Barry Hannah, a world-class writer, teacher, and my reluctant mentor, died yesterday (March 1, 2010). Today, I feel the lack.
I first encountered Hannah's work when I was a junior in high school, when I holed up in the back corner of the school's library and read through study hall. Mrs. Betty Crane, my English teacher, had turned me on to the Southern literary tradition, the Mississippi literary tradition, introducing me to Faulkner and Eudora Welty and Richard Wright and Barry Hannah, and I read and read, and I cultivated a sense of pride, a first for me, in my home state of Mississippi. See, I grew up knowing that there was very little about Mississippi to be proud of: you name the list, and Mississippi is first or 50th. First in teen pregnancy, 50th in wealth. And there I was, my junior year in high school, and Mrs. Crane pulled back the curtain and I saw that when it came to writing, Mississippi's tradition was world-class, second to none.
Hannah's work, and Hannah the man, had a profound impact on my life. I was a lowly freshman when I first ran into him at Square Books in Oxford. Having read most of his stories and novels, Geronimo Rex, Ray, The Tennis Handsome, to name three, I was very familiar with his work, with his picture on the back of the dust jacket. And there he was, dressed in his tennis whites, obviously fresh off the court, perusing the upstairs literature section. It was the first time in my life I was star struck, and I watched him as he browsed, but I did not introduce myself or speak to him at all. Though he was a good half-foot shorter than me, he towered. I could not speak. I watched.
My junior year at Ole Miss, I signed up for his undergrad short fiction course, and I soaked up every word he said. No namby pamby pedagogy, just an hour of listening to Hannah wax about writing. We read great books of short fiction, and we wrote stories. His formula was simple: To write well, one has to read well. Then write, write, write.
I wanted nothing more than to impress him, and being very familiar with his work, I tried to emulate him, which for me meant no holding back. It had to be stylized truth with a capital T. I locked myself in my room with a six-pack of beer, and I hammered out a story with one purpose: to skewer the Ole Miss frat boys I, at the time, loathed so much. I wrote a story about two frat-boys with, let's just say, a homoerotic bent. The idea was to make the boys so fraternal, they got kicked out of the fraternity, thus exposing the sham. It was full of sex and booze and absurdity, but it was funny. I can say that because it made Hannah laugh out loud.
I will never forget it, and it is to this day one my greatest triumphs. I took the requisite twenty copies to class, dropped them off on his desk at the beginning, and took my seat. To my surprise, he passed them out, dismissed class, told us to go read the story and report back in thirty minutes to discuss it. My classmates were scattered around the grounds in front of Bondurant Hall, but I made sure I could see Hannah, and I watched him as he read my story.
He smiled. He laughed. He laughed and laughed. He looked at me and smiled. When we returned to the classroom, he called it “the best indictment of the fraternity system I’ve ever read.” I’ve never been more proud.
I felt, when I was sitting in his course, like I was in the presence of greatness, a feeling I’ve never felt since. Everything he said seemed like the most profound wisdom. But his formula for writing a great short story was very simple, and he said it very often: Beginning, middle, end: Thrill me.
Beginning, middle, end: Thrill me.
And I feel like, that day, I thrilled Barry Hannah.
My senior year at Ole Miss I signed up for his graduate writing workshop, and the first day of class was one I will never forget. Hannah called the roll, not to see who was there, but to see who he could cut. It was a permission-only course, and though I didn’t have his permission to take it--I couldn’t muster the nerve to ask him--I’d signed up anyway. And one by one, he cut his roll. Before he got to me, he asked seven people to leave, and one guy didn’t take it so well, called him an asshole as he left. I was scared to death, but when he called my name, he smiled, said “Wester, you’re okay.”
I belonged, but that habit of being in awe of him, yes, a little intimidated by him, of being unable to approach him, is why I call him my reluctant mentor. I never camped out in his office, or had much in the way of conversation with him. I always just admired him, and I learned as much as one can learn from someone in that fashion. No ass-kissing synchophat was I. When I interacted with him, it was always short and sweet, yessir and no sir. For Barry Hannah, I had the deepest, most profound, respect.
I did manage the courage to ask Hannah for a letter of reference, which he wrote, scrawled in his handwriting on Ole Miss letterhead. My mentor at Kansas State, Steve Heller, told me once, over beers, that I got in on the basis of Hannah’s letter alone. Heller had gone to the mat for me because, I was told, my stories were too risqué, to testosterone-pumped for the feminists on the committee. In other words, my stories were too much like Barry Hannah’s, the man I tried to emulate. The man who, as far as I could tell, wrote whatever the hell he wanted to write, naysayers be damned.
He had a vision, and he was true to that vision. That was all that mattered.Barry Hannah is the reason I walked through the ghetto in Kansas City to see what I could see while my friends wanted to go clubbing. Clubbing bored me. I struck out on my own. Barry Hannah is the reason I can’t step foot in New Orleans without finding trouble, without talking to people, without trying to see what I can see.
And that’s what Hannah taught me, right or wrong, one must be true to his vision. Stick to it. And I think I’ll live that way until the day I join him in the great beyond. Life is too short to kiss ass, too short to be a phony, too short to do anything other than what one is passionate about. He taught me to find my vision and stick to it. He taught me what it means to be true.
Barry Hannah is the reason I write at all. I liked knowing he was over there in Oxford, giving out the hell. I will miss him.