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Larry Brown

Larry Brown: A Writer's Life

Jean W. Cash
Foreword by Shannon Ravenel
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 400
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    Larry Brown
    Book Description:

    Larry Brown (1951-2004) was unique among writers who started their careers in the late twentieth century. Unlike most of them-his friends Clyde Edgerton, Jill McCorkle, Rick Bass, Kaye Gibbons, among others-he was neither a product of a writing program, nor did he teach at one. In fact, he did not even attend college. His innate talent, his immersion in the life of north Mississippi, and his determination led him to national success. Drawing on excerpts from numerous letters and material from interviews with family members and friends,Larry Brown: A Writer's Lifeis the first biography of a landmark southern writer.

    Jean W. Cash explores the cultural milieu of Oxford, Mississippi, and the writers who influenced Brown, including William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Harry Crews, and Cormac McCarthy. She covers Brown's history in Mississippi, the troubled family in which he grew up, and his boyhood in Tula and Yocona, Mississippi, and in Memphis, Tennessee. She relates stories from Brown's time in the Marines, his early married life-which included sixteen years as an Oxford fireman-and what he called his "apprenticeship" period, the eight years during which he was teaching himself to write publishable fiction.

    The book examines Brown's years as a writer: the stories and novels he wrote, his struggles to acclimate himself to the fame his writing brought him, and his many trips outside Yocona, where he spent the last thirty years of his life. The book concludes with a discussion of his posthumous fame, including the publication ofA Miracle of Catfish, the novel he had nearly completed just before his death. Brown's cadre of fans will relish this comprehensive portrait of the man and his work.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-986-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. ix-x)
    Shannon Ravenel

    Larry Brown’s story, “Facing the Music,” begins, “I cut my eyes sideways because I know what’s coming. ‘You want the light off, honey?’ she says. Very quietly.”

    I first read those words in May 1987. I was on an airplane headed for Washington, D.C., to attend the huge annual American Booksellers Association convention. Algonquin Books, by then almost five years old, had paid for a booth at the convention, and our small staff would be taking turns tending it.

    In those days, I never got on a plane or train without a stack of the latest literary magazines, which I...

  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-2)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 3-11)

    Picture Henry David Thoreau sitting by Walden Pond, a cigarette in one hand, a can of beer in the other, a fishing rod at the ready, a writing pad nearby. This is Larry Brown, a Mississippi writer who loved the world he grew up in and never really left it. Fishing, hunting, working on his land, and relishing the beauty of North Mississippi were important to him throughout his life. In appearance and manner, Brown seemed a typical inhabitant of the area. Rugged, weathered, and gentle, he was a humorous yet warm and sensitive human being. His appealing Mississippi accent...

  6. CHAPTER ONE Origins, 1951–1969
    (pp. 12-28)

    Larry Brown emerged from a troubled, working-class background, but he rose to success through a combination of personal determination and talent, clear insight into what makes us human, and the support of the strong, ambitious women in his life—his mother, Leona Barlow Brown; and his wife, Mary Annie Coleman Brown. Both of Brown’s parents were farm people who grew up in the Yocona-Tula area of Lafayette County. His family on both sides had long lived in the North Mississippi countryside outside Oxford. Leona Barlow Brown was a descendant of the Davis family; other clans to which Larry Brown was...

  7. CHAPTER TWO Marine, Husband, Father, and Fireman, 1969–1980
    (pp. 29-45)

    At eighteen, just out of school, and only partly educated, Larry Brown had little to look forward to other than being sent to Vietnam. While waiting for the draft to catch up with him, Brown got a job at the Chambers Stove Factory in Oxford, where he remained for a year and a half. He underwent the mandatory physical exam for military service, was classified 1-A, and had his name entered into the lottery for draftees, which was based on potential soldiers’ dates of birth. In 1970, according to Brown, “my birthday came up number one. . . . So...

