Yonder Stands Your Orphan

  This bank of the Wabash, but a different time of year...

This bank of the Wabash, but a different time of year...

This is years ago. Late summer. I'm sitting on a park bench facing the bucolic Wabash River in a picturesque setting in New Harmony, Indiana. Sitting next to me is a giant. Not a literal one but a literary one: Barry Hannah. His legs are stretched out in front of him and he's musing, "Why would anyone want to write a novel?" He's saying it quietly and it requires no answer. He wears jeans, a shirt open at the neck, a blazer, loafers, maybe Chucks, time has rusted my image of everything but his manner, his eyes, his sudden smile.

This is the guy who wrote "Yonder Stands Your Orphan," "Ray," "The Tennis Handsome," Eight novels, Five short story collections. I'd brought "Bats Out Of Hell," my all time favorite short story collection for him to sign. All of his writing is stunning. I won't go on about it, but if you've not read him, just do. Just do.

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Deciding for the workshop in Indiana was not a struggle; I would have two instructors, Mr. Hannah and Bob Shacochis, two scary-ass lions in my opinion. Two sui generis (generi? Can't be a plural since it means one of a kind, but there you are. Two ones of a kind.) The struggle I'd have would be showing them anything I'd written. I half expected guffaws turned to laughter-disguising coughing.

The materials said I would have so many classes (small) with each, then a one-on-one half-hour with each.

My alone time with Mr. Hanna was by the gently rolling Wabash River. With Mr. Shacochis the time was in a bar booth with sunlight slanting in at our table through windows that could have used a washing. He slapped my papers, said "Silver bullet, front to back. Keep writing. Stay away from the passive voice you fall into." Then we just talked. Both took longer than the half hour. Neither looked at his watch. I'm sure it was the same with all the attendees. These are (were, was, in Barry Hannah's case, the world lost a great talent in 2010) gracious authors, charismatic and confident, humorous and empathetic. Back to Mr. Hannah.

"A novel," Hannah went on to say, "is tough work." He thought for a second, looked at me, and said "You know, the cruelest thing I could do is to tell someone who didn't have what it took, to write a novel." And he looked at me. "My God, that would be mean." He smiled as though he might tell a sworn enemy to write a novel. Then he said, "You, I'll tell, write one. Although I'm not sure why anyone would want to. Why do you want to?"

"I just do. I really do. Not just one."

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"Do it!" I thought our meeting might be over. Then he said, musing again, chuckling a little, "There's a person writing about the Ozarks and a wise old toothless granny that imparts wisdom and so on, and I said, wait a minute, if she's so damned smart why doesn't she get her teeth fixed? Why isn't she driving a red Sebring convertible?" Then he looked at me and laughed. "I have a red Sebring. I get my teeth fixed. And I'm not very damned smart at all!"

We walked away together. He with his hands in his pockets, looking about. Me on a cloud with my autographed copy of "Bats Out If Hell." Later on I wrote some stories. And a novel And I'm working on more. Thanks to this gentleman. Although he's right. Why would anyone set out to write a novel?