July 26, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: Harry Crews

Writer, University of Florida professor, Gainesville, died March 28 at age 76

Editor’s note: On Jan. 27, Florida Trend’s Art Levy and Will Short Gorham interviewed Harry Crews in the novelist’s home. The 40-minute interview did not go well. Crews spoke haltingly, pausing often while he endured intense waves of pain caused by his peripheral neuropathy. Plans were made to continue the interview another day, but Crews died before that could happen. Quotes from our interview appear below along with those from two other sources: “Getting Naked with Harry Crews” (University Press of Florida, 1999), a book of Crews interviews edited by Erik Bledsoe, and a 2007 documentary film by Tyler Turkle titled Harry Crews — Survival is Triumph Enough.

Harry Crews
[Photo: John Zeuli]

» I’ve got peripheral neuropathy. It’s a disease of the nerves that manifests itself by driving you crazy.

» A writer can’t be taught, but he can be coached.

» I was drunk every day for 30 years. Very rarely did anyone see me staggering around or anything like that. Never threw up. Never got sick. Never had a hangover. That’s probably why I turned out to be a drunk. I didn’t know what a hangover was.

» Being a writer is the only thing I remember wanting to do. I put all the energy I could into it.

» Only Christmas present I ever remember getting was a Baby Ruth candy bar. The only one I ever remember, my whole growing up. And I was very pleased to get it.

» You know, I had polio. Hell, everyone had polio then. Before Salk.

» I’ve never begun a novel that I knew how it ended. I just start and try to find out what it is I think about whatever it is I am writing about.

» My brother was fighting in Korea at the time I joined. It ended while I was on Parris Island. And we were, of course, all extremely disappointed. There’s something — and this may be a lie, or a myth or whatever — but it seems to me that when a war breaks out, all the Southern boys run down as quick as they can. Probably out of ignorance. And also because, in many instances — as was true in my case — there’s no jobs, and I had no skills.

» I didn’t do well in grade school and all that. All I did was read. When I got to the University of Florida, I was never assigned a book I hadn’t already read.

» I feel bad. I think we can say I’m going to feel bad from now until I kick out and die. There’s no relief from this. That’s the way it goes.

» Whatever I’ve done and whatever I’ve set out to do, I’ve always had one goal in mind: Get it down in language.

» I don’t think I’ve ever sold 10,000 copies of a hardcover book in my life. I finally found an audience. France. France. The French love me.

» My daddy literally worked himself to death, as a tenant farmer, as a great many men and women did. My ma says he worked himself to death at the age of 31. His heart, his whole chest, blew out like a tire blows out.

» Listen, if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark.

» I teach because I like it. It gives me some sense of myself when my writing’s not going well. I can go and teach and that’s pleasant. The only problem I’ve ever had with the university is the professors and the people who run it.

» Ma baked biscuits every meal, and the biscuits were made out of flour, lard and water. We had biscuits and grits and fatback, wasn’t even a streak of meat in there. That’s pretty much what we had.

Harry Crews
[Photo: John Zeuli]

» There was very little that I would not do.

» Life now is boring, incredibly, unthinkably boring. Whatever fire I had in the loins, whatever fun I had ... yeah, I’m pretty much dead.

» I don’t think novels cause things to happen. Maybe ‘The Jungle’ caused something to happen, the meat industry and all that, passing legislation, but other than that, I mean, I don’t know.

» When I got old, I wanted to be so used up and so broken and such a husk that you could put me in the palm of your hand and blow me away.

» Back when I drank so bad, when I went anywhere to lecture or do something at a university, first thing that happened when I get off the plane is some guy handed me a glass. And the game was, ‘Let’s give Crews all the alcohol he’ll take in his hand and watch him get totally out of it and be a fool.’

» When I have those pauses, there’s no reason for them, except I’m hurting bad and I just have to wait and gut it out. It’s bothersome. It’s very bothersome.

» Writing made me the happiest. That’s what I spent my life doing, pretty much.

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