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» Harry Crews
» Levee 67

A Large & Startling Figure

The Harry Crews Online Bibliography

Everything is Optimism, Beautiful, and Painless

A Conversation with Harry Crews

By Damon Sauve

In mid-February 1996, I traveled with Tina Cobo, my girlfriend, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to Miami, Florida, to visit our folks. To break up the 18-hour drive, we stayed two nights in Gainesville, where a few years before both Tina and I had attended college at the University of Florida. Our plan was to visit friends who still lived in town, shoot pool at a bar downtown called Happy Hour, and interview Harry Crews, with whom I had studied creative writing as an undergraduate.

As teacher and writer, Crews had considerable influence on his students, especially me. Each semester, students lined down the hall outside the Creative Writing suite to schedule fiction and poetry classes. Inevitably, the sections taught by Crews filled-up that morning. Many of the students at the front of that line were, like me, repeats. We had already had him the semester before. While I had not read one word of his prior to the first class, by the end of four semesters, I had read everything. Not just what he had written, but also the authors and novels that he mentioned in lecture. A few years after college, I started a literary magazine named after a character in his novel The Knockout Artist, called Oyster Boy Review. Whether I heard back from him or not, I sent Crews a copy of every issue. Often, Crews responded with a short, encouraging note or, twice, a long phone call.

At the time of our trip to Florida, I was completing a graduate degree at the University of North Carolina and working on what would become my Master's paper, a comprehensive bibliography of Crews's work. My desk was populated with piles of photocopied interviews, book reviews, and critical articles. Besides the research, I had been re-reading the novels and non-fiction that I had read before. My head was full, I felt, of the sound and cadence of his voice. With that form of intimacy, the kind of closeness some academics encounter when too much of their time is occupied by other writers' words, I was drawn to meet with him and to interview him myself, despite whatever trepidation I had about disturbing his privacy.

When Tina and I arrived that Saturday morning at his house, secluded by trees from busy 34th Street, it was already late, close to noon. Crews greeted us at the door, welcomed us in, and offered us something to drink. He hadn't seen us in the two years since we'd had moved to Chapel Hill, since perhaps the Gainesville premier of Gary Hawkins' documentary The Rough South of Harry Crews. After fixing a glass of ice for each of us and a can of soda, we went to the living room. He sat in a stuffed chair, the same chair pictured in any of his other interviews, and we sat across from him, Tina in padded recliner, and myself in a wooden rocker. He had been at work on his next book, an autobiography, and offered to read from it. We listened intently to Crews read from what was obviously a significant chapter. After 20 minutes, Crews stopped and put away the manuscript and turned his attention to us. The image of his dead mother's opened, black mouth was difficult to dispel from my mind.

I brought out a mini tape-recorder and asked him if I could use it. He said sure, that he had sometimes used a microphone to record interviews. I set up the recorder on the table beside his chair and looked through the short list of questions to ask him that I had composed on the drive over. Knowing that any question I could frame would have been asked and already answered in nearly 25 years of interviews, I put the notes away. The conversation continued for several hours, interrupted only by a run to the truck near one o'clock to retrieve my bottle of bourbon, and then several subsequent breaks for the restroom.

I like to think that by the time we finished talking, and Tina and I had returned to the room in the motel where we stayed, that Crews had enjoyed our company, that he had valued the few hours together as much as we had appreciated his time spent with us. But hearing his voice on the recorder, after having worked these last weeks to transcribe from under the noise his voice as I hear it, when I listen to the tired gravity of his barely audible voice, "I've never enjoyed myself. I'm incapable of enjoying myself. There's just some people who don't enjoy themselves very much." I know that I have taken more than he could ever have wanted to give.

. . .

Damon Sauve [DS]: You said once in an interview that you bought an expensive microphone setup here in town, and you used that for some of the interviews you've done.

Harry Crews: I mean, I used to when I did so much of it. I used a tape recorder and a legal pad, but then I bought myself a wire, because—and I would tell people I was wired—they see things and get intimidated. Certainly they see a mike and they get intimidated. Some people do. If you're interviewing people who make films or who are very public people, they don't get intimidated. A truck driver or a whatever, he looks at that thing, and keeps looking at it, and his speech becomes stilted, he's careful about what he says, and the rest of it.

If you do a lot of it, and god knows I did a lot of it for a time. I don't know how the hell I did it. Hundreds and hundreds of hours. All across the country. I wrote a piece on Charlie Bronson. He doesn't talk. He was very difficult. You have to write around. Two or three people I run into like that. You have to write around them. You write about everybody that's around them—and just hang out, you know, if you can, what you do. That's what I did.

I wrote a piece on Madonna. I wrote the piece on Sean Penn. They could give a shit about a microphone. They didn't care. But I tell people, I just write off the ends of my fingers. If they're working, I stay out of their way. Watch them.

Sauve: I remember you talked about writing a script for Sean Penn. Did that ever work out?

Crews: I wrote the screenplay for Sean Penn and was paid for it. Sean's been very good to me. He gave me a lot of work. For which I was paid—well, everybody in show business is paid ten times as much as they're worth. No, he just could never raise the money to make the film.

Sauve: I guess that happens a lot.

Crews: Yeah, it does. I don't know if you heard, but The Knockout Artist is being made into a film. The director, producer, and the screenwriter were here two weeks ago for a few days. They consulted on the film because they don't—it's set in New Orleans, as you may know. They know about New Orleans what a tourist would know about New Orleans which is not what I wrote about. And they simply don't know where to find anything.

