Fay in Progress and a Semester at Ole Miss, 1997–1998
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter discusses the period between 1997 and 2001, which, for Larry Brown, was filled with success and total dedication to writing. Brown had begun to write the novel that would become Fay in the summer of 1996, working, as he had from the start of his writing career, on a typewriter, though he had replaced his machine more than a dozen times. In late January, Brown traveled to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, where Jeremy Horton was showing 100 Proof. Algonquin’s Katharine Walton lined up publicity events for Brown to do while at the festival, and he was “slightly worried” about being overbooked. Brown made another public appearance on 13 April when he served as the keynote speaker at the opening of the new Oxford-Lafayette County Library.
For Larry Brown, the period between 1997 and 2001 was filled with success and total dedication to writing. As usual, he worried about money, telling Billy Watkins in December 1996, “I ain’t rich yet. Some people may think I am, but I still have to keep working. I still worry about how I’m gonna get paid next year” (“Hot” 2D). Brown also faced a variety of family issues as his children matured.
Brown had begun to write the novel that would become Fay in the summer of 1996, working, as he had from the start of his writing career, on a typewriter, though he had replaced his machine more than a dozen times. In late January 1997, he sent Shannon Ravenel a hundred pages of the novel, explaining, “I always wondered what happened to” his character, Fay, after she left the pages of Joe, “and I wanted to find out. I think I know pretty well where I’m going with this, and I look for it to be long, but certainly hope to have a full draft of it before the end of this year. That’s what I’m planning, anyway” (Algonquin Files). Ravenel liked what she read but wrote to Brown’s agent, Liz Darhansoff, “Fay is too holy and LB’s view of her is, too. We should give him all the criticism we can at this point. And his $25K [advance]. I think this start is promising” (Algonquin Files). On 10 February, Ravenel took her own advice, writing to Brown, “Fay has got to have a little grit in her craw. After all, she’s been messed with bad by her father. That doesn’t just roll off a real life girl’s back” (Algonquin Files). Brown agreed with her criticism but felt that Fay had to be naive and (p.170) innocent in the beginning so that she could be changed by her experiences (LB to SR, Algonquin Files).
Also in late January, Brown traveled to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival, where Jeremy Horton was showing 100 Proof. Algonquin’s Katharine Walton lined up publicity events for Brown to do while at the festival, and he was “slightly worried” about being overbooked: “I wouldn’t want for things like that to interfere with me attending all of the festival that I want to while I’m there. If you have a schedule ready, could you fax it to me as soon as you can? I’d like to see it before too much more time passes, just to ease my mind” (Algonquin Files). Brown was looking forward to the trip west, but when asked if he was planning to ski, he replied, “Naw, man, I ain’t gonna go out there and break a leg. I’m gonna sit by the picture-window and watch them break theirs” (Watkins, “Hot” 2D). More than a year later, Brown recalled the trip in a letter to Jake Mills: “I went there for six frozen days. … I mean a person could really freeze to death out there if you got locked out or were drunk and stumbling around or something” (Brown Collections).
Brown made another public appearance on 13 April when he served as the keynote speaker at the opening of the new Oxford–Lafayette County Library. Brown used the occasion to talk about what libraries in general and the Oxford library in particular had meant to him: “I’ve been a patron of this library for a number of years, going all the way back to when it was located up near the Square, just off Jackson Avenue on top of the hill. When I sat down to write this I realized that I was probably still in high school back then, and I can remember some of the books I was checking out then: the James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, the John D. McDonald novels about a private detective named Travis McGee who always managed to get the girl and keep half the money, too. All my life, the library has always been one of my favorite places to go. When I was a child living in Memphis I used the Memphis Public Library, and when I was in the Marine Corps I used the Navy libraries located on whatever base I was on. Reading, for pleasure and knowledge, has always been, will always be one of my favorite things to do.” He continued, “It was in this library that I first found a novel called Suttree by a writer named Cormac McCarthy. (p.171) I had never heard of this man or any of his work, but one lucky day I saw a pretty book with a nice black spine, and I pulled it from the shelf and opened it up and read a few paragraphs, and that was all I needed to see. … On that day I discovered the man that I think now may be our greatest living novelist, and since then I’ve read everything by him that I’ve been able to lay my hands on. He’s become a great influence on me, and I’ll never forget that I found him here.”
