On Barry Hannah

Phyllis Nobles for VOX

Those who are dead are not dead, they’re just living in my head.


He was never on a required reading list. Funny, since I got two English degrees in his home state.

The first time I discovered him in the best possible way. A classmate of mine—a recent drop-out from Barry Hannah’s ultra-conservative alma mater Mississippi College who’d just recently come out of the closet in the more liberal spirit of USM— handed  Airships to me after class one day and said, Here, read this. And I did. Only after I’d put in a ten hour day going to classes and working two part-time jobs and came home and cooked supper for my two young daughters. We were living in a house trailer in South Mississippi and I was recently off food stamps and trying to get a better life for us and trying to read the right books so I could day write one of my own. That night, I read Airships through without stopping, knowing the next morning I would regret not having slept. He was shocking, perverse. His characters weren’t merely politically incorrect—they were politically explosive. He opened up a world to me that had nothing to do with the Mississippi I knew and had been trying for my entire life to leave. And at this writing some twenty years later, as I’m on a bus somewhere outside Istanbul and when so many of the stories on the required lists drift down the stream of the utterly forgettable, the inconsolable husband’s lament  in Love Too Long remains a vital part of my daily imagination, his lovely plane-flying hoop-earring wearing wife the object of more affection than most of us could ever dream about: a University of  Florida Chair standing at a LSD-spiked punch bowl wanting to stick your brain and a suffering husband wanting to sleep inside your uterus with his foot hanging out.

The second time I discovered him was in Oxford. After graduation, I followed a French poet to Holly Springs and forced him to marry me, then I forced him to move to Oxford so I could bring my two daughters to live in a neighborhood with sidewalks—I was so eager to put the house trailer days behind me. And while I taught high school to help support my household, I kept Airships beside my bed and read Ray and Geronimo Rex, and the coarse language and sacrilege and un-political correctness of it all notwithstanding felt a thrill at such lines as “Son, he’s a homosexual” or “I’ve believed in You on and off for all my life.” People like that didn’t exist: I knew Mississippi. He knew the milieu of Southern Fundamentalism and Gothic and the country club and academia and rednecks, and somehow he’d made that his world and created characters out of paper and pencil and thin air. And whether or not you liked what they did or said didn’t matter. I thought he was a literary superstar and dreamed of going to his workshop one day. Getting up the courage to ask him to let me sit in took two years. He said yes, and I was thrilled. And those days I lived for those two hours every week when he held forth and smoked in a non-smoking building and said things you didn’t need to write down in a notebook because you knew they were so brilliant you’d never forget them. If the whole lying opera of memory serves me correctly, that first workshop was held high above the English Department in Bishop Hall in something of a dusty, neglected Ivory Tower attic, and it was fall. Or spring. We met at 4 and the late-afternoon sun illuminated our passions and miseries as we described them with great ineptitude on the page. His workshops were like sitting at the feet of, well, not Jesus, but maybe some sweet fatalistic apostle. I don’t think he gave a shit about grades—all he cared about were our stories. And, unlike some teachers I ended up having, he never embarrassed anyone. In fact: he was always the gentleman, especially so it seemed to me with stories that you felt would never see the light of day. He was truly horrified when Jon Benet Ramsay turned up missing, and “mothers dressing their precious little girls up like saloon whores,” a description that horrified many of the women in our workshop. But I got him. He could do no wrong in my eyes. He became a little upset one day when he suggested that someone’s story was a bit incredulous, and the writer defended it by saying it really happened that way. To which Barry replied, Well, it should have happened in a different way. These are the things you remember. And he hated a story I wrote about a little girl who was cruel to a puppy, because as everyone except me knew—he loved dogs. I was so  eager to please that I might not have written it if I’d known. But he read the story aloud in workshop because he deemed it worthy. And while he was reading, I flashbacked to the house trailer and felt the thrill of what in workshop terms is known as rhyming action.

If Barry was great on the page and in workshop, he was most excellent in the street. Not that I didn’t love to hear him read—I did. But most of all I loved those random meetings on campus or outside Square Books or in the Kroger parking lot. His utterances in person were the same as in his books: sarcastic, dark, wild and shocking. And between times—no matter how many months or years had passed—we picked up the conversation where we last left of with it. He lived with his beloved Susan with whom I was once close and with whom we often told denigrating tales about our husbands’ many foibles—but those stories are sacred and will never be revealed. He was even a loving father and grandfather and teacher, but most of all you understood that he lived inside his head in a world he’d created. And if you were lucky, sometimes Barry Hannah would invite you in for a few seconds, and when you left, you knew you’d been in the presence of greatness. In fact, the best piece of writing advice anyone has ever given me came from him.  Make a world and your characters will come and live there, he said. And if you listen, they will speak.

