Letters From Larry
a memoir
Graham Lewis


arry Brown and I became friends in the summer of 1993. He was a member of the fiction-writing faculty at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, and I was a little-published poet attending the conference on a “waitership,” a working scholarship awarded to promising but unknown writers. I knew Larry’s books; in fact, his presence on the faculty was the reason I applied. His second novel, Joe, had taken its place in my mind as one of the most powerful books ever written.    

When I won the scholarship, I was thrilled on many levels, of course, but the honor also brought a nagging dread about meeting writers of Larry Brown’s stature. How would I overcome the paralysis that possesses me every time I meet a writer whose work I respect? I typically force myself to remain silent so I won’t embarrass myself with inanities. Some see this as admirable, that I’m given to listening and learning instead of the continuous blabbering of the banal so many writers endure from their more talkative fans. It makes me seem introspective. The truth is that I’m stunned like a fish, my mind twitching in vain for words and barely registering what the other person is saying. So for the first couple days of the conference, I avoided any interaction with the famous writers while I tried to figure out what to say, especially to Larry Brown. I believed that anybody who wove tragedy into magic the way he did would be a stern, no-nonsense kind of man whose time for a wanna-be would be short.

Late into the third night of the conference, I sat by a campfire with a large group of scholars and fellows. About to head back to the dorm for bed, I felt a nudge on my arm, turned to my right, and there he was, sitting cross-legged not a foot away. He raised a half-dead fifth of tequila. “You look like you could use a hit of this, bro,” he said. I took the bottle, bubbled it a couple times, and said, “You’re Larry Brown” (see what I mean about inanities). He grinned, extended his hand, and we shook. “That’s what I hear,” he said, almost in a whisper. “But don’t let it get around.” His self-effacing manner and gentle humor wrapped in his warm Mississippi drawl put me at ease, and before I knew it we were jawing away about fishing, music, and dogs.

Along about 3 A.M., the bottle of tequila dry and the fire burned away to a roiling glow, we decided to call it a night. He told me where to meet him the next morning so I could join him and the rest of the faculty at Tremen Cottage for Bloody Marys after breakfast. I don’t know how Bread Loaf is run now, but then it was made clear that Tremen was off-limits to all but faculty and their invited guests. It took me awhile to realize I would be Larry Brown’s invited guest. I felt pretty full of myself that morning. Years later I asked Larry why, of all those people around the fire that night, he had decided to introduce himself to me. His reply? “Well, you had big sideburns.”

More to my delight, I soon found that Larry’s invitation also extended to the afternoon and evening cocktail sessions — for the duration of the conference. At first some of the other writers were a bit aloof. But since I was with Larry, had read almost all their books and could hold my liquor, it wasn’t long before I was taking part in conversations of great interest (to me, anyway) with other heroes of mine such as John Irving, Donald Justice, and Mark Strand. For some reason, I wasn’t afflicted with my usual paralysis and haven’t been since. When someone asked me a question, I could actually reply with an answer instead of a blank stare.  I told Larry one night that he had “healed me.” He laughed so hard he almost shot tequila from his nose. Regardless, I think he knew the real benefit of conferences like Bread Loaf lay not in workshops and lectures, but in talking to the writers on a personal basis, seeing that they’re human, drinking with them, and listening to their opinions unfiltered over the course of several hours. Larry was determined to give me that opportunity, and it was obvious he enjoyed the role of benefactor.  

After Bread Loaf we stayed in touch, and the next summer he invited my wife, Kit, and me to visit his home in Yocona, Mississippi, just outside of Oxford. We were welcomed by Larry, his wife, Mary Annie, his two sons, Billy Ray and Shane, and his daughter, LeAnne, as if we were family. Over those few days, Larry took us fishing every morning on his land in Tula, where he was planning to build a writing shack for himself next to the lake. Every evening he took us “lowriding” — driving low and slow through the gorgeous North Mississippi countryside while drinking beer and listening to cassette mix tapes he made specifically for these forays. The tapes (mostly folk and blues) were perfect soundtracks for the landscape and his running commentary. He pointed out the actual locations of scenes from his books and told many of the real stories behind much of his fiction. Larry was a great believer in the “write what you know” philosophy, and I was surprised by how much of his writing was based on actual events around Lafayette County. At night he would pull out his guitar and play, sometimes his own songs, which were as entertaining and bawdy as his stories. He couldn’t sing a lick, and he knew it, which was all that kept him from attempting to become a professional musician. We spent our afternoons in Oxford, shopping at the world’s greatest bookstore, Square Books; visiting Faulkner’s home, Rowan Oak; hanging out at Larry’s favorite bar, City Grocery; and chewing the fat with Larry’s friends.  The love and respect his friends had for Larry was palpable. They knew how hard he had worked to become what he would call a “real writer,” a writer with gravitas, and they were proud of his unquestioned success.

