Parting Words

My heroes have always been cowboys

Story Michael Farris Smith

I did a brief stint in Oxford back in 1997. I lived a half block off the Square, in a big house divided up into apartments, right across the street from the original office of The Oxford-American. One evening I walked over to Square Books, for the first time, and on the front table I found a story collection called Big, Bad Love, and a novella entitled Ray. This was my introduction to both Larry Brown and Barry Hannah.

By the time I went to sleep that night, whatever time that was, I had devoured both books. Inhaled them. Loved them and immediately loved the writers who had written with such striking, beautiful prose. I remember that what kept occurring to me as I read, was the notion that I knew the people they were writing about. I knew those winding, dark, bumpy back roads. I knew the dimly lit bars and cheap brands of bourbon and the feelings of loneliness and wonder that these characters were experiencing. It was only recently that I had become a reader, and most of what I had read were the big names: Hemingway, Faulkner, Dickens, Fitzgerald. Those were the only names I recognized. But when I met the stories of Larry Brown and Barry Hannah, I realized what it meant to be a Southern writer in the here and now. I knew their Mississippi firsthand and it shook me.

What I didn’t know, but now realize, is that this was the beginning of my becoming a writer. I didn’t start writing for another couple of years, but that feeling was in me. The nights I later spent on the balcony of Square Books, drinking coffee and reading more Brown and Hannah, and then William Gay and Richard Yates and Harry Crews, those nights and those writers and their stories had gotten into me and would not let go. Literary Cowboys, that’s what they were to me. And the more I read of the Southern grit, the more I found in myself and my own landscape.

It wasn’t only the fiction of Brown and Hannah and others like them that influenced me, but I have been just as inspired by reading their interviews, and listening to what they had to say about the struggle. The time it took to get someone to accept their stories, to read their novels, to accept them out there somewhere. Hannah called writing a matter of life and death. Brown described the years of rejection and the burned manuscripts in his backyard. They both preached stamina, belief, loving the work no matter what the end result. During my learning years (which are still ongoing and I suspect they always will be), their notions of hanging on, and believing in your work stuck with me as I went through the rejection and gnashing of teeth that all writers experience. From afar, they kept me going through both their work and encouragement.

Eventually, all of this led to some published stories, and then my Paris novella The Hands of Strangers, and now Rivers, my own Mississippi novel. And when it came time to look for other writers to share the manuscript with, to ask for blurbs, to say, “Hey, man. You’ve really influenced me,” the Literary Cowboys were no longer around. Larry Brown, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, William Gay. Those were the first names that came into my head, and it was bittersweet to know they were gone.

But we move on and try to carry the torch, knowing what giant boots these are to fill. And I think about that evening back in 1997, when I had nothing to do, and the last light fell across the quaint Mississippi town, and I meandered over to the independent bookstore and began to look around. Get ready, is what I would say to myself now. There they are.