Author Harry Crews: Teacher of Writers, Student of Life
UF’s famed creative writing professor dies at age 76 in Gainesville.
Crews (BA ’60, MEd ’62) taught at UF from 1968 to 1997. He was the writer of 18 novels and numerous short stories. His latest novella, “An American Family: The Baby with the Curious Markings,” was published in 2006.
Crews, whom The New York Times called a “literary wild man” in a 2006 profile, was best known for his gritty writing style and tales of the “roughneck South.”
Crews talked to UF Today magazine about his writing in 1992:
One of the South’s most acclaimed authors, UF’s Harry Crews is a teacher of writers and a student of life.
By Ruth Ellen Rasche
Harry Crews is tired. It’s lunchtime, but it feels like midnight to him since he’s been up all night writing. He’s about 50 pages into his latest novel — his 13th — and things are going so well he’s afraid to stop for something as trivial as sleep.
“Once I take hold of something, I work long, too long probably, and I never miss a day,” says Crews, who’s taught creative writing for more than 31 years to students at the University of Florida, where he also earned his bachelor’s degree in English (1960) and his master’s in education (1962).
“I can’t take a day off once I start something. I’m scared to. I’m always afraid that if I miss a day, I’ll go back and I won’t be able to find it, I’ll lose the handle on the thing.
“That’s why I was up all night last night, scribbling when I ought to be sleeping. At the moment, I’m right in the vein. When you’re right on the money, and this happens some, thank God, you know you’re right, it’s strong and it’s moving and it’s almost like taking dictation. People talk about how hard writing is and how awful it is and how you got to fall down and chew the rug. Writing ought not to be like pulling teeth. Recently it’s been going real nice, but talk to me the day after tomorrow and I might have lost my way.”
Crews has earned some tangible rewards for his ongoing battle to put words on a page. He lives in a pricey, very secluded house off 34th Street in Gainesville and has accumulated enough dough at age 57 to go into phased retirement; he teaches one semester a year and devotes the rest of his time to other projects.
Fame for his work, dubbed “grit lit” for its earthy qualities, ranges from reviews of his books in The New York Times to an appearance earlier this year on “The Dennis Miller Show.” He made his acting debut with a small part in “The Indian Runner,” a movie directed by Sean Penn, and now is working with Penn on the film adaptation of Crews’ 1988 novel, The Knockout Artist. But public acclaim isn’t the reason Crews drives himself mercilessly to write.
“I’ve heard other writers say it, but it’s true — whatever money comes from writing feels like found money. Faulkner said it’s very difficult to imagine when you’re writing a book that there are people out there who are actually going to read the damn thing,” he says in a Southern drawl reflective of his childhood in Bacon County, Ga. “So whatever acclaim comes, whatever money comes, it’s not the kind of thing that sustains most writers.”
The novel Crews is now working on is based on a guy he met in South Florida who raises giant pigs, called horsehogs, and a quarter of a million gators.
“What struck me was the madness of it,” he says. “It came to me that this was self-contained, self-justifying madness. But then after I thought about it, I thought, well so is everything else I know — the university, the government, Ollie North. I think that may be as much what makes a writer as anything else.
“To use an analogy, there are some people in the world who, because of some chemical balance or imbalance in their bodies, walk through the woods and touch a certain thing and break out in hives because they have a reaction to it. Then there’s people who walk through the world and break out into symphonies and operas and novels and poetry, but we don’t understand why.”
Even after after writing a shelf full of books and an estimated half-million words for Playboy, Esquire and other notable magazines (his record is 21 stories published in major magazines in one year), Crews still puzzles over the question of creativity.
“When I start writing, I rarely know what I’m writing about,” he says. “Am I writing about all of those great abstract nouns that you’ve ever heard about — love, integrity, honor, compassion or whatever? The writer’s job is to take those great abstract nouns and turn them into flesh and blood and bones. Then they are real. If they aren’t flesh and blood, they’re ciphers, just names on a page. If they’re only names on a page, then you, the reader, will never make judgments about them.
