james d. lilley and brian oberkirch
This interview took place on October 23, 1996 on the balcony of Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi.
Interviewer: Many of the narrators in your latest collection of stories, High Lonesome, seem to
reflect onóperhaps even obsess overóthings past. What role does memory play in your fiction?
Hannah: It plays an enormous role. Looking back, the obsession usually comes from guilt or incompleteness,
and I think that is what haunts my memoryóthe incompleteness of everything. You wish it had been a story, you wish
it had had meaning; sometimes you donít see any meaning until tenósometimes even twenty or thirtyóyears have passed.
But I donít think that people change severely from when they are eighteen; the obsessions they are carrying
around with them now were there before, so that when they look back they are looking at another version of the
same thing. But I think that we all want to put things right, put things better. Thatís maybe why we write. It
should have been this way, it should have had a little more edge, we should have given a little bit more.
Sometimes you donít want to arrange your memory. I love the pure chaos of it and just the reverie of it for
its own sake. I think that is what a writer has: a better memory than most people, or at least a more sensual memory.
Language and memory are what it is all about.
Interviewer: Perhaps not only a better memory, but a clearer vision as well? Robert Olen Butler said
recently that what an artist is supposed to do is not avert his eyes.
Hannah: Thatís true. Those that donít avert their eyes are the real artists. It is concentration, thatís
what Dostoevsky said. Concentration is what the artist is about: he can look, and look, and look, and look. He
carries no brief. He will tell you everything he sees. This sensibility will overcome every tendency to capsulize
or moralize or philosophize; it is why, despite the themes and philosophy announced in behalf of an author by others,
the actual art experience is much more whole. Flannery OíConnor can never be accounted for by her Catholicism.
There is something rich and deep and strange in her that just doesnít get on a theoristís pageóthat just does not
explain itself by outlines. Itís a special feeling.
I know some writers who really are just above making change, but they can tell a story. It has nothing to do
with what will show up on an IQ test. They are just gifted in a certain wayóeven sometimes as an idiot savant.
Writers maybe just stare, like a cowójust staring. Most people donít stare. A writer is unembarrassed to just keep
Interviewer: A kind of wholeness of visionónot being partisan, not trying to reduce art to a statement.
You can see that in a lot of your work: embracing both victory and defeat.
Hannah: Absolutely. In fact, I am sort of like the criminal writer Jean Genet who even embraced
his prison. It was his paradise. I embrace even the bad colleges I have been to, the wretched, depressive experiences.
The wrong towns, the wrong woman: all of this is part of you, and I like it now. I didnít like it thenóIím not
a masochistóbut itís life and you just take it, thatís what you are. You announce it.
It doesnít mean that you canít have philosophy or thoughts, but the thing is people in theory begin behaving
like puppets. If you pick a theory of life it can sabotage you as an artist. I donít think that Americans have
had much theory. For instance, we have never had a significant Southern philosopher. Maybe Walker Percyóa high
Catholic philosopher. But that is so rare in the South; it is a much more pragmatic, experiential place. I think
youíll find prejudice and religion in abundance in the South, but not a hell of a lot of philosophy. Itís just
not a subject down here. Never has been. Southerners are more interested in music, in painting, in the expression
of being alive.
Interviewer: The narrator of High Lonesomeís "Through Sunset Into the Raccoon Night"
makes a comment that "Places do make people." Do you still see contemporary places shaping fiction?
Hannah: Yes. This guy has seen a number of significant creeps issue from St. Louis, and it bothers
him because it makes him think he is a creep himself, probably, and that he is about to marry another creep from
St. Louis. Sometimes even cities within the same stateóMontgomery, Alabama and Mobile for instanceóhave a completely
different character. And that is, what, 150 miles or so? I like the confidence bred in many people from New Orleans.
They donít even read that many books down there: they just live culture. The same thing is true of Mobile. There
is a joie de vivre and an appreciation of the dayóof eating, surf, windóthat is instantly recognizable if
you just stand around and watch a little bit. There are many different American characters: Western, Southern,
Northeastern . . . I teach at Bennington sometimes in the summer, and in my first trip up there I noticed in the
Administration Hall that the pictures hung up there were of people dying from AIDS. You would not find here in
the South pictures of AIDS victims. As many as have died of it, it is still not a reverenced disease. There is
a huge difference in attitude. So when people from these two places go to Franceóthey could both be ugly Americansótheir
experiences are going to be very different, very distinct. Yes, I think towns shape people.
Interviewer: There are some experiences shared by the land that just canít help but shape you.