The depth of his success became evident to me the next afternoon and evening.  Because of the heat we were in the house for noon beers, and Larry disappeared into his office. He returned holding the 1982 issue of Easyriders magazine that contained his first published story, a tale of a biker who kills a cop over a marijuana patch. What struck me was the childlike glee Larry took in reading particularly awful passages aloud. Unlike most writers I’ve known, who would be happy to eradicate every last trace of their wounded early efforts, Larry was still thrilled by his first publication. He reveled in its badness — laughing at himself, sure, but also reliving the proud moment when he first saw his name in print and cashed his first check born of the written word. He declared it was when he finally learned how to write that he no longer made money from writing. “A couple damn free copies is all you get from those literary journals,” he said, galled by the very idea.

That evening, he and Mary Annie treated us to catfish at Taylor Grocery, a regionally famous roadside restaurant named after the tiny town surrounding it. The building itself appeared just on the verge of condemnation, but inside hid perfection. I had never considered the possibility of eating catfish as a religious experience, but that first mouthful of a whole cat straight from an iron skillet and sanctified by arcane holy spices converted me to the Church Of Taylor Grocery for life. Larry talked about writing a catfish novel someday, and we ate until sitting at the table became a misery.

When we returned to the house, Larry read from his novel-in-progress, which would become Father And Son.  The leap of artistry between that manuscript and the biker story from earlier in the day startled me. His trust in the power of everyday language had grown. Nothing sounded forced or phony. He had taught himself, through sheer discipline, how to move freely within the restrictions of traditional narrative, how to employ the beautiful complexity of metaphor to establish deeper levels of meaning. Still, more important than all of that, he had learned to create characters with true human weight. They breathed. They suffered. I could reach out and grab them by the hair. None of this should have been a surprise, as all of those things were true about Larry’s writing by the time I read his first book, the story collection Facing The Music, in 1988. Yet to experience the advance, the rise from pulp hack to “real writer” in the course of one day, left me breathless.

A decade of good, funky times with Larry followed. One memorable trip found Smonk author Tom Franklin and me driving to Oxford to surprise Larry at a reading. We snuck into the hall just as he began. After, at the book-signing table, he looked up from the books we handed down to him and was stricken. He couldn’t believe we were there, that we, that anyone would drive over eight hours to hear him read. He insisted we come along to a private Christmas party at Murff’s, a bar down an alley off Oxford’s town square. Local musicians Cary Hudson and Laurie and John Stirratt had reformed their legendary band Blue Mountain to play the party, and Larry was in heaven all night. I’ll never forget his grin or the goofy drunken dance we all shook while the rest of the world slept. 

          The last time I saw Larry was in April of 2004. I was in Oxford for the Ole Miss Conference For The Book, which coincided with the publication of my first book of poems. I attend the Oxford Book Conference every year because of my love of the town and my interest in Southern literature, but this time, with my own book coming out, I had been invited to take part (not all participating writers are Southern). Larry had just written me about how hard it was for him to juggle the writing of his latest novel, which would be published posthumously as A Miracle Of Catfish, and a screenplay about the life of Hank Williams he was writing for Billy Bob Thornton. He’d said there just wasn’t enough time in a day to do what he wanted with both. Over time Larry had learned that if he were to get his writing done, it would require cutting himself off from nearly all relationships while he was working. No bars, no visitors, no running around. Everyone who knew Larry understood this and let him be. I had talked on the phone to him before arriving, to let him know I was coming but to feel no pressure to show up in town or have me over. There would be plenty of time, we both believed, for visits when his new projects were finished.

I had also become something of a regular in Oxford: many of his friends had become my friends, the bartenders at City Grocery knew my name and my drink, and two old pals from the University of Arkansas MFA program had been hired by Ole Miss. There were plenty of places to stay and interesting folks to carouse with. Larry thanked me for caring enough to leave him to it and congratulated me on my book. He had me promise to leave an inscribed copy at the bookstore for him. I about dropped my drink when he later stood in front of me at my book signing. “I couldn’t let your first book signing pass by,” he said. “The first one only happens once.” We drank a few sodas, smoked a few cigarettes, had a few laughs, and then he went home to write. 

