When Thomas Harris walked into our Mississippi Delta bookstore 20 years ago, I never imagined that we would become fast friends or that he would be such an important influence on my decision to become a writer.
It was an idyllic time for my wife, Jan, and me. We were twentysomething. We owned Volume One, a modest shop in downtown Clarksdale. We lived in a cabin on Moon Lake, and we took turns as booksellers. On the afternoon Harris walked through the door, I was alone in the store. I recognized him -- beard, glasses, curly hair -- from the book jacket of his first novel, Black Sunday. Several folks who knew him had told us that he was living in Rich, a small town near Moon Lake, and that he was working on his second novel.
My first words to him were impertinent. "Black Sunday was pretty good," I said; "the fact that you are a good writer shone through it all."
Tom was gracious and courtly. He nodded in his slow-to-speak fashion and said, "Well, thanks a lot. That means a great deal." His voice was particular -- Southern, worldly and charged with irony. He said he was looking for a very hard-to-find book: the Dictionary of Cuisine by Alexandre Dumas.
If you've read any of Tom's works since Black Sunday, especially his new novel, Hannibal, you understand the importance of the Dumas volume. But this was two decades ago, and I had no idea about the cultural freight train that was just leaving the station. At the time -- and my journal of September 1979 confirms the sense -- I thought Tom's request was pure pretension.
When we couldn't find Dumas's work in Books in Print, I wrote a letter to an antiquarian bookseller, hoping to discover an out-of-print copy. I never did. But I had found a friend.
Strange, really, to be writing now about Tom. He would not want me to. I admire his resistance to self-promotion, his belief that the work should speak for itself. But I'm not writing about the work. I'm writing about the man, about whom there is considerable national curiosity. It is said: Write about what you know. The Tom Harris I knew was a good man with a wicked imagination and a rapacious sense of humor.
Over two years, we spent a lot of time together. He taught me things about reporting and writing -- that facts are sacrosanct, for instance.
Writing in Sag Harbor was next to impossible, he explained, so he had moved back home after a 20-year absence. He fixed up a little house in his parents' backyard. His father, William Thomas Harris Sr., was a gentle, soft-spoken, retired farmer who drove a Ranchero. His mother, Polly, was a retired high school biology teacher with a sharp mind and a sharper wit.
One New Year's Eve we launched world-class fireworks in the middle of tiny Rich; Tom's mother and aunt applauded from the front porch. Mostly we gathered at our cabin on the lake. In the late afternoon, Tom would call on the phone. "Hey, sport," he would say. (Or "chief" or "champ" or "partner.") "How about drinking a beer?" We would sit, the three of us, in our living room, looking out a wall of windows at the cypress trees silhouetted against twilight-blue waters. "The Mississippi Delta has the most beautiful sunsets of anywhere on earth," he said.
He drank beer or gin-and-tonics. Sometimes he brought over a pickle-jar of martinis. One day he stopped drinking alcohol altogether. From then until he finished Red Dragon he stuck to coffee, with lots of milk. He worked hard and methodically. We might not see him for several days.
Tom wrote on an IBM Selectric and eventually shifted to an IBM computer. Writing, he said, was agonizing. Each sentence was a jewel, each paragraph a bracelet. A world-class reader, he commented on books and writers he admired. Many of them were Brits: Graham Greene, the Flashman series by George McDonald Fraser. He couldn't believe that Eric Ambler had been so prolific at such a young age.
He didn't talk about his own work much, except to remark occasionally that he had made "a great push" of 20 or so pages in a 24-hour stretch. In May 1980 he showed me the dust jacket for Red Dragon. "I'd really like to read the galleys in Italy," he said. "After this one, I'm going to take off a month and give way to liquor and licentiousness."
Tom offered advice. The work, he said, should take precedence over all other problems. "Is that because of the worth of the work?" he wondered aloud. "Or the ego? Perhaps a combination of the two." He told me time and again that I should get out of the South. I found that ironic, seeing as how Tom -- who had lived in New York for years -- had come back to Mississippi for solitude and sanity. I asked him why he didn't write about his childhood, about the Delta he knew so well. He said he might someday. I asked him if sense of place was important to him. "My sense of place," he sighed, "is airports and hotel lobbies."