Some years ago, they had—I believe it was a democratic convention in New Orleans—and they cleaned out, they took all the porn film houses, the live sex shows, and the snuff films—all that bullshit—and they took it out of New Orleans and put it across the river in the so-called West Bank. It's across the Mississippi. And if you don't know where to look, you just go to Bourbon Street. Everybody goes to Bourbon Street. The Quarter's all right. Jackson Square's nice. I like when it's open to sit on a bench, watch kids play music, guys juggle and do whatever they do. And there's a ferry right down in Jackson Square. And if you're on your feet, you don't have a car, it's free to go across the river. There's a great restaurant just directly across the river from the ferry. Every thirty minutes one goes across. If you got a car, it costs a buck. Best deal in town.

Trying to think of that little town over there. It's got a wonderful goddamn name.

Sauve: Across the river?

Crews: Yeah, right across the river from Jackson Square. Strange town. Strange state.

. . .

Crews: A writer friend of mine had a cabin up in the northeast of Louisiana. I stayed up there to write. It was a good tight cabin.

I didn't have a phone. I didn't have a radio. I didn't have a television set. I had an iron stove to cook on. Wood-burning. Four eyes on top. A reservoir. But no running water. I had to get water out of a gerry can. It had an outhouse. The cabin was just one huge room. Huge. Huge. And every wall was filled from top to the floor with books. And I had my dog with me. It was one of the best years I ever had. Great.

Because, twelve miles out of the swamp where I was, there was Swainsboro. A little town. About like Waldo [a small, one-light town outside of Gainesville]. And curiously enough, they had a gym. And so six days a week I got a hot shower and a shave, and a work-out, and on the seventh day, my dog and God and I rested. I got up every morning at four o'clock to work. By the time the gym opened, I was finished writing for the day. Read a whole bunch of books. Had a lot of time to read.

Right, just—you could flip a dime from the porch of the cabin into a lake that—you could build your fire before you put your hook in the water. It had bass, perch, and all kinds of stuff in there. Turtles. Had a lot of turtles, too.

. . .

Crews: Rod Elrod, yeah. Ex bull rider. A good friend of Don Gay's, five time world champion bull rider. And the bull that retired Rod was named Cassius Clay, and it was a big black bull. It was at the National Finals, and the animals get to the National Finals the same way the cowboys get to the National Finals. And this bull had been out that season—had been out of the shoot something like maybe a hundred-something, -eighty or -ninety times and never been covered. Nobody ever rid him. And Donny Gay was pulling for Rod in the shoot. The bull rope goes around the bull and the back of the hand and then somebody's got to pull that thing tight. And it's got a bell underneath there. And Donny was trying to talk Rod into turning him out, which you can do when you've already paid your entry fee. But the guy up there is saying [loud, drawling announcer's voice], "Now coming out of shoot five on Cassius Clay is Rod Elrod," and the shoot gate opens and the bull comes out and there's nobody on him. Just turn the son of a bitch out. You forfeit your thing and you go home whole. He didn't. He didn't turn him out. He went out on him and he got busted up. Good. He had broken legs. But he healed up. I saw both Donny Gay and another guy I can't remember but everybody knows—I saw him ride the last time in Las Vegas, and then he opened his country singing act the same night. But I saw both of those guys ride with broken arms. If you go to win the world, you got to enter every goddamn—you got to enter a whole bunch of them. As many as you can get to.

. . .

Sauve: I got this book. I just found out about it. It's a history of Bread Loaf [the writer's conference]. [1] It has some photos and anecdotes about you. There's a small picture of you on the cover in the corner.

Crews: Yeah. [Looks at the photo on the book's cover.] Some younger there. Yeah, everything breaking down now. But that's all right. It's supposed to break down.

Sauve: There's another picture of you in here. Let me find it and I'll show you. [Flips through the book.] There's three little action photos of you teaching. It talks about how your lectures were pretty dynamic.

Crews: [Reads aloud, with an ironic tone, the photo caption.] "Every lecture a performance." [DS and Tina Cobo (TC) laugh.]

[Looks at photo on opposite page.] Yeah, Galway Kinnel's a good guy. Strange guy. Never liked his poetry, but liked him. A little too reticent, solitary, and . . . [Imitating Kinnel, Crews lowers his voice to a whisper, the words inaudible, then suddenly raises it to a strident level.] I CAN GET SIX MONTHS BEHIND ON THE LOOP and catch up in about ten minutes. [DS and TC laugh.]

Sauve: There were other people there you must have known. You got me reading Shane Stevens. [2] His early novels. I don't know whatever happened to him.

Crews: I don't know what the heck happened to Shane. I have a feeling he got killed or died because there's a scholarship there in his name now.

Sauve: Oh, really?

Crews: Yeah. He was raised in Harlem. And he's white, but—he's white, but in every possible sense, he's black. Everything, including speech, clothes, hating white people. Not that every black hates white people. Strange dude. Strange dude.

But the first time he was there, about the first three days and nights, he didn't sleep a wink. He sat on the step all night. He said it was too damned quiet. You know, raised in Harlem.

Sauve: Right. In the middle of that field, and the trees.

Crews: Up there on the top of that mountain—they didn't then allow any radios up there, televisions up there, newspapers up there. It was just too quiet for him.

. . .

Crews: I have a computer, printer, and stuff like that, but I don't think I'm ever going to—I'm through with computers.

Did you know that Shelby Foote's three volume history of the Civil War, he wrote with a dip pen? One of those little ink wells and you just—you don't even fill the pen with ink. You just dip it and write.

And that Graham Greene—and if you look at the list of books that Graham Greene wrote, I mean it's mind boggling that anybody could write that much—all in long hand. His line was, "I never mastered the machine."

My feeling about a computer's, now, if I write it in long hand and then I type it into the computer and revise it a little bit as you type it in, or a lot, and then use a computer to revise, a computer's a marvelous instrument to revise on. I don't even remember—I can't imagine how in the hell we used to do it. I seem to remember a lot of scissors and tape and paste and stuff before computers.

