I have seen Barry Hannah’s books in apartments, in libraries, and over a shoulder in a subway car. And I’ve noticed that the books are usually crammed with marginalia. Dopey emotives like “whoa” and “whoo.” Exclamation points, squiggles, and every other page dog-eared because of some smack of a sentence worth noting. These responses to the work—excited and immediate—seem right given Hannah’s antipathy for the rarefied pretensions of overthought. His books are anti-idea, pro-gut. Literally. In his new novel, Yonder Stands Your Orphan, people are knifed and maimed and beheaded, impaled, generously fellated, even loved. Sound lyrical? It should. The novel is a murder ballad with a story to tell. Some of its key players have already appeared in Hannah’s short stories, “Water Liars” and “High-Water Railers.” Readers familiar with these people might see in their resurgence a kind of lore-like characters who repeatedly turn up in folk songs passed down by generations. Hannah calls them The Elders. Sidney Farté, Pepper, Ulrich, Carl Bob Feeney, Peter Wren, Melanie Wooten. They fish on a pier. At times, they sermonize, pray, lie and boast on the pier. They are wretched and moving, and this time, they are traumatized by a few new characters and a killing psychopath, Man Mortimer. Against this bass line, the song begins.
Hannah has written nine novels and three short story collections; Ray, Airships and High Lonesome are his most famous. He has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He’s won most everything else. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, teaches at Ole Miss, and owns a motorcycle. This to say that if he has mellowed overtime—gone are the boozing, gunslinging days of yore—he’s still got the bike. Last year, Hannah outlived chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma. Today he is grateful and well. He has the kind of voice that lulls children to sleep. He speaks slowly and with tremendous warmth. This conversation was conducted by phone, though we could have been shooting the breeze on any old backwater dock.
Fiona Maazel You haven’t written a novel in ten years and you haven’t always been enthusiastic about the form, either. What brought you back to it?
Barry Hannah I felt like writing a novel at the time. I also have a paranoia that is probably very real that short stories are just not getting read in America. It didn’t used to bother me, and in fact my short story books have sold as much as my novels—but the novel is a kind of capitulation to American taste. I don’t usually do that. But it also so happened that I had one in me.
FM The way you structured the novel—I can’t say you’ve capitulated to the kind of straight narrative that convention demands.
BH I’m afraid not. I am doomed to be a more lengthy fragmentist. In my thoughts, I don’t ever come on to plot in a straightforward way.
FM There are a lot of people in the novel, many with their own points of view. Was inhabiting so many characters a way of liberating you from convention? It certainly allowed you to be more episodic.
BH Yes. I hope the episodic nature of the narrative still holds the reader. There is still some ghost in the book. He’s trying to find out who, where, and how long he can this keep up. I just cannot entertain the usual manner in novels of having “coincidences.”
FM That’s a bore.
BH Yeah, for me it is. I wanted to get a grouping. It’s kind of an Our Town. Only darker. And more conscious of real evil. These folks appeared in my stories. I already had a cast, except for Man Mortimer and a few others.
FM Right, the pier crowd. Why do you keep returning to them, to these old cranks who figure in so many of your other stories?
BH Obviously, I’m obsessed with the people on the pier. People desperate and older and almost frantic to have a moment of clarity and some peace. I just found it to be a comfortable theater to work in. I also wanted to see how they would react to modern, true evil.
FM They are all old, but they seem to lack the one thing the old are supposed to have, namely wisdom.
BH They are the uneasy old.
FM You do have a lot of stuff in the novel about how people need to seek out evil and hurt and pain to feel vivified, to feel alive, uneasy or not.
BH That’s right. Max Raymond certainly does. He even says so. It does seem strange that one would make that conscious choice. I actually believe that’s why people live in big cities. They kind of like the idea of the Mafia around.
FM Funny, I actually think evil is more likely to find me out where you live in Mississippi—that if I were a homicidal maniac, I’d do my worst in the country. But I think that’s a city phobia.
BH Nothing bad has ever happened to me in Manhattan. But nothing like what’s happened in my book has ever happened to me in Mississippi, either.
FM At least one of the organizing principles of the book seems to be the lake where all these old zombies congregate. I know that lakes and water in general show up a lot in your work.
BH You’ve got it. Water is contemplative. It’s a magnet. Except for Dr. Harvard, none of these characters are well-off vacationers. It’s not a high-scale lake, you know. It’s a fishing lake. It’s more rural, more isolated. It’s more possible for evil such as Man Mortimer to exist there. And nobody seems able to strike against it. There’s no organization. The sheriff himself is unqualified and inept. It’s a kind of backwater place where the civilized codes don’t work.
FM About being contemplative—you’ve spoken about this before and it’s evident to me as a reader of your work that there is always so much music in your sentences, and often in your subject matter. But things felt different in this novel. More contemplative, less jazzy and frenetic.
BH It’s a much more thoughtful book than my past books, which act more on instinct and are more frenetic. I am stalling here, but that’s because as an author, I’m just interested. I’m not always aware of what you are feeling as you read. I do know that it is a more thoughtful book, that it is much more conscious of mortality. Men and women making their peace or doing what they have left with their lives in a limited time frame.
FM There’s a great line in the novel about how when you’re near death, you experience a “strange arrangement of the usual facts.”
BH Yes, and I think it’s quite true. All of us who have experienced calamity, even in a car wreck, know that facts and time are rearranged entirely.
FM How would you respond to the idea that effort is at least part of your subject matter? A lot of your characters strain towards something slightly more meaningful than what they have. I am thinking of Max Raymond questing for visions.
