Reasons to Write
What prompted you to become a writer?
My family. I was always surrounded and bombarded by books. There was a park a block away from my childhood home in Memphis, and it never failed that whenever I was involved in a heated match of box hockey or four square, my older brother would ride up on our mother’s bike and tell me to get home and read. My brother always read willingly. Both of my parents were university professors, always reading. I sometimes think I decided to write to get their attention or approval, and it seemed jazzier than just being a reader. I craved literal engagement. Still do.
How did your writing evolve from a passive interest to a career?
I was an undergrad at Memphis State when it was brought to my attention (by my brother again) that if I really wanted to take fiction seriously, which I was only beginning to do, then I ought to commute to Ole Miss an hour away and take a workshop from Barry Hannah, easily the best teacher in the area. The literal engagement naturally appealed to me, and the weekly drive to Oxford felt damn-near Odyssean—the red clay banks and roadside crosses, the rebel flags and bowheads, Faulkner’s grave and home, and then to arrive at Barry himself, smoking at his desk, the wood of it creaking against the old floorboards of the classroom, with his big crackling laugh and purring voice—a male Lauren Bacall, if I may. Oh, the jazz of him. Nearly everything he uttered was quotable.
He sometimes wore a Confederate kepi, though sometimes a bomber jacket and Ray Bans and claimed he’d just flown into town from an exotic location. He was fond of pretending to be a pilot (the literal engagement?). To begin class once, he threatened to tear up a $20 bill because it was nothing in the face of art—then, perhaps as a subtle dig, allowed an annoying frat in the back of the class to have it. Sometimes after class Barry would buy me a beer at one of the bars on the Square and introduce me to the waitresses as a fellow writer, trying to get me laid, I suspect, but he always, always treated me as his equal. The praise Barry drunkenly heaped on me in those early days of our friendship was exhilarating but wildly unearned—even volunteering to write cover letters for submissions to Rust Hills at Esquire, etc. He was really selling me the life, and fatherly boosting my ego so I could possibly withstand the brutal rejection he must have known was certain to come. The first time he invited me post-drinks to his house for supper, I met his lovely potty-mouth wife, Susan, and their proud sad-sack assortment of adopted pets, and after spaghetti and wine, he picked up a tarnished trumpet from a bookcase and squirted a few notes. He was revealing to me, gradually, all of the characters from his books. And I thought, I played trumpet in the band when I was in high school. I loved animals, the sadder the better, too. And my parents, like Barry and his parents, were from Mississippi. You see, I was convinced. His world was mine.
How did you become involved with Fiction? With Poetry?
I had a project in the tenth grade in which I was expected to compose original poetry. I was under the impression then that poetry had best rhyme, and the best I could come up with was something along the lines of “Her smile was really nice, / With teeth as white as rice,” which I thankfully discerned was bad. Poetry seemed entirely unapproachable, an intellectual enterprise run by intimidating rules too sublime for me to comprehend. Petrified, I asked my brother for help, and he and his college friends were kind enough to pull an all-nighter at Shoney’s, where they wrote a chapbook of poems for me to turn in. For my birthday that following summer, though, my brother gave me a slim yellow book, The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster by Richard Brautigan. My first gospel. His poetry was indeed approachable, personal, even crudely incomplete, operated more by whim than convention. I became determined then to prove I could write my own—poetry, sure, but fiction, too. To express myself in whatever ways I wished.
Do you feel any regret about choosing writing as a career? If so, why?
No. Not yet.
Are there any reality checks you would give someone considering a career as a writer?
I would tell that person to write only if he or she is willing to be honest and mean enough. Are you willing to humiliate people you love, particularly yourself, and risk confusing, if not losing, them by dragging impossible, crazy shit out in the open for the sake of a good story? I did that with my father. It took years and a stroke for that relationship to mend. But honesty was what we both needed, and we’re closer now than ever.
In your opinion, what are the right reasons to pursue a career as a writer?
Only if you believe you must. If you’ve exhausted all other possibilities and you still want nothing else. Because cream does not always rise to the top. Because mediocrity sells. Because writing well is a skill set you can lose before you know it. Because people will intentionally and unintentionally confuse you by telling you you’re good when you aren’t or bad when you aren’t. The right reasons? Because there is no alternative for you. Because you are better at writing than anything else you do, and expect that you will someday be better at it than most. Because your voice is necessary. Because if you didn’t write, you wouldn’t be worth living with. Because you’d lose your spouse and kids, the pets, all those nice collectibles and mementos, because of that squatting depression and seething anger, which you would have no way to express yourself out of.