But as far as composing on a typewriter, nobody needs to go faster. I, first among them. Everybody needs to go slower. Since, max, 500 words a day is a good day's work. Particularly if you can keep the 500, which many times you can't. I just threw away a hundred pages of that thing I read down there [the autobiography in progress Crews had read from earlier]. It was good shit, but it just didn't belong in the book. That's the trick of it.

I don't know. But I was never able to write on an electronic typewriter. Those things talk back to you. Computers don't do that.

But, no. I say that. I may do it. I don't know. It doesn't really matter pretty much how you do it just as long as you do it. Get the work done.

Speaking of work. Besides the journal [Oyster Boy Review]. Well, you've been in school.

Sauve: Yeah, I work part-time for the university. I edit documentation that teaches students how to use computer applications, like a word processor. I edit those documents and put them on the internet.

Crews: Well, you know, hell of a lot better job than most of the jobs I ever had. Had to have one. Jobs. Just something to keep body and soul together.

Cobo: Never apart.

Crews: Well, body and soul together—

Sauve: [Laughs.] Some people, it keeps them apart.

Crews: It doesn't necessarily keep your—it doesn't say a thing about your psyche or your brain or your—if you can't keep that together, that's where the damage is done. Often.

. . .

Crews: It seems that everybody wants to be saved for the chair. You know, you see these old guys about 80 years old, they're in the chair. And modern medicine has just kept them alive. And, I have a good friend who's my age who's just had his—first he got his liver cut out cause he drank. Well, he didn't drink any heavier than I did, but his liver didn't hold up. Cut it out. Immediately after that they had to cut part of his lung off cause he had cancer there. He's still alive. Looks good.

I don't know. We'll see when it comes down to it. But I have an elaborate will that contains how I'm supposed to be buried and burned up. And no memorial service. No words said. No cards. No flowers or nothing. No marker. But also, you know, everybody knows many wills don't have a whole list of the actual machines—well, George [Crews's lady friend], being a nurse, knows all about those. She has the same thing. About shit you can do and you can't do. I am 62 years old in May, and eight more years is three-score and ten. Not bad, if it matters, but what the hell. But 61's a pretty good ride. That's a pretty busy ride. I hope to die falling face forward and dead, which is the way I hope—I hope when I go that my whole chest blows out, my heart slams against a wall in the end. [DS and TC laugh.] That's the—that's the—wonderful. But if it doesn't, it doesn't. Make the motherfuckers send you home, and just get yourself some good dope and stay doped for as long as it feels good and when it don't feel good anymore, load that goddamned syringe up and nod out on the final ride.

But I've never had any notion of shooting myself. You know how they put that [shapes hand like a gun and awkwardly points his finger against the roof of his mouth]—eat the gun. Put that son of a bitch in there and pull the trigger. Well, yeah, you put brains on the ceiling. But it also—the blow back—you got brains come out of your nose, out of your fucking ears. Out of your mouth. I mean, you'd think it would blow, but it's like a blow back in a fire. And I just—nah. I don't think so.

And over and above that, I wonder if, by some chance that—course you get a physical every six months, you get your prostate every whatever—stick a garden hose up your ass and all that stuff. Idiot bullshit. No, if I ever have cancer, why would I let them cut in there and fuck with my by-pass, you know, my quadruple by-pass? Why would I do that? At my age? I mean, or cut in there and take a lung out and leave me with one? Which you can get along with, I know. I have friends with one lung. But to what point?

I am not a religious man, but all that shit seems highly immoral to me. I bought this place because of the trees, and my lawn out there. Nothing growing in that lawn ain't supposed to be growing in that lawn. What's growing out there is supposed to be growing there. A tree grows old, it's supposed to fall down and rot. I've got a—I've got a three year-old grandson, and he's got to have some room to grow up. And for him to have some room, some of us old fuckers have got to go on across the river. A great line by Dylan Thomas, "I shall have star at elbow and foot." Meaning, simply, that you return to the nitrogen cycle. Go up there and come down as rain or something.

But, you know, I say that sitting here, doped and smoking is one thing. It's another thing to be . . .

But you know, the trick is not to get in the hospital just to get—I know from having been hurt so much in my life that if the pain gets right, and you can't score something on the street to stop it, you do what you can. You will go to a doctor or to a hospital to stop the pain if it gets bad enough. I don't give a shit who you are.

. . .

Crews: When they took her out of there, it took her five fucking daughters—right here in this town. They took her out of her house, and they put her in The Village, which is a retirement village. She's got some bread so it was really nice. And then she got worse, and she had to go to something called Rose Court, which was like, you know, hell. That's where you can't do for yourself, and so you get into the Depends thing and all that stuff.

And now she is—I guess she has Alzheimer's. She shakes. Jerks really bad. Memory's bad. What's the other one?

Cobo: Parkinson's?

Crews: Parkinson's. She got Parkinson's. She's got Parkinson's, and she's been out there, man, twelve years. And she can't walk. She can't feed herself. She can't do anything. And they won't let her die. I mean, there's a certain proportion to everything, which, if one goes beyond that—I've said it already—or distorts that proportion—then you distort the whole experience of having been alive, and never mind living or any of that. Check that at the door.

Cobo: Half the time they're not keeping them alive for themselves, they're keeping them alive for other people.

Crews: Yeah, well, they're keeping them alive for other people and keeping them alive for the fucking wall.

Cobo: Yeah.

Crews: But it's curious. Life, apparently—you get right down to the wire, and I guess every day becomes—you don't want to die. You don't want to go. You want to stay, man, just to . . .

Sauve: Why would you want to go?

Crews: Why would I want to go? Because there ain't nothing to do.