In July, Brown again participated in the University of Mississippi’s annual Faulkner Conference. Brown paid tribute to William Faulkner not only for his genius as a writer but also for his knowledge of the woods and hunting. Brown told conference attendees that reading “The Bear” had led him to other Faulkner works, which ultimately “became tools for learning how to create my own characters and settings. They taught me what to write about and how to say things, how to portray the landscape as a vast background for the action that plays out among characters. They taught me that the little touches are important in fiction, the slash of a cold rain on the face or the warble of a bird sitting on a springtime branch. They taught me determination and perseverance, to keep on writing in the face of constant failure” (“Tribute” 270). Brown touched on Faulkner’s isolation as he sat at Rowan Oak, “all alone, unmindful of the world about him when the work was at hand,” and was awed “to think about all the books and stories that came out of there” (271). Finally, Brown reminded his audience of some of the points Faulkner had made in his speech accepting the 1949 Nobel Prize for literature: “A young writer starts out knowing nothing and trying to write about it, and it’s only after enough time and work that he or she finds out that the condition of the human being is endlessly varied and an inexhaustible source of material for fiction, and that the truths of the human heart are the only things worth writing about” (271).
Through the summer and into the fall, Brown continued work on Wild Child, which remained his working title for the next year or so. (In late 1999, he told his former student, John Taylor Moses, “I had to change the title [to Fay] because Wild Child had already been used by romance novelists 50 or 60 times” [“Take” 16].) On 15 September, Brown reported to Ravenel that he had now written “just a few pages (p.172) shy of 500 and it’s nowhere near finished so brace yourself for it to be the longest thing I’ve done” (Algonquin Files). Five weeks later, he had 526 pages; however, he was spending considerable time “out on the road” touring in support of the paperback version of Father and Son, which Henry Holt had published (LB to SR, Algonquin Files).
On 25 September, Oxford celebrated the centennial of Faulkner’s birth with a “statue unveiling, talks by Willie Morris and Shelby Foote, toast to Faulkner at the bookstore, panel at Ole Miss including Evans Harrington, Don Kartiganer (resident Faulkner scholars), Richard Howorth and me” (LB to SR, Algonquin Files). The next day, Brown had a scheduled interview with National Public Radio as well as a signing for Faulkner’s World: The Photographs of Martin J. Dain, for which Brown had written the foreword. In the piece, Brown compared Faulkner’s Oxford of the 1960s to the present-day town: “The stores still line the square and the stones on the courthouse steps are cupped from the feet of people who have passed up and down them for years. But there’s more traffic in Oxford now. Friday afternoons are always bad. The old Henry Hotel is gone, the Ritz Theatre is gone, the Lyric, but the streets Faulkner walked still look almost the same” (7). Outside of town, most of the “big timber is gone now,” along with the mules, the country stores, and the old houses, “the ones with a breezeway through the middle and rooms on both sides” (8).
On 3 October, Brown traveled to the Southern Festival of Books in Nashville to receive the Southern Book Critics Circle Award for Father and Son, the same honor Joe had received five years earlier. Later that month, Brown and Barry Hannah read at a fund-raiser for Chico Harris, an Oxford writer who had been seriously injured in an automobile accident. That commitment prevented Brown from watching his daughter, LeAnne, participate in Homecoming activities at Lafayette High School (LB to SR, Algonquin Files).
On 29 October, the University of Mississippi announced Brown’s appointment as a creative writing instructor for the spring 1998 semester. He would be teaching courses in short-story writing and in advanced creative writing. Hannah described Brown’s appointment as “marvelous. I’m delighted the students will get a new and different voice” (Dees, “UM” 1A). Brown was more skeptical about his abilities (p.173) as a teacher, describing the experience as “kind of tough haul” (1A). Brown was considering using Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God in the class: “If it curls their hair that’ll be good for ’em” (1A). He also did not believe in having students criticize each other’s work or in putting “red marks all over a paper.” He told Jim Dees of the Oxford Eagle, “I’ll probably have each student come in and we’ll discuss their work” (1A). He wrote to Ravenel to tell her of his new role, signing his letter “Prof. Brown”: “You’re talking to the new writer-in-residence at Ole Miss. For the spring semester anyway … hopefully just down the hall from where I studied with Ellen Douglas way back in ’82. Ain’t it weird how it goes around and comes around? I even get an office. Shit, I may move into it, hang out a big sign that sticks out in the hall” (Algonquin Files).