Hannah: Right. Itís only the elements that get to Americans. Like my motherís big experience, she never
stopped talking about the í27 flood. My uncle, who was in World War II, but he had light duties, was in Hurricane
Camille. Every time I visited him, he said "Son, that water was up to here . . .," and he died, this
as the central experience of his life. Itís amazing, horrible, but also beautiful to him. Mobile lives with that.
So, thatís what we have.
Iím still an addict of enormous weather. I just adore it. I would have died in a hurricane, as I have said in
some story, "Just, come on. Show me what ya got."
Interviewer: Out on the balcony?
Hannah: On the balcony. "Come on, Baby." And I would have been drunk enough to die. The people
who were drunk died in Hurricane Camille.
Interviewer: You mention France. How is your workóand perhaps contemporary Southern fiction in
generalóbeing received in Europe?
Hannah: Things black, things cowboy, things Southern seem to be very special in France now. I
have no idea how to market myself, but if I were a real cynic I would probably get on a Lash Larue outfit, be a
cowboy writer, and make a lot of jack. My French reception seems solid. Iíve had good reviews. Iíve only had one
book, my last collection, Bats Out of Hell, translatedówhich took three years. The French translator gave
up on about three stories. He thought that they were so Southern that there was no way to idiomize themówhich shocked
me because I thought I wrote pure American, but I still must be really Southern. I was on the French "Tonight
Show," and my publisher is Gallimard, so Iíve got all the outlines of looking good in France. I hope I do.
Iím just waiting. I think the French are going to buy three more books within the week, so Iím excited about France.
Iíve always thought of it as sort of my spiritual home. I think of Henry Miller and France in the thirtiesóErnest
Hemingway. That era was why I became I writer. It excited me. I wanted to get on a plane and leave for Paris when
I put down The Sun Also Rises. It was hard to be at home.
Interviewer: Do you have any sense why it is the regional writers who are particularly hot right
now in France? Is there anything about France that lends itself to this kind of fiction?
Hannah: Well, it may be an unfortunate Americanizing of everything. But they have always loved
noir theater, noir movies, even more than Americans. They love the down and out, the outcast, the
gritty, the black, the pariah. I think they have an impression of America as a gargantuan, materialistic country,
which it is, and they like the people who are left behind and who are on the outsideóeven to the extent of worshiping
heroin addiction, or sickness even, as a virtue. The removed artist is a special character after Marcel Proustóhe
was allergic to everything and didnít even come out of his room. This kind of thing is adored just in and of itself.
Jim Harrisonís books are worshipped in France because of the savage grace in themóthe untamed, the Montana, the
Midwestern Indians, the alcoholic liable to violence. Deep adventures. Actually, they are worshiping what kids
over here used to worship. I used to read for these very reasons. The world itself is becoming a colony of very
bad American movies now, and I like anything literary almostóthatís vital, vivacious.
Interviewer: Youíve talked about place, but letís talk a little about communities. Your characters
seem to be interested in forming communities, however unlikely they might be. How important is community to you
as a writer and to some of your characters in your books?
Hannah: Probably that became more important to me when I finally found a townóOxford. I really
think pals are heaven, as I say in my dedication to the Howorths [from High Lonesome]. There is something
bracing about it. I have lost my folks. You gather pals and girl and boy friends and thatís your civilization.
It is a small marriage: you have your own language, your own values. I like the different points of view in a community.
I like the little fightsóthe fights over trees, over grass. It is something I personally need. Everybody wants
respectóyou go where there is respectóand you want life. Itís somehow more fun to have it with others. I remember
I discovered California alone, and I was always wishing for someone to be with me. You know, "This is too
good to have alone." I wanted my son, a girlfriendóI was a bachelor, divorced. I felt kind of greedy. Itís
more fun to have things together.
Interviewer: Is it important for you to feel networked into a community of writers?
Hannah: No. But, I think itís lovely that Larry Brown is here and that the students write supremely
well. What I like is the high mark that is expected after Faulkner. You donít have to love Faulkner, but there
is a high mark that folks shoot for. Itís very strange in the poorest, probably the most illiterate, state in the
union to have a town where this kind of excellence is expected. I think the onus is on the younger writers in this
town to come up to the very highest of standards. They canít buffalo people. They read books here. Quality is heralded.
Even the bad book that makes a lot of money hasnít buffaloed anybody on the streets of Oxford. They are glad for
the author, but they are not sold on the prose. And this is electricians, tailors, doctors. I kind of like that.
Itís not snobbish at all, but just that you expect good workówhether itís painting, music, or writing.
Interviewer: You mention the influence of Faulkner. Who are some of the writers around at the
moment who you admire and who influence you?
