Harry Crews On Writing And Feeling Like A 'Freak'
This interview was originally broadcast on May 23, 1988.
Writer Harry Crews had a hard life and didn't made it any easier for the characters in his novels. He died Wednesday at age 76.
Crews' novels were filled with freaks and losers with unusual gifts. In Naked in Garden Hills, there was the 600-pound man with a penchant for dietary supplements. The Gospel Singer featured lunatics and carnival characters. Car showcased a man who literally ate a Ford Maverick, several ounces at a time.
The characters hit close to home for Crews, who had polio as a child, which left him with a disfigured leg.
"I know what it's like to have people look at you and [have] their face mirror your own rather dreadful circumstances. That is to say, your freakishness," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And there were other times I felt freakish, too. ... When I left the farm and went into the Marines, here I am, a boy off a farm in Georgia, who, among other things, I didn't know what a pizza was. Never heard of one. Didn't know what pepperoni was. So I go to Paris Island and the Marine Corps. in a platoon of boys from New Jersey, New York. Well, everything about my speech, the idiom of my speech was all wrong."
After leaving the Marines, Crews moved to Gainesville, Fla., where he studied and then began teaching creative writing at the University of Florida. He also began to write profusely. But he remained unpublished.
"I wrote four novels and short stories before I even published anything, and the reason I didn't publish any of those things was because it wasn't any good," he said. "And the reason it wasn't any good was because I was trying to write about a world I did not know."
Crews eventually started writing about the world he knew, in novels like The Gospel Singer, The Mulching of America and A Feast of Snakes.
"One night it occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back in there in Bacon County, Ga., with all that sickness and hookworm and rickets and ignorance and beauty and loveliness," he said. "But that's where it was. It wasn't somewhere else."
Crews also contributed to Playboy and Esquire, and wrote a memoir, titled A Childhood, about growing up on tenant farms in Georgia. In 1988, he spoke with Terry Gross about his novel The Knockout Artist, about a boxer who leaves rural Georgia to try to make it big in New Orleans.
"For the last 12 years, I've been a really, really bad drunk. But it was a curious form of drunkenness. If I wasn't working, I wasn't a drunk. And then you say, 'Wait a minute. That's stupid. You can't write and drink.' Well, I know that. But I can stop writing or get so scared or warped or twisted, and get drunk for three or four days or nights or weeks, and then stop drinking and go back to [writing]."
"When things get too comfortable and things get too safe, I get the feeling like I'm smothering. It's like somebody's burying me in feathers. So when things get too safe and too secure, then I have a tendency to start tearing things up or tearing things down, as the case may be. As I grow older, I seem to be doing better with all that, much to the relief of the people around me."
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
Harry Crews was the kind of writer who loved darkly comic characters and deeply twisted people, and great titles. His novels include "A Feast of Snakes," "Naked in Garden Hills," "Scar Lover," and "The Hawk is Dying." He died Wednesday in Gainesville, Florida, where he taught creative writing for many decades at the University of Florida. He was 76 years old.
The New York Times obituary of Harry Crews called him a Georgia-born Rabelais. Crews also wrote essays and a memoir titled "A Childhood: Biography of A Place," about his rural Georgia childhood during the Great Depression. But he's most famous for his fiction, featuring freaks and losers with unusual gifts.
Terry Gross spoke with Harry Crews in 1988, upon the publication of his novel "The Knockout Artist." It's about a boxer who leaves rural Georgia to try to make it big in New Orleans. Here's Crews reading the opening paragraph.
HARRY CREWS: From where he sat on a low stool, the boy, whose name was Eugene Talmadge Biggs, but who was often called Knock-out or K.O. or Knocker --had counted the suits hanging in the open closet three times. And each time he counted them he came up with a different number. That did not surprise him. He was not a good counter. It was just something to do until it was time for him to go out and do the only thing he had left. Besides, nothing much surprised him anymore.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
You know, as we get deeper into your novel, we understand that this boxer is about to fight for the pleasure of this wealthy man and his crazy friends, and that the boxer's specialty is actually knocking himself out by punching himself in the jaw. Did you actually know anybody who could do that, who could knock himself out by a self-imposed blow?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CREWS: Well, strangely enough, I did. I don't think, however, it's what caused me to write the book, but I did. My brother was a professional fighter. He was 22-2 when he broke his right hand and I spent a good deal of my early manhood in fight gymnasiums of one kind or another and boxed as an amateur myself.
GROSS: This character in your novel basically is forced to make his living through self-debasement. Do you know what I mean? Instead of really being able to use his talent of boxing, he has his vulnerable jaw, so he knocks himself out and it's, people relate to him because he - it's self-debasement elevated to entertainment in a way.
CREWS: Well, let's get one thing clear.
CREWS: He does do what he does and if you want to call it self-abasement, that's fine. But he doesn't have to do it. Nobody is holding a gun to his head. The boy is doing what he is doing because he lost the only thing he could do, which was fight effectively as a professional. And then because he has people he loves very much who are counting on him for money to sustain them, namely his family back in Georgia, he being in New Orleans during this novel, he does this to make money, all of which he sends home.