In November 1997, Gary Hawkins traveled to Yocona to begin work on his next film, The Rough South of Larry Brown. Hawkins had first met Brown in the late 1980s when the Mississippian came to North Carolina to promote Dirty Work. According to Hawkins, the two men ended up “crashing” at his place, where Brown drank Hawkins “under the table” before insisting that he drive Brown to a reading (Hawkins, “Just One More” 138). The two men had subsequently worked together on Hawkins’s Emmy-winning 1991 documentary, The Rough South of Harry Crews.
For his Brown project, Hawkins had originally envisioned “a hybrid of three short films based on three short stories glued together by author commentary” (Hawkins, “Just One More” 138). He planned to shoot the stories first and then “make one trip to Mississippi to interview Larry, and Larry would tell me on camera everything I needed to hear and more” (138). Ultimately, however, Hawkins traveled to Yocona in 1997, 1998, and 2000, “meeting three different Larry Browns, each afflicted with an outsized need for both companionship and solitude, and each dealing with these paradoxical needs in different ways” (138).
Brown recalled Hawkins’s first visit: “I’d known Hawkins for a number of years and we’d become friends. He talked me into letting him and his crew come down here and make a documentary about me and my work, so when the time came, we let him stay here with us, along (p.174) with most of the cameras and the film. It kind of evolved once the rest of the crew got here and we started shooting. We started with the interviews in the rocking chair, in November, and went to Tula from there.”
For the 1997 trip to Yocona, Hawkins drove fourteen hours from North Carolina to Mississippi, where he was surprised to find Brown preparing a supper of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, pie, and ice tea. Hawkins had previously “met Road Larry, Book Tour Larry, and I’d heard the stories of Petulant Larry, who once drank an entire mini-bar; Wild Larry, who silenced a group of Yankees in a four-star restaurant by leaping on their table and kicking their entrees in their laps; Heroic Larry, who pulled children from burning houses; and Genius Larry, who stood before an audience at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and spoke—that’s spoke, not read—a twenty page short story, missing but three words” (Hawkins, “Just One More” 138). The Yocona version was a family man who introduced Hawkins to his wife, Mary Annie; son, Billy Ray; and daughter, LeAnne.
The next day, Hawkins and his two-man crew “set up the camera in Larry’s pasture for the first interview. Larry poured himself a beer in a clear, blue glass, and we settled in to start” (Hawkins, “Just One More” 140). Hawkins soon returned home to North Carolina, where he shot the three stories dramatized in the film: “Boy and Dog,” “Wild Thing,” and “Samaritans.” Brown played a fire captain in “Boy and Dog” but did not appear in the other dramatizations.
In December, Brown went hunting with Tom Rankin and Jonny Miles in Copiah County, Mississippi. Although Brown had written in On Fire that he no longer liked to kill animals, on this trip, he shot “a heavy one, an old scrappy buck that would have boasted a 10-point rack had not the tips of one side of his antler been chipped off in a brawl” (Miles, “Deer” 98). According to Rankin, after the kill, Brown said, “‘The pressure’s off now, bro. I’ll just be cooking and reading the rest of the weekend.’ The next morning when the rest of us returned from our deer stands, Larry had a full breakfast waiting, filling the house trailer with the aroma of fresh biscuits, bacon, eggs, and fried venison” (“Putting” 42). Enjoying the camaraderie, Brown told his friends that “it felt good to be out there. When I first started hunting it was about getting (p.175) something to eat. Now it’s about being out in the woods with all that beauty. Appreciating what’s left. About going off with your friends, enjoying the world without traffic and noise, having a good time, I guess. It’s pretty simple” (Miles, “Deer” 98). Miles’s published account of the hunting trip includes a description of the forty-seven-year-old Brown: “Larry Brown is the son of a Mississippi sharecropper and—despite his forays into the rarefied sphere of literary publishing—somehow looks it. He often wears an expression of achy worry, like a farmer staring into a dusty sun, wanting for rain; there is a certain gravitas to his face, to its deep riverine lines” (98).