He was fascinated by the characters around us: the simple kid at the nearby gas station who always shooks hands with you, then sniffed his own palm; the old grocer who was missing several fingers; another man who drank Millers for breakfast every morning. He made occasional forays up to Memphis, the big city 60 miles away. Once he stopped by the Fun Shop, a magician's store owned by a gravel-voiced guy named Louis. Tom quizzed Louis about his most elaborate illusion. The old magician said he had a special levitation trick in the back room that cost $1,299. Tom asked him politely to explain the trick, but Louis said we had to buy it first. Instead Tom bought a toilet-seat squirter for his Uncle Arch.
Tom was fascinated by food. One day we had lunch at the Southwestern Grill in Memphis. Tom loved the Italian sausage and wanted to buy two pounds from the cook, at great expense, to send home to Jan. I asked him how much money he had in his bank account and he said, "Two hundred bucks."
The truth seemed to be that he was fascinated by basic human drives -- food, shelter, sex, memory, money, evil, goodness, creativity. "I want to become more perceptive and more honest in my work," he said. He wanted his prose to have greater depth.
On Nov. 4, 1980, he invited us over to watch Jimmy Carter's concession speech. Tom voted for Carter but didn't like him. The manuscript of Red Dragon was laid out on the floor, chapter by chapter, like stepping stones. Ashtrays everywhere were overflowing with cigarette butts. "Are you going to make anything with these?" Jan, an artist, asked playfully about the butts.
"A young corpse," Tom said.
Also scattered here and there were gun magazines, star charts, a Bible and an Italian cookbook. He showed us the novel, bit by bit. First 70 pages, then the next 250 pages, then the whole thing. I thought Red Dragon -- and the character Hannibal Lecter -- dark, terrifying and brilliantly crafted.
When the book was finished, we all drove to Memphis. He treated us to lobster at the legendary Pappy and Jimmy's. While the manuscript was being photocopied, Tom took a nap at my mother's house. He picked up the copies, Fed Exed them to his agent, the late Gloria Safier, then took us to the Pier, a downtown restaurant, popped open a bottle of Asti Spumante, and we celebrated as the orange sun set over the Mississippi River.
A year later, Tom invited us to visit him in Rome. "Never took to a city, a place so quick," he said. "I don't give a damn about all the old stuff. It's got great food, wonderful fireworks and you can drive as fast as you like." Money was beginning to flow in. Red Dragon had been selected as the Literary Guild's main selection. Bantam had set a minimum bid for the paperback rights. Two movie studios were vying for movie rights. Tom, guidebook in hand, walked us all over town -- along the Tiber River to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. He treated us to some delicious meals and zipped around in his beloved eight-year-old Alfa Romeo. On the terrace of Tom's sun-splashed apartment, near the Spanish Steps, we watched him read the galleys of Red Dragon, as he had dreamed of doing back in Mississippi. One by one he painstakingly excised all the commas that a young copy editor had inserted.
After Italy, we didn't see much more of Tom, maybe once or twice. We moved from Moon Lake. He returned to Sag Harbor, then bought a home in Miami. He got busy; we got busy. The friendship faded away.
In 1988, he sent me an advance readers' copy of The Silence of the Lambs. The book and movie made Tom's character, Hannibal Lecter, an American anti-icon. And now Hannibal is out. Reviews have been mixed. Surprisingly, the abridged audio version is read by the author. I bought the tape recently and slipped it into the car deck.
"Washington, D.C. -- Clarice Starling's Mustang boomed up the entrance ramp at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. . . ." There was the old, particular voice -- Southern, worldly and charged with irony. I listened to the whole six-hour production. When it ended, I felt I had had a visit with an old friend. It was good to hear his voice again, to listen to him tell a story and to know that he's doing all right.
Linton Weeks is the book publishing reporter for The Washington Post.