Larry Brown is an American original. If a movie were made of his life, Dennis Quaid or Jeff Bridges would get the part.
If they could get the accent right.
Because Larry Brown's voice is like nothing you've ever heard before -- that is, unless you've spent some time in Oxford, Mississippi. Not the Oxford of William Faulkner, the town's better known artiste. But the Oxford of six-packs and pickup trucks and the pains of mismatched men and women in trailer parks.
Almost nobody heard his voice until about three years ago when Brown's first book, a collection of short stories called "Facing the Music," was published. Brown, who barely managed to finish high school, didn't even start writing until he was 29 and was working as a firefighter in Oxford and trying to figure out a way to make something of his life.
That's when this unlettered man who was taking on extra jobs like cleaning carpets and cutting pulpwood and building chain-link fences so he could support his wife, Mary Annie, and their three children came up with the idea that if he wanted to make some money, by god, he would learn to be a writer.
"Writing was the only thing that I could see that someone like me, without an education, might have a chance to teach himself and do well at," he says simply.
He'd been thinking about it for a long time, wondering how someone could learn to sit alone in a room and build a novel out of nothing. "And finally," says Brown, "I said, 'well, I believe I'll just try.' "
And that's what he did. He sat himself down at his wife's old portable Smith-Corona electric and started, first by banging out a sex-filled novel about a man-eating bear in Yellowstone National Park (which he'd never been to) and then by moving on to what he describes as really awful stuff -- "horror stories, stories about people killing one another, supernatural stuff, generally just nonsense."
He changed his reading habits too. He'd always read a lot -- he credits his mother for that -- but he soon realized that to get to be a good writer, he'd need to read more than just Harold Robbins and Louis L'Amour. So he went down to the local library and checked out all the books he could -- books on the craft of writing, collections such as the "Best American Short Stories" and the "O. Henry Awards" and the "Pushcart Prize."
Brown's unabashed goal was to be a commercially successful writer. "I was trying to put something on the bestseller list to make some money," he says. "I thought maybe this might be a little easier than all the other backbreaking things I was doing. But the more I wrote, the more I saw what a great gulf there was between what I was writing and what I wanted to write."
But then his plans sort of turned around -- he found he was enjoying writing. Says Brown, "It gradually dawned on me that this was something that was going to take a lot of time."
He's plugged away at it now since 1980 -- and gotten his share of rejection slips too. But in the past three years, Brown, now 39, has had three books published back-to-back, each to critical raves: "Facing the Music"; "Dirty Work," a novel about two hospitalized Vietnam vets -- one black, one white; and now "Big Bad Love," a second collection of his short stories.
The stories, which are often quite short and always spare, are filled with the boozing and brawling and boredom of lives spent without enough money and even less hope. The title story in "Facing the Music" is about a man's reaction to his wife's mastectomy. When Shannon Ravenel, Brown's editor at Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, first read "Music", it was his unblinking look at life that attracted her.
"What Larry does that other people don't is not look away," says Ravenel. "He is willing to take a sharp knife, stick it in, and expose things without flinching. The music is faced in his work. He finds beauty in other people's pain. There's a big streak of compassion in him that he's able to express."
Recently in Washington as part of a cross-country tour to publicize "Big Bad Love," Brown has come a long way from his early efforts. But to hear him tell it, it was tenacity more than talent that got him there.
"I didn't have any formal training or anything like that," says Brown, whose basic book tour outfit is a white work shirt and black chinos. "The way I think of it is that every writer has an apprenticeship period he has to go through. You've got to write 'X' amount of words before you can get to the point where you can be happy with what you're doing." (He figures he's written about a million words by now, but he kind of stopped counting when he reached 600,000.) "I wrote a lot of stuff that was not worthy of publishing."
Larry Brown grew up amid poverty, Southern style. His father was a sharecropper who moved his wife and four children from Mississippi to Memphis when he couldn't make a living farming. When they returned to Oxford 10 years later, his father worked in the same stove factory Brown would work in a decade or so later. Wherever they were, money was scarce and problems plentiful.
"Someone once said my stories proceed not so much toward catastrophe as out from it," Brown points out. He knows the observation could just as easily be a comment on his early life. But that's not a subject he likes to talk about. Incautious revelations about his late father, before he got the hang of being interviewed, have hurt his mother too much. "Let's just say I got an early education in trouble," he says softly. "And a childhood that had some hard times."
After high school, Brown volunteered for the Marines in the what-turned-out-to-be-a-successful hope of avoiding Vietnam. (His birthday was No. 1 on the draft list.) From Philadelphia, where he was stationed, he headed back to Oxford and a bleak future. When he eventually landed a job at the firehouse, it was a step up, a reliable job that gave him enough money to get married. And since there weren't that many fires, it even gave him time to write.
He found ways to fit writing into every waking moment. He gives his wife a lot of credit for letting him do it. "When the kids were little, she would keep them and let me go into a room by myself and work," he says. "And she'd go to sleep many a night with me sitting there typing. But she believed that I wanted it badly enough, and she was willing to support and stand behind me."