  8. CHAPTER THREE Literary Apprenticeship, 1980–1987
    (pp. 46-59)

    InA Late Start, Larry Brown described his decision to become a writer, recalling that in 1980, “when I was twenty-nine, I stopped and looked at my life and wondered if I was ever going to do anything with it” (3–4). Because he had long been a reader of popular fiction, he decided to change his life by trying to become a writer. He believed that he could teach himself to write salable fiction—and make more money—in the same way that he had learned such skills as carpentry and fire-fighting. He aspired to the kind of success...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Facing the Music, 1987–1989
    (pp. 60-85)

    The publication of his first few stories won Brown an audience not only nationwide but also in Mississippi. In late 1986, as he recalled in an unpublished interview, Richard Howorth’s sister-in-law, Mary Hartwell Howorth, “contacted me and asked me to read” at Yoknapatawpha County Arts Festival hosted by the Center for Southern Studies at Ole Miss (Brown Collections). The event was probably his first public reading in Oxford, and according to Brown, “The date I believe is Nov. 8th. I’m gonna be kind of juggling time that night. I’m working at the fire station that day, and I think it’s...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE Dirty Work: A Vietnam Novel, 1989–1990
    (pp. 86-96)

    Larry Brown got the idea forDirty Workin the early 1980s, after his uncle’s death. “My mother said my aunt was so sad that all she did was to pray to die every night. I got to thinking about that, and I thought, my god, there’s a story in that somewhere. So I began it with a lady who was like that and had this son who stayed in his room. I went ahead and wrote the novel” (Ross 90). The idea “festered,” and Brown “just had to get it down. It turned out that I had to write...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Full-Time Writer: Big Bad Love, 1990
    (pp. 97-118)

    In late 1989, encouraged by the success ofDirty Workand the possibility that it would become a dramatic presentation onAmerican Playhouse, Brown decided to leave the Oxford Fire Department. Money was coming in from sales of the hardcover versions ofDirty WorkandFacing the Music, contracts for paperback editions of both books, and the advance for the adaptation ofDirty Work. Brown calculated that he needed only about twenty thousand dollars to support his family in the immediate future. He owed nothing on his house and truck, and although he had just borrowed the money to buy...

  12. CHAPTER SEVEN Joe: A Major Novel, 1991
    (pp. 119-130)

    Larry Brown recalled that he started writing Joe “around 1984 or 1985, after I had already written five bad novels and thrown them all away. . . . The image of that family came before Joe came. Later on I invented my protagonist. But the opening shot that I wanted was that family, walking down that hot blacktop through a deserted landscape in the middle of the summer, with no place to go” (Bonetti et al. 243). Brown laid the manuscript aside in the late 1980s, while he was writing the stories that becameFacing the MusicandDirty Work....

  13. CHAPTER EIGHT “Fire Notes” becomes On Fire, 1991–1994
    (pp. 131-152)

    After his promotional efforts forJoehad ended, Larry Brown settled into a routine that he followed for the next few years. He alternated among traveling in support of his books, writing at home in Yocona and Tula, and teaching assignments, which included a return to Bread Loaf at Vermont’s Middlebury College every summer from 1991 through 1994.

    Brown always felt somewhat dubious about his ability to teach, telling Billy Watkins, “Once you have books published, you’re qualified to teach—they think” (“Hot” 2D). He also hesitated to criticize student writing, since “you’re messing with something that has come out...

  14. CHAPTER NINE Solid Success: Father and Son, 1994–1996
    (pp. 153-168)

    During the early 1990s, Larry Brown and Clyde Edgerton decided to write a short story together. According to Edgerton, each writer would “do a few paragraphs or so and then send it to the other person. It was lots of fun.” The result was the unfinished but hilarious “And How Are You.” The manuscript sat for several years until Edgerton “decided to send it out [for publication], and asked [Brown] if I could edit the whole thing to get it ready and he said fine. So I tightened it a bit, and found it hard to remember who wrote what.”...