Sauve: If there's nothing to do.

Crews: If you ain't doing it, you can't do shit.

Sauve: You've talked before about that the way the family used to be structured, that the parents would move in with their child's family . . .

Crews: Yeah.

Sauve: And that seems to make a lot of sense to me. I can't understand why . . .

Crews: You can't find young children, or—it's rare to find people your age [nods to DS] and your age [nods to TC], who have spent a lot of time around blood of their blood that is really old. To talk to them, and listen to them talk, and listen to them tell stories. Well, for one thing, they don't have time to listen to the stories, and besides, the stories are such nonsense, really, because, after all, they are very old, and they can give you the date and the hour and everything they had on their plate on a certain day fifty years ago. They can't tell you what happened yesterday. They, you know, done all that shit back then. And it comes and goes. Anybody that can still talk and get around and do things—well, I said all this, or much of all this, on those tapes that I did. There's three of them, actually, now. One's made in France, and two were made here. One, Guilty as Charged, the other, Rough South that PBS made, and I talk about all that stuff. [3] Talk's cheap. We'll see what happens when it comes time.

And they're all babies when it feels like this is it. I'll never make it through this one. I've red-lined again, and I'll never get back. But you do.

. . .

Sauve: That piece that you were reading earlier, that's . . .

Crews: It's just like A Childhood only it's later.

Sauve: Writing about your family like that, do you feel—it would be difficult for me to write about my family that way.

Crews: Well, it's difficult for me. A Childhood almost killed me. And that one will.

But, I gave the manuscript of A Childhood to my mother, and I said, I'm going to send this to New York, and you're all through it, and if you want to read it, and if there's anything in it you want to cut out or don't want everybody in the world to see, well, I'll take it out. And she said, I'll read it when it comes out. And she said, if it's the truth, write it. And so . . .

Noooo. I think you have an obligation—there are all kinds of obligations you have as a writer. You know them, so no use in boring both of us by going through obligations that you know we have. But if whatever the subject is, or whatever any subject is that you are writing about, and if it's important and significant in a sense larger than itself—you're not just writing this to hurt somebody or writing this to get back at somebody or writing this to libel. God forbid.

But libel is almost impossible to prove. And even if they prove libel, then there is—almost always they inevitably ask for a judgement against you for having libeled them. But say they ask for a hundred-thousand dollars. The burden of proof is on them that you hurt them a hundred-thousand dollars worth. Kept them from working. Kept them from getting a job. Make them lose a job. Make them nuts and they had to go to the crazy house. How the hell you going to prove that? So, and I don't know, it's not that that's true—that I do it without—I mean, I'm a writer, and that's what I do. If there's something that I think is of significance and ought to be put down and has value larger than its immediate confined context of the moment—it has ramifications beyond that—then I don't have any feelings one or the other. It—It—the pain comes not that I might hurt somebody. The pain comes from just having relived the shit. Because when I write stuff, everything I write, I'm in—and I mean fiction, too, but I did.

If you're crazy enough to read yourself, and almost no writer reads his own novel once he finishes it. He never looks at it again. I've never read a novel of mine, a whole novel that I did, after it's published. Never. Why would you?

But you look in them sometimes. Usually, I find myself looking in them cause I'm stuck and feel totally incompetent and burned out and think, well, it's over, I can't write anything else. And then I go to a book like that one up there [points to the book jacket of Naked In Garden Hills framed behind glass hanging on the living room wall] which I'm very proud of, and I look at places in it, and I see what I did, and I think, hey man, if you did it there, you can do it again. Just goddamnit go back and sit there till it comes.

Did you ever see the stuff that's written on the back of that book? Let me read that shit. Absolutely amazing reception it had. [Rises from chair and walks over to the frame.] This is from the review in Harper's magazine [reads from the blurb on the book jacket]: "A ruthless, cruel, and blackly beautiful [. . .]"

That's just one of the reviews on the back of the book. So, yeah, shit like that keeps me alive. [Returns to his chair.]

Graham Greene—you've probably heard me quote before, because god knows, it's true—"The writer is doomed to live in an atmosphere of perpetual failure." There it is. There it is. Nah, you write things and write things—write a book for instance—and write and write and write and write and write, and you know, it's not—every writer writes with the knowledge that nothing he writes is as good as it could be. Paul Valery: "A poem's never finished, only abandoned." The same thing with a novel. It's never finished, only abandoned. I've had any number of novels where I've just at some point said to myself, well, unless you're going to make the career out of this book—spend the rest of your goddamn life chewing on it—you might as well just package it up and send it on to New York. Go on to something else. Because between conception and execution there is a void, an abyss, that inevitably fucks up the conception. The conception never gets translated to the page. It just doesn't. I don't think it ever does.

I think [Gustave] Flaubert kept Madame Bovary for nine years. Took him nine years to write it, well, he didn't write it all in nine years. He could have written it in nineteen years, and he would still have felt the way he felt, and that was that it was a fine piece of work, but it was not as good as it could be. Same old same old.

. . .

Sauve: Gorse republished The Gospel Singer in 1995 in the UK along with the companion novel Where Does One Go When There's No Place Left to Go?

Crews: Yeah.

Sauve: It's pretty strange.

Crews: Isn't that pretty strange? Yeah.

Sauve: Where do you place yourself in there? Or do you?

Crews: I place myself. I'm in there. My name. And me. I lived in that place. I lived in that shack. And they came. And they arrived. When I lived on Swan, the lake out there. I had a shack, and my head was shaved at that time. And why did I write it? How did I happen to write it? Why did I want to write it? I don't have the foggiest notion.

Sauve: But you spent time writing that.

Crews: Yes, I did.

Sauve: Did you expect that to be publishable?

