Harry Crews had just about every job a man might have to take in his lifetime—from working in a cigar factory all the way up (or maybe down) to teaching creative writing.
Dec 2 2008, 12:00am
Harry Crews is one of the most original and important living American novelists there is. He was born the son of sharecroppers in Georgia in 1935. He served as a marine during the Korean War and since then he’s had just about every job a man might have to take in his lifetime—from working in a cigar factory all the way up (or maybe down) to teaching creative writing.
His books are bitterly funny and expertly observed shots of fiction taken straight out of his own life. He can outfight, outfuck, outwrite, and outthink anyone from the entire generation of little boys that came after him, and he’s still kicking today. Harry is down there right now in his secret hideout in Florida as you read this, and he’s working away on a new novel. He says it might be his last because he’s sick. But we don’t know. There might never have been a human being who combines smart and tough as perfectly as Harry Crews does, and we wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still cranking out his amazing books when we’re all old and gray too.
Vice: Hey Harry. Is this still a good time to talk?
Harry Crews: We’re supposed to do this now?
I think we said that I would just give you a try on the phone today and see what happened.
Morphine will fuck up whatever memory you may have left. I take it every four hours around the goddamned clock. So I know we said Friday afternoon but I thought we said one or two and, hell, it’s after three now. It doesn’t matter except, I don’t know if I told you or not, but I’m trying to finish one last novel. If God will give me this one, I’ll quit. But I didn’t leave it alone. I started working very early today and—listen, are you sure this is worth your fucking time?
Definitely. I just don’t want to climb up your ass.
You aren’t climbing up my ass, man. If you were bothering me I’d tell you. Last time we talked you said something like, “If I were where you are, last thing in the world I’d be worrying about was whether or not to give a fucking interview.”
Well, I am worried about it and the reason I am is because I told you I would. You’ll find this out—when you get as old as I am, about the only goddamned thing you’ll have left is your word. If I tell somebody I’m gonna do something, by God I do it if I possibly can. And I don’t mind doing it. Truth is, I’ve probably given more fuckin’ interviews than I should have. Do you know a book called Getting Naked With Harry Crews?
I’ve looked at it. That’s the compilation of interviews with you, right?
What some dipshit college professor did was call me and ask me if it would be all right for him to find all the interviews I’d given and publish them. I said, “I don’t give a shit, man. Do it if you want to.” It’s a hardback book and it’s about four inches thick or something.
And it’s every interview you’d ever given up to that point.
Yeah, and some of them aren’t too shabby. I didn’t read the book but I looked in it. And then some of them I was drunk as a skunk or fucked up on dope or otherwise non-copacetic. And they aren’t worth a damn and they certainly shouldn’t be in a book—but they are.
But I don’t know, I like to talk about writing and I like to talk about books and I like to talk about all that stuff. I mean, such as it’s been, it’s been my life.
Your enthusiasm for all that hasn’t diminished as you’ve gotten older?
No. Hell no. I’m so fucking in love with it. I thank God I got this book to work on. That, and a girl named Melissa who not long ago was a gymnast at Auburn University in Alabama. She is an Alabama girl. And, well, you know what a gymnast looks like. Goddamn, she is just extravagantly beautiful with a body that will stop your fucking heart.
And she’s hanging out with you down there?
Oh, she’ll be here in about an hour and a half and spend the weekend with me.
That’s good news.
You’re telling me? It’s wonderful. And she’s gonna cook lobster tonight and it’s gonna be a good thing. She’s a great lady, man. Like I say, she’s real nice to look at. And she’s enthusiastic about all things good. I dig her a lot.
Did she know your books before she met you?
Yeah, she knew, but it was kind of strange how we got hooked up. After I’d been around her for like four or five hours, she looked at me and said, “You’re not the guy that writes the books, are you?” I said, “Well, yes, I’ve written some shit.” As soon as she put it together, she read some of my stuff. But thank God that ain’t why she likes me.
You probably have some scary fans.
My phone number is in the book but my address is not in there because strange assholes show up at your door. A lot of them are young people who don’t quite know what they’re looking for, but they want to talk. Most of them want to talk to me or see me for all the wrong reasons. They think if they rub against me or something they’ll be able to write.
And you taught writing for some time, right?
