As the week has progressed, there have been more and more tributes to Barry Hannah posted around the web. Meanwhile, I’m not sure I’m any closer to summing up my feelings on the late writer and mentor than I was when I first heard the news of his passing.
I met Barry Hannah in the spring of my freshman year. He allowed me to sign up for his graduate level workshop based solely on the fact that he liked the old sixties tune, “If You’re Going to San Francisco” by a singer who shared my name. I sat down in his writing workshop, surrounded by people older — and far more experienced — than me. I was nervous enough and Hannah stormed into the classroom in a whirlwind and said “goddamn” within the first five minutes. I believe it was the first time I’d ever heard an educator curse.
My stories that semester were roundly thrashed. Hannah didn’t like them and my classmates didn’t either. Looking back, they were undoubtedly correct in their assessments. I was clueless and fumbling around. And Hannah didn’t go out of his way to spare any of my feelings, a characteristic that I later admired. I still have almost all of the manuscripts he marked up over the years. Those early papers contain many criticisms that all beginning writing students receive:
“Too much editorial comment. Just tell the story & show.”
“Okay: but best just show the view, no interpolation.”
Other comments were more direct and harsh:
“Just a summary case history. All the good — truly human stuff left out.”
“God, how awful.”
During those first semesters in Bondurant Hall, sitting through Tuesday afternoons as the sun went down, I was terrified of Hannah. I literally had nightmares about him. I was thoroughly confused about fiction and I kept wondering how a man who wrote about a walrus leaping out of the ocean to rape a woman could consistently read my work and state, “I just don’t believe this could happen.”
But I stubbornly refused to go away. I signed up for more and more writing workshops. And Hannah stubbornly refused to give up on me. He marked up my stories even when during those rare semesters when I wasn’t in his workshop. I hung out in his office, choking on his cigarette smoke, as he told stories and gave me reading lists of authors I should check out. I once became very ill, a mixture of flu viruses and exhaustion from working too much, and missed several weeks of class. I wasn’t in his workshop at the time, but he heard about my illness and called to check on me.
Over the years, his comments on my stories got better. I hung on those words of praise and studied the criticisms. Finally, one day he wrote on one of my stories:
“This catches a world and holds it beautifully. Save this for the future. It’ll go in a nice collection of McKenzie. Shows real hope. I’m proud of you.”
I think, in some selfish way, the combination of Barry Hannah and pride in conjunction with my writing is one of the many things about his passing that upsets me. I realize how egotistical that sounds given the grief that his wife Susan and the family must feel. But for years, Hannah served as sort of a northstar or a compass to my own writing. Although I’ve branched off into different directions in my writing career, I always looked forward to sitting down with him on the porch and handing him a copy of my first published book. That moment, hokey and cliche as it might be, was one of the images that kept me sending out stories and proposals, even as hundreds of rejections piled up.
My first book comes out in August. And while it’s far below even Hannah’s worst scribblings, I still looked forward to chatting with him about it. I anticipated his criticisms and what I could learn from them and I yearned for his compliments. I figured he would probably be rough on it, like he was my first stories. But that I could gain more praise from him with each successive book, as I did in class.
Barry Hannah’s passing also represents an end of an era in my mind. The Oxford, Mississippi that I knew — and aspired to — is gone. Over the years, after finishing my master’s degree, I haven’t been back to town much. Part of that was because of work and schedules and all the usual obstacles of life. But part of that absence was because I wanted to delay my return until I could come back and have something to show for my writing career, at least some small accomplishment.
I went to Ole Miss and progressed through the writing workshop in the nineties. So many of my idols are gone now. John Grisham spends most of his time in Virginia, Cynthia Shearer moved away, Larry Brown died suddenly in 2004, the Oxford American magazine relocated, and now Barry Hannah is gone. Some of those folks I considered friends, others were mentors and role models to me even if they didn’t know it.
There are still damn good writers and great friends in Oxford, all is not lost. But it’s a very different place now. And at least for the past few days, since reading the news in the Oxford Eagle it has seemed very empty in my mind.
There’s no real conclusion to this piece, since it’s really just a rambling of thoughts as I try to process Barry Hannah’s passing. Other people have been much more coherent and eloquent in their tributes to the late author. I encourage you to check out the links below: