Rick Bragg on the art of storytelling
Published: October 24, 2002
|The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter says you can find some of your best material close to home|
Writing about your family is a tricky endeavor. You constantly work under the shadow of a question that won't go away: Why would anyone outside my relatives and friends be interested in my life? With each word, you seek the courage to continue and the faith in yourself to tell a good story that will keep readers absorbed.
Writers of family histories and memoirs will find inspiration and instruction in Rick Bragg's beautifully written bestseller All Over but the Shoutin', about his journey from a poverty-ridden childhood to Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter, and Ava's Man, the biography of his grandfather Charlie Bundrum, a man he never knew.
|Bragg writes with emotional honesty, humor and compassion. In All Over but the Shoutin' he pays tribute to his mother, Margaret Bragg, who toiled in the cotton fields so her sons could have a better life. Ava's Man is a celebration of a man who was so beloved his kin couldn't bear to talk about him after he died. With lyrical language and storytelling prowess, Bragg brings the reader to an understanding of what made this flawed man so special. "As far as just the sheer joy of telling a story, I never had more fun than I did with Ava's Man," he says. |
All Over but the Shoutin' tells the darker story of his childhood in Jacksonville, Ala., with an absent alcoholic father, a strong, determined mother and his own struggles. Some of it is so raw that the words sting.
In one segment he recalls his high school girlfriend breaking up with him because "we were too different ... because I was poor and she was not." Coming to terms with himself and his humble beginnings is a theme in his memoir.
Bragg dropped out of college his first year at Jacksonville State University, but not before he learned from his feature- writing instructor, Mamie B. Herb, that he had "talent and promise." He was recruited from the college newspaper, where he was a sportswriter, by the Jacksonville News. By the time he was 20, he was working full time for the Anniston Star, which he describes as the "best small newspaper in Alabama and one of the best in the country." He later moved to The Birmingham News, the biggest newspaper in Alabama, where he wrote front-page stories that led to jobs at the St. Petersburg [Fla.] Times and then the Los Angeles Times. Based in New Orleans, he now is a national correspondent for The New York Times.
As he followed this path, he writes, "the chip I had carried on my shoulder for a lifetime grew ... to the size of a concrete block." Just when he thought he had dropped this heavy load, it turned up again. In his memoir, Bragg writes about an incident that occurred when he was at Harvard on a Nieman Fellowship for journalists.
"I let my temper push through my paper-thin veneer of respectability ... during a white-tablecloth dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club, sometime between the chateaubriand and the stirring speech by a Native American newspaper publisher."
Bragg had gotten into what he thought was a friendly argument with a fellow diner, an intellectual, until the diner took a swipe at Bragg's reasoning by saying, "You embarrass yourself." "I'll tell you what," Bragg said. "I'll drag you out of here and whip your ass." The silence that followed was unbearable. "I felt like I had dragged my sleeve through the peach cobbler or committed some other terrible faux pas," Bragg writes.
The Harvard story is more than an example of self-deprecating humor. Throughout his memoir, Bragg lays out his vulnerabilities along with his accomplishments. A reporter who had won many awards and would one day go on to win journalism's top prize, Bragg writes that he wondered if he was "as good, as smart, as clean as the people around me. Now this, this insult, hurt like salt flung in my eyes."
Writing about his own life was difficult, Bragg says, but writing about his maternal grandfather was a joy. For himself and his readers, Bragg brings Charlie Bundrum, who died before his grandson was born, to life. When Bragg was growing up, Bundrum was a mysterious figure, because no one in his family of two sons and five daughters would talk about him. "Talking about his life always led to thinking of his death, to a feeling like running your fingers through saw briers--and what good did that do?" But slowly he got his mother, aunts, uncles and family friends to tell their Charlie stories. The result is a big-hearted portrait of a man who worked hard, sometimes drank too much and got into fights but remained a hero to his family and community. Bragg's masterful use of descriptive details and colorful stories gives the reader a sense of what it was like to know Bundrum. Reading his passage about his grandfather's funeral, it's hard to believe that Bragg wasn't an eyewitness.