  15. CHAPTER TEN Continued Success: Fay in Progress and a Semester at Ole Miss, 1997–1998
    (pp. 169-183)

    For Larry Brown, the period between 1997 and 2001 was filled with success and total dedication to writing. As usual, he worried about money, telling Billy Watkins in December 1996, “I ain’t rich yet. Some people may think I am, but I still have to keep working. I still worry about how I’m gonna get paid next year” (“Hot” 2D). Brown also faced a variety of family issues as his children matured.

    Brown had begun to write the novel that would becomeFayin the summer of 1996, working, as he had from the start of his writing career, on...

  16. CHAPTER ELEVEN Years of Triumph: Fay, the Wallace Award, and Montana, 1999–2000
    (pp. 184-195)

    At the beginning of 1999, Larry Brown received another honor: a poll conducted byOxford Townnamed him favorite local writer, and “Merry Christmas, Scotty” tied for favorite signing/reading. In late January or early February, he gave the keynote address for the Perspective Series at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga (Glendenning, “Mississippi”). His next triumph came in March when he was announced as the winner of the Lila Wallace Readers Digest Award (Herbst 8). Dorothy Fitts, the head librarian at the Oxford–Lafayette County Library, had nominated Brown for the grant, which would pay him thirty-five thousand dollars per year...

  17. CHAPTER TWELVE A Return to Nonfiction: Billy Ray’s Farm, 1999–2001
    (pp. 196-208)

    In the summer of 1999, Larry Brown began planning the publication of a collection of his short writings, both fiction and nonfiction, over the past seven years. On 26 August, Mary Annie Brown sent Ravenel a number of stories and articles, and in mid-September, Ravenel told Brown that after reading the pieces, she believed that a nonfiction collection highlighting “Larry’s life in Mississippinow” would work best. She suggested “Billy Ray’s Farm” as the collection’s centerpiece, with “By the Pond” as the first essay and a piece about the cabin as the last. She thought the writer’s voice in “So...

  18. CHAPTER THIRTEEN Leaving Algonquin: The Rabbit Factory, 2002–2003
    (pp. 209-226)

    On 22 February 2002, almost ten years after the publication of Larry Brown’s short story collection,Big Bad Love, Arliss Howard and Debra Winger’s film version had its commercial release, opening in New York City. Brown and his wife, Mary Annie, received free plane tickets for the trip and attended a “big” pre-premiere party (Rankin Papers). Although the movie had been shown at several film festivals the preceding year and had garnered lukewarm reviews, the wide release generally received critical scorn. Wrote Roger Ebert in theChicago Sun-Times, “It all comes down to whether you can tolerate Leon Barlow. I...

  19. CHAPTER FOURTEEN Writing and Building, 2004
    (pp. 227-233)

    In the fall of 2003, Larry Brown signed a new two-book contract with the Free Press that included a 1 October 2004 deadline for submitting the first book. Brown spent most of the following year at home in Lafayette County, writing the novel he planned to callA Miracle of Catfishand finishing his cabin. In the fall of 2003, he reflected, “Writing helps me stay straight. It gives me something to focus on every day, a place I gotta be, and I feel good about myself when I work steadily. If I don’t work, I get down on myself....

  20. CHAPTER FIFTEEN Remembering Larry and A Miracle of Catfish, 2004–2007
    (pp. 234-250)

    In the wake of Larry Brown’s death, Mary Annie Brown sent the unfinished manuscript ofA Miracle of Catfishto the Free Press via her late husband’s agent, Liz Darhansoff. With the author unable to promote the book, the press was not enthusiastic about publishing the novel, and Mary Annie asked to have the manuscript returned. She began to think about submitting it to Shannon Ravenel: Mary Annie “just felt like with this book, Larry needed to go back home to Algonquin” (Watkins, “Editing” 2F). On 11 April 2005, after reading the manuscript, Ravenel e-mailed Darhansoff, “There’s so much wonderful...

  21. Appendixes
    (pp. 251-258)
  22. Sources
    (pp. 259-287)
  23. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 288-290)
  24. Index
    (pp. 291-302)