With writer Rick Bragg, it’s hard to get a straight “yes” or “no.” Not like that’s something to complain about. He is a natural-born storyteller, whether it be on the page or spoken, as his melodic prose and voice are one and the same.
So it seems like fate – predestination – that he became a writer instead of staying in his native northeastern Alabama laboring in the mills like so many others before him. Bragg worked at several newspapers (Anniston Star, The Birmingham News, St. Petersburg Times, Los Angeles Times) before he became a reporter for The New York Times in 1994. Those years were spent globetrotting to places including Haiti and Afghanistan in search of stories while based in Miami and New Orleans, where he lived for three-and-a–half years. In 1996, he won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for his “elegantly written stories about contemporary America,” according to the Pulitzer committee.
Bragg has profiled high and low, good and bad, famous and infamous (I remember meeting him for the first time when he was interviewing Gennifer Flowers).
Though not working for The New York Times anymore, he’s still writing for feature publications such as Sports Illustrated. However, Bragg’s prose is best illustrated in his memoirs: All Over But the Shoutin’ (1998), Ava’s Man (2001), and his most recent book, The Prince of Frogtown, (2008). The first two memoirs recall life in northeastern Alabama during the Depression through the 1960s – the struggles of the working class and the poor, their faith, hard-won battles, defeats and moments of joy. By writing about his mother, Margaret, in Shoutin’, and her father, Charlie Bundrum, in Ava’s Man, Bragg vividly evokes a time and place in the South in such a way that it made a powerful impression on those who had similar lives, as well as those who did not. Bragg’s memories of his father, Charles Bragg, were not fond – the father drank, got in fights, deserted the family – yet, one got the impression that Bragg was also circling the memory of his father – confronting it, but not quite tackling it head-on.
It took falling in love to finally ensnare Bragg, not only to marriage but to fatherhood – he became a stepfather to a then 10-year-old boy (he has two other stepsons who are older). These changes in his life gave him a path to take a hard look at his father. The Prince of Frogtown, is a group of stories woven into one: about his father and finding out about his father; of Jacksonville, Ala., and its inhabitants; as well as how Bragg learned to co-exist with his stepson and become, much to his surprise it seems, a father worth remembering.
Bragg will be at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival (March 25 to 29) leading a master class on March 27, “What If Your Mama Sees It? The Pleasure and Perils of Writing Memoir,” and part of a panel (including John Berendt, Amanda Boyden and Tim Gautreaux) on March 28, “Southern Gothic.”
Name (the one he was christened with): Ricky Edward Bragg. I was named after Ricky Ricardo of I Love Lucy. My mother almost had me while watching The Ten Commandments.
Profession: Clarence Cason Professor of Writing, University of Alabama.
Resides: Hotels, right now. Because of book business I’m on the road all the time. Tuscaloosa, Ala. (where I teach at University of Alabama); Fairhope, Ala.; and a farm at the foothills of the Appalachians
Education: Attended Jacksonville State University and Harvard University as Nieman Fellow
Family: Wife, Dianne; stepson, Jake (who’s now 14 years old); and two other stepsons in college
Favorite book: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry and Moby Dick by Herman Melville
Favorite movie: I like Alfred Hitchcock movies; I just saw Rear Window… epics, old Westerns. I love True Grit – it’s a good book too.
Favorite TV show: House. The Wire. Deadwood.
Favorite music: I’m kind of eclectic. Old Hank Williams, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke (a lot). Bob Marley reminds of when I lived in Miami. Old blues: John Lee Hooker, Buddy Guy and the Neville Brothers.
Favorite food/restaurants: There are some wonderful places in Alabama – including some “Meat and Threes.” But New Orleans… there’s not a better place. The fried chicken at Dunbar’s…the red beans and rice, smothered okra. Betsy’s Pancake House – red beans and rice with the ham shank. Franky and Johnny’s. Even Lucky Dogs.
Hobby: I don’t have a hobby. [Though] I do love to fish – saltwater and fresh. I have mounted the giant speckled trout that I caught in Tampa, Fla.
Favorite vacation spot: New Orleans and Miami… I love going to Miami, where I walk by the Art Deco hotels in South Beach, eat Cuban food and stone crabs at Joe’s. New Orleans: the Hotel Monteleone, walking along the Mississippi River and watching the tankers go by. I’m practicing to be an old man. As I get older I would like to go to Paris, Rome – I’ve never been to either – [actually] spend time in London.
What do you miss most about New Orleans? Obviously, the food. The days when I would slide my feet from my bed onto the pine floors in my old house, going to see what something would happen my way. Walking to the French Quarter. Getting hungry and meeting a friend at Dunbar’s. Missing the feeling you’re on the edge of something big … some adventure. I miss the old ladies leaving their shopping carts in my front yard… I shouldn’t miss, but I do, the hissing sound – probably caused by the humidity – of the transformer in front of my house. I miss my house. The friends that are left here.
What don’t you miss about New Orleans? The potholes are hard to hold dear to your heart.
What other writers do you admire? Like to read? Anything by Larry McMurtry. Eudora Welty. Robert Penn Warren. Truman Capote. Charles Frazier. I love Charles Dickens.
Why write a memoir? If you have a story that you need to tell and it’s interesting, you should. Because of the history you had with your father, was The Prince of Frogtown harder to write? This was harder to write than the other two. I didn’t have a place to go in my head before, and now I do.
While you were researching Frogtown, was anyone from your father’s side of the family or his friends uncooperative? I went door-to-door and asked people if they knew my father. If they said yes, then I would ask them to tell me stories – I [usually] got one good story, and not all were necessarily happy.
Tell me about your stepson, Jake. He just keeps on getting better – he’s a great kid. Fun to be around. However, [as a father] you don’t get dating advice from me, or driving advice.
Is he going to write a memoir about you one day? Jake jokes about it – that he’s already writing things down. If he does, I’ll just live somewhere else – like Mexico.
When you left Alabama after graduating from college, did you ever think you would end up back there? Yes, I always knew I would. I may leave Alabama and come back again, however I want to be buried in Alabama.
You’re a regular at the Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. What keeps you coming back? The audience is great. And, hell, it’s New Orleans. Who in his right mind would say no to a trip down there?
You are on a panel discussing “Southern Gothic” literature – why do you think they chose you and why is there no such thing as “Northern Gothic”? My whole life is Southern Gothic. And, Northerners don’t know gothic.
True Confession: Oh God. Nothing to confess – what’s the statute of limitations? OK, I always wanted to learn how to dance. Know how to hold a woman and glide across the dance floor like Cary Grant or Fred Astaire. I would very much like to catch a big fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Have some time in the foothills of the Appalachians. Get my hands dirty. Farm, have some donkeys.