Crews: Of course. Of course I did. I wrote it to be published. Sure I did. Damn straight I did.

It saddens me to say it, but it is a kind of Post-Modernist piece of work, the only such piece I have. I don't admire that shit.

The subject of that novel is the novel. The subject of that writing is writing. And the people I've created, much of the time, have greater substance than anybody that I know who's alive, and are, to me, more memorable. And in some instances, I can even say I care more about. Which is a rather dreadful thing to say. But nobody ever accused artists of being anything but dreadful. They commit all kinds of larceny and betrayal and—you have to be careful about what you say around a writer. Shit'll turn up in a book. May turn up in such a way that you'll be identifiable.

And the writer, in almost every instance—except hacks and people with really bad hearts—the writer doesn't mean to do that. He just does it. Doesn't realize he's done it. And the editor doesn't know. Nobody knows. Except you and the guy you're fucking with. And you don't understand that.

The guy Poncy in A Feast of Snakes is based absolutely—I mean from start to finish—on a guy that I considered to be my best friend. And I didn't really realize it until he said something—he's much older than I was. Old guy. And he had a Porsche. And he was of Latin descent. From Cuba. And had worked in Latin America. And is dead now. Been dead long now. Died in his sleep. He had a—

My step-father, Mr. Turner, he saw one doctor in his entire life—which I told you about that—when he went in World War One. Had to get a physical. Saw two. Right there at the end of his life, he fell in the back yard. They wanted to take him down to the doctor, and goddamn he fought tooth and nail and cussed everybody for fucking with him, and he didn't want to go to the doctor, and they took him down there, and the doctor x-rayed him and said he was going to die of lung cancer. He'd been smoking unfiltered Camels since he was nine years old. He's 83. And he says, well, we can take you up to that big hospital in Atlanta, and you know, operate. And he said no. No, no, no, no. They're not going to do any of that. Never saw him take a pill. Wouldn't take an aspirin. Took nothing. I know he had to be in pain sometimes, but he just never—you didn't know it if he was. And he said, I'm going back home. And, as soon as he stepped out of the doctor's office, he reached for his Camels, lit one up, gone on back home and—and the old doctor, the old doctor said, well, Mr. Turner, if I was you I think I might do the same thing. He said, you don't want to go up there. You want to go back home. Go back home, and if you have any pain, I'll give you something for it. About four weeks later, he sat up on the side of the bed one morning—and my momma's name was Myrtice—sat up on the side of the bed one morning and said, Myrtice, I don't feel just right. And lay back and was dead.

What the fuck you want? That's, that's righteous.

And that's also great luck. Sad to say, but the chances of even any of the three of us having that kind of quick, painless demise is remote. That's not the nature of death.

Well, Ma went fine. She pitched forward in her living room onto her face, and had had a massive stroke and massive brain damage. Had always wanted to die in her own house. And so we kept her in her own house. And that's where she died. Back in her own bed.

My brother and I were there, and Eugenia came in—Eugenia was right by her bed the whole—took her, took her twelve days to die, but she never opened her eyes. She never said a word. Didn't do anything but just—her face was aarrrr [makes a forced expression]—her mouth was open, and she had no swallowing reflex, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But she didn't know anything about it. Nothing. Zip.

They—she did suffer pain, the doctor said. The heart blew from mini-strokes there toward the end. And they had Dilaudid suppositories. I don't know if you know what Dilaudid suppositories are, but if anybody ever offers you one, don't turn it—don't turn it down. [DS and TC laugh.] Take it and run. It's not as good as mainlining it, but it's not bad.

Dilaudid is a sweet drug. Doesn't last quite as long as heroin. It's got a better rush.

Dilaudid—if you never shot Dilaudid in your whole life, and you took a Dilaudid 4, a pill about as big as an aspirin, and crushed it up in a spoon—actually, what you do is take one of these things [picks up a matchbook], take the matches out of it, put the pill between there, and you just put it down on a hard surface, you take a spoon and tap it until it gets all crushed, and then you pour it into the spoon, and then you take your U-40—used to be called a U-40, a kind of disposable diabetic syringe—I don't know what the hell they call it now. You pull up enough water—however the much water you're going to use—and you squirt it into the spoon. And take a cigarette lighter or a match and put it under the spoon until you just get just the tiniest starting of bubbles around the edge, and blow out the light. And then you take a tiny little, tiny, tiny little piece of cotton and put it in the spoon, put the point of the spike right in the cotton and draw it up—and there will be some yellow residue left in the spoon. And when I knew about Dilaudid, Dilaudid's form on the street cost 25 dollars—it probably cost 60 now. God knows. And you start shooting one, and it won't be—well, it'll be going to—eighteen months you might be shooting four or five times. But when you just touch that syringe—I mean an enormous yellow pumpkin explodes behind your eyes. You look bigger and better than god. I mean everything is optimism, beautiful, and painless, and wonderful. And then you're on the nod. And a Dilaudid 4—if you're as big as I am, and you never shot one—would probably last you about five hours. Four or five hours. Heroin lasts twelve. The problem with—you know what you got if you got Dilaudid in your hand. You don't know what the fuck you got if you got a bag of heroin. I mean, if you got five percent heroin in a bag, you got a fairly good bag of shit. The rest of it's cut with whatever—cocaine or whatever it is they use to cut coke with—but whatever it's cut with.

Ah, no. The dose that killed Sid Vicious, his momma went out in the streets of New York and bought the bag that killed him. And it just happened that whoever cut it didn't cut it very much. And he put in the spoon about what he normally shot and never got. Never got the syringe out of his arm, as—most people don't know—neither did Sonny Liston. Died in Las Vegas. Still had a spike in his arm. A guy that big. And you know he had some good shit. [TC laughs.] Jack. I mean, because, you know, you're using a teaspoon. We ain't talking a tablespoon. A teaspoon will do it.