In spite of the time he spent making the movie and hunting, Brown continued to work on Fay. On 16 December, he wrote to Ravenel,
I’m working. I’m working. I’m working. I was up till 4:30 this morning and wrote 23 new pages. I’ve been goofing off too much lately going to too many parties and dinners and things. … So much has happened in this book and it’s gotten so big. I’m trying to close out Book II now but don’t know how much longer it will be. I’ve got all these new characters now and I’ve got to come to some kind of closure with at least some of them. And I’ve still got to write Book III. … I just want to finish this book. I mean the first draft. Sometimes I think I’ll never finish it. There’s just so much that’s got to take place before I can get to the end of it. I know some of it, some of it I don’t, and I usually get surprised every day I’m writing what happens.
Well. One day. (Algonquin Files)
He also told Ravenel, “The time is drawing close when I’ll have to start teaching. Less than a month away now, and I know that time is going to close in fast and I won’t have my novel finished. And I’m so scared that the teaching will take up most of my time, I’m just trying to write all I can right now, as much as I can, no matter how long I have to stay up” (Algonquin Files).
The spring 1998 semester began at Ole Miss on 7 January. Brown was teaching English 424, an introductory short-story-writing class with twenty-two students. Each student would be required to submit two original stories and had three options for receiving feedback: “a (p.176) written critique from me; a discussion with me,” or a workshop discussion in class in which other students would give their opinions (Brown Collections). The students also read one outside story each week: among the titles Brown assigned were Denis Johnson’s “Emergency,” Ron Hansen’s “Wickedness,” Mona Simpson’s, “Lawns,” Thom Jones’s “Cold Snap,” Charles Dowdy’s “The Cold Truth” and “Cody’s Story,” and Robert Stone’s “Helping.” Brown also planned to read aloud to the students from works by James Lee Burke and Cormac McCarthy. For the first class, he planned to “talk a little about what I’ve done and how the only way I think I can help them is by knowing what they’re going through,” but he wanted the class members to ask questions “instead of me just sitting up there and talking to them.” Their first story assignment was due on 28 January.
Lafe Benson, a student in the class, remembered,
We met a few times during the semester. We talked about a lot of things and he recommended a lot of authors to me. I remember one time I had a story due in his class. I had started on a pretty lame story about a farmer trying to kill a tomcat and never really saw where the story was going. So I tore the story in pieces and burned [them] on my grill. I told Larry about this and he laughed.
“Yeah, I did that once too.”
“Yeah,” he paused and asked, “did it make you feel any better?”
“Yeah, it never does.” (“Larry Brown”)
According to Benson, Brown “wasn’t that excited about teaching” but “would critique our stories with honesty. If he didn’t like anything, he would write it down or tell you. But he would always mention something encouraging. I remember that he said that he liked the way I wrote with humor.” Brown “was always kind to his students. … He always wanted us to know that writing was not … easy. His classroom was very laid back. We were in a regular classroom for one session. After that first class, he found us a meeting room in Bishop Hall with a big round table. … Whenever it came time for an open forum on our (p.177) stories, he always tried to make everything end up on an even keel. If our classmates were talking about how terrible a story was, Larry would try to direct people towards the positive points about the story. If our classmates were talking about how great and wonderful a story was, Larry would try to find some points of the story that needed to be worked on.” Similarly, another student, John Taylor Moses, recalled Brown as “a very loving guy, and he had a sincere interest in being around young people. I never knew him to spend a lot of time around peers his actual age—being around twenty- and thirty-somethings inspired him to an extent, in my opinion.” To Moses, English 424 felt “like sitting around a campfire with a cooler of beer—very relaxed. No rules. We just sat around in a circle and commented on the text we were reading, or the process of writing. It was a very nurturing and intimate class—he made people feel comfortable about just throwing their thoughts out into the room.” Moses does not remember Brown “having any intimate friendships with the Ph.D.’s. Larry was not intellectual in the way that academia defines the word, in my opinion, so I think there was a bit of professional separation between him and most English professors.”
