Harry Crews On Writing And Feeling Like A 'Freak'

This interview was originally broadcast on May 23, 1988.

Writer Harry Crews had a hard life and didn't made it any easier for the characters in his novels. He died Wednesday at age 76.

Crews' novels were filled with freaks and losers with unusual gifts. In Naked in Garden Hills, there was the 600-pound man with a penchant for dietary supplements. The Gospel Singer featured lunatics and carnival characters. Car showcased a man who literally ate a Ford Maverick, several ounces at a time.

The characters hit close to home for Crews, who had polio as a child, which left him with a disfigured leg.

"I know what it's like to have people look at you and [have] their face mirror your own rather dreadful circumstances. That is to say, your freakishness," he told Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "And there were other times I felt freakish, too. ... When I left the farm and went into the Marines, here I am, a boy off a farm in Georgia, who, among other things, I didn't know what a pizza was. Never heard of one. Didn't know what pepperoni was. So I go to Paris Island and the Marine Corps. in a platoon of boys from New Jersey, New York. Well, everything about my speech, the idiom of my speech was all wrong."

After leaving the Marines, Crews moved to Gainesville, Fla., where he studied and then began teaching creative writing at the University of Florida. He also began to write profusely. But he remained unpublished.

"I wrote four novels and short stories before I even published anything, and the reason I didn't publish any of those things was because it wasn't any good," he said. "And the reason it wasn't any good was because I was trying to write about a world I did not know."

Crews eventually started writing about the world he knew, in novels like The Gospel Singer, The Mulching of America and A Feast of Snakes.

"One night it occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back in there in Bacon County, Ga., with all that sickness and hookworm and rickets and ignorance and beauty and loveliness," he said. "But that's where it was. It wasn't somewhere else."

Crews also contributed to Playboy and Esquire, and wrote a memoir, titled A Childhood, about growing up on tenant farms in Georgia. In 1988, he spoke with Terry Gross about his novel The Knockout Artist, about a boxer who leaves rural Georgia to try to make it big in New Orleans.


Interview Highlights

On drinking

"For the last 12 years, I've been a really, really bad drunk. But it was a curious form of drunkenness. If I wasn't working, I wasn't a drunk. And then you say, 'Wait a minute. That's stupid. You can't write and drink.' Well, I know that. But I can stop writing or get so scared or warped or twisted, and get drunk for three or four days or nights or weeks, and then stop drinking and go back to [writing]."

On impulses

"When things get too comfortable and things get too safe, I get the feeling like I'm smothering. It's like somebody's burying me in feathers. So when things get too safe and too secure, then I have a tendency to start tearing things up or tearing things down, as the case may be. As I grow older, I seem to be doing better with all that, much to the relief of the people around me."

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