Well, thank God the University of Florida gave me this deal that every writer needs. I worked with 10 or 12 graduate students a year. They were just young people who thought they wanted to be fiction writers. By and large, they fell in love with the idea of being a fiction writer and then they were introduced to the slave labor of it and they pretty soon decided, “No, I don’t want to do this.”
It takes a lot of time, doesn’t it?
If you’re going to write a book, you don’t know what you’re looking at. You have to disabuse them of all these ideas they have that they are sure are right but which are almost exclusively, always, all of them, wrong. It’s all very boring. But I love my students—the few that turned out to be writers. There’s a boy named Jay Atkinson in Massachusetts. He’s now written four books. My students are all around the country. All that shit that’s on the, whatever you call it, the internet or something? Google or something? I don’t have it on my computer.
That’s probably a blessing.
Well, I do have it, but I just don’t pull it up. But there’s a ton of shit about me on there. There’s a boy named Damon Sauve in San Francisco. He’s a fine writer. He put all that shit on, I guess it’s called a website? I know very little about computers. I just do the best I can and leave all that shit alone. I write in longhand, I write on a typewriter, I write on a computer, I’d write with charcoal if it would make me write better. I don’t care what it is as long as it gets the words down. I only want about 500 words a day. Five hundred words a day is just wonderful if you can get that many, but you usually can’t—not that you can keep anyway.
Do you write for a certain amount of hours every day?
I don’t do the hour thing. I’ve got a time when I start and I try to get 500 words. That’s only two manuscript pages, double spaced. If I can get two pages that’ll do it. You’d be surprised what that will turn out if you do it every day of your life.
What can you tell me about the book that you’re working on now?
It’s called The Wrong Affair. I’m fairly confident that I’ll be able to finish this before I die. And that’ll be just wonderful. It will cap off the work I’ve done nicely. I like the book an awful lot. But it’s out of my life of course.
You mean it’s based on real experiences.
Everything I’ve ever written is. I got a book called Karate Is a Thing of the Spirit. I studied karate for 27 years or so. A long, long time. I got a book called The Hawk Is Dying. I trapped, trained, and flew hawks. If I haven’t done it, I can’t write about it. If I haven’t been involved in it, smelled it, tasted it, floundered around in it—the subject, that is—I can’t write about it. I know there are some guys that can, and do it well. But I’m not one of them.
The memoir you wrote of your childhood was amazing.
I come from a tenant farm in southern Georgia. If the crop failed—tobacco was the money crop—you just about couldn’t farm the next year either.
Tenant farming is a sickening system.
Yeah, it means you farm on someone else’s land—you’re a sharecropper. Then we had to move down to Jacksonville, Florida. My daddy died when I was 21 months old. He died of a heart attack—I never knew him. Ma raised us. She worked at the King Edward Cigar factory. Largest cigar factory under one roof in the world. Huge fuckin’ thing. Before I went in the marine corps I worked there for one summer. What a brutal fuckin’ job. How my dear old ma stood that all those years I’ll never know. She did it because she had to do it. That’s why she did it.
Anyway, man, look here. Can you stand the notion of us trying to start this at another time?
Sure, I’ve got a little time. But we’re kind of already doing the interview now.
Hey, I’ve got a little time too. I’m always here. We’ve got to work it out so that I haven’t just taken the fuckin’ dope or I haven’t been working all day or some fuckin’ thing.
Is there a time of day that’s better than another?
I hate to act like it’s something special. It’s not. It’s just a matter of the way my life runs and the things I have to do. I went to the damn doctor yesterday. He’s a good guy and I like him but when we got through I said, “This has been a waste of my time and a waste of your time and I’ll not be back again, but I love you and wish you well, so take care of yourself.” Then I left because, you know, I don’t know what he wanted. I guess he wanted to make sure I don’t do myself in. He wanted to talk about suicide and shit. I said, “Well, we can talk about suicide if you want to.”
Last time we talked on the phone, you told me that you’re very ill.
Yeah, I’m really ill. But I don’t want to talk about it much. I’m all right.
I guess a lot of great writers have worked while seriously ill.
Flannery O’Connor was dying the whole time she was writing, and I can name a number of other writers who were dying the whole time they were writing. Look, Flannery got to this place where she could only write three hours a day. The doctors told her: You can write three hours a day. You can’t write any more. What a shit thing to tell somebody. Goddamn. Anyway, the worst thing for me now is the pain. Pain will humiliate you and humble you and I’m not used to being humiliated and humbled. I don’t like it. It offends my notion of who the fuck I am and what I am and everything else. I’d rather do just about anything, up to and including cutting my fuckin’ throat.