BH Yes, he quests for visions. Then he decides that he’s probably a nuisance to God and to people, and that he’s not going to have one. Who doesn’t quest for a vision? I think all of us want sudden illuminations and hard, clear evidence. Even if you’re an atheist, you want moments when the world is with you—or when something substantive arrives out of a huge apparent nihilism.
FM Do you think there is something moving about the failed quest? More so than the guy who deserves to succeed—and does?
BH We will always be thwarted. I think the journey is it. I don’t think that revolution is possible for very long. I’ve not met people who’ve been utterly happy and content with what they have. They sometimes just give out or just don’t enter or compete anymore. You may have met more people from the East who are comfortable with themselves, but I’ve not seen that. Even in old people. They are still asking the same things as the young.
FM So the constant movement—
BH —The movement is it. Movement is everything. The motion and the act, yes.
FM But what about the kind of restlessness that creates? What about the serenity everyone is after—
BH I think that serenity is in the lake itself, just the contemplation of the water. There’s something deeply primal about being on water. It owns most of the globe, and the lake is just these people’s part of it. Their small portion.
FM Where their weaknesses are okay. I suppose the temptation is to set these people up and just knock them down. But I never see you do that. Even Man Mortimer, this killer, is turned into a moderately appealing sissy. Is compassion for even the lowest of the low something you think about or does it just happen?
BH You do have feeling for Mortimer. I’m glad you do. I don’t have real compassion for him. Feeling something might be inevitable in the progress of anybody who’s been distinct and becomes lesser. But I don’t intend pity for Mortimer.
FM Your characters, Mortimer and others, probably put a lot of people off. But you seem to like them, anyhow. I know I do.
BH I love them. And I don’t find them to be gargoyles. I don’t deliberately develop the eccentric. I’ve observed human beings, and I think they are actually humanists. Any lonely passion any of us has might be perceived as monstrous or even grotesque. And yet we have them. If you look honestly at your inner life, they are there.
FM It’s been said that if you look at something long enough, it becomes monstrous. I know you’ve spoken elsewhere of using your work to report back, like you are just a vessel or a confessor of what’s already out there and perhaps common to us all. To what extent do you feel acted upon?
BH You have material by just living and going outside. And I do believe that what we’re supposed to be are messengers from the frontier. But the frontier can also be something that has been living with us for a long time. Just knowledge that has not been shared. I think you go deeper into yourself and the material or the culture or whatever you find outside your door—even at a fishing lake.
FM Do you have certain priorities when you sit down to write? Have you ever ditched what you meant to say because the sound of the line wasn’t right or the music wasn’t there?
BH I hope I don’t come off as a musical aesthete who is using only that which is poetic. I guess I developed an ear from reading the Bible early on and from some of the Irish writers and even Hemingway. Just in my being, from growing up and being educated, reading books. But I don’t ever dispense with anything because it doesn’t have the right rhythm. I just love rhythm. I’m not consciously on the harp all the time. It’s just something I find desirable in any good writing.
FM After you wrote Ray, you mentioned Camus’s The Stranger as a model of sorts for its leanness, among other qualities. What did you have in mind for this novel, which is so much, well, less lean?
BH I wanted to become more involved, to go deeper into folks than I ever had. And this is the first book that I’ve written that has such consciousness of death and exuberance, together. But it just came out that way. My people tell me what to do with the book, I promise.
FM About exuberance. I read some of the sections in this book—I am thinking of our introduction to the insane couple who run the orphanage—and I see this relentless piling on of grim and sordid details, and I think it’s hilarious. Which makes me feel like a sicko for laughing.
BH It is funny when you step back. It’s grim and sick and just hideous, but it’s not without its comedy. I am glad you sense that. Humor keeps me interested. A writer has to be interested in his book, too. Of course I chuckle. And I hope I always will. It saves you. Sometimes it’s the only healing thing there is, when you create monstrous histories, you know? There is a comic dimension there, sure. Only a fool would miss it. A lot of the sterner critics do.
FM Yeah, a lot of them say you are dark and beastly, but that’s such a bore. I think it’s a riot.
BH Well that’s encouraging.
FM On some level, though, isn’t there fear that you will end up laughing at your characters instead of with them?
BH You do both. You laugh with them and at them over the course of a novel, certainly. But it seems like I just cannot write in a straight, stern manner for very long before I find that these are human beings, and that the things you read in the paper will always surpass everything you put down. That’s why I don’t feel like I’m a master of the grotesque. I think I’m exploring through human comedy.
FM You’ve been doing this for 35 years, and Yonder Stands Your Orphan is your 12th book. Have things been getting easier or harder?
BH I think as you write more, you exhaust the subjects that you want to talk about. I might have a book every two or three years, certainly not every year. I have to live a good while. And rest, and almost go blank for a number of months before I am besieged by these creatures within me, you know?
FM Do you think your subject matter has evolved?
BH Oh, gosh. I have obsessions. I don’t know that there will be a final book for anybody. It’s a journey into what you know, or what you thought you knew, and it changes because you have found out new truths, about the environment, about folks.
FM Hard won?
BH Yes, they generally are. There have been times in my life when I could not keep up with my pencil, my pen. The stories were just coming so thick and heavy. Lately, it’s been a calmer, more meditative act when I write.
FM I see new tendernesses in all corners.
BH I hope so. There’s a world of kindness and tenderness that surrounds me and my friends in this little town of Oxford, and I would be a liar if I left it out.