America's 'bad boy' novelist enters virgin territory with 'Fay'
When I caught up with Larry Brown, he was in the shower. Right away, I knew I wasn't dealing with an ordinary writer. Most writers, myself included, tend to shower AFTER interviews (to wash away that lingering suspicion that some sort of transaction with the devil has taken place).
But Brown was taking a different approach, one probably dictated by the fact that he had shipped to his publisher, that very morning, the manuscript of a new collection of essays. I called back 20 minutes later, affording him time to complete the early afternoon ritual, making Larry Brown surely the cleanest writer I've ever interrogated.
Of course, if you read the press on Brown, you might think he never showered. Vanity Fair magazine once called the Mississippi writer America's "bad boy novelist." The Washington Post said he had "slapped his own fresh tattoo on the big right arm of Southern Lit." Jumping on the bandwagon, Brown's publisher says he is famous for his "hard bitten, hard drinking, hard living male characters."
The author of several critically acclaimed novels, including Dirty Work and Joe, and a fine memoir, On Fire, about his 17 years as an Oxford, Mississippi, firefighter, Brown has entered new territory with his latest novel, Fay. The main character is a 17-year-old woman-child who sets out to discover the meaning of life by hitchhiking from Oxford to the Mississippi coast.
"This is a real departure for me, to write a book from a woman's point of view," said Brown. "There were things I didn't know, things I had to ask people about women to find out. Their sensitivities are different and their concerns are different."
The book took three years to write, he said, and resulted in a manuscript of 883 pages, every word of which was pounded out on a typewriter. He now does his word processing on a computer, one he purchased just two months ago. He's not sure how the computer will affect his writing. Typically, he writes every day until he "gets tired," and that could take anywhere from five to ten hours.
Brown decided to become a writer in 1980 at the age of 29. At that point, he had been a small-town firefighter for seven years, long enough to know he didn't want to do it for the rest of his life. He started writing during his down time at the fire station and wrote portions of On Fire while on the job, though he didn't finish the book until three years after he left in 1990.
"I decided that a lot of people just learned [writing] on their own, and I went into a room and started writing," he said. "Anybody who wants to apply themselves to it, who wants to work at it, can eventually learn how. That's what I tell my students. It took me eight years to publish my first book. In that time, I wrote five novels I had to throw away and about 80 or 90 short stories."
But why throw it away? Why not just keep working on it? "Because it wasn't readable. It was silly. It was stupid. There were so many things wrong with it. You have to do so many of those until you get to the point where you cross the line and you can become a professional writer. It takes a lot of work. You have to keep on going and believe in yourself. And you have to be willing to write stuff and then throw it away."
We may never know how much of Fay he threw away during the three years it took to write it, but the finished product clearly shows his minute attention to detail and his desire to get inside the main character's head. Probably not since F. Scott Fitzgerald's incursions into the female sensibilities of the 1920s and 1930s has a writer been so successful in crossing that literary minefield. Considering Brown's reputation as a macho, man's writer, it is somewhat surprising that Fay is as complicated and beguiling as any real-life woman who ever walked the planet. His success in capturing a female character is clear evidence that you don't have to jump off a cliff to imagine what it would be like.
Brown's portrait of Fay is so complete that I felt I knew who would play her role if the novel were ever made into a movie. Has he ever thought about that?
"Not really," he answered. "I don't know many actresses that age."
How about Angelina Jolie?
"Oh, yeah," he answered. "She could probably do it." He paused a moment, his mind's eye superimposing the fictional character over the form of the actress. "Yeah, I can see her as Fay."
Brown is no stranger to filmmaking. In 1995, he played the part of a dope dealer in the movie, 100 Proof. More recently, he went to Thomasville, Georgia, to watch the filming of The Rough South of Larry Brown, a documentary about his own life. He ended up with a cameo role, playing the part of the fire chief, a clear promotion from his former job. You would think that brief incursion into the past would foster memories of the good ole days. "Naw," said Brown, nipping that notion in the bud. "I went to so many fires when it was five degrees or 95 degrees, and I don't miss the boredom of sitting there, 'cause there's a lot of that involved."
Brown's novel, Joe, is under option to actor/filmmaker Billy Bob Thornton, but production has not yet begun on the project. "What they need is a script," said Brown. "I don't think I will be doing it. I tried it three times, and I haven't gotten it right yet. I think they should probably find another writer to do the script. Doing scripts is a totally different animal [from writing books]."
No interview with an Oxford, Mississippi, writer would be complete without a question about that other Oxford writer -- no, not the Godfather of Southern literature, William Faulkner. I'm talking about John Grisham, recently profiled in Entertainment Weekly on the occasion of his novels' achieving gross sales of over one billion dollars.
"I used to know him," said Brown. "I used to know him pretty well, before he ever published his first book."
James L. Dickerson is the author of Goin' Back to Memphis, reissued this month in paperback by Cooper Square Press.
Author photo by Joe Osgoode.