"Charlie Bundrum took giant steps in run-down boots. He grew up in hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing except a family that worshiped him and a name that gleams like new money. When he died, mourners packed Tredegar Congregational Holiness Church. Men in overalls and oil-stained jumpers and women with hands stung red from picking okra sat by men in dry-cleaned suits and women in dresses bought on Peachtree Street ... even the preacher cried."
Writing about family is harder than writing about strangers, says Bragg, who has tackled more than his share of difficult assignments. In the introduction to an anthology of his feature stories, Somebody Told Me, he says he has written about everything from "bloody coups in Haiti to bloody courtyards in New Orleans, from soldiers in the Persian Gulf, waiting to risk their lives, to eighty-year-old prison inmates in Alabama, just waiting to die." No matter what the subject is, he gives it a human face.
Bragg says he learned storytelling "at the knees of some of the best storytellers--back-porch talkers." His writing simmers with down-home phrases: "His temper was as hot as bird's blood." "His daddy was just a name, but his momma was a bird flying." He thickens it with detail. Picnics on the grounds of the Protestant church are "where people sat on the springtime grass and ate potato salad and sipped sweet tea from an aluminum tub with a huge block of ice floating in it." He pulls you into his Alabama world where "... the foothills were not black, white or gray. They were loud, and green, and often splashed with red, and smelled of manure and honey, and hot biscuit dough."
Writing may have taken Bragg out of poverty, but it's the working folks he still likes to write about the most.
"Every life deserves a certain amount of dignity, no matter how poor or damaged the shell that carries it," he writes in All Over but the Shoutin'. During our interview, he talked about his desire to honor his family and to tell their story straight and true. His mother calls that "telling God's sanction."
Bragg receives two or three calls and dozens of e-mails a day from readers who were inspired by his books to interview their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins and start writing down their own family stories.
"I wrote the book about my mom because I wanted to honor her. I wrote the book about my grandfather because I didn't know him, and I wanted to build myself a grandfather. To have it embraced in a broader sense is really great," he says. "Down here in Louisiana we call it lagniappe, a little something extra."
|Why was writing about your family so important to you? |
I made it a point in the introduction of All Over but the Shoutin' to say what momma had done was what a lot of mommas had done. They sacrifice for their children, they drag those cotton sacks over a million miles of dirt. A lot of mommas do that. It might be a metaphorical cotton field; it might be diners where they wash dishes or wait on tables all day. Or they might take in laundry. I don't want anyone to think I thought we were anything special in that regard, but I did want to honor her for that.
What happened was that the book became this anthem not just for working people, but people who, if you scratched underneath the surface of their lives, would be just one generation removed from someone who had worked with their hands.
Ava's Man honored a man who worked hard for a living, a flawed, sometimes boozy man; but it honored him for the fact that for all the years he raised those children, he never once missed a day of work.
What advice do you give the people who call and want to write about their families? How can they keep their stories interesting?
I tell people to tell the stories the way they heard them told. It's hard to scratch a culture and not find a storyteller somewhere in it. Tell it with the flavor, the drama, the grace and the wit that it's told to you. People say [my] language is so beautiful. Well, the language was stolen. I stole it from my people. It was their rhythms, their cadences, their beautiful communications that came through. I have some skill at it, but the truth is, I had it at hand.
How did you finally get your family to talk about your grandfather?
For Ava's Man I would just ask my aunts: "What happened that day?" They would tell stories the way they tell stories. Then they would get three-quarters of the way through the story, right to the good part, and one or another aunt would jump in and take it down a completely irrelevant trail. I would have to patiently, so patiently guide them back to the point. It would take forever, but I can't say I wasted one second of time, because often the trail they would go down would be information I did not have. I just let them talk.
They would start talking about a dog and they'd be saying, "Daddy got the gun and pointed at the dog." Then one of them would say, "You know I think we had a dog like that." Right at the most dramatic moment, you're talking about an irrelevant dog that is not involved with the story and doesn't have anything to do with anything.
In families, each individual often has his or her own point of view concerning the same events. How did you verify elements of the stories they told?
You try to do the very best you can. There aren't any public records of any of this stuff. What you do is you talk to everybody you can and get each one to tell the same story. The most efficient way is one-on-one, but understand something, the best way to avoid [confusion] is to get them all in one place. I'm not saying the consensus is more accurate than one person's story, but it's at least the best you can do.