Brown did connect with his officemate, Randall Kenan, who was spending the semester as the John and Renee Grisham Writer-in- Residence and whom Brown had met several years earlier. Brown told Ravenel that he “really enjoy[ed] talking to” Kenan. “I finally caught him out in a club one time dancing and gave him some shit about it. He’s been good to share his office with me. We hardly ever use it. I only use it two hours a week to meet with my students. Some of my graduate students come in there sometimes and we raise the window and smoke” (Algonquin Files).
Brown also taught English 521, an advanced graduate course in writing nonfiction. On the first day of class, Brown gave the fourteen students the same basic introduction that he used for his other course but told them that they would “be discussing mostly novels and nonfiction books and essays” and “might veer into screenwriting or maybe even songwriting, depending on who I get to come talk to the class” (Brown Collections). Watching films—including Hawkins’s films on Harry Crews and Tim McLaurin—and taped interviews was also a (p.178) possibility. He told the students that they would mostly be talking to each other and that “we’ll cover whatever you want to cover” (Brown Collections). He offered them the same options for critiques that he had offered those enrolled in his other class. He maintained the point of view that “nobody can teach them how to write, but I can give them the benefit of my experience over the last seventeen years. That’s the only thing that qualifies me to teach, the fact that I’ve been where they are now and once sat in a classroom just like this one” (Brown Collections).
Brown had these students read and discuss McCarthy’s Child of God. He also required them to submit a twenty-page essay and a piece of fiction of between fifteen and thirty pages (Brown Collections). He also planned to share with them the guidance he had received from an editor for Outdoor Life: “Write the way you’d write a letter to a friend. … That little piece of advice did [me] more good than anything at that point” (Brown Collections).
Brown had initially thought that he would be able to work on Fay between classes, but he soon found that teaching consumed all his time (Glendenning, “Booklovers” L6). Brown’s close friend, Lisa Howorth, later reflected, “I don’t think that teaching was something Larry particularly wanted to do, but it was always a struggle for money and I don’t understand why [a more permanent position at Ole Miss] was never an option that was available.” Although Brown became close to some of his students and liked talking with them about writing, Lisa Howorth believes that he found teaching “confining” and thought of teaching creative writing classes as “a racket.” Richard Howorth concurred: Brown “was initially enchanted with the idea of being a teacher … but after he had done it a few times, he realized how much time and energy and attention it required and that detracted from his ability to write, and so I think he got tired of it right away and preferred not to do it.”
Brown played a significant part in that spring’s Oxford Conference for the Book. He joined Fredric Koeppel and Alane Mason on a panel moderated by Kenan. Mary Annie also participated in a panel, “‘It Really Was My Idea’: Spouses of Writers Speak Out,” with Barry Hannah’s wife, Susan, and John Rusher, husband of Elizabeth Spencer. Brown (p.179) also took time from his teaching and novel writing to pen an article, “Little Big Band,” that appeared in the June 1998 issue of Oxford Town. In it, Brown urged music lovers to attend an upcoming performance at Proud Larry’s by one of his favorite musicians, Alejandro Escovedo: “I like his voice, his writing, his guitar work, and the arrangements. He reminds me a great deal of Leonard Cohen in the way he puts a song together with different instruments to make it more interesting and beautiful. … In his writing, he has the voice and the heart and the soul of a poet, but to me he soars much higher than a poet simply because he’s able to put his words to music and sing them” (9).