But it's just one more extreme that—human beings being what they are—I suppose I wished I could've missed a whole bunch of things. But I didn't. And, I know what people—some people, many people, most people—may—would say and think about such a statement. But I'm not proud of any of it, but I'm damn sure not ashamed of it, and I can't say with a good heart that I'm sorry I did any of it. I did what I did. Seemed like a good idea at the time. And I would—you know—I certainly don't—I never encouraged anybody or sold any. I—if anybody asks me about whether they ought to or maybe try it or da-de-de-da-de-de-da, I say, well, you know, you're a free agent in the world. I have nothing to say about it. I'm not you. But if I were you, I think I'd just slide on past that. Probably be all right without it. Don't need it.

Well, those who like to think there's a white gown, long beard old guy up in the sky keeping score on what we're doing—if there is such a being, he knows—you sure as shit don't know what I need, the shrink doesn't know what I need, the neurologist doesn't know what I need—if they know what I need—

I mean, in that sense. But nobody that I've ever respected or thought anything of pretended to know what, for the lack of a better phrase, your psyche needs. Or that your brain is you anymore than your hand is you. Or you foot is you. Or the hair on your head is you. It's been known since the Greeks that the whole notion of this duality between the mind and the body is some kind of rank horse shit that doesn't work.

I'm told that I think that something that locked into a bone box called my skull—that I think with that. I'd just assume believe that it's in my big toe. I mean, I don't know where the hell it is. I didn't go to school for that, and it never interested me. And I happen to know a very famous neurologist and a very famous neurosurgeon—that guy in New York—and both of them are about as fucked up as you want to get. I mean, you think that doctors go to—this one neurosurgeon—not neurosurgeon: neurologist—heart attacks run in his family, and he drinks like a fish, and he's in the office every day. You think that sumbitch don't feel bad when he wakes up in the morning? That he's immune to hangovers and trembles and shakes and whatnot? Well, sweetheart, he's got a whole goddamn box full of shit. And the best connections I've ever had—and the most rabid junkies I've ever known—have all been doctors. Ever last fucking one of them. I've known some pretty rabid junkies that weren't doctors, but—and doctors don't have unlimited access to, I guess, Class I drugs? I guess it was Class I. Threes are down there—and Class I—the class that Dilaudid is in, and I guess Percodan and Seconal, Nembutal, Tuinal, all that. That shit is so highly controlled, man, that even the doctor can't get it. There's a doctor, well, in a town not far from where we sit, there's a doctor who got nailed not too many years ago, short enough ago that one can say recent, and he was simply writing scripts for people that worked for him. And they had to bring back the dope to him, or most of it.

Cobo: Nurses have access to all those meds.

Crews: Yeah, if you got the key to the cabinet. [TC laughs.] But, man, out there at Vista Pavilion, half the people in therapy were nurses. To keep their licenses, they had to go through this long thing, and I've known two doctors who got nailed. They have a place in Atlanta for them. Probably got a place somewhere else too, but these were down here in the South, so they went to Atlanta. And I believe they stayed six fucking months, man, I mean, they really—and then after they got out, they had to take random—they'd get called at three o'clock in the morning, and they had to go somewhere and give blood, I guess, and whatever.

So you know. And they clean up until their probation's over, and then it's like Mr. Turner and his unfiltered Camel, you just pull it out and go back to it.

Sauve: Some people just can have their life and do whatever they need to do on whatever basis until someone says they have to stop.

Crews: Yeah.

Sauve: And some people just keep doing it and that's how they live their lives, and I guess sometimes everything's ok.

Crews: Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. William Burroughs, I mean, you know, I knew William Burroughs' son really well, and William Burroughs' son been dead for a long time. I sat with him in a bar drinking straight shots of whiskey, and he'd already lost half his damn liver to whiskey. And he was a young guy. And had written a book called Kentucky Ham, about being there in—where's that?

Sauve: Lexington.

Crews: And, you know, it happens.

. . .

Sauve: Did you write the story called "Becky Lives" for Little Deaths, the horror anthology, or did you have that in mind for somewhere else? [4]

Crews: I wrote that story because another writer—whose name you'd recognize if I told it, but I won't tell it—I know the woman who edited that, and she'd asked writers to do it, and she asked me to write, you know, a story for that thing. And she told me what the story's to write, and I says, no, I don't do that type of shit.

And so, this writer called me and said, well, the reason you said no is you can't do it. And I said, bullshit. Of course I can do it. And so I wrote the story, and I got that certificate in the back there—they give a prize, the Horror Writers' Association of America gives a prize for the best—one of those stories of the year. "The Bram Stoker Award." I got a fucking thing back there in the study.

Sauve: Did you win it?

Crews: Well, I was a finalist. Harlan Ellison won it. And I was second.

Sauve: There you go. He had good company.

Crews: No, I'm not good company. It was a piece of shit. I wrote it in one afternoon. I just sat down and wrote the goddamn thing.

Sauve: I was surprised to see your work in that anthology. I thought it was great.

Crews: Well, writers write, and writers write things for the most curious reasons.

. . .

Crews: Damn, man. Boy, did that whiskey feel good.

Sauve: There's more over there.

Cobo: Help yourself.

Crews: Well, I might have just another. You know, I have to be very careful with the shit. Really have to be careful. Like yesterday. I bought, what was it? I guess Budweiser. Four little, little—a four pack—and it's a pint?—each bottle is a pint?

Sauve: The tall, skinny ones?

Crews: And it's got a big mouth. You got to buy one. It's really just wonderful. And I had a four pack of a—you know—that's what? Two quarts of beer. And it just made the afternoon a little better than it would otherwise would of been.

