction — was saying something. Hannah was also a teacher, working everywhere from Iowa to Oxford, Mississippi, and almost every English department lying along the latitudes in between.
Louis Bourgeois, executive director of VOX Press, has compiled a collection of essays remembering all this about Hannah, written by those who knew him, worked with him, and studied under him. Reading these, it’s clear that, though Hannah lived hard for a long time, he still managed to give a large number of students a number of great lessons that have stayed with them as they have evolved. He also gave one a gun.
A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah is a thoughtful, comprehensive, and almost pointillistic remembrance of a man who comes across as remarkably memorable, funny, and just as sharp as his work was. Hannah was the sort of character who always left you hungry, so we tracked down Bourgeois in Mississippi to find out more.
Toby Barlow: How did you first encounter Barry Hannah and what was your first impression?
Louis Bourgeois: My first encounter was in the early ’90s when I was an undergraduate at LSU. I was taking a fiction workshop with the Seattle writer Evan Burton. He assigned David Madden’s Revising Fiction for the class. Madden quoted a passage from Barry Hannah’s first novel, Geronimo Rex:
I was standing beside a skyblue Cadillac. You pretentious whale, you Cadillac, I thought.
I jumped up on the hood of it. I did a shuffle on the hood. I felt my boots sinking into the metal. “Ah!” I pounced up and down, weighted by the books. It amazed me that I was taking such effect on the body. I leaped on the roof and hurled myself up and pierced it with my heels coming down […] again, again. I flung outward after the last blow and landed on the sidewalk, congratulating myself like an artist of the trampoline.
This passage stuck in my head for years. In fact, it still does. I moved to Oxford after graduating, namely to be around the ghost of Faulkner. At that point, I hadn’t read any of Hannah’s books for some reason. During my first summer in Oxford, all I heard about was Barry Hannah and Larry Brown. The first book I read by Hannah was his long fiction collection, Bats Out of Hell. Although I was impressed by it, I still considered it a few notches below the other metafictional writers I worshipped at the time, namely Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and John Hawkes. By the end of the summer, I decided to study under Hannah and find out for myself what all the buzz was about. Actually, during this time, the late ’90s in Oxford, Larry was all the rage and Barry was pretty much taking a back seat to him. I signed up for his class, but when I went in on the first day he quite impolitely told me he was filled up and he wasn’t taking any more students. I walked away from him without saying a word and then, right as I was turning the corner of the hall, he asked me what my name was. I walked back to his desk and told him —Louis Bourgeois — then he smiled and said, “With a name like that, you must be an artist. Come on in.” Classic Hannah! What impressed me most was his voice. I spent hours with Hannah over the years and never experienced one second of boredom.
TB: This is a fantastic book, funny, warm, insightful. It’s rare to have so many distinct voices give you such a clear sense of a man. I think this book will be appreciated by people who’ve never read a paragraph Hannah wrote. How did the project get its start?
LB: Hannah was my friend as well as a mentor. As the executive director of VOX Press, it seemed inevitable that I would propose putting together a collection of personal perspectives on this great man of letters. It was also a way to deal with the sorrow of losing him so suddenly (although he was sick on and off for over 10 years, I felt he had another 10 years of life left in him). Overall, it took about two years to get the book to print and I’m very proud of it. The book will be an excellent resource for scholars and students who want to know about Barry Hannah on a truly personal level.
TB: The contributors you pulled together come from a wide stretch of Barry’s life. How’d you round them all up?
LB: When we first began the project, I put out a national call for personal essays on Hannah and overnight received dozens of submissions. It was a lot to sift through. And since we’re based in Hannah’s hometown, great essays by old school locals were at arm’s reach, both famous and not famous. It all happened quite easily. I have my own Hannah file, so pictures and fliers and so forth were easy to get to.
TB: I encountered Bats Out of Hell when I was in my early 20s and I have to say its effect on me was seismic and profound. Momentous acts of language, full of significance and cackle, were occurring on the pages before me. It almost hurt. I must have given away 20 copies of that book in the years since. I found it amusing and understandable that he tucked his own work into his curriculum. Did he ever talk about his writing with you?
LB: He did have a high opinion of himself, yet he could be quite humble as well. He once said to me, “I’ve certainly made the team, but who can say how good I am?” I responded, “You’re better than most, even me.” He guffawed and bought me another coffee. One thing I remember clearly about what he thought the writer should always be doing was: “be brutally honest” with your words and thoughts. And I agree with this. It seems terribly difficult for most writers to tell the brute truth of themselves and others on the page, perhaps they don’t know how to be “brutally honest.” My arts organization, VOX Press, featured Hannah in what was to be his last public appearance. His last words to the world on the subject of fiction writing were these: “I don’t know what you ask about fiction, it’s on the page or not, it moves or it doesn’t, it rocks or not, whatever.”
TB: The William Giraldi essay in your book includes a few great Hannah quotes and one of my most favorite Hannah lines: “I want to sleep in her uterus with my foot hanging out.”
LB: I think my favorite lines from Barry’s work are at the end of “Mother Mouth”:
Because there ain’t anything like Mama Nooky. Ask all them soldiers that lay dying on the fields of that great war you weren’t in.
I also adore those lines in Ray between Ray and his nephew:
“Promise me something Uncle Ray?”
“That when I die I won’t be from Ohio.”
And these lines from “Love Too Long”:
She was lovely. But her personality was a disease. It was slow murder.
What attracts me to most of Hannah’s work is the poetic cadence imbued in his prose lines, especially the intensity of his rhythm such as you find in the story “Bats Out of Hell Division.”
TB: Hannah’s strength as a teacher and a guide come out clearly in the essays, but there’s also a lot of allusion to how difficult, argumentative, and even litigious he could be. Seems like a tricky character. Was there a lot of drama and divisiveness around him or did people generally understand that the positives outweighed the negatives?
LB: Unlike a lot of students I went to graduate school with, I liked the way he conducted his workshops; he rarely gave concrete advice on how a story could be revised. For him, either a story worked or it didn’t. When he liked something you wrote it was the greatest high, and the lowest depths of hell when he didn’t like your story. The number of students who suffered tears in his classes is legendary. Fortunately for me, he was pretty much into what I was writing.
TB: Considering how many of his students contributed, this collection’s clear excellence serves as a wonderful testament to his work as a teacher. How did he influence your own writing?
LB: I’ll have to be blunt and say he hasn’t, except to the extent that I’ve tried to write with “brutal honesty.” But mostly it’s his voice that still lives and breaths through me.
TB: Have they put a headstone on his grave yet?
LB: Yes, he’s buried in Oxford Cemetery, right down the hill from Faulkner.