Hannah: Cormac McCarthy. Itís not just the language, although I canít imagine loving his books
without the special language. Heís one of the few writers who has a vision. Relentless. Itís very roughóalmost
fascistic, as nature is. Darwinian. But he gives such reverence to nature itself. I think that is why he seems
atavistic; he likes the fact that there was a time when boulders, trees, mosses with lichensóall their individual
namesóparticipated right next to man. And even though there are horrible things that happen in his books, heís
quite sure that we have disconnected ourselves from the good stuff. He can make a gorgeous, almost epic, page out
of a man riding a horse through a half decent meadow somewhere in Mexico. Actually, it kind of makes me excited
in a positive wayódoes not depress me as it does othersóbecause it makes me a participant in the universe. You
are no longer just a dead man, floating. Youíre right there with the stars, smoke, the peace, and the beautyóas
well as the violence. It makes you a player.
I donít think there is a better stylist in America than Tom McGuane. He writes with a sort of mod Shakespearean
elegance. Thatís very rareóyou lose readers if you write that well nowadays, by the way. I never thought that I
would be sitting on the porch, apologizing for my antiquarianess, but respect for the word in and of itself has
become rare. Language has turned blandódemocratic in a bad way. And very disposable, very disposable. The novels
are more disposable because they are closer to information than they are to art. I think it is dreadful. It is
up to you to make a difference, to see the world and raise the language. It doesnít mean prettify, but exactify.
It is up to the writer to be a scientist of the word. What else is he doing?
Interviewer: Given your recent comments in The New York Times Magazine, it seems that you
think that the short story is a better way to do thatóto revivify the languageóthan the novel.
Hannah: Yes. A guy is always in favor of what he is doing. Coming out in favor of the short story:
Iíll put my gnat-like shoulder to the wheel. It doesnít have an enormous audience. It is closer to poetry. There
are more fireworks, there is more emotional depth possible, because of its concentration. Poe said a story should
be read in one sitting, and I think he was right. Even a superb novelógetting up, going to work, putting it down,
reading it in the bathroom, reading it at the beachógives you a disconnected flow. My ideal novel is something
like Camusí The Stranger. I could not leave my chair; I thought I had a hold of something like heavy wateróit
was so distinct and rare. I had never read anything like it. To read that at twenty, and to never have had a hint
that people could carry on like this. I think I finished it at four in the morning. I couldnít get up. I remember
Iím not a big playgoer because here in the South we just donít have that many theaters, but I think that from
the handful of successful plays I have seen it must be similar. You get something, in one night, from Shakespeare,
or Beckett, Stoppard, or Pinter. All whole, sitting there. You are an active participantóin the room with the people.
Thatís what I want out of the short story. And the conventions of the novel almost have to be artificial.
Interviewer: Yammer and chat?
Hannah: Yammer and chat. And also plot line. Enormous coincidence is false to me. Like manipulation.
I can feel it coming on in a book. I say, "Oh no, oh no." Here go the dollar signs. You can just hear
the [sound of a cash register] "Cha-ching." Here comes the depraved uncleóyou know. "Cha-ching."
If you can write a novel without that falseness it is a tremendous achievement. I think the novel is still very
vital; but you donít have time to be phony in a short story. A reader can tell instantly if he is being manipulated,
and I like that. Itís closer to real life artóliving tissue. I donít always get it, and no short story writer always
gets it; in a collection there are going to be three or four duds. Like shooting out a big magazine: you think
youíve got it, you just keep trying. Usually it comes out by extreme honesty, where the language is inevitable,
and people just believe it totally. And you believe it. Those are usually the successes.
And the other thing about the story is that itís a huge compression. In my better stories I sometimes have a
novel-length experience. Iíve got seven stories to tell, and Iíve just got to get one out of that material. So
itís reducing things to the very best, pulling slightly dissimilar experiences in time together, to make the power
that your memory gives you. Your memory chugs along, and your consciousness chugs along, but there is power there
you can never explain. You donít know what it is, but you just try to come close to it when you write. So I am
with Beckett when he says, "Fail again. Fail better." Fail better. And you will failóyouíre not going
to get it all the time. But Iíd rather read an ambitious failure that is not foolish than a well made American
Interviewer: You mention your admiration of McCarthy. Who are some of the short story writers who are
audacious and willing to take risks?
