a 1999 seminar on Hemingway's short stories, I got drunk, pulled
a gun, shot a few rounds into the ceiling, and vomited gin all over
the table in the Robert Penn Warren Room at Louisiana State University.
At least that's what all those Barry Hannah stories I was reading
made me feel like doing. Actually, I ended up dutifully listening
to a discussion wherein all the "new" and "exciting"
critical approaches to Hemingway seemed to simply imply that he
was gay. "Homosocial" was the word that kept coming up,
but nobody could offer a satisfactory definition. It seemed that,
regardless of any definition, the term was turning into a pejorative
term used by academics with testicle-envy to describe the dreaded,
dead, white, male writer. I still owed a paper on Hemingway's influence
upon a later writer, so I decided to interview Barry Hannah. That
way I could let the writer speak for himself unmolested by any critical
fads. I would also get to talk with someone who I felt sure could
alleviate my feeling of isolation among all those critics in the
Robert Penn Warren room, where it seemed a drunk with a gun would
have been the voice of reason. Hannah graciously granted the interview,
and I present it below free of any "new" and "exciting"
Rex Rose: Were you influenced in any way by Hemingway?
Barry Hannah: I was [influenced] in the matter of good nouns, good
verbs, clean pictures, and allowing the reader to read between the
lines-read the white spaces on the page. Hemingway is much more
subjective than most people see. When he says "good" or "fine" he
knows how to get what the reader thinks is fine-I mean the best
wine or the best woman, the best beer. We come to the page÷ It's
almost paint by numbers or something. We fill out ourselves in those
words. He had hard nouns, but he had some very subjective judgements
that let the reader participate, and I think that's the difference.
Most writers preach at you. It's their version or nothing. They
don't let you make the decision about how to fill in the picture.
RR: Do you draw any parallels with any particular stories? Between
your semi autobiographical narrators÷
BH: You mean the stories in Airships, mainly?
RR: Yeah. And the Nick Adams stories?
BH: You know, I'm trying to think honestly when I÷ I was mightily
impressed by the Nick Adams stories. Probably later than-you know,
after grad school in fact-after three years of grad school up in
Arkansas. I think I just bought a copy of the Nick Adams stories,
and I-it was after I wrote my novel-and I liked the concision and
the precision. It was rediscovering-like finding a stream on your
property you didn't know existed, you know, it was so beautiful.
And so, yes, he inspired me greatly, probably to shorter sentences,
even though I'm much more baroque than Hemingway, and that kind
of crystalline prose, you know, pebbles in a stream and light coming
across it. It just makes you glad to be alive when you read the
best of Hemingway.
RR: What about "Getting Ready." One of your critics said that it
seemed like an intentional nod to Old Man and the Sea.
BH: No! No. It's got nothing to do with Old Man and the Sea.
These things are said by people who read for a living, and have
never been fishing. I mean, for God's sake. You know, their singular÷
Maybe Moby Dick would be the other one-their experience with
the ocean. [Laughs] I never thought of that, though. Hell. You know,
I might have been÷ that's smart. Old Man and the Sea. Well,
he's not old. It's a little shark. I can't see it. You know? Even
RR: Well, that's one of the reasons I called you. All these critics
say a lot of things÷
BH: I'm not calling them fools, but they do like to put you in a-I
mean, every time I'm mentioned, I'm mentioned in great company,
like Flannery O'Connor and Faulkner and Eudora Welty, but that's
just lazy thinking. I'm not like any of them, and they're not like
each other. It's just that you've got to get a southern bag going
or you've got to get an Old Man and the Sea bag going, or
life can't go on for some people.
RR: That little monograph, I forget who wrote it, but it seemed
like the whole idea was to group you with the Southern writers.
BH: Yeah. Right. Which I appreciate÷ It's great company, but, uh,
it's the tendency to think in terms of movements or categories.
They even call Oxford [Mississippi], you know, a literary town,
and that's uh÷ What does that mean? That means there's some writers
here. We have nothing to do with each other. We barely talk about
literature when we see each other÷ ever, really, unless it's some
book all of us are inspired by and everyone has read. So these are
false-these are media inventions. You know, people like to think
of movements and factories and series. It's comfortable thinking.
RR: Yeah, they were talking about some movement called postcontemporary÷
BH: Oh Lord.
RR: [Laughs] I was wondering what comes after postcontemporary.
BH: Nothing has happened since modernism. All that crap you learned
in Lousiana I learned also in÷ we didn't get any deconstruction
or real theory, but it would have killed a writer. Pretending that
post-modernism is a movement is very difficult. You know? All it
is is homework, like somebody said. That's all postmodern means
RR: How's that?
BH: Well, it just gives people something to write about. [Laughs]
"Why is he postmodern?" [Laughs] But really, I don't think it's
gotten any better than Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, and, uh, for
me Flannery O'Connor was a big big influence, too.
RR: So you don't see yourself as a Southern writer, per se, even
though you're from the South?
BH: Not especially. I'm glad to be here. I love the South. It feeds
me. It nourishes me. [÷] Are you an LSU grad student now?
RR: Yeah. I'm coming into my third year now.
BH: Well I have a great friend there: Peggy Prenshaw. She teaches,
I think, Southern stuff. Give her my best. She just lost her husband
this year, and she's a dear dear friend of the family.
RR: I think there was a party at her house on Mardi Gras, but at
that point I'm not sure I knew where I was going or anything. I
was in somebody's car, and we went÷
BH: Yeah, I've been in that situation many times. Yeah.
RR: Any formal things about Hemingway's stories that might have
influenced you in terms of image or symbol or form?
BH: Clean hard images. Yes. I think it made me more comfortable
about making stories out of my own existence. Just boy girl love,
walking through the woods, fishing, motorcycles. Experiences that
are available to a÷ I didn't have an adventurous youth, but I had
all that, and I didn't really realize it was a subject, really,
till I read Hemingway.
At that point, Hannah had to get ready to teach his class at the
University of Mississippi, but I felt that during our short conversation
we really bonded homosocially while dismissing the critics. I should
admit, however, in fairness to Barry Hannah, that I was so upset
with the state of criticism at the time that I may have unconsciously
steered the conversation in an anti-critical direction. Or maybe
it was just good weather for holy cow tipping.