Tag Archives: Harry Crews

In Memoriam

A couple of my favorite writers died recently, as well as a good friend. All of these guys were amazing, ornery, tough-as-hell survivors.


Harry Crews was one of my first favorite southern writers. And lucky for me he had a lot of books to read when I discovered him in the early 90s. In fact, many of his books were already out-of-print and hard to find. For years after, it was a habit for me to always look in the C aisle of any used book store I entered. I was able to eventually collect nearly all of his books, even cheesy little mass market versions of Karate is a Thing of the Spirit and The Hawk Is Dying. My favorite books of his are A Feast of Snakes, Body, and the memoir, A Childhood (an amazing and touching book).

As a writer, I was inspired by his fearlessness and dark, sometimes brutal, humor. I also think it was Crews who said the thing about writing just one page a day and how that would equal 365 pages a year. Enough for a novel, even if you chopped off 100 pages! He also brought to my attention, the no-nonsense advice: Wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first.

Harry was sort of forgotten in his last dozen or so years but apparently there’s another memoir that will hopefully find its way into the world soon. Here’s a great NYT tribute.



I liked William Gay because he was a late bloomer and didn’t even publish anything until he was about 57. His backwoods stories reminded me of Erskine Caldwell and his dark style brought to mind Cormac McCarthy.

Once, when I was in Oxford, Mississippi for a book conference, I was walking around the Ole Miss campus and I saw him walking through the parking lot. I wanted to run over and say hello to him but I was kind of scared of him.

My favorite book of his is the story collection, I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down. Here’s a nice tribute to him.



Marty ran the small press section at Powell’s before I took it over. But I was friends before we worked together. He was a fixture at the poetry slams back when they first started. He designed a book cover for me once (for Richard Meltzer’s chapbook, Holes). He published a weird story of mine in his food/cooking zine, Cooking Rock. He read his own writing at a reading series I hosted at the legendary Umbra Penumbra Cafe. He supported Future Tense books like a champ.

Yesterday, I spoke at his memorial, which was held at Mississippi Studios for a packed-in army of friends and family. Here’s what I wrote for the occasion…

Marty told me to apply to be a holiday cashier at the Beaverton Powell’s in late 1997 and to tell the store manager that he had sent me. I feel like that manager must have trusted Marty pretty well because I was hired on the spot. For the next several years, I tried to make good on that trust by being a great and enthusiastic bookseller like he was. Marty’s instincts were good in this way. He could spot commitment and enthusiasm in people. He could tell if you were a bullshitter or a real talent. He put his heart into the people he trusted, and when someone does that, it usually makes those people better. Marty made people better.

Marty was also like a magnet. A crazy, long-haired boisterous magnet for freaks and misfits and poets and passionate people of all stripes, all ages. Whether he was running the merch table at the poetry slam or buying a stack of zines from you at Powell’s, people felt connected to him, taken care of, and most importantly, they felt welcome. Marty welcomed all who deserved it.

On the day Marty was fired from Powell’s, I had lunch with him. At lunch, he told me he had the sneaking suspicion that his time at the job was almost over. He made me promise that I would try to take over the small press section at the store if he was let go. Before he ran it, Vanessa Renwick ran it, and I always looked up to both of them. Later that day, he was fired and I remember as he was walking out, someone said over the intercom, “We love you, Marty.” And I think people knew what had happened because a few people started crying right then and there. It was like the end of an era. Obviously, he was treasured as a bookseller and as the guy who fulfilled many a zinester and chapbook-publishing person’s dreams, but maybe more importantly, he was the person who encouraged solidarity, fairness, and unity through his work with getting the Powell’s union off the ground. Marty Kruse was solidarity.

Marty was also a great father. I remember one day my son and I went to meet him and his son, Nick and we were going for a hike around Forest Park. Nick and my son Zach are about the same age. This was in 1997, before I even started working at Powell’s—I know this for sure because we went on this hike with my first wife on the day before we got married. As we were hiking along, I remember Marty just randomly saying to his son, “I love you, Nick.” When I say randomly I mean he said it for no real reason other than to just ANNOUNCE it. His son replied, “I love you, dad.”

And around this time, I too, of course, would tell my son I love him but maybe not as randomly as that. Not as freely as that. I let that display be a lesson to me. I watched and I learned and I absorbed it. I admired that freedom, those random acts and declarations of love. We walked through the woods and threw rocks in the river. We watched our kids pick out walking sticks. We gave them piggyback rides. We held their hands. We were two fathers out in the natural world talking about love out loud. It was unforgettable.



Scott McClanahan: What’s Up With Those Book Covers?

When I discovered the stories of Scott McClanahan last year, I was instantly enthralled with his natural storytelling voice and freaky funny tales. There’s no pretense to Scott’s work. It’s like you’re just dropped right into the middle of these fantastic and true stories. It’s like a sweet blend of my favorite southern writers, Larry Brown and Harry Crews. Reading McClanahan is like listening to a good friend telling you his best real-life stories on your back porch on a humid night. And you both got a nice whiskey buzz going.