After the semester ended, Brown stopped drinking and got back to work on his novel. By mid-July, he wrote that he had “been on it about 27 months now and I’m trying to end it. I’ve got over 750 pages right now and hope to keep it under 900 pages. I figure to finish the first draft if everything goes right in five or six weeks. … I imagine Shannon’s about to shit a brick to get her hands on this thing. They’ve been real good to leave me alone, though. Already she’s scared it’s too big. I’ve worried over it so much and it’s been going on for so long” (LB to JM, Brown Collections). In late August, Brown finally submitted the manuscript to Ravenel: “I think this is ready for you to see. It’s got a beginning, a middle, and an ending. … I’ve fixed 117 things that were wrong with it, things of logic, things of motivation. I know there are still holes to patch up and characterizations to beef up, and still some scenes need to be changed” (Algonquin Files). After reading the massive novel, Ravenel found it “greatly in need of revision, massive cutting, and much clearer definition of purpose” (Algonquin Files). She particularly objected to Brown’s constant references to drinking and smoking and thought that Sam Harris was too much of “an idealized good guy.” She also asked, “Can Fay have a little streak of something— like personality—in her besides being so innocent and ‘fine’?” She also wrote, “I think there’s a good story in here someplace. At the heart of it is a girl raised in the ‘wilderness’ whose instinct for survival is steely and in whose wake many lives are lost” (Algonquin Files).
Ravenel told Brown that the manuscript needed too much work to be put on Algonquin/Workman’s fall 1999 list. She urged him to cut at least two hundred pages and to give the novel a stronger focus. Brown (p.180) was “bewildered” by her criticism and tried to answer her objections and thereby justify what he had done. He balked at the enormous cuts Ravenel had suggested, asserting he had deliberately written a long novel and that his readers would not object. And he disagreed with Ravenel’s assessment that the novel overemphasized alcohol: “There is no drinking theme that I see in my novel. Some of them just drink. That’s it. I hope it’s an accurate representation of their lives, which sometimes are pretty sleazy. I had no drinking theme in mind when I wrote it. It just keeps cropping up. It runs through all my work. It’s a handy source for trouble, and people being in trouble is what drives my fiction. That’s the only way I know how to explain it. Trouble & conflict: resolution” (Algonquin Files). Finally, Brown was “totally stunned” by the criticism of Sam: “He’s in the novel from about page 50 off and on until the very end. His role is to love Fay, lose Fay, try to get her back, and fail, as does Aaron. Neither of them can hold onto her. I tried to show Sam as a basically good man with flaws” (Algonquin Files).
On 8 October, Ravenel replied to Brown, apologizing for her negative comments but saying that her job was to be honest. She reiterated the aspects of the novel that disturbed her and advised him to get another reader’s opinion (Algonquin Files). The discouraged Brown penned another defensive response four days later (LB to SR, Algonquin Files) and then decided to take a break from the novel.
That fall, Larry and Mary Annie Brown hosted a gathering at which they fed more than two hundred friends. Continuing a long-standing tradition, Brown took off “a few days … to cook up a large cauldron of his mother’s famous chicken stew” (Dees, “Writers Series at Library” 1). However, 1998 was the last year that the Browns hosted the cookout. According to Mary Annie Brown, the event had just become too much work for her and had “gotten just way too big.” Richard Howorth agreed that “it got out of hand.” (See appendix B for Brown’s “recipe” for chicken stew.)
The fall of 1998 also saw continued interest in dramatic versions of some of Brown’s work. A New York acting company had performed “92 Days” the previous year and now planned to restage the production in Santa Monica, California. Brown was paid very little for the rights and (p.181) did not go west to see it. Another California woman was staging “A Roadside Resurrection,” but Brown did not plan to attend; however, he would go to California if a proposed staging of Dirty Work took place in Los Angeles in 1999. In addition, Jeremy Horton, the director of 100 Proof, had paid Brown five hundred dollars for an option on “A Roadside Resurrection.” Brown had become wiser about Hollywood after several years of trying to arrange productions of Dirty Work, Joe, and other scripts: “The movie bidness is a strange thing. It’s where all the money’s at. I don’t need to be rich but I’d sure like to stop struggling so hard sometimes” (LB to JM, Brown Collections). Lisa Howorth believes that failing to have one of his novels made into a film was “one thing that was never fully realized for Larry. … He knew so much about movies in a huge way, and he really would have liked to do that. [But] it was easy [for him] to get taken in by Hollywood stuff.” Larry’s Hollywood agent, Lynn Pleshette, explained that “the reason that Hollywood has not been seriously interested in Larry’s work is because Southern Gothic stories basically scare Hollywood. These are not an easy genre to sell. It is not horror or high concept comedy or HARRY POTTER or BATMAN. Basically, Larry’s brilliant work is drama” (Darhansoff e-mail interview).