“When I talk about judgments, I’m talking about moral judgments. Writing fiction is a moral occupation practiced by not necessarily moral men and women. I want you to make judgments. You know, your sympathies and your heart and even your hope will go out to this guy, who ain’t a guy at all, he’s scribbles on a piece of paper; but he is, you know him, you know what he wants and what he’s willing to give up to get it. And then he starts to do something and you say, ‘Oh, man, c’mon, don’t do that,’ and he does it anyway.”
Lots of people over the years have felt the same way about Crews, especially in his hard-drinking days.
“I was drunk for about nine years,” he says. “I mean I was always drunk. I haven’t had a drink now for three years. I wish I could say I just put it down and walked away from it and there was nothing to it. Bull, it cost me a young fortune. To do it, I signed myself into the substance unit, a locked ward; man, you don’t get off that sucker. And then I had relapses and had to go back in and had therapy. But now, here I am, I’m dry.
“Back when I was drinking, an interviewer from PBS — or maybe it was West German Television — anyway, the interviewer asked a male professor in the English department — no name, just a male voice — what he thought of Harry Crews. The guy said, ‘People like Harry Crews should not be allowed on university campuses for young people to watch self-destruct.’ That was his reading on the situation, but that was bull.
“I just squeaked through that phase, but I don’t think you get a dime for refraining from doing something you were never tempted to do. All that drinking is a movie I wish I could have missed, I really do. But a lot of stuff happened that I never would’ve learned otherwise, because I was in places I’d never have been otherwise.”
Crews still goes to some of those places, except now he’s there for research instead of whiskey. He’s always on the lookout for the guts and guise of a character.
“I keep a pool stick down on Fifth Avenue,” he says. “You see a guy come in and he doesn’t take a stick off the rack, he gets his stick from the man behind the bar, and he starts joining that thing together; well, hustlers come out of the woodwork and all kinds of things happen.
“When I’m bending over a table under a lamp shooting pool with the brothers, it’s important to me to know what’s on their minds and what language they’re using to express it. When I’m doing that, for what I do in the world, that’s just as important as an 18th-century scholar poring over dusty, huge books in the stacks of the library in search of something he needs to know. You can’t write dialect if you don’t hear it.”
“It’s a psychological truth that before you can make a judgment about somebody else, you have to make a judgment about yourself,” he says. “People who can’t get past my haircut are people who have already decided what can be done with hair and what cannot be done with hair. I designed this haircut myself, and I did it with malice and forethought.
“I walk into some places with this ’do and this ’too, which everyone wants to read — it says “How Do You Like Your Blue-Eyed Boy, Mr. Death?’ with a skull on top of it — and among other things, I feel animosity, disapproval and sometimes rank hatred coming off the people like heat off a stove.”
Even his own mother isn’t thrilled about the tattoo, which is a quote from an e.e. cummings poem.
“I don’t like tattoos at all, but what can I do about it?” asks his 80-year-old mother, Myrtice, who still lives in southern Georgia. “Harry’s just always been such a brilliant person. He says he wants to give people something to look at, something to talk about. I guess he has.”
Crews admits he wrote some “dreadful things” about his mother in his 1978 memoir, “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place.”
“When I finished the book, I asked my mother if she wanted to read it, and I’d take out anything she wanted me to take out,” he says. “She said, ‘No, I’ll read it when it comes out. If it’s the truth, write it.’ My mother’s never blinked at anything I’ve ever written. She’s one of the best readers I’ve got because she regards the people in the book, in fiction, as people who might live next door to her.”
Crews says writing is crazy and stressful at times, but he can’t imagine doing anything else.
“I was in a hang-dog, mope-around mood recently, and my son and I were talking about writing and stuff,” he says. “Somehow the line came out of my mouth, ‘What the hell’s writing ever given me?’ And my son said, ‘It gave you a life, man, it gave you a life.’ And so it has.”