I learned of Larry’s death from Kit early Thanksgiving morning of 2004. We were staying with her parents in Tennessee. She shook me awake, and at the sight of her eyes I knew something terrible had happened. “The news says Larry Brown died last night,” she managed to say. I rushed to the TV and waited for the crawl along the bottom of the screen to recycle its headlines. There it was: Mississippi writer Larry Brown dies at 53. I sat and waited and re-read that line over and over before it finally got through to me that it wasn’t going to change. Larry was gone.

I harbor an almost-pathological hatred of funerals, their finality and shared sorrow a source of anger rather than comfort. When someone I love dies, I want nothing but a jug of whiskey, a carton of smokes, and a dark room. Some may see that as selfish, a way to avoid obligations both to the dead and to the living. They would be right.  But I contend that death makes us all selfish in different ways. For me, a disconnect is necessary; so in Tennessee we stayed. The next day we wrote on a card and mailed it. It was strange addressing the envelope to Mary Annie and the kids (who were no longer kids) and not to Larry.  When we arrived home several days later, the first thing I did after unpacking was dig out my file of letters from Larry and read them all again, slowly, wishing there would be more: more letters, more books, more laughs, more visits to Yocona, more life for a friend.

The 2007 Oxford Conference For The Book was dedicated to Larry and his work. Almost every part of the program had something to do with Larry: Larry as a writer, Larry as a friend, Larry as a musician, Larry’s literary influences, Larry’s standing in the Southern Writers’ canon, Larry’s work on film. Movie stars such as Arliss Howard and Debra Winger and renowned musicians such as Robert Earl Keen, Alejandro Escovedo, and Vic Chesnutt all gave testimony to his influence in their lives. The best panels, though, were those featuring Mary Annie and Larry’s grown children.  These were testaments to his success as a man, a husband, a father. While eloquently eulogizing their dad, the younger Browns displayed the maturity and emotional strength only the finest fathers and mothers can pass to their children. It had to be obvious, even to those who had never met Larry, that his greatest successes in life had nothing to do with writing. 

On the final night of the conference, I stood around a packed City Grocery with several of Larry’s lifelong friends. I listened to them recount old stories with such bittersweet pleasure that I imagined Larry still around, that he was just over yonder, as he would say . . . maybe in Tula, sweating in his writing shack, neck-deep into his next book. Or maybe holding court on the porch of Taylor Grocery, beer in one hand, hushpuppy in the other, his head rocking back in laughter about some boneheaded move he’d made in his writing and how he would damn well try again tomorrow until he got it right.  And he would get it right.

 Larry once had business cards printed with his occupation listed as “Human Being.” That is exactly how he thought of himself, and struggling to be a good human being was always tantamount. Like all human beings he sometimes succeeded, sometimes failed — but he knew the quality of effort one put into the struggle is what counted most in the end. I chose the excerpts that follow because they are my favorite passages from our decade-long correspondence, and I believe they are the passages that best represent the Larry Brown I knew.


 I still often think about Larry. I've recently re-read his first four books (Facing The Music, Dirty Work, Big Bad Love, and Joe), and while I now see flaws in each of them that eluded me when I was younger, I still believe that at least two, Big Bad Love and Joe, will one day be recognized as American classics. Not just Southern “Grit Lit” classics (a term he hated for its limitations), but American classics. While his descriptions of place and landscape are undeniably pure Mississippi, his people suffer the same indignities and tragedies as many folks I knew growing up in the Midwest. For that matter, a few indignities and tragedies my own family has suffered. I'm sure that's true of most of his readers, regardless of their geographic locations. There's nothing uniquely Southern about people who know the joy of being able to pay the light bill, as well as the fear of the darkness that falls when they can't; people who endure all sorts of soul destruction and/or find themselves in all manner of personal and legal troubles to keep those lights burning; people who give up, give in and accept the darkness — and all its attending horrors — as the normal condition of life.

Once in a while I'll come across an old photograph or something that jogs a memory of Larry that makes me smile. Still, it's not so much his physical presence in the same room with me or his voice on the phone that I miss most, though I certainly do miss those pleasures. The reality is I wasn't close enough to Larry to claim his physical absence has forever left a gaping hole in my life. That's the realm of family and lifelong friends. What I miss most is just knowing that Larry Brown is out there in this world. I miss the constant inspiration that knowledge imparted to me, a wanna-be who still collects far more rejections than accolades. What I miss most now is the promise of new and even better creations from the firefighter who, through sheer force of will and countless hours of hard work, remade himself into the kind of artist we call a writer.


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