Hannah: Tim OíBrien has taken adventures in The Things They Carried. There are particular
pieces in there, he told me, that are truthful but imagined. He made a daughter. I said, "Tim, I didnít know
about your daughter." He doesnít have any children. And also those experiences walking the jungle that are
sufficient unto themselvesóbecause they are beginning, middle, and end nightmares. You just canít imagine yourself
at nineteen strolling through this jungle, with this around you, and this crew. And it just stops. Youíre on another
plane, as you are in McCarthy. Youíre in this fierce, unforgiving, hideous condition like the most ghastly but
wonderful painting you have ever seen.
Nobodyís going to complain if Tim OíBrien still tells Vietnam stories when heís eighty. They might get better.
Deeper. They can be even more accurate. I wouldnít complain. He might bore himself, but thatís the central event
of his life. When I was drinking, we were on this porch once and he said, "Hannah, you are the wildest guy
in American letters." I said, "You fool! You volunteered for Vietnam." I mean, this country boy
didnít want anything to do with Vietnam. I thought it was rotten. He had a fancy education and still went over.
Thereís a wildness in Tim. I think that itís very beautiful to live long enough so that your past and your friends
become meaningful to you as good history.
Interviewer: There is a story in The Things They Carriedó"How to Tell a True War Story"ówhere
OíBrien talks about the need to make some things up in order to get at the truth. I know that you have been reading
a lot of nonfiction, especially histories and biographies . . .
Hannah: Yes. Iíve been reading histories and biographies for about four or five years now.
Interviewer: I was wondering how nonfiction and fiction interact in your work. It is made very
explicit with a couple of the nonfiction stories from your latest collection, but it seems to have always been
a part of your work. Boomerang, for example.
Hannah: Yes, in Boomerang I tried something similar. I began seeing that much of our best
writing was in history and biographyóI think because reality has caught up with imagination, as Phillip Roth suggested
in the sixties. The novel no longer stuns us. Youíre never shocked. I saw on CBS news the other day the first thing
Iíve actually been shocked by recently. Men driving stakes through their stomachs on videotape. I couldnít sleep.
But I havenít been disturbed by anything in ages, and Iím a horror movie buff. I keep going back like a sad
childóIím trying not to be jaded. I love the biography because thereís not the veil of "letís pretend."
Thatís the thing that is wrong with art. Youíve got to have not only a willing suspension of disbelief, but I also
wanted to know that what I was reading was real. I donít like to be carried into purely fanciful circumstances.
The fancifulness is just not for me. I have never been drawn to fantasy writing, for instance. The never never
lands of the imagination have not interested me that much.
The thing that puts you there, but puts you in a special space that you cannot get anywhere else but the pageóthatís
what Iím interested in. I know weíre not historians, but I love great history because you are just flabbergasted
that it actually happened. You cannot quite believe it. There is plenty in life that is this way. Time gives it
to you. Itís not a pipe dream, itís not a day dreamóyou only see it was a story by living past it.
I expect to go on and do things very much like High Lonesome. I do like interesting facts now more. I
donít like dead information; I hate it more than ever. I love the living tissue of facts.
Interviewer: So perhaps another reason why you admire McCarthy stems from the way in which he
Hannah: Right. And Iím a big Western buff, so my favorite is Blood Meridian. Iím not a
big horse manóhe makes me love horses, although I donít like them that much. I love to see them run the Derby.
But itís the cowboys and Indians, on a much fiercer level, that make you admit things to yourself. The book opens
up with a skullóthree thousand years oldóthat had been scalped. This kind of grotesque need to maim that you donít
acknowledge as a part of yourself. You may deny it, and you donít do it of course, but it helps to notice thatís
a part of you so that you are not shocked and can deal with it better. None of the polls account for how human
beings really are. These things are not accounted for. This is what the artist does: CNN will never get it right
about who human beings are. Who would have thought that in 1996 there are people shooting themselves in the stomach,
or ramming wooden stakes through themselvesórelinquishing everything for Saddam. "I do this for you."
They were driving stakes into a guyís head. This is a part of the freaksí circus we thought had been abandoned.
Itís right in there. You get Saddam watching "Little House on the Prairie" and shedding tears while cruise
missiles are coming. This is a mission. You know he was an orphan. And so heís watching American TVóhis tears are
coming down for his own pain. He never had a house. I mean, this is it. This is the millennium.
Interviewer: So you are a truth teller?
Hannah: Yes. That kind of truth needs to be told. It helps you get along better in life when you
realize that everyoneís human. I had a kind of bad review on High Lonesome yesterday. Some dude who sent
me down a novel I ignored wrote it. I understand he is a guy, and there are resentments, there are personalities.
Maybe thatís why reviews donít hurt me as much. They just devastate other writers I know. A particular day, a guy.