Hawkins returned to Yocona in the fall of 1998 to get more material for his movie. When he arrived, “there was no fried chicken dinner waiting for me this time, no happy family. Just cold weather and a very serious writer, obsessed with Fay, a novel he had failed to deliver” (Hawkins, “Just One More” 140). Brown lamented the time he had wasted “sitting on a barstool” but refused to give Hawkins more detail about what had gone wrong. Mary Annie Brown, however, angrily told Hawkins, “You think this writing thing is so glamorous. Well let me tell you, it isn’t” (141). Mary Annie confirmed that her husband had recently been drinking too much and told Hawkins that Larry had even been jailed after being ticketed for drunk driving. She continued, “When Larry writes, that’s when he’s the happiest. And when he’s not writing, that’s when he’s so depressed you can’t stand to be around him” (RS). When Brown showed off his “cool pad,” Hawkins saw it as enabling Brown “to live apart from his family while remaining under (p.182) the same roof” (Hawkins, “Just One More,” 141). This idea of “the conflict between this man’s calling to write and his duty to his family” became the overriding theme for The Rough South of Larry Brown (141).
At around this time, Brown began work on his writing cabin at Tula, which he envisioned as a “little house … on the back bank of my pond. It’ll sit across from the boat dock, a little off to the left, slightly up in the woods” (LB to JM, Brown Collections). Brown planned every step of the project in meticulous detail: once he started construction, the cabin moved along “pretty fast but I’ve been building it in my head for a couple of months so it was just a matter of getting the lumber and cutting it and nailing it all together. … Part of the floor’s cantilevered so that two feet of it just hangs out in space. But I’ve already decided to build a big deck out on the front of it and build it around two big pines and a cedar that would make me stop short of a big porch and no way would I cut them” (LB to JM, Brown Collections).
The rest of Brown’s time that fall was taken up by working to complete Fay, building his cabin, and taking care of Mary Annie, who had gall bladder surgery. He entertained Kaye Gibbons, Rick Bass, and other writer friends who came to Oxford to read at Square Books. And he pursued two of his favorite pastimes: one was sitting “in his old dun-colored Dodge pickup ‘riding the gloam’—driving around, listening to music, drinking beer or peppermint schnapps—what his mama used to call, with some degree of futility, ‘acting ugly.’” The other was taking a boat out on the pond “fishing for bass and bream with either a cane pole or the same bandaged Eagle Claw rod that he’d fished with since he returned from his stint in the Marine Corps” (Miles, “Deer” 98).
At the end of December, Brown’s reading of his story, “Merry Christmas, Scotty,” aired on the Oxford-based Thacker Mountain Radio show, and the same story appeared in Oxford Town. The piece was prefaced by Brown’s explanation that he “spent about five nights trying to write a Christmas story. I’ve got a friend in town that I don’t see nearly as much these days as I used to, and he was in my mind while I was writing this story because I needed a good bartender, so I used him. … And since I haven’t gotten my friend a present, yet, I thought I’d call this story, ‘Merry Christmas, Scotty’” (4). Set in an Oxford bar, the story features a narrator, Nick, who has returned to town for Christmas even though (p.183) he no longer has any family living there. Nick tries to stay at a local motel, but there is literally no room at the inn; the motel’s owner supplies Nick with a tent in which to camp. Nearing midnight on Christmas Eve, Nick, under the influence of the Christmas spirit, feels sympathy for an elderly man who he thinks has passed out on the bar; he believes the man to be destitute and homeless. Nick ultimately learns that the old man is the bartender’s Uncle Kris, just in from Australia and suffering from jet lag. The story ends happily with Nick attending a party at the bartender’s apartment, where he meets “a longlegged brown-haired beauty named Desiree” who is more than willing to share his tent for the night. The story ends, “Merry Christmas, everybody” (7).