So. But I never let myself, I never let myself get shit-faced anymore, or even, or even—see, that's the way I like to drink whiskey—I haven't eaten anything today. And if I was going to drink, I wouldn't eat anything because the rest of the day I would have been drunk. What amounts to a coma. Get up the first thing in the morning and take another drink. I wouldn't eat then. I wouldn't eat till I got through drinking. If it was four days I wouldn't, because, as old drunks will tell you, you can ruin a fifty-dollar drunk with a fifty-cent hamburger. And that's the damn truth.

Who the hell wants to drink on top of food? And—an old guy told me about putting ice in whiskey. He said [Crews's voice takes on the high tone of a heavy Georgia drawl], now, son, that whiskey—that whiskey has to get to the temperture of your guts before it can make the jump to your blood. Which happens to be the truth. And that ice just make it wait.

And I do. I have to confess. I did knock back a couple shots. It's like water. Whatever it was, it seemed to be just about right.

. . .

Crews: Would you like a picture of me in my Mohawk?

Sauve: Yeah.

Crews: Would you?

Sauve: Sure. [TC laughs.]

Crews: All right. She ever see me in a Mohawk?

Cobo: I think I've seen you.

Crews: Maybe in a what you call it? In a video or something. [Leaves room to look in the study. Returns with a photo of a shaved-headed, menacing Crews.]

Crews: That's a beaut.

Sauve: All right. I got to show you something. You're going to think I'm stupid. [Lifts shirt sleeve to reveal "Oyster Boy," a character's name in Crews's novel The Knockout Artist, tattooed on his shoulder.]

Crews: Oh yeah. [DS and TC laugh at his reaction, more disbelief than surprise.]

Sauve: I want people to be able to identify me.

Crews: Yeah. Let's see. Oh, you know, the same day I got the Mohawk is when I got the . . .

Sauve: The tattoo.

Crews: The 'too on my arm.

Sauve: Yeah. You got that done in Gainesville?

Crews: No, no.

Sauve: I didn't think so. It's an awesome tattoo. It's done really well.

Crews: Yeah, sumbitch did that freehand, man.

Sauve: Yeah. That's one of the hardest things is finding a guy to do good work.

Cobo: It's great.

Sauve: He did some great work on that.

Crews: Daytona. Daytona.

Sauve: You weren't at Bike Week [an annual motorcycle rally in Daytona], were you?

Crews: Yeah.

Sauve: You were?

Crews: Yeah. I knew a bunch of guys down there, so I just thought I'd go.

Sauve: Yeah, but I bet they didn't laugh when you got that one. The guys that did mine didn't know what a "Oyster Boy" was. And in San Francisco, where I got it, Tina had to explain to them . . .

Cobo: They were laughing, just kind of . . .

Crews: No, these guys had been in the business a long time. Very famous. All the bikers go there. And I told them what I wanted. And he said, you want what? And I told him again. And he said, you're a crazy son of a bitch. He said, but, no, I'll do it. I swear to god, that motherfucker just—he wrote it out first—wrote it out first—and it didn't have all these capital letters because E. E. Cummings never—he didn't even sign his name in capital letters—he wrote all the letters capitalized. I figured, I'm taking this thing to the grave. He wrote it on paper, so fuck it. So he wrote it out. And then he just took a hold of my fucking arm, man, he took a hold of my arm like that and he shhhhh. Shhhhhh. Shhhhhh. [Makes the sound of a tattoo needle.]

Sauve: Dark one, too.

Crews: Did it, man. Got this one in Alaska.

Sauve: Yeah.

Crews: Cabinet hinge. Back in the gym, after I hurt my legs and everything—when was the last time you saw [pulls up sleeve to show the tennis-ball sized biceps muscle on his right arm] an arm like that [DS and TC laugh] on a guy—

Sauve: Put that thing away!

Crews: On a guy my age? I mean, that's just, that's just. And what I like to do is—little girls, I mean, you know, you're a little girl [speaks to TC], come here, little girl, feel—feel—feel—put your—press right there. [Tightens upper-forearm muscle.] See how strong that is?

Cobo: Uh-huh. [Jabs her finger at his arm.] Oh, my gosh. [DS and TC laugh.]

Crews: Is that like a rock or what?

Cobo: A rock. [Laughs. Speaks to DS.] Have to try that on you.

Sauve: Oh, it doesn't work.

. . .

Crews: Here is the thing. I was thinking—talking about dying and all that shit a while ago. I want my eating all the steaks I haven't eaten, and the cobalt skies I want to look at. The thing I will mind leaving—it terrorizes my soul—is the flesh of a woman. I can not—I am temperamentally incapable—man, I can walk by a—hey, I don't hit on the ladies. I won't do that. I just don't do it because it just seems so low down. And you're trying to come up with this horse shit, and you're always—and I mean, it just reminds me of when you were like fourteen or whenever you started dating—how you put your arm around a girl? You know, in a movie or a car. How you did that, and it reminds me of that. And I just, that kind of shit, you know, I mean, all I like to say to a woman's yea or nay. And if it's yea, I mean, are we in this for the long haul, I mean, do we understand the rules we're playing by here? Is everything chic and kosher and copacetic?

And I'll give you this. Well, you don't have this problem with lovely Tina here. But there's a curious phenomenon that I don't understand, and as a matter of fact, I was talking about it to George no later than this morning—I swear to god on my mother's eyes. My dead son's eyes, too. George and I—no, it was last night. Last night we were talking about it. There is something about—you get some gray hair on your head. And you get some wrinkles. You got to be holding a rap—be able to talk. But it helps if you got some credentials. But I'm not sure if those two things are necessary. Talk, the rap, and the credentials. Just some—and you sort of getting old? And young girls, for some curious reason—and young girls, what I mean by that. Let's get them old enough so we ain't going to Raiford [a prison in North Central Florida]. I don't know. Nineteen. Twenty. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-four becomes very old for what we're talking about here. [DS and TC laugh.] Now, and they just—and they just—they just—they just love old, wrinkled, ruined guys. It's incredible.