He is sore, his life is not going on that wellónobodyís taking his books. It takes down that curtain when you know
that folks are folks. The artist does that as a matter of habit.
Interviewer: What gets you to writing? What are your writing habits, particularly with these last
two books, the massive collection Bats Out of Hell and this latest collection?
Hannah: Maybe I can contrast it to the hugely successful writer of the town, John Grisham. I canít
imagine writing entertainments, even on a classical level, on a schedule. Even if he were like le Carré,
I canít imagine entertaining with a formula. I donít have it. Iím not good at it. In fact, I think I would have
picked up thousands of more readers had I been better at plotting. Plot has never interested me. I think Iím a
dash man. I see explosive circumstances with interesting people. They just come to me any time of the day, sometimes
in my dreams. And the best art, I think, is very close to dreams anyway. So, my inspiration is constant, but I
can go for a month without having a story. It bothers me, but I just donít have anything to say. I work like a
banker, however, when Iím hot. I mean, I get up at four and write till three, and then call James for tennis. Iíve
got to get out of the house, be with a pal or go out on the Square. Because itís possession, itís obsessive. Thatís
why books, novels, wring me out. Physically, theyíre terrible on me. Iím trying to write one now, but, itís faithful
to life and art, for me, to work on two heavy scenes. Two or three heavy scenes with folks.
And maybe I still have some anger. Littleness, bullies, commercialismóthe standard enemies of the bohemian are
still mine. I donít like to see my country consumed by big money in everything. Iím tired of watching magazine
after magazine coming out with Madonna or another semi-talented millionaire face. The face or the image, I much
resist. So thereís a lot of anger. Itís very unreal. The phony smile. Why am I interested in a person who owns
dollars? Why is the person more interesting? Iíve never got it. So, itís anger.
And I think a love of women. The mystery of women through the times. Iíve been a student, like Freud. But, theyíre
very different creatures, and people who try to forget that, try to mold us together, are idiots. I was raised
by strong women. Women controlled the money, the home. Little biddy women dictating. They do in the South. So,
I donít know what feminism was all about. So what do you want? You want in the market place, now. To have
the letterhead. Of course, women have been disgraced by low salaries and so on, but Iíve always known about their
power. You know? I didnít think they were lacking power.
Interviewer: You mentioned that you are working on a novel at the moment.
Hannah: Yeah, but like a stutterer, until I reach the good stuff. Something Iíll be passionate
about for months.
Interviewer: Bats Out of Hell is such a voluminous, immense book in many ways, and Iím
wondering how the writing process for that compares to High Lonesome.
Hannah: It was a book unlike any other Iíve written. My Dad had died, I knew he wouldnít see it. He was
87; he had a full life, and we were very close. He was a dear man to me. I had quit drinking about six months before
Dadís death, and I had been depressed from lack of chemicals, I guess. Couldnít write, couldnít think. Then my
father died. About two weeks later, just absolute liberation. I couldnít stop writing for a year and half. He died
during Desert Storm, and I started writing the book on the back porch. I started in with that Desert Storm story,
maybe the last one in the book. Itís been so long now, it seems like ancient history. I just started doing a take
on those missile folks over there. "That Was Close, Ma." So I just started. Other stories built up. "Rat-faced
Auntie." And they were forty-five page stories. They were unpublishable lengths. The Chicago Review
wanted to do "Rat-faced Auntie" in sections, by issue, and I thought that was a bad idea. I donít think
it was ever published. "Rat-faced Auntie" was done in Italian in one big chapbook. Another long one,
["Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face?"] the father whose son is a poet going nuts and
getting into troubleóheís from Mobile, he lives on the Eastern Shoreóthatís a forty page one. The Santa Monica
Review did it. See, the big slicks, they have too many Cole Hahn shoes, too much Chivas Regal and overcoats
to wedge you in there. In fact, my newest story in Esquire, "Two Gone Over," I was delighted they
ran it straight.
But it didnít matter. I knew that these were not commercially viable, but I just couldnít stop. My mother and
I spent some fine time together; she was also beginning to die. We got honest with each other, more than ever.
I was on the back porch; I think I felt liberated being at home, back in my old circumstances, that things were
at an end, that maybe I had to be more of a champion now. Maybe my Dadís spirit sort of entered me; I started believing
more in hard work. But they just came, I couldnít wait to get up at three, four. Even on vacation. I was on fire
with the book, and, actually, I donít think all of it is the very best Iíve done, but certain stories may be as
good as Iíve got. I donít think that really violent thing with Pusalina ["Ride Westerly for Pusalina"],
which caused me a few attacks for misogyny, I donít think itís a great story. I just had some fun with my love
of the West, thought Iíd put a vampire nun in the West. Itís one of those ideas that comes down the pike and you
just do it.
