Harry Crews Rough Draft and Side Notes.
A few years ago my friend Shane turned me on to the writings of Harry Crews. Shane had done some flooring work the summer before in Crews’ Home. My friend knew I was a struggling writer looking for inspiration. He suggested I open a Crews novel and see what it was all about. From the first word to the ending line, I was hooked. His raw honesty, unpredictability, and good sense of humor were things I thought had all but died in Literature.
So after reading everything I could get my hands on pertaining to Crews and or his work, I called him up to see if an interview would be possible. It was a surreal moment for me when his gruff Georgian voice answered the phone. After a few moments of explaining who I was and what I wanted, he said he’d fallen on hard times with an illness and had stopped doing interviews. We talked for a little while longer about his childhood years and I explained my father was a year younger than him and grew up in the same part of Jacksonville. I told him how my father had helped my grandfather log timber near the town of Alma, Bacon County, Georgia, the birth place of Crews. We talked a few more minutes about two rut dirt roads and chicken thieves. Then he said to come to his home the next day at three o’clock for an interview.
Walking up to the door of Crews’ place was intense. His heavily wooded Gainesville home could have easily been a setting right out of one of his novels. After pushing the doorbell I heard, “Come in.” Harry’s unmistakable voice rang out.
All the preparation, all the books, all the articles, all the You Tube Clips, all the interviews, and all the asking of everyone I knew who might have had contact with the man or had him as a teacher--all the months of work had boiled down to this moment.
As I opened the heavy wooden door I thought to myself, Sink-or-swim Jason, Sink or swim.
Sitting across from Crews was a little nerve racking. My eyes were going over his features, older now, more defined then the You Tube clips I’d watched and definitely more defined then any back cover shot he had taken years earlier. His eyes looked deep into the object or subject he was watching. His inner-elbow still wore the dark green ink of a tattooed cabinet hinge. A mark he awoke to find on his arm after a night of drinking while covering the pipeline being constructed in Alaska. A story I watched him tell on the Dennis Miller television show 18 years earlier. He seemed restless for it all to begin. But he made it crystal clear it would begin on his terms.
He started out by reminding me that my appointment was at three o’clock and that I was seventeen minutes early. He suggested, with a few expletives I’ll leave out, the next time I was granted an interview with someone that I should wait in my truck until one minute till, then ring the doorbell. I had done my homework and knew the first few minutes would be the hardest with Crews.
I could see Crews had, what I wouldn’t call a smile, but a satisfied look with the answers to the line of questioning he had just laid on me. He said “You got a smoke?” I replied I had stopped smoking years earlier. After looking for a loose pack in his desk and sending me searching through kitchen drawers, he said, “Come on let’s do it.”
My tape was rolling and the interview had finally started.
Harry Crews was born in Bacon County Georgia June 7, 1935. His parents, Ray and Myrtice Crews struggled just to survive. “Our main concern was finding enough food to keep our bellies from growing to our backbones.” Crews said, in the trailer of the documentary, Survival Is Triumph Enough. Being born in the nineteen thirties to sharecroppers in south Georgia, Crews learned early on the harsh realities of the deep south during the Great Depression. Harry’s father died in the middle of the night from a heart attack when Crews was only two years old. His mother did the best she could to raise Harry and his older brother.
Along with the loss of his father, Crews endured incredible hardships as a child. At age five, he became ill with infantile paralyses and spent almost two months bedridden. A high fever and leg cramps caused his body to pull his legs up into a kneeling position. The doctors and adults around him weren’t sure if Crews would ever walk again.
Determination has proved more than once to be a strong asset for Crews. He would eventually learn to walk again, pulling himself along a fence line, using it for balance, Crews was not willing to give up.
“I needed something to hold onto, hold me up, because my legs wouldn’t do it. So, I held on to the fence and learned how to walk again by holding onto the fence, staying on it, my hands got bloody and cutup and shit, but I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt bad. I just did what I had to do, holding onto the fence line…” said Crews.
He went on to tell me that he believed he now had post polio syndrome. That it came on much like polio did when he was a child. I could visibly see the pain he was in when he tried to cross his legs during his explanation. He finally ended his polio story by saying, “My legs are gone. I couldn’t walk from me to you if you had a forty five to my head.”
A few years after his fight with polio, Crews was burned severely. While playing a game with childhood friends he fell into a kettle full of boiling water being used to scald hogs. Crews was burned over most of his body.
A few years after this incident, Crews wrote his first story. Around this time is when he believed he started his journey in writing. For me, as a writer I’ve always wondered what made other writers go down the same path I chose. A path that a lot of the time is not rewording at all and is full of constant struggles and disappointments. But for me there was a turning point when I said there’s no turning back. This is what I’m going to do even if it breaks me. So, if I only had one question to ask him it would be that. So I asked, “When was your turning point Mr. Crews? Was it a book or a writer that started you on your journey of writing?”
“I understand what you’re saying. Writers often have a book that is a turning point or a book that leads them into what they are doing. I could pick out things that turned me toward writing and the rest of it. But the thing is, long before I could do anything, long before I could write, I was a writer. I said that’s the way I’m going to do, that’s what I’m going to do with my life, my whole life. The first novel I ever wrote I was about ten, ten or eleven liven on a dirt road in Bacon County Georgia. And I wrote a damn sort of detective story, what else would I write. And, this little boy was a detective. He had firecrackers in his pocket, he couldn’t have a gun so he had firecrackers. He was after some crooks. He would pull out his firecrackers and light them, Bang, Bang Bang. Ok, come here.”
