Rick Bragg knows a good story when he hears one – whether it’s the family remembrances, spread across foothills of Appalachia, that make up the Pulitzer Prize-winning Alabama native’s All Over But the Shoutin’ (1997) and Ava’s Man (2001); the academic texts that first alerted him to New Orleans’ otherness (“New Orleans’ history was fascinating as a student and downright terrifying,” says Bragg); or the lurid renderings of the city in fiction by John Kennedy Toole and Tennessee Williams, who gave Bragg his most recent reason to visit with the Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival last month, where he taught a master class on memoir writing. Though his trips are provoked by work, Bragg admits that he keeps his schedule flexible. “I usually try to come a bit early, and I usually try to stay a bit late. I’ve said this before, but I love New Orleans the way some people love women.”
Q: What draws you to New Orleans? It’s just one word: romance. You can stand on a worn-out brick sidewalk in New Orleans and if you just use a little bit of romance, you really can hear the past of a place. You don’t have to work that hard to imagine the riverboats, to imagine the riverfront. I rode a ferry across the river on my first trip to New Orleans and I remember thinking, “In most other places, I’d be in a taxi cab.”
A lot of people would take “romance” to mean hearts and flowers, but that’s not what I mean. It’s a bloody romance and a dangerous romance and a decayed kind of romance with great hardship and sorrow woven into it. But also incredible … just joy.
Q: Reading and writing are usually considered solitary activities; what do you think the value is in having a book festival? Well, I’ve always been a big believer in book festivals for this reason: You get to see the people who lift you up and who keep you going and who give you the real reason to keep writing. I don’t believe in writing in a closet, and I’ve never liked that phrase “Well, you know, I just write for me.” If I just wrote for me, I’d be a fisherman. I’d be out somewhere close to the Gulf of Mexico trying to catch a speckled trout. I’d be trying to find a tarpon somewhere. Or I’d just be sitting in a chair watching a bunch of cows graze. If I just wrote for me, I wouldn’t write anything.
And there are just some cradles of writing in the country. Every writer oughta get to spend the night in the Monteleone and walk through fog down one of those alleys around St. Louis Cathedral. Every writer needs to sit on a bench and look at the bridge over his right shoulder and watch a freighter go down that river.
Q: Tell me about your upcoming book, The Best Cook in The World. My mother has never written down a recipe. She was ill for a big part of the past year. She’s better now, but it occurred to me that there’s no record, none, of the best cook I’ve ever known. So, we started writing them down. Not just writing down the recipes, which would bore me to tears, but the stories behind the recipes. The nights on the river that led to a fish fry or turtle soup. The old people who left her with recipes for blackberry cobbler or the cousin who shot her husband in the teeth that prompted, not a recipe, but prompted us to remember her, which made us remember the fact that she made the best chicken and dressing in the world.
Q: Do you ever worry that you’ll run out of material? You’re not going to run out of stories. What is going to happen eventually is you’re going to run out of people. There’s going to come a day when – and I hope this day never comes – but there’s going to come a day when you’re the last lonely old man remembering. And maybe that will be worth writing, or maybe it won’t.
Much of what I’ve written is generations before me. You can call it memoir but the truth of it is, much of it comes before my own memory. I used to sleep at the foot of my grandmother’s bed and listen to her talk and talk. Sometimes to me and quite frankly sometimes, if her medicine was a little out of whack, talk to people who had been dead a long time. That’s just part of, I think, being not just a Southerner but also a rural Southerner. Gathering and saving those memories has been the joy of my writing life. It’s been the most important thing I’ve done.
I can probably sing just about every John Prine song and most Hank Williams songs, but I sing them very, very poorly. I’m not one of those people who sings in the shower. I used to just drink and sing, lying flat on the bed.
at a glance
Age: 57 Profession: Writer Resides: Alabama Born/raised: Calhoun County, Alabama Education: “I’m technically still a freshman at Jacksonville State University. I have a honorary doctorate from there, but I was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 1992-’93.” Favorite book: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry Favorite movie: I tend to like those old sweeping big epics of the Golden Age of Hollywood Favorite TV show: “Peaky Blinders” Favorite food: “My mother’s pinto beans and ham.” Favorite restaurant: “That’s impossible to say; I’ve actually hurt myself worrying about it.”