Interviewer: What were some of the prime movers for this new collection?
Hannah: They were much more deliberate stories. With about three exceptions, from the past almost
literally. Literally from events, formed only by my separation from them in time. My friendís suicide in "Drummer
Down," it did take me three years to write. I didnít want to write it; I didnít want to disgrace his memory.
Itís so hard to get it right when a close pal goes down. Finally, I got the strength and some vision to do it.
The "Carriba" story I was actually working for Esquire, and I got about halfway through it, with
this young son who killed the father who had shot the policeman on the square. And it got to me, it was so sordid
and awful, I just told Esquire, "Thanks. I canít do it." Murder is just so horrible on the families.
I just felt poisonous trying to make it interesting to a public. Thereís something ugly about journalism. Because
finally, itís going to make me money, they get nothing. The media is really not a very nice institution on that
Interviewer: So the guy in your story tries to be more than just a "hag and a parasite."
Hannah: He does something about it, which I wanted to. I said "Come on up to Oxford,"
and I was in line to help the boys, both of them, go to college, but they hardly ever elect to that class. I only
knew them for a couple of weeks, and theyíd rather live with the familiar. Itís what they knew. But the kid did
look like a movie star, and he was just in horrible circumstances.
Interviewer: Talking about beautiful youths, your first story in this collection, "Get Some
Young," is a sharp contrast to what weíre used to in your other recent short story collections, which begin
in the elderly community of Farte Cove. Weíve got a completely different community of young people here.
Hannah: Thatís also from my youth. The beautiful guy is imaginary, but I have seen beautiful people
and life surrounds them in a different way. People are good to them, but also they have fathers who messed with
them. Thereís also some noteworthy ugliness to their coming up. So, it was invented out of experience, although
Swanly is fictional. You enjoy having a beautiful pal along. Itís not homosexual, itís pride of association. I
see some of these beautiful frat guys, and itís just like society surrounds them when they walk out of class. The
girls come up, almost like a rock star. And itís phenomenal.
Interviewer: Is there something, again, about having a distance from which to look back at it,
too? There are these two people, kind of elderly, looking back at youth.
Hannah: Iíve also seen the way people feed off of young lives in this town. There are some older
and middle-aged people who are rather pathetic. They live off of college events. They get to drooling when the
talk is about nineteen-year olds playing football, and theyíre fifty. Iím a fan, but not on that level. This worship.
They have no real lives; their lives apparently stopped when they were twenty two. And thatís not uncommon in America.
It may be American, in fact. That we about all stop when Huck Finn lights out for the territory. Itís also James
Matthew Barrie, the Peter Pan guy: certain quotes from him are astounding. "Nothing that happens after weíre
twelve matters very much." I think I see that in middle-aged people here. They have no lives; they only talk
about their children. Older people attending to the young that way always amazed me.
Interviewer: "Through Sunset into the Raccoon Night" begins "You get on, and one
day it occurs to you that you might be doing something rather important for the last time."
Hannah: Heís getting married. Heís going to start something or stop something. Different and odd things
in marriage come up that are untoward or sometimes rather poisonous. Like he and his fiancé seem to be privy
to a number of car wrecks, and their reaction is not unusual: violence increases horniness. Itís horrible, but
itís true; thereís a condition in us that loves to watch violence from afar. In the same way that when you go to
a funeral you feel twice as alive, because youíre not the dead one. These things should be said. Itís a little
bit ugly, but itís human. Also, marriage astounds people with how ordinary they are. You thought that you were
a wild bohemian, and yet, when two people get together you go around buying stuff. Or talking about your grape
arbor. Iíve seen this happen to hippies. Hippies who suddenly become landowners. A friend of mine, whoís kind of
a hippie musician, she and her husband bought land and started having to put up "No Trespassing" signs.
You could tell it was killing them, but all these old guys who fished there for fifty years kept driving up at
all hours. They just couldnít have it. So, here theyíve become landowners.
Marriage makes you ordinary, and you resent it somewhat. You become a denominator that you didnít expect. Just
to have the little civilization, the compromise is enormous. Now, [in the story] Iím on her side, because heís
too old to be having his mainly negative principles. Itís not all good, it ainít ever going to be all good. I think
itís wrong to believe in heaven itself. A lot of us believed in a kind of purity of existence for too long. I did.
