I was 19 or 20 when I met Harry Crews. I was a junior at Memphis and a member of the Honor’s Program in the English Department. Gordan Osing, a poetry professor, wanted to organize an interview with Crews, who was there as part of the River City Writers series, and the decision was made to find volunteers among the Honors students to each read at least one of his novels and then develop 3-4 questions for the interview. I had never heard of Harry Crews and knew nothing about him, but the picture above was the promotional photo for the River City poster, so as a young, aspiring writer, I figured he looked like someone I would dig.
The book I read was Karate is a Thing of the Spirit, and I was blown away by the gut-wrenching grittiness of the narrative. Because I had no clear understanding of how to interview anyone about anything, the questions I came up with were pretty lame, and I don’t think any of mine made it into the final draft of the interview. At the time, my feelings were a little hurt, but now I recognize that I was out of my league at that point of my development. For me, however, the real highlight of that experience was getting to have breakfast with Harry Crews the morning of the interview.
We were supposed to meet him at the campus dining area around 8:30 or 9:00, and when I arrived, he was sitting at one table and talking to two people I didn’t know. My fellow interviewers were at another table, staring at him with a combination of fear, frustration, and awe on their faces. I asked what was going on, and they responded that he was already there and talking to the other two people when they arrived, and none of them wanted to interrupt him. One even admitted to being scared of him.
Maybe I was just young and foolhardy. Maybe I was driven by my ambition to learn the craft of writing. Maybe my life experiences up to that point gave me a boldness they lacked, but I walked straight over to him, introduced myself, and explained that we were waiting for him at the other table. He shook my hand, and even in his late 50’s his grip was like iron. He explained politely but sternly that he would only join us if his new friends could come with him. I told him no problem, and the three of them rose from the table.
Back then, I was still in pretty good shape from years of lifting weights and working, and as he stood, he commented to me that I either had good genes or had spent a lot of time in the weight room. I told him that and chopping wood, and he slapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hell, that’s even better, boy. Me and you’ll get along just fine.” I thanked him and called him Mr. Crews, but he insisted that I call him Harry.
At the table, the other interviewers barely spoke to him, but he and I talked for nearly the entire hour, covering everything from tobacco farming to lifting weights. We got pretty in-depth on the subjects of football, steroids, and Lyle Alzado, who had been a friend of his. He described seeing Alzado shortly before his death, how the once 290 lb slab of muscle had been eaten down to a 150 skeleton by cancer. There was a look in his eye and a tone in his voice of true sadness as he talked about him. That conversation is one of the pivotal moments of my life and career, and I hope as age and decay take me that the memory will stay with me until my end.
Growing up in a rural, fairly impoverished area made me feel often like an outcast in college. Yes, I had intelligence and skill, but more than once I heard classmates utter pejoratives about my hillbilly upbringing. Few if any of them had been raised in an environment similar to mine, so few of them could relate to me. Before meeting Harry, I often doubted if I could ever make it as a writer, but during that conversation, I heard a man who spoke a lot like my grandparents and parents, who had been raised a sharecropper, who lifted himself out of poverty far worse than I had ever known to become an internationally renowned novelist. In short, he was one of my biggest idols.
Those couple of days he spent at the university were the only time I ever got to meet him, but over the years, I’ve read and reread virtually everything he’s ever written. There are two or three of his newer works I haven’t gotten to yet, but I’ve read most, and his writings have been one of the greatest influences on my writing style. So I’m hurting that he’s gone, even though he probably wouldn’t have remembered me and even though he had gotten pretty sick there towards the end. One of my heroes has passed on, and my heart is heavy for him and his family.
Rest in peace, Harry. You were one hell of a unique man, one hell of a writer, and one hell of an inspiration to this hillbilly.
Harry Crews: June 7, 1934 – March 28, 2012