Yesterday I copped to some early stylistic theft. I wish I could say my life of crime was over, but I remain a committed, enthusiastic thief. One writer from whom I've "borrowed" liberally is Barry Hannah
. My novel Grab on to Me Tightly as If I Knew the Way
was written at the height of my Hannah fixation. On a sentence level, I wanted my book to burn with the wild poetry of even his routine, transitional passages, and I modeled its fractured form on his short novel Ray
In 2002, after finishing his story collection Bats Out of Hell, one the best books of stories ever published (also on the list are his books Airships and Captain Maximus), I wrote him a long, drooling fan letter and sent it to him care of the English Department at the University of Mississippi, where he was teaching. A week and a half later I received a reply. "Lord, pal," it began, "yours is the only letter I've got wherein the writer didn't want something." He told me I should be studying with him at Ole Miss and not in New York. "I feel, with humility, mind, that I could teach you better than the jerking around you're getting. New York is a staggeringly great place, but instruction in the Northeast has been shit... beginning with the Ivy League, which is laughable." He thanked me for my "careful and happy" reading of his work and signed the letter, Uncle Barry.
We wrote to each other on and off for the next several years. I told him I was writing a novel on which he'd had a profound influence, and that I was incredibly eager to read his future work. "Your encouragement is hugely merciful — I need it," he wrote. "May your own book prosper and may my humble influence cause it nothing but strength and joy."
When I sold the book in May of 2005, he was among the first people I told. He wrote back at once: "You the man!...Congrats. I'm the amateur, as always, trying to finish a book dear to me, clobbering away like a monster assistant — Igor in the lab." In December of that year I dropped him a line from the MacDowell Colony. I must have described the strangeness — after having left another dreary day job — of suddenly being surrounded by writers and painters and of having lunch delivered to my studio in a basket. He responded with a hilarious description of a colony he'd attended — an experience redeemed for him only by a reading by Grace Paley — and again knocked the Northeast for being "more provincial than the sodomists in Deliverance...Don't get coddled to death by room service and kick a wretched New York artist for me. Christ be with thee, lad, in this crawling art we have as page men."
Trouble came two months later. I had received the galleys of my novel and was scrounging for blurbs. I had already asked two of my writer friends, and the people at HarperCollins were throwing out other names. They mentioned writers whose books I either hadn't read or didn't care about. I felt strongly that only writers whose work I liked should endorse my book. My editor knew of my correspondence with Barry and floated the notion of asking him for a quote. I had qualms, to say the least. I recalled the first line of his first letter to me, saying I was the only writer he'd heard from who wasn't asking for something. My editor said we should ask. I could have said no. But I was proud of the book, proud to call Barry an influence, and in the end the thought that my favorite writer might like my book enough to blurb it was too much to resist. Still, I sent the galley off to Oxford with an apologetic note and a sense of unease.
"You've put me in an awful spot, lad," he replied. "After our letters I can never tell if actual friendship is offered or just another setup. Thousands will warm to your book, I believe. This geezer just can't connect...Now I feel like a rat, elderly and ungracious. Please understand this no-win proposition."
I wrote back that very afternoon. I said that my letters were in no way a setup, that I'd only just started my book when I first wrote to him, that I didn't have a publisher then or even an agent, that I'd written to him purely out of love of his work, that I did indeed consider us friends, that I had included him in my book's acknowledgments — calling him Uncle Barry and not by his full name so I wouldn't look like a name dropper — to thank him for his good influence and for writing me back and urging me on.
Barry replied promptly, as he always had. "Thanks for writing. I believe you entirely and the air is clear for our continued friendship." He said that in the past month he'd received seven manuscripts or galleys, including two from friends, and he wanted out of "this blurbing business." He said he'd never begged or even asked for a blurb, but "was blessed with publishers and agents who asked for me. I understand you all the way. Also, please, recall the mood I was in when I read your work, which I hope brings the world to you."
I may have sent one more letter after that. I know I started and discarded a few, but can't remember if I finished and sent one. If so, he didn't write back. His last letter to me was dated March 2, 2006. Four years later a friend sent me a message: "I just heard about Barry Hannah and thought of you." My friend didn't say what he'd heard, but I knew it couldn't be good news, and it wasn't. Barry died on March 1, 2010.
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Selections from Barry Hannah's four short-fiction collections can be found in the new Long, Last, Happy: New and Collected Stories — though I wish Grove (or New York Review Books) would reissue Captain Maximus as a stand-alone. It's too good not to be widely available.