If you know me even the littlest bit, you know that I have great affinity for a few things. Baseball. Traveling. Writing.
My Major League baseball allegiance is to the Chicago Cubs, a franchise perennially cursed by what one might politely label “underperformance.” Or if you’re more inclined to believe in tales of black cats and billy goats, plain old superstitious jinxes. Though games give me joy on a day to day basis, it is only because under all of the tough luck and the losing, I’m able to squint in such a way that I have faith in the promise of “next year.” To look at the sum total of the franchise’s existence is to see generations of failures, some more glorious than others—tough jawed pugilists ultimately felled by the barrage dealt by opponents better skilled and/or less prone to catastrophic events.
I spend a lot of time on the road. I fly quite a bit, but I enjoy the inefficiency of driving. I prefer the ability to take unexpected exits, to change course in mid-trip, to stop whenever it calls me to chase after rabbits and to explore gimmicky tourist traps. Those flights drop me off in NYC or Los Angeles or Boston—fine towns, all of them—all of them overly familiar to me from personal experiences and the seemingly limitless portrayals in books, movies, and television.
I am more excited by the prospect of exploration in rural America. Once, when I gave up on the idea of driving across Texas and instead headed north towards home, I came across Picher, an abandoned lead mining town in the southeastern corner of Oklahoma. Had never heard of it, didn't know what it was or, for that matter where I was. I drove by run down restaurants, broken walls, and a sign declaring the town as home of the 1984 Oklahoma Boys Baseball Champs. Only later would I find out the town's tragic history and the story behind what I'd seen. This beaten down town off the beaten path that I ended up in randomly has come to leave a very real and indelible mark on me.
It will come as no great revelation when I tell you that I prefer books set in towns like Picher, inhabited by people that would live in a town like it. The characters I love are not unlike my beloved Cubs in that they come to understand lifetimes of heartache, but still lace up their boots each day, taking joy in the small victories of an otherwise failed war. It is an inglorious, but (and maybe this is me oversentimentalizing it all) an honest life that I can respect.
Nobody lives in Picher anymore, but there are towns I've visited with the same kind of feel. One of my favorite places on Earth—and one where I often dream of settling down without a cellphone or internet access or even a computer—is Wewahitchka, Florida along the banks of the Apalachicola River. It’s beautiful country. Slash pines along the highway. Water dropped all over the map including the Dead Lakes. Beautiful and haunting to see. But there are also dangers lurking on the land and in the water. Alligators. Cottonmouth snakes. I’ve discussed it in other entries on this blog and do not need to retread that ground now.
But it is related to what I want to acknowledge (which, coincidentally is also something I’ve previously discussed here).
Earlier today I found out about the death of author Harry Crews.
I always figured I’d meet Crews at some point. I know people who were close to him, I spend plenty of time in Florida, and I’ve got a lucky streak of running into people I admire. I didn’t feel urgency, even in the face of reports suggesting his poor health, because life works out in the end.
I often point people to the clips of Crews discussing writing on Youtube. I did so on this very blog back on January 5th. I do it at conferences where I speak. I do it in emails sometimes to the people who submit books to Tyrus. What it means to me to be a writer is wrapped up, succinctly and forcefully, in a ten minute video interview of the author.
Crews’ writing is compelling for its rawness, its honesty, and its exploration of subcultures no less extraordinary than the worlds of superheroes and international badasses. His stories, both fiction and non-fiction are populated with the scarred, the broken and limping, the people who take punches, but find the strength to peel themselves off the canvas. Or at least try to get up. One can only imagine that Crews' style, like Crews himself was birthed and honed in the backwoods of rural Georgia, not all that far from Wewahitchka.
As Crews said (and was later used as the title of a documentary about his life). “Survival is triumph enough.” I believe that. Even use it sometimes when people ask me about the editorial guidelines for Tyrus.
Though I never did meet him and now most certainly won't (at least not this go-around), his impact on many writers that I admire will, for me, ensure his continued presence in the literary world. Proud. Honest. Punching.
Thank you, Mr. Crews.