That's one of the problems of doing memoirs about blue-collar people. If you do a biography of Howard Taft or Lyndon B. Johnson, you've got evidence of their places on the planet. As I said in the first book, we didn't make the "historical registers" unless we knocked some rich man off his horse.
When you are ready to write, how do you sort through and organize all the material that you have gathered?
Organization is the hardest thing. I probably had a thousand pages of fairly orderly notes. By that I mean they filled big notebooks. They had dates and even some drawings. But I must have had another thousand scraps of paper--little bitty scraps of information that were just as valuable as the orderly story. I would come across somebody and didn't have anything to write on but a stub of an airline ticket. It was a logistical nightmare getting it all together.
I didn't tape-record my people, because I knew the tape recorder would turn them off. I never really like to use a tape recorder. I use a notebook. Most of my stories don't lend themselves to a long narrative.
You start Ava's Man with the story of your grandmother, Ava, beating up Blackie Lee, a woman who had designs on Charlie. It's comical, but also shows your grandparents' flaws. Why did you decide to start with that particular episode?
The Blackie Lee chapter was very important to me and to the story. I wanted to begin with a personal story. Frankly, I also wanted to begin with a story that would paint a picture of their relationship. I wanted people to see early that Ava was not a meek and timid person, and that Charlie was not perfect. He was not a pious man who carried a Bible in one hand and went out and did good deeds. I spent many chapters showing his good deeds and his heroism, but he could be flawed. I wanted to show that in the first chapter. Of all the stories they told me, it was the one I could most see in my mind's eye.
If you have a grand story that kind of sums things up--that would be your lead. It's just like newspaper writing. As a mechanical thing, it's just the right thing to do. Tell a great little story, get people's attention, make them stand up and take notice, then you can go with the pure chronology.
In All Over but the Shoutin;, it was the same way. I talked about my daddy in the first couple of chapters. You can paint that bright hot, strong, sweet, sad picture; then readers will care about your people. The introduction and the first chapter or two can do that for you.
What do you try to get across in your books' prologues?
I like a long introduction because it tells people what they are going to get, and you're not selling anybody a bill of goods. A long introduction helps you get the book straight in your mind and lets you be really personal. The introduction is your chance to tell people why you wrote the book and why it was important to you. You can tell how much you love your people without feeling self-conscious about it. It's the place where you can have this bone-naked love and then the narrative can even be a little stark as the book goes on because you've explained it. You've said, "I wrote about these people because I love them and this will show you how I love them and why I love them."
Did you ever get blocked while writing?
I pretty much flew through Ava's Man in that it was written in about a year. I got to the section where my grandfather has to die. It was like running into a wall. I just stood and looked at the wall. There was sadness in it I had not expected. I knew I would love my grandfather, because my aunts, whom I love very much, loved him, but I didn't expect there to be real pain. From being this picturesque figure to being family to being somebody I really had breathed life into--to have to kill him ... I could have ended the book with him still alive. I could have ended the book with the sad and sweet story of the last few days of his life. If I could change anything at all in it, I might not do that. But there was so much story to tell and life to be lived that needed to be talked about after his death. I had to do it. It took me between two months and four months, but once that chapter was done, I was able to move on.
You've said that you wrote All Over but the Shoutin' in honor of your mother. What did it mean in terms of writing about yourself? How did you know how much to leave in and take out?
Writing is so subjective. I'm sure some people think [the memoir] was self-indulgent, but I think if it really had been self-indulgent, it would have never gotten the critical praise that it received. People said, "Wasn't that a difficult book to write?"
It should have been a lot easier because it was plucked from memory, but it was not. It was more personal and it was sadder. Ava's Man doesn't have the unrelenting sadness. It was more fun. The other one was more bitter, angry and personal.
Could you have written Ava's Man if you had not written All Over but the Shoutin'?
I don't think I would have enjoyed it so much. One reason I wrote Ava's Man was so many people who read All Over but the Shoutin' wanted to know where my momma came from. Where do people get that much character and backbone? They knew it was from her daddy and momma. My momma always said she wished she had her daddy's strength of character, and she does. She just has a meeker way of presenting it to the world.
How did your experience as a reporter help you write?