And I have always thought that—god knows that women get a bad rap out of the blocks. But where is it written that an older woman—as a matter of fact, the way it works—the way the sexual thing peaks and declines and the rest of it—it'd make a lot more sense for a forty year old woman to get a twenty year old boy who's so horny he'd bump into a coffee table and come. I mean, it would make more sense that way. But it don't work that way. Except it works that way sometimes.

What is that movie star, she's got tattoos on her, and she's got long hair, and she sang with the guy, and they split, and the television show and the rest of it?

Cobo: Cher.

Crews: Cher. Now, Cher knows what it's about. Cher's cool. Pizza boy delivers the goddamned pizza, and she takes a look at him and says, yeah, I'll have the pizza and you, too. Come on in. You know.

Cobo: Yeah, but look at him. [DS and TC laugh.]

Crews: Yeah. Incidentally, the same guy that did this [points to his shoulder tattoo], George is standing there when he did this. And George said, do you mind doing another tattoo? And he said, no. And she said, actually, I want two. And he said, all right. He said, where do you want them? She always wears these—she had these Levi's on her—she likes 501 Levi's? She unbuttoned her jeans, and just, boy, there it is, man. And Anthony is the guy—got a great shop. Very clean. It's like a hospital. Guy's been around a long time. He's about forty-six, -seven, -eight years old. And she said, I want two red hearts. One—they're right at the—just there on the inside of the hip bone. Two little, teeny, very red hearts. And, I said, Tony, you and I have known each other a long time now, but you put them motherfuckers on right. And do you know that son of a bitch, he didn't measure nothing? He didn't, you know, right across, here, say, ok, I got to get one here and one here and another likely to be off-center and some of them might be high or something. He put them son a bitches on there, man, and they were made that big, and they were red as blood.

. . .

Sauve: I feel like sometimes I cross—without having any intention—I cross this boundary between—I'm not obsessed, I'm not compulsed about your writing, but I've been living with Harry Crews for the last eight months solid since I started research for this bibliography.

Crews: What the fuck's wrong with that, man? I mean, what's strange about it and what's unique about it? Don't you think that Lytle was god to me and that I went to see him and—in Lytle's case, you walk in his house, and the first thing he does—a silver cup, I told you, a solid silver cup—he pours you a dollop of whiskey, and he says, anything but silver chaps our lips. [DS and TC laugh.]

And right after the time he died in '93, everybody else I knew that ever studied with him, called him Andrew. I didn't call him Andrew my whole fucking life. Anymore than I would call God Jerry or something. No. He's my man.

. . .

Crews: Everybody comes to grief over endings. Closures as they like to say. I love what E. M. Forster said. "No writer should be expected to write an ending because nothing ever ends." The problem with that is, the convention of the form is, it does end.

The reader doesn't want to feel cheated. The reader just wants to feel good. And I swear to god, after all these decades at it, that's as close as I can get to it. That it feels good.

I have a feeling a lot of times, when writers come to see me they think that I got this secret, that sometimes, somehow, I keep it from them. That if I would just open up, be honest, and give it to them, then they'd be all right, and everything would be fine. I don't. It's as much a mystery to me today as it was when I started. Except that in matters of—ah, forgive the phrase—craft, and technique and that stuff, I—yeah, I know some things about writing transitions. But that's not what we're talking about. Not really. Ultimately. Or maybe we are. I don't know what the fuck we're talking about. We're talking about making the thing whole. How do you make it whole? How do you make it get up and walk?

. . .

Sauve: What was it like when you finally got things published, after you got involved with Bread Loaf and you started—you probably made it—well, not made it, but with teaching and lectures, it seems that you enjoyed yourself.

Crews: I've never enjoyed myself. I'm incapable of enjoying myself. There's just some people who don't enjoy themselves very much.

First published in Getting Naked with Harry Crews: Interviews (1999). This version is unedited.

Additionally, in 2015, I digitized the interview and uploaded the complete recordings to the Internet Archive as Everything is Optimism, Beautiful, and Painless: A Conversation with Harry Crews.

. . .


  1. Bain, David Haward and Mary Smyth Duffy, eds. Whose Woods These Are: A History of the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, 1926-1992. Hopewell NJ: Ecco Press, 1993. [Back]
  2. Shane Stevens served in some capacity as part of the Bread Loaf faculty during the years 1967, 1970, and 1971, and published several novels, including Go Down Dead (1966), Way Up Town in Another World (1970), Rat Pack (1974), and The Anvil Chorus (1985). Stevens also wrote, in the late 1980s, two books under the name J. W. Rider. In 1997, Mike Magnuson was awarded the Shane Stevens Fellow in the Novel from Bread Loaf. [Back]
  3. Schowalter, Wayne, dir. Harry Crews: Blood and Words. Wayne Schowalter Productions, 1983. Videocassette: 52 mins.
    Thurman, Tom & Chris Iovenko, dirs. Harry Crews: Guilty as Charged. Danville KY: Fly By Noir Films, 1993. Videocassette: 54 mins.
    Hawkins, Gary, dir. The Rough South of Harry Crews. NC: University of North Carolina Center for Public Television, 1992. Videocassette: 54 mins. [Back]
  4. "Becky Lives." Little Deaths: An Anthology of Erotic Horror. Ellen Datlow, ed. NY: Dell, 1995. 35-63. [Back]

. . .

A Large & Startling Figure: The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
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