Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Happy birthday to a writing mentor

Happy birthday to Harry Crews. He was one of my writing mentors during my time in Hogtown. He helped me look at fiction in new ways, and introduced me to many of the Southern writers I had overlooked in my youth (or those that the nuns in high school overlooked for me). Harry said that he learned to write by copying those stories and novel passages that he especially liked. Not sure how many of those he did. I tried it and it helped me get to the bottom of phraseology and rhythms. Also a great way to grok a story's dialogue. He wrote, as he tells it, a "roomful of stories," but most weren't published at the time. He did publish a slew of books.

Harry's novels (Feast of Snakes, Car, Karate is a Thing of the Spirit) explore the wild side of life in the South. He also wrote fine pieces for big mags such as Playboy and Esquire. His Esquire column, Grits, was a must-read for me every month. He wrote about encountering some rough customers while hiking the Appalachian Trail, a part of the trail that passes through the place where they hanged the circus elephant. I guess you can "see the elephant" down South, too. His most chilling piece (for Playboy, if I remember correctly) was "The Button-Down Terror of David Duke." It was a chilling piece because KKK Grand Wizard David Duke had learned what his forebears had not, that late-20th-century marketing required a smile, a suit and speaking in complete sentences. The message was the same but the messenger had grown slicker and more menacing.

Crews could talk to people like Duke because he grew up in southern Georgia swamp country. He knew these people. They were family. He imagined people like them and put them in his books. They were sometimes large and startling figures. No surprise that Harry has this quote from another Georgia native on his web site:
"When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures." — Flannery O'Connor, "The Fiction Writer & His Country" 
Happy birthday, Harry. Thanks for everything.

1 comment:

RobertP said...


when I first moved to Gainesville and 2 years before I enrolled in UF, my roommate Danny talked me into sitting in on a Harry Crews class. It is an experience I still remember. He read a part of one of his stories about a guy who had a bad tooth and finally pulled it himself with a pair of pliers. It held my attention.

Happy Birthday Harry!