Eventually, he began to find his voice, and his stories began to find their way into print. The first publication to accept one was "Easy Rider," a bikers' magazine. But it wasn't until Algonquin's Ravenel saw "Facing the Music" in the Mississippi Review in 1987 that Brown came to the attention of a serious publisher. "She called me, saying she wanted to recommend it for the Best American Short Stories," he says. "And she asked me if I had enough stories for a collection. I wrote her back and said, 'I've got a hundred. How many would you like to see?' "
All this is recounted in the plainest, simplest way it can be told, but with an awareness that he has left that "unrequited author" identity behind him. It remains, however, in his writing. A surprising number of characters in "Big Bad Love," for example, are trying to be writers, and, like Brown, are willing to risk their jobs and personal lives to succeed. "It's tough to keep going at it," he says. "It doesn't work out, and you keep at it over and over and over and you ask yourself, 'Why on earth am I putting myself through this?' There were so many times times I wanted to quit. But I just wouldn't. I wanted people to read what I wrote."
Brown's success finally turned on his recognition that he had to trust his feelings -- about life and about people. "Because all the stuff I wrote for years and years was bullshit," he says. "For years it was no good. It was artificial, and it wasn't honest. It took me a long time to learn that the main thing to write about is people's emotions."
The emotions Brown writes about are often raw, desolate, full of despair. But the situations they emanate from can be frighteningly ordinary: marriages gone so sour that even divorce does not free the partners from thoughts of murder; young brothers killed on a joyride -- one decapitated -- when they tried to outrun a tractor-trailer; illicit sex interrupted by a jealous rival swinging a lug wrench.
People often ask this trim, wiry man with the friendly manner and boyish smile why he writes about people with such violent, troubled lives. "It's not that I have a bleak outlook on life or anything," he says. "There is just no way for some lives to have a happy ending. I don't really know how to explain it except to say that I've been around a lot of trouble in my life."
There's a lot of poverty in Mississippi, he says. And not just when he was growing up. He still sees it in the country where he lives -- people who are so poor they walk along roads to pick up cans to make a little money at the dumpster. "The people that I write about are very much like the people that I know best. All I really do is just kind of watch the people around me, watch what goes on. That's where all my characters come from."
A lot of his ideas come from his imagination too, he admits. But one thing he dismisses is that his tales of battling men and women are inspired by his marriage of 16 years. "No," he says. "I've got a happy marriage and I'm crazy about the girl I'm married to. I couldn't ask for anybody better."
He's put hard times behind him now. And, almost reluctantly, he's put the firehouse behind him too. The last day he worked was Jan. 6 of this year. Afterward, the guys had a big party at Brown's house, where he smoked a deer leg and a big ham, and cooked some shrimp and ate and drank and danced and had a good time. "I hated to leave," he says. "When you're in a firehouse with a bunch of guys and have three meals together and sleep together, it's like having another family. But it was just something I felt I had to do."
His friends at the station tried to talk him out of it. He would have to work only 12 more years to retire early. But Brown was resolute. "I think the main thing was the boredom of sitting there all day long in a chair watching television, knowing I could have been at home writing," he says.
All he's asking from life now is to keep making a living off his writing. That was the dream he started out with, and he guesses he only needs about $20,000 to get by on for a while. "My house and truck are paid for," he says. "And I bought my wife a new car," though he admits he had to borrow money to do that. "I've got a good publisher who believes in my work and a good paperback house too.
"I haven't got rich by any stretch of the imagination," he adds, "but I've made more money than I ever thought it would be possible to make. I'm just trying to keep going and keep writing."
These days his writing routine is a lot easier than when he was working at the firehouse. He starts about 11 in the morning and works until 4 or 5 in the afternoon. About five years ago, when he designed and built a new house for his family, he added a study for himself, next to the carport. It's quiet out there, and it's got all he needs: a work space made out of a big piece of Formica on half-inch plywood, lots of shelves and file cabinets, a stereo, a guitar, a TV and "junk scattered everywhere."
Working rough draft by rough draft, he keeps everything orderly, the rough copy on the right and the finished copy on the left. This is not a man who is going to fool around with any part of a system he's worked long and hard at.
He has more time for his children too. "They're real proud of me," he admits. And they liked being part of a CNN interview he did. He and Mary Annie don't go out all that much. It's just easier since VCRs came along to stay home and make some nacho dip and drink a beer and smoke cigarettes, and grill some hot dogs or steaks in the back yard.
"Things are better for us," Brown says with satisfaction. "We've got a better life than we had before, and I'm finally making a living off my work."
As to the future, Brown is waiting to hear how the American Playhouse likes the second draft of an adaptation of "Dirty Work," which it commissioned from him. He's also been working on a full-length novel for six years, and Algonquin is expecting a draft by the end of the year. And, pride of prides, a long story he started writing in January has been accepted by the Paris Review, which he's tried to get into for years.He can barely believe it.
"I don't really have any way to judge how popular I am or how successful I am because I don't see it from most people's point of view," he says. "Things seem to be going really well, but all this is very new, and fame is fleeting, you can be in today and out tomorrow. I just want to keep writing well and keep publishing. It seemed like such an impossible dream for a long time.
"And even if the bottom falls out, and I fail and I don't make it, I'll at least have a couple of years to try," he says. "And if it all fails I can go back and work at some factory."
Because when all is said and done, Larry Brown still thinks of his astounding path from the backroads of Mississippi to literary salons across America as a triumph of will. When pressed to acknowledge his talent, he can barely see it in those terms. "I hate to say this, and I don't want it to sound like bragging," he ventures, "but maybe it's just a unique or different way of looking at the world. And the desire to do it."
That's as far as he'll go.
What he's more comfortable with is this: "If you want to be a writer, there is nobody who can help you but yourself," he says. "When people say I'm a born writer, I say no, that's not right. I just wanted to do it and I taught myself how. I think it can be learned; I don't think anything is going to make it for you except you sitting in a room by yourself and writing."