I was always expecting too much from folks in situations, and it made me distanced and a snob. Maybe thatís why
I also drank a great deal. Nothing was ever quite up to par. I had that cynical liberal arts attitude. Looking
for a miracle. And it cuts you off, spiritually, from life. You donít experience a good game, because itís a little
beneath you. You end up sitting on your couch, despising where you are. And thatís what he would face: further
pessimism and bleakness about people. At least heís got a spark with the woman, even though they canít talk. Their
occasional moments are probably worth having, and healthy. People say Iím mellowing or maturing; maybe so. But
part of it is just recognizing the inevitable. Itís like fighting with your parents for the rest of your life over
things that will never be solved. Itís just stupid. Youíve got to come to some accord or just be miserable. Youíre
not going to convert everybody. You go around the world trying to correct everyoneís tennis swing, and youíre an
asshole. People do enjoy their errors; they enjoy their bad cars, their bad towns.
Interviewer: Donald Kartigainer commented that he saw Bats Out of Hell as a love story.
Hannah: Much of it is. I think Donís right. Iím always fascinated by who gets married and why. Just on
kind of a beauty shop level, I love great gossip. Great gossip is akin to great art for me. Itís the secrets no
one will tell. I understand it on, I hope, a deep, curious level. Gossip of the other variety is always to elevate
yourself. You know, "Iím so glad Iím not a cokehead like him," or "My wife doesnít run up a $200,000
bill at Village Tailor I canít pay." This vicious sniping I donít care for at all. I like to know the secrets
though. There are more freaks on campus. This is where you meet the world. This old thing about not being in the
real world in college is baloney. I mean we have suicide, weíve got drugs, weíve got violence, weíve got sexism,
weíve got rape. And youíve got engineers, psychiatrists. It is the world. Also, itís like Roy Blount said.
They told him when he was in college, "Son, this ainít the real world, just wait." And he said, "And
you know, they were right. When I got out in the world I found out it wasnít college, it was high school."
You go back to the vicious powers in high school. You go back down. After thinking that ideas move the world, that
theories, that people are sensible, that you use your education, and then you go right back down to whoís class
president. Whoís popular. Keeping your attitude in shape.
Interviewer: Ned Maxy could be the latest avatar of Ned Maximus. Will he ride again? What was
the fate of Maximum Ned, your Hendrix book?
Hannah: The Hendrix book never got written. I was also interested at one time in the cavalry general
Jeb Stuart. I thought I was interested in him book-length. But I wasnít. It was the people who were around him,
his effect on others. After all my massive reading in the Civil War, I was more interested in his effect as the
last cavalier, on his troops. Three stories, I think.
Hendrix is similar. Hendrix is to be enjoyed like a Romantic poetóin bursts. The book on Hendrix has been written
by others. I wasnít as interested in his biography as I thought. I find him an amazing man; I love the American
side to the story. That he was in the paratroopers, that helicopters probably inspired the huge volume. That he
thought of turning the volume up to ten and starting thereóit sounds so simple now, like something a sophomore
with two beers could come up withóbut nobody had ever done it. He turns it up to ten, and if he breathes on a string,
he can use that. He was a genius. I still think thereís nobody like that on guitar, I mean for the inroads he made.
Interviewer: So the stories in Captain Maximus he makes his way into you think are the
right vehicle for that?
Hannah: Right. There is no review for a truly wonderful musician. A good review is impossible.
Itís beyond words. To prove my point, try reading Spin or Rolling Stone. As they say, often written
by people who canít write for those who canít read. And all they can do is say "Itís sort of like this other
guy, sort of like this band," and itís so conditional that the review winds up as total incoherence. Just
referential. Berserk in a pedantic way; it leaves out being there. Being there is it. God Bless you lads if you
want to write about Cormac McCarthy, I couldnít. I donít really have the English. And I hope I will write books
like that someday. That there is just not quite the language yet to describe it. I would aspire to the condition
Interviewer: Music and painting and other art forms, do they work their way into your style?
Hannah: Absolutely. Although I have no talent in painting, never had a course. Iíve seen the Impressionists
in Paris, as thousands have. Theyíre the biggest thing in Paris. I think itís the only experimental art that made
itself into the mainstream in such a huge commercial way in my time. Thereís no parallel in fiction. Ulysses
has never been mainstream, never will be.
Music, certainly. Nothing gets to you better than the tune, sometimes the words. Itís ineffable. It is the highest
thing you can reach for. It is beyond good and evil; thatís why I donít like to attach morality or philosophy to
the deepest things I feel. Theyíre just beyond it. And it is benign. It makes you know that, goddamn, it is worth
being a human being. It is really worth it. If these people were here and felt this much, then, Christ, itís a
hell of a planet.