Speaking of which, you told me about a recent fight you got in. You got sliced up the belly and it left a massive scar.
It’s really a beautiful scar. It starts right in my pubes and it goes up through my navel to my sternum, where it is equidistant between my nipples. I was gutted, man. I had my guts in my hands.
And it happened at a fish camp, you said?
It did indeed.
Kind of ironic, getting gutted at a fish camp.
Well, yes and no. This is a fish camp that’s more a sort of drinking and fighting bar that just happens to be on a nice lake where a lot of fish swim. You can get a boat there and you can go out and fish or you can drink beer and shoot pool and fight and fuck and whatever else you can find to do. But it is a great fishing place. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s old house, Cross Creek, is not far from where I live. On one side of the road is Orange Lake—10,000 acres of water—and on the other side is Lake Lochloosa, which is 18,000 acres of water. And then there’s the creek which runs from Orange to Lochloosa, right across the road near where her house is.
What’s in there, catfish?
There’s catfish in there, but there’s catfish in every body of water around here. These lakes have got great bass, great brim, speck… You got a bunch of good panfish in there. Good bass lake, if you like to fish bass. But the bass get too big. The ones that are good to catch are not very good to eat. A bass that gets very big, it’s too gamey. Too fishy. Not very tasty. Little bass are the ones you want to eat, but they aren’t very fun to catch because they don’t put up a fight. Anyway, whatever.
Yeah, but can you tell me how you ended up getting split open?
I’ve known this guy for a very long time and there’s been bad blood between us. This was not the first fight we’ve been in with each other. There have been times when he went to the hospital and times when I went to the hospital and this time both of us went to the hospital. And I told about a million lies to keep him out of jail. I don’t want the son of a bitch in jail.
What is it with this guy and you?
We’re like a couple of fuckin’ dogs. I drove up to the fish camp and I thought I could smell the son of a bitch. I said, “Goddamn, I oughta turn right around and go home. That son of a bitch is out here just as sure as I’m alive.” And he was. When we lay eyes on each other it’s like two goddamn pit-bull dogs looking at each other from their corners, you know? They scratch and go. And there it is.
How long ago was this?
Oh, I haven’t been out of the hospital very long. I was in there over a month. I was in ICU. I couldn’t talk. I had a trach tube in and I had to get food and water through a tube too. My son teaches at a university for a bunch of Yankee kids up north, and he came home and that was good. I don’t see him as much I’d like to and he’s just a great fuckin’ kid. He’s about 6'3", 220, all lean and righteous. Good athlete. He’s very bright—writes plays, and they’re produced. He’s a good writer. I don’t know how he got started with plays, but he did. His wife is the head of the drama department at that university. She directs the plays he writes, at least initially, to get the kinks out of them. So they got a thing going and it gives them a life they tell me they love, and I don’t doubt it. But he rarely gets home.
But he came back when you got hurt.
He stayed by my bed forever. I was in there over a month. I was in the ICU for 16 days and then I went to rehab. The surgeon had to sew me up and all that good shit. Now I’ve been out for about four and a half months. It’s a short enough time that the goddamn scar is sore. When you get a really big, wide one… I’ve never had a scar like this. Now, I’ve got scars on me all over and I’ve broken damn near everything you can think of at one time or another, including my neck. At my age, whatever you broke growing up, however you nicked yourself, in that place of course, you’re arthritic. And arthritis ain’t a fuckin’ joke.
It’s an evil, evil thing.
It really is. I broke my neck diving off the Main Street bridge in Jacksonville, Florida. It’s a really high bridge that boats go under and shit. Nobody had a gun to my head saying I had to dive off that son of a bitch. And the water is deep enough that I shouldn’t have been hurt.
Were you drinking or something?
No, no. I was just young. I was with a bunch of other guys and somebody went off it and so I went off it. I just did it wrong. I broke a vertebra in my neck and I had to wear one of those halos. Had to sleep in the son of a bitch.
So now you’ve got an arthritic neck. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me feel terrified of growing old.
You oughta be terrified of growing old! It’s a motherfucker. What you’ve got to do is to just have no respect for it whatsoever. Cuss it a lot and kick and raise hell. Spit and scratch your ass and do all the things you can do when you’re an old guy. And don’t suck up and suck around when you’re an old guy. Fuck it. So you’re old, so what else is new?
So don’t behave like a senior citizen, basically.
Anger has gotten me through a lot of things in my life and I have to confess—and I don’t recommend it really to anybody else—but hell, I stay mad. Mad as a motherfucker.
And that’s just the way you’ve always been?
Yeah, for one reason or another. If I can’t finish a book, I’m mad. If I’m not writing a book, I’m mad. If I am writing a book, I’m mad. It don’t matter. I just got a very short fuse. I try to be polite and civil and decent and whatever, but I’m not very good at it. I’m just not.
Did you ever think that anger would go away if you reached some kind of a brass ring, like finishing a certain amount of novels or finding the right woman?
No. All the males in my family are like this. They’re like a bunch of goddamn sore-tailed cats. They just walk around looking for pussy and a fight. I was the light heavyweight champion of the first marine division. My nose has been broken I think six times. For a long time I never knew which side of my face it was gonna be on from year to year. But I liked boxing for a long, long time and I like karate and I like blood sports. I like a lot of things that are really not fashionable and really not very nice and which finally, if you’ve got any sense at all, you know, are totally indefensible. Anybody who is going to defend much of the way I’ve spent my life is mad. Crazy. It’s just that there’s so much horseshit in the world. How can you live through it without being madder than hell?
You can set yourself aside from it.
Well, yeah, you can, but getting away from the world means getting away from bars, getting away from women, getting away from all the stuff that’s been good in my life. I, curiously, don’t drink at all anymore. I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Not a drop of anything. But goddamn, I drank my share in my life and I’m not a bit ashamed of it.
I wish I could say the same.
Well, do you regret much of it?
Some, but I also know that it would have gotten way worse if I’d kept going.
Alcohol was good to me and good for me. I swear to God. But I swear on my dead mother’s eyes, man—and my dead son’s eyes—I ain’t had a drop in ten years. I put it down for the very reason you said. I thought, Well man, this is gonna get really sloppy and really bad if you go on with it. You’re just not strong enough to do this anymore so you’ve got to put it down. I was thinking yesterday about Hemingway killing himself. Did you know the things that were wrong with Hemingway when he shot himself?
I read a biography of him, but it was a long time ago.
You know how he drank all his life. He drank like a European drinks. Sometimes he drank wine for fuckin’ breakfast, and usually at lunch and dinner he drank a bottle of fuckin’ wine. He drank, period. A lot, his whole life.
And then he went down there to that clinic, that psychiatric clinic, and they told him he could have one eight-ounce glass of wine a day, all right. He weighed about 220, 225, his whole fuckin’ life, and they told him he had to go down to 180 pounds. So he couldn’t eat the way he did. There was something wrong with his ejaculatory duct, whatever the fuck that is, so he couldn’t have conjugal relations with Miss Mary anymore. So check that one off—he couldn’t fuck anymore. So now we got a guy that can’t eat, can’t drink, can’t fuck… and whether or not he could write then, he thought he couldn’t. He tried and it made him sick—he just couldn’t stand what came out of his pen. Sixty-two fuckin’ years old and he puts what was called an English bulldog—it’s a short double-barreled shotgun—in his friggin’ mouth and that was the end of him.
Because he had too much taken away from him.
Well, I don’t know, man. He just got mad enough with it. But there’s a number of things you can do. Something with your ejaculatory duct and you can’t fuck? Well, who says I can’t fuck? I’ll find another way to get off. Damn, do something. You say I can’t drink anymore—the hell I can’t. I might die, but I can drink. Listen, if I can’t have but one glass of wine, I don’t want any at all.
There’s no point in getting part of the way there.
And it was the Mayo Clinic, that’s where it was. And while he was up there those fucking shrinks would take him home on the weekend and have a cookout in the backyard and invite all their shrink friends over and show him off. “Look who we’ve got as a houseguest—Hemingway. Look at this.” And he was just old—well, not old, 62—but he was hurt and confused. It was terrible. Just awful.
Maybe he did the right thing at the end then.
Maybe so, man. I don’t know.
Why do so many writers end up being drunks?
I’ve thought about it a lot, and I don’t know.
A lot of people seem to think it goes hand in hand with the solitary life a writer needs to lead to get their work done.
Well, that may be true. I don’t know what it is, but it would seem to be a true thing. Alcohol is the writer’s friend or enemy or something, and they do a lot of it.