October 22, 2014
Last Thursday (Oct. 16), Pulitzer Prize-winning author Rick Bragg took the stage at GSU’s Performing Arts Center for Statesboro’s annual Write Place Festival. With flair and plenty of self-deprecating humor, Bragg charmed the audience with his conversational address and entertained by reading — and, at one point, reciting from memory — passages from his award-winning book All Over but the Shoutin’ and his newest work, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. Bragg took a few minutes after the event to talk to Connect about the new book and about his thoughts on writing as a craft and industry.
Connect: I’d like to start with Jerry Lee Lewis. What was the process for writing the book?
B: I just went and interviewed him, over two summers. Sat at his bedside — he was in bed, not feeling good. He had numerous [health problems] — broken legs, bad hip, arthritis, pneumonia, shingles. He kept a lifelong addiction to pills and morphine. He’d suffered. But he lay there in his bed on his ranch in north Mississippi, and I’d ask him about his life.
C: You called him a very “unsympathetic man.” Knowing that, knowing his history, what made you want to take on this project?
B: Well, because he’s one of the more interesting Gothic Southern people of our time. You don’t have to write only about people who are sympathetic. There are a whole lot of us out there who aren't.
C: What does “Southern Gothic” mean, the way you use it?
B: Well, the way I use it, it just means — a darkness, either exposed to or involved in. Meanness. Danger. Horror. All those are part of the way a lot of us see the world.
C: I was really intrigued by you saying in your talk that "pretension murders writing." Could you elaborate on that?
B: Yeah. I think that there are those who believe that writing is the ouvre of kind of an intellectual or economic aristocracy, an art form of the upper classes. That if you don’t have an MFA or a very large trust fund, that you should not write — which, of course, is ridiculous.
C: A couple friends and I got into it over Facebook the other day over something Nick Hornby said at a recent writer’s conference, I think. He said that people shouldn’t be ashamed to read anything, and that you shouldn’t slog through a classic just to say you’ve read a classic. Everyone jumped on him, saying he was saying "you should only read easy books," and I got really mad because that wasn’t what he was saying at all.
B: No, I don’t think that’s what he was saying. Look, Dickens wrote a lot of stuff for money. Shakespeare wrote a lot of stuff for money. I’m a firm believer that if you want to write in a closet, write in a closet, but there does need to be a certain amount of a commercial success with your writing so that you can get it out of the closet — so you can get it in front of the masses. And if you can’t get it in front of the masses, then you have in some ways failed. And there are many people who are so pretentious that they think their work is too good for the masses. That usually evaporates very quickly when they start writing checks.
C: Let’s talk about Dickens a little bit. You’ve brought him up a couple of times over the night —
B:I love Dickens.
C: What draws you to him?
B: Just the fact that he wrote about the human condition. He wrote about poverty, he wrote about class injustice — a lot of things that I’ve felt and have fought back against and have somehow survived. I love him. I think he is sharp, and that in these stories we often dismiss — like A Christmas Carol. A Christmas Carol is a ghost story, and there is just brilliance in it.
C: We had Susan Orlean here a few weeks ago, and she said something that really stuck with me. She said that a writer is like a vapor, and that our job involves a lot of observation and sometimes more observation than involvement. Having done a lot of journalism, what do you think about that?
B:I think it is much easier to be on the outside looking it. It is a lot easier to write about history than commit it. It is much easier to be the messenger. I never was able to deal with any amount of detachment. You know, people who were hurt by forces beyond their control, my heart went out to them and that showed, I think, in my writing. It doesn’t make me a good person; just means I’m not very professional, I guess.