Interviewer: It gives hope?
Hannah: Right, it gives hope. Thatís why I love to hear the stories about people in down and out circumstances,
like Tom Waites, who really had a kind of ugly voice to give, but who is just wonderful. And Dylan canít sing,
but he had the desperation of not being able to sing which is better than, say, Glen Campbell, who can sing. Some
of the writers I like are not born writers. The struggle you can feel. Thereís Larry Brown in that. He is a born
writer, but sometimes the biggest experience I have in Brown is where the characters are reaching out for a little
larger word, a bigger, more whole experience beyond the six pack. The gestures are important.
We writers know, all of us who have an ear, that we cannot touch music. The people who try to duplicate it on
the pageóidiocy. Even Edgar Allan Poe, his worst experiments. To try to be bells. Although he was the most musicalóthe
French adore him because he was pure music. You aspire to that condition. A good story, a good poem, a novel, will
just simply take you into another zone. Thereís no explanation; there are no elders around telling you what to
feel, or telling you the philosophy of this. It just is.
Blake knew that. The question was "Who the hell made you? Why are you here, tiger? How can you be this
beautiful?" You know, itís just "Wow." Thatís why the hippies liked it. In fact, I wrote my Masterís
thesis on Blake, Ďcause I was a kind of hippie. "Wow. How can this be?" And LSDóthereís no literature;
Ken Kesey, a few scenes. But, you know, "Whoa." Itís that gleam I get from a fine story.
Interviewer: Youíve talked before about how youíre not necessarily interested in plot, but in
story and voice. What is the importance of voice for your fiction?
Hannah: For me, itís everything. And itís not that I get it right in every story. Thatís why I
donít believe in such a thing as a perfect story. I was taught in graduate school that this story by Updike is
perfect, this story by Joyce is perfect. This hard, gem-like flame. Itís not perfect for everybody. Joyce and Updike
bore very intelligent people sometimes. There are a number of ways a story can be told, and if youíre lucky you
get the voice that tells it the best. Then a lot of your problems of form, structure, are solved. Itís just a natural
voice. Pause. Iíve said enough about this. Just as if I were trying to entertain you, I would know when to quit.
Iíd say "Thatís enough, Iím boring him. This is too personal. This is not relevant." I think form and
real experiment in fiction comes from voice. How long could this go on? How good is it? And then you pause. The
physicality of the body has a lot to do with form. And more people are familiar with the natural way a story should
be told, even when itís unconventional. I think the brain is ready for it.
Interviewer: So maybe one of the reasons Ray looks the way it does is because of the voice?
Hannah: Yeah. Itís very asthmatic, frantic, depressed. But a manic depressive, he jumps and jumps
and jumps. That book brought me a much bigger national audience that I ever expected. I thought it would be a very
small, eccentric book, and it probably got me more attention as a novelist than any of my books. Geronimo Rex
got a lot of attention, but itís much more conventional. Itís picaresque: this happened, then this happened, as
I grew up I did this.
This is what Beckett is all about: he decided that everything was false to him, almost, in art, with its designs,
with its formulas. And yet, he wanted art. But he wanted it right from life. He didnít like, finally, that Joycean
voice that was too abundant, too Irish, endlessly lyrical, endlessly allusive. He went into French to cut down.
And he bores the hell out of a lot of people because he wants to talk about desperate individual existence. But
he made a kind of joy out of depression. I find him a joyous writer; his stories read like prayers. You donít have
to think about literary allusions, but your dead-on experience itself. Thatís what I want from the voice. I want
it to transcend artiness. I want the veil of "Letís Pretend" out. I want the voice to draw you in. But
you can turn phony; you can start writing like somebody else. A number of bad things can happen. If youíre young,
you may tend to imitate Ray Carver or whoever you may have been reading. To be honest and interesting is the challenge.
And not to be phony. Thereís a lot of bogus experimentation where somebody adopts hip or alien attitudes, and you
can almost always tell by about the third page. "I donít believe it; I donít believe it." If youíve got
an ear, and a heart, "Uh Uh. This is concocted." Because a man will reveal himself quickly, as if a witness
at a trial. Intonations. You can tell when someone is being deliberately eccentric or weird if you listen. Talking
you can tell it, and you can tell in a story too.
They say that the most natural writer born in America was Mark Twain. He just seems to have begun talking. I
think thatís what Iím after. I donít know how natural, I have some gifts. But just to be as natural as Twain and
to be as witty. Without effort. To be hilarious and unconscious of yourself as a comic. I love that stuff.
Copyright © 1997 Blip Magazine Archive