A Large & Startling Figure
The Harry Crews Online Bibliography
Portraits from an Interview with Harry Crews
An Interview Recalled
By Tom Graves
About the Interview
On January 27, 1979 I stepped off the plane in Gainesville, Florida not knowing for sure if Harry Crews would keep the interview appointment we had agreed upon. He had stood me up once before, forcing me to cancel my flight from Memphis at the last minute. This time I thought my chances might be better because he had told me his prized van was in the shop for repairs and he had no way of getting around on his own. We had agreed to meet at his office at the University of Florida, Gainesville. When I reached the English building that Saturday morning, however, it was locked. A security guard had to let me in and when I knocked on Harry's office door he was so startled he nearly fell out of his chair. "Damn, Coach!" he said, "be careful about sneaking up on somebody like that!"
I laughed and he laughed and we delved into his life and his literature and had a marvelous time doing so.
The interview was intended for The Paris Review, approved by one of the editors, Fayette Hickox. Fayette was delighted with the interview in its completed form and forwarded it to George Plimpton for final approval before publication as one of the prestigious Paris Review interviews. Plimpton called me with the bad news that he was declining the piece. "I simply don't find Harry Crews to be among the first rank of American writers," he told me and that was that. "We thought you did a good job with the interview, however, and would like for you to consider interviewing Walker Percy for us," he added.
Naturally, I accepted the new assignment, but Walker Percy balked, telling me no in a couple of terse, strange notes.
The publication Southern Exposure quickly agreed to publish a small portion of the Crews interview. The Chouteau Review published the remainder of the lengthy piece. Both publications also published photographs I had taken of Crews that Saturday. (Note: The interview in its entirety was anthologized in the book Getting Naked With Harry Crews, edited by Erik Bledsoe.)
About the Portraits
I did not own a camera at that time. In 1979 I was 25 years old and working as a medical copywriter for an orthopedics company, but I had published several articles and reviews by that time and had even worked as an editor for a short-lived sports fishing magazine. I borrowed a camera from one of the company photographers and decided if I had the chance I'd shoot a roll of color film (Kodachrome 25, my favorite) and a roll of black and white.
About an hour into the interview, Harry and I were both ready for a break. I loaded up the black and white film and shot several photos of him in his office, in the hallway of the English building, and outdoors. Harry treated me to a hamburger and beer at a bar just off campus and when we finished we went back to his office and completed the interview. I loaded the camera again with the color film and we went back onto the campus grounds for a series of close-up shots, taken at about 1/60 as I recall with the idea of blurring out the background and focusing deeply on Crews's face.
I was very pleased with the results of both the interview and the photographs. Both Southern Exposure and The Chouteau Review eagerly accepted the photographs along with the interview I submitted to them. I sent Harry copies of several of the photographs and they turned up twice in Playboy (the magazine sent me a check for $150 for use of the photographs, and the check was engraved with intricate bunny logos and the words "re: Graves, photography." You can't imagine how much fun I had with that check convincing people I was shooting nudie pictures for Playboy.) and even at an appropriate moment in Tom Thurman's documentary, "Harry Crews: Guilty as Charged" (uncredited unfortunately).
Recently I became interested in photography again and pulled out the Crews photographs from 1979. I had forgotten just how good they were and how youthful and vigorous Harry seemed at the time. A Childhood and Blood and Grits had just been published before my visit (Harry even gave me a signed copy of Blood and Grits fresh out of the box) and Harry seemed well on his way to his place in the literary firmament. I had no idea that a personal abyss was in wait for him. For nearly a decade after our meeting Crews published no fiction and precious little nonfiction. In his mid-fifties, Crews made something of a comeback and published a series of well-received novels that revived his reputation and got him on a few prominent talk shows. He did a cameo in a Sean Penn film, was the subject of a few documentaries, sold movie options to several of his books (to my knowledge only The Hawk Is Dying has been made into a film), and retired. He hasn't published a book-length manuscript since.
Rumor has it that Harry writes every day, ostensibly on a sequel to A Childhood, which he has declared will not be published in his lifetime.
Time will tell.
. . .