Only twice did he piss me off. Once, when I turned in a story so utterly brilliant that I cannot now remember what it was about, and he only marked up my comma splices and made some vague comments at the end. And again when he was to direct my MFA thesis in fiction, and I decided at the last minute to write a work of non-fiction and forgot to tell him. So when it came time for my defense, he refused to sit on my committee. The message was conveyed to me by a third party that Ole Miss didn’t give degrees in non-fiction, only fiction. And by then I was so sick of being a graduate student that I didn’t even care enough to go beg him to change his mind.  I hired a new committee member, made a few changes and called it fiction. And we never spoke of it. And several years after, he appeared to me in a dream and asked to see the manuscript, and I always planned once I’d revised it to show it to him. But then I left for a couple of years to go off to the Mississippi Delta to teach high school French, something that ended up pleasing him enormously. He wanted his students to be published and to be out of the English Department and earning money doing interesting things, he said to me. And he would do anything—anything to help.

He thought academia and material success could be death to writing. He said as much in class. And you couldn’t help thinking of the stories of his early reckless pre-tenure days: the MG convertible he’d left the top down on, and after class he came with a girl to go for drinks and it had of course rained, and he pulled out a pistol and shot holes in the floorboards to drain the standing water. Whether the stories were true or not didn’t matter: If you were living in Oxford, reading Barry Hannah, and living with all the myths—it was better than any MFA program on the face of the planet. Because all that really mattered was the story. Even when I finally confessed to him one night at a party how much I loved Airships he said, I didn’t write that—a wild man did. So maybe the best teachers teach by example—with their writing. And in those quiet, smoke-filled moments when he used to say, What’s the worst thing that could happen to me? I could run over somebody’s cat in my Jeep on my way home this evening? And we all would laugh because he was dead right and we knew it. And were afraid.

He was going to help me go out to San Marcos. Back in 2007 I’d won a literary fellowship and had an agent waiting in New York to look at a manuscript that still isn’t published, and dying for recognition, I knew I would never be anybody if didn’t break free from Ole Miss English. I ran into him in the hallway late one Friday afternoon and we sat down on a bench and a voice inside me that had only recently started to speak said to him, I want to go out to San Marcos for a few semesters, and he told me to get some things together and he’d help me get out there. But it never happened. I was still raising my daughters and working myself into the ground trying to be a Southern Writer: From the vantage point of another continent, I can promise, far more difficult than actually giving yourself up to writing and letting writing do with you what it will. That may be the last real conversation we had, because after that things blurred a bit.

I didn’t make it to his last reading because the last time he read my body was still in Oxford, but my head had long since been somewhere else. And I’d been in Istanbul exactly 32 days when I came back to my flat from teaching one day and logged onto facebook and got the news. In one decade I’d lost my husband in divorce and my brother and nephew and three other loved ones in death. Had endured bankruptcy and staggering debt and a painful, expensive rejection from Doubleday. And maybe that was the day it hit me how far away I was from really all the things and people who would ever mean anything to me—all the things and people you needed in moments like this. But maybe the greatest writers continue to live and teach from beyond the grave, because in a not un-Barry-like move a few weeks later he appeared to me in a dream. We were at home in some parking lot and he was sitting on his motorcycle smoking, and he said to me, A good story loves the truth. You should never forget this. And after that I knew we would never finish this conversation.

Even at this writing—when the bus is winding in the snow around a dangerous cliff—I’m reminded of last year and my first mornings here when the euphoria of having thrown in the Oxford towel and said yes to a free flight to a continent I’d never seen was all mixed up with my grief. Those mornings I listened to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida those who are dead are not dead, they’re just living in my head and let a sweet sense of fatalism overtake me. And it occurred to me that the bus could easily go over the side of the cliff and there was nothing I could do to stop it, and that somehow made me deliriously happy. And something I can’t believe I had forgotten: that last workshop I took with him. He’d been sick for the first time and had gotten better, and we heard he’d converted –whether or not this was true did not matter because it was a worthy story. Although, we noticed in class he had started wearing a cross on a gold chain. On a dark fall afternoon in whatever workshop for the first and only time he read something in class that he’d written—his introduction to the gospel of St. Mark, at the end of the millennium when Turkey had been hit by an earthquake, and 45,000 body bags had been ordered by the government.  He wrote about the leanness of Mark’s gospel, and the message of hope against a backdrop of apocalypse and fear. And why I haven’t thought about it before this morning—I cannot say. He’d written a poem at the end, and even though I cannot recall the words I can tell you this. We are climbing up this mountain, still without rails and snow scattered across the hills, and I am back in the smoky October light of the attic in the Ivory Tower and he’s reading his poem and we are weeping silently. And all the time and space between us disappears.

Phyllis Nobles for VOX
Phyllis Nobles

Phyllis Nobles lives and writes somewhere between Oxford, Mississippi and Istanbul. She's appeared in 20 Over 40 [UM Press] and writes a fashion/lifestyle blog at desperatenglishteachers.blogspot.com