And I’m going to take a wild guess and say that’s what this Friday night at Ampersand will be like. Scott makes his first northwest appearance at a special outdoor, back patio reading with Portlanders Patrick deWitt (The Brothers Sisters) and Jenny Forrester (Guns, God, and Irony). It starts at 7:30 and there’s free beer from Ninkasi. A good time and hella-great stories are guaranteed. He’s also reading in Seattle on Saturday night.

But what’s up with those covers?! I didn’t mind the first one but the 2nd and 3rd books from the West Virginian sport the weirdest, goofiest cover images I’ve seen in a while.

I looooove Scott McClanahan like a brother, but I had to have a heart-to-heart with him about those covers and other stuff. Here’s what he had to say…

Mr. McClanahan

I like your first book cover, but I thought the 2nd one was kind of gross. Probably because I have a thing about feet (it’s somewhere between a fetish and an aversion). It took me forever to realize there are six toes on that foot. Where the heck did you get this image and why the heck did you put it on a book cover?

To be honest, I just stole it.   I’m actually in the middle of a lawsuit right now over it.   We have the Holler Presents lawyers working it out.   This is going to be a landmark case though and set a real precedent for people who want to use a foot with six toes on it for a book cover.   I’ll keep you posted.

I decided to use this picture for the cover of Stories II because originally there was a story in the book called “Six Toed Russell.”   It was about a friend of mine who had six toes on both feet.  We used to go into coal miner bars and bet drunken rednecks that Russell had six toes.   There is no better way to get free beer than when your buddy has six toes.   The story “Six Toed Russell” was eventually cut from the book, so I was kind of stuck with the cover.

It’s not a joke or anything.   That image feels like a religious image to me, or like a totem of some sort (I’d throw the other covers into this as well).   There was a group of ancient people here in West Virginia called the mound builders.   The National Geographic Society unearthed one of their burial mounds in the early part of the 20th century and they found the skeleton of a man who stood 8 feet tall (8 and a half in heels).   There was evidence in the tomb that this man had been treated like a king in his lifetime, and then worshipped like a god afterwards.

I think genetic abnormalities pretty much explain all religion when it comes down to it—Shiva, Osiris, etc.

Genetic abnormalities make good book covers.

What’s the deal with the cover of Stories V. I looked at it for a while trying to figure out if there was a joke in there somewhere, like maybe she had three ears or a mustache but I didn’t see either. What kind of creepy sexist bullshit is this, man?

My first response to this question would be, “How do you know it’s a woman?”

We were going for a Myron/Myra Breckenridge vibe.   I’ve always described the individual on the cover as “a person.”   It’s the folks on the blogs who keep bitching about “the woman” on the cover.

The problem was we picked the picture (we had a few to choose from) without a real prominent adam’s apple (instead of picking the one where it was obvious).   We decided to be subtle and being subtle always creates confusion.   You have to bang people over the head with something before they get it.

Of course, you should never underestimate the self righteousness of identity politics or independent literature for that matter.   We live in a world of being ashamed about our secret feelings—our secret lusts, desires, objectifications, prejudices, the nasty little parts of ourselves we don’t want to fess up to having.   We can show scars, but we can’t show our pimples.   There are so many Jerry Falwells out there labeling things, and 90% of the time they don’t even understand the objects they’re labeling.

Covers should confront you, piss you off, and contradict what’s in between their pages.   I say let’s bury good taste once and for all.    

What do you think will be on your next book cover?

I’m starting to like the idea of just a face.   I don’t even like the idea of my name on the book or the title of the book anymore.   I also hate blurbs. I think we should pick books the way we choose our mates.  So I think we should just have covers of our ugly faces.   I’m tired of people hiding behind abstract art covers and “pseudonyms.”  

I write under the name my mommy gave me.   We should publish our books under the face our mother gave us too.

There’s a great cover Grove Press did with the Complete Plays of Joe Orton where it’s just this extreme close-up of Orton’s face.  I like that.

Mr. Gian Ditrapano has some great ideas for the cover of Hill William though, but I’ll hold those cards close to my chest right now.

What are your favorite book covers lately?

The cover for Jamie Iredell’s Book of Freaks is great (and I’m not just saying that because of who is asking the questions).    I love the covers Sam Pink has been doing with his Lazy Fascist Press books.   There’s an energy to those covers that the minimalism of the moment just can’t touch.   Tao Lin’s Richard Yates and Mike Young’s Look! Look! Feathers! are pretty amazing covers too.

We’re living in an age of prog-rock when it comes to covers. We need to punch it in the face. No more paintings of animals! No more line drawings! No more brown! Please!

Nobody is buying these books anyway, so let’s have some fun.

 Are you excited about coming to the northwest?

I couldn’t be more excited   I feel like Lewis and Clark.   I have such a horrible fear of flying that it’s ridiculous though.   I get on a plane a couple of times a year and each time it’s a panic attack.   I’ve tried flying drunk or drugged up, but then it’s just being drunk or drugged up and having a panic attack.

I always hear Buddy Holly’s “True Love Ways” in my head when I fly, or the last line the Holly character from the movie Labamba says, “Don’t worry, Richie.   The sky belongs to the stars.”  

Of course, then they fall from the sky.

I’m getting ready to have a panic attack right now.  Stop thinking about Buddy Holly.   Stop thinking about Buddy Holly. Think Lewis and Clark.  Think Lewis and Clark. Lewis and Clark it is!