GROSS: Well, do you relate to his predicament?
CREWS: Oh, do I ever.
GROSS: So what are some of the things that you felt that you were forced to do that you didn't really want to do?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CREWS: Oh, well, now - we're on the radio, aren't we?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: That bad?
CREWS: No. Well, no, not that bad. I suppose having to earn a living in ways that I would not elect to have earned that living for people who were looking for me for something to eat and a place to stay.
GROSS: You know, critics always describe your novels as being centered around characters who are freakish or abnormal. Would you agree with that?
CREWS: Well, yes. All right. Yes. Certainly, I would agree with that. For instance, there - in the first three novels, there is a midget in all three novels, a different guy but a midget in each of the first three novels. They are very different people but they are midgets. And there are people who are deformed one way or another and...
GROSS: You know, I've just been reading your autobiography about your early life until you were around six years old. It's called "A Childhood."
GROSS: And from that book I really get the impression that during part of your childhood you really felt like a freak. You had polio when you were five and your legs were just bent.
CREWS: Well, yes. My legs drew up until the heel was against the buttock. That is, the legs drew up as tightly as they could draw. And, yeah, I know what it's like to have people look at you and their face mirror your own rather dreadful circumstances, that is to say, your freakishness.
And, sure, I felt like a freak there and I wrote about that thing, as you say, in "A Childhood." But, of course, there were other time I felt freakish too. Not just there, but other places, many other places.
For instance, just when I left the farm and went into the Marine Corps, here I am a boy off a tenant farm in south Georgia, who, among other things, this is just one thing, I didn't know what a pizza was. Never heard of one.
GROSS: No kidding.
CREWS: Didn't know what pepperoni was. So I go to Paris Island in the Marine Corps, in a platoon of boys from where? Well, New Jersey and New York, of course. And, well, everything about my speech, the idiom of my speech, was all wrong. And I felt very strange and was made to feel very strange. And as a matter of fact, if you'll let me pursue this for just a minute...
....it's one of the things that – it's one of the things that caused me to have such a very, very long apprenticeship when otherwise it may not have been necessary, because I wrote four novels and a rather large room full of short stories before I ever published anything. And the reason I didn't publish any of those things is because the stuff wasn't any good. And the reason it wasn't any good is I was trying to write about a world I did not know.
GROSS: Which world was it and whose voices were you trying to write with?
CREWS: Oh, I was trying to write about people who had families and who grew up in the same house. And about people who, if they were unfortunate enough to have hookworm and rickets, were able to go to the doctor. And about people who knew about automobiles and not about mules.
And so at – I take it as a moment of grace that one night, very late when I was working it, for whatever reason, occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back there in Bacon County, Georgia with all that sickness and, as I say, hookworm and rickets and ignorance; and beauty, and loveliness and the rest of it, such as it was. But that's where it was, it wasn't somewhere else.
GROSS: Can I read you the inscription to your novel and ask you about it? You dedicate your novel to Rod and Debbie Elrod...
GROSS: ...who made every effort to keep me sane and very nearly succeeded during the struggle to write this book.
GROSS: Were you having serious problems when you were writing a book?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: I mean, all writers talk about going insane while they're writing books, but was there something especially crazy that was happening to you while you were writing this?
CREWS: Uh, um, not any more so than has been true of the other books I've written. And I don't want to go on too much about it or make it sound too precious. And I don't think I suffer any more than any other writer does. I think some writers manage to live with what, for me, is the tension, and the anxiety and the general scariness of writing a book.
I think some writers manage all that better than I do. I never manage it very well. And my behavior takes various forms, or has in the past, when I'm writing a book - for the last – I don't mind saying this; everybody in this town knows it anyway and most of the people that know me around the country know it – for the last 12 years, probably, I've been a really, really bad drunk. But it was a curious form of drunkenness.
If I wasn't working, I wasn't a drunk. And then you say, well, now wait a minute. That's stupid. You can't write and drink. Well, I know that, but I can stop writing, or get so scared, or warped, or twisted and stop writing and get drunk for three or four days and nights, or two weeks, and then stop drinking and go back to it.
GROSS: Well, you know, you've alluded in one of your essays to thinking of yourself as someone who has to hold himself back from giving in to his worst impulses.
CREWS: Yeah. Yeah, and that gets right back to some of the stuff we were talking about earlier. I like the edge. Or another way to say that, is when things get too comfortable and things get too – things get too safe, I get the feeling like I'm smothering. It's just – it's like somebody's burying me in feathers.
And so when things get too safe and too secure, then I have a tendency to start tearing things up, or tearing things down, as the case may be. But as I grow older, I seem to be doing better with all that, much to the relief of the people around me, I think.
GROSS: Well, I wish you the best and I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
CREWS: Well, god bless you. It was my great pleasure and I hope it was all right.
BIANCULLI: That was Terry Gross speaking with writer Harry Crews in 1988. He died Wednesday at age 76. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.