Every word I ever wrote for every newspaper I worked for made me a better writer, gave me discipline and experience. Having discipline and experience is an advantage. I've written a lot about great sadness--bombings, violence in housing projects, and murder cases. It teaches you how to write about pain and suffering without being maudlin. That helped me a great deal in writing All Over but the Shoutin'. Just doing it, just getting to write everyday or every week, just writing and meeting deadlines helps.
How did you begin your journalism career?
I lucked into it. I was on the high school newspaper staff. I was only in college for about six months and was on the college newspaper staff. That turned into a little job at a local weekly paper for $50 a week. I went from the weekly to a daily, from a small daily to another small daily to a mid-size daily, and mid-size daily to the St. Petersburg Times to the Los Angeles Times, where I was only briefly employed, to The New York Times. I've really served at all stations of the cross. I've been pretty much everywhere. I don't think there's a difference between writing for a newspaper or magazine and doing a chapter in a book. People who think there is something pedestrian about journalism are just ignorant. The best writers who have put pen to paper have often had a journalism background. There are these boutique writers out there who think if they are not writing their novels sitting at a bistro with their laptops, then they're not real writers. That's ridiculous.
How do you find time to write books while you are traveling all over the world on assignments?
I steal time to write at the same computer I do my newspaper stories on. When I can, I write at night, write on weekends. When I have a couple weeks off, I use it to write. I have not had a vacation for seven years. I have been using that time to write books. For instance, I'll take my vacation time this fall and do the paperback book tour. I'll steal a little extra time if I can. Publicizing the books is just as time-consuming as writing them. I have to do it. I owe that to the publisher.
What's the tour experience like?
You get to meet and talk to the people who read your book, and if you don't enjoy it, there is something wrong with you. I don't mind the tour. I travel for a living anyway. If I travel for the paper, that means I fly to a city I've probably never been to, get off a plane, rent a car, drive out in bumper-to-bumper traffic heading for a little town that nobody knows the name of and can't give me directions to, and it's not on the map. When I get there. I try to get information in 15 minutes for a story I have to write in 45. I try to find a quiet place, or at least a place to sit down with my laptop. Then I have to find a working phone. I write until deadline and spend another hour haggling with the editor, and then go eat fast food. Not all the time, but often, I go back and go to sleep way too late.
If you are on a book tour, you fly somewhere, somebody picks you up holding a copy of your book, so you know at least one copy sold, and drives you to the talk. You talk to people who loved your book or at least came. Then somebody takes you to the hotel, and you go to sleep in a good bed. You wake up the next morning and do it all over again. Hell, that's easy.
What other writers have helped or influenced your writing?
I've had some people take a personal interest in my writing--Willie Morris, the great Mississippi writer. Pat Conroy has been very kind to me. Stephen King ... because when I was a kid, I just ate up his phrases. I've continued to read him all these years. Some of the things he wrote were just so descriptive and so beautiful. Larry McMurtry writes about friendship and makes you care about people, makes you care if they live or die.
Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men is one of my favorite books. I read a lot of Southern writers--Faulkner, Eudora Welty--and a lot of Dickens. It seems I stole something from everybody I ever read. I hope in a good way.
What has your relationship with editors been like?
I was lucky. The first editor I had was Linda Healey [at Pantheon Books] for All Over but the Shoutin'. I couldn't afford a [second] draft. I barely had the time to do the book as it was. We went over it chapter by chapter. She and I did a lot of pre-emptive editing. Every day we'd talk about a chapter.
At Knopf it was Jordan Pavlin. Jordon and I have such a good relationship. I can kind of guess what she's going to say before she says it and vice versa. Much of the editing she did on Ava's Man was in saying something like--"I think we made that point." She made it leaner. There were a lot of dangling participles. I'm not talking about the real dangling participles, but places where she just made it more pointed and more effective. I've never had an editor in the book business who didn't make it better.
It sounds like you spend your waking moments either getting ready to write or writing. What motivates you?
The truth is I wrote at first because it was the skill that I had and got paid for it. I love doing it, and I get to see a lot of interesting things. It went from being a means of survival to being a real delight. I love to tell a story. That's at the heart of it.
I have a real joy in doing a pretty newspaper story, but doing the books--there's real love in it.