“That’s the kind of shit I was writing. But that’s what young writers do. They write dreadful things so they can write better things. They write another dreadful thing then they do it again, then they write another dreadful thing. And all the badness and terrible shit that young writers then go ahead and write always have joints that need to be tightened. Always has, just like a carpenters points need to be honed off or scraped off whatever. All that shit. That’s what the young writer does. Eventually if he’s lucky he meets writers that will help him. Writers are probably the most generous people in the world with their time. Nobody else would do this kind of shit. Finally they get to where they can trust their own ear.”
Crews paused for a moment deep in thought, then continued.
“I supposes, Graham Greene in England, was my main most man. I read him through and through, forever. Can’t read all of Graham Greene, there’s too much of it. But I read [him] forever. And ultimately, I met him in England and he read a manuscript of mine, said this won’t do, but it’s almost there. What you need to do, and I tried to do it, but I wasn’t successful. I kept writing, and kept writing, and kept writing and kept writing. First novel I ever published, I was thirty one years old. That was the first novel. But after that I publish one at thirty two, thirty three, thirty four, thirty five, and a whole river full of magazine articles…
From there I asked Crews about his time writing for Playboy. Crews seemed genuinely happy with his time spent with the magazine and was happy to have done the work he did with them.
“Yea, I wrote a lot of shit for Playboy. Hugh Hefner was really good to me as he’s been to a lot of writers. There’s a bunch of writers and I’m one of them that if they needed some money, they picked up the phone and said, Heff, I need to do some shit and I need some money, quick. You know you can make six thousand dollars by doing one story, that’s generally what he pays for it, one of those things. The hard part is going out and doing the research, hell you can write one of those things in an afternoon and you can write another one another afternoon, six thousand dollars, six thousand dollars a crack. And let him know you’re a good writer, you don’t try to publish shit in two magazines. Or other shit like that. Crooked stuff. You don’t want to do that. The guy’s got to know he can trust you.”
Not being able to find much about Crews’ high school years I ask what he was doing at that time period. Was he writing?
“I wasn’t associating with any people but I was writing. I was writing through the whole thing. No, I knew how bad I was and it’s a great gift to know how bad you are. But if you know that you won’t go out and show a bunch of bad, bad, terrible shit to people and have them think, my God what is this guy thinking? You do your homework first…”
The interview then drifted into his belief he now had Post Polio Syndrome. I asked if the motorcycle accidents Crews had been in over the years could have contributed to his legs being so messed up. The answer gravitated more toward his advancers on his year and a half journey across America on a bike. Which I couldn’t blame him. Why talk about leg injuries when there were adventurers to be told.
“I left here on a motorcycle Six Fifty CC Triumph Twin Champion was the bike I was riding.” He went on to say he went to Wyoming, then to Montana, then into Canada, then to Salt lake City, then to San Francisco to Texas, then Mexico, and finally back to Gainesville. “I finally got back here, purified and holy.” Crews said with a smile. “I wrote out of that for years.”
In the intro to his book Classic Crews he wrote about his time on the road, “During that year and a half I was jailed in Glenrock, Wyoming; was beaten in a fair fight by a one-legged Blackfoot Indian on a reservation in Montana; washed dishes in Reno, Nevada; picked tomatoes outside San Francisco; had the hell scared out of me in a YMCA in Colorado Springs, Colorado, by a man who thought he was Christ…”
When asked about the films that Crews had appeared in over the years, he summed up his thoughts on the matter by saying “I like to be in them, I like to write them.”
I then told Crews that I liked the way he kept the rich flavor of the south alive in his writings. From crosscut saws to mules pulling a plow line there wasn’t many writers left that grew up this way then went on to hang out with Hollywood types like Madonna, Charles Bronson, and Sean Penn.
“There probably ain’t a guy within a radius of fifty miles of here that could gear up a mule. To know they had a collar with a pair of hames with chase chains hooked to the hames, go back to the back then and hook to a single tree. One mule one single tree; And he might have a scrape and scooter if it were one guy, one mule, be siding and shit. Nobody knows anything like that. it’s a lost art.”
I then asked him about Charles Bukowski.
“He’s gone now but I knew him. He hadn’t been dead all that long. Seems like everything behind me is dead. He could tell you some shit; he could tell you some shit that you need to told, so you get it where ever you can. That’s what you do, Charles Bukowski.”
I then asked Crews about the late author Larry Brown who in many ways was considered to be in the same group of writers as Crews, and Bukowski.
“Larry Brown was a great, great, friend of mine. He sat right where you’re sitting.” Crews said pointing to me.
“When he first started he came to see me. Well, I went to see him first. I looked him up and read some of his shit. I thought this is good. So I called everywhere and I finally found him. He came and visited me and I got him a gig out at the school. Paid him about fifteen hundred dollars and expenses so they flew him down here and he spoke at the University. It was a great thing for him cause he could make some money.”
Crews paused for a moment as he recalled his friend.
“Larry Brown was a hard-knuckled-roust-about. He was something else… He was a very honest writer. Of course you know he died rather suddenly nobody was expecting him to die. He looked great but he drank considerably.”
I told Crews I had gotten what I came for. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome. The interview had gone well, and I was appreciative that he had taken the time with me.
“Ok buddy, well from one writer to another, I hope you find something that helps you get over the hump. I tell you man, it’s a hard, hard, task. But once you get a grip on it, you start seeing what it is, you might publish one or two stories, you’ll be alive, you’ll be alright but it’s hard to get the first things published.”
I agreed saying, my wife thought I was crazy for getting up at four in the morning to write before walking out the door to work construction. I would simply say, “A shovel is the greatest motivational teacher I know.”
With a smile Crews said, “I know, I dig it man, it’s true.”
|Harry Crews and Jason E. Hodges 9-10-2010|