Barry Hannah—novelist, award-winning short story writer, gun and motorcycle enthusiast—died on March 1 of this year. Hannah’s inaugural collection, Airships, made him an icon; his gymnastic sentences established him as a kind of literary acrobat. In 2005, he was the Endowed Chair at the Texas State MFA program, a time that unfortunately coincided with his battle against cancer. Below, his students remember him as a writer, a crazy person, and a teacher.
The man loved to scandalize and delight, which made him the best kind of old man and the best kind of writer. He told a vulgar story about Katherine Anne Porter in front of her grandchildren at a reading. After I heard him read “Mother Mouth” I went into the bathroom and cried. I still believe it is one of the most perfect short stories ever written.
Months before our workshop with Barry Hannah began, I read his collection Airships and was blown away: the energy, the craziness, the utter beauty and weight of his sentences. His non-writing reputation preceded him, too. Stories—likely inflated but still riveting—circulated through the program: Hannah bringing a gun to workshop (as a teaching tool, no less); Hannah on his lawn, shooting arrows into his front door while students arrived for a potluck.
And so the man himself came as a surprise—not his lack of pretension—but his manners, his charm. The classroom felt relaxed and filled with goodwill. As a teacher, throughout the semester, he was normally kind in his critique and willing to shush us if we, the students, became too unkind.
He also surprised me in his tastes. I had assumed that the author of “Coming Close to Donna” (which ends with the narrator using a tombstone to smash in the head of a naked woman) would have a fairly liberal tolerance for bad things happening in fiction. However, Barry had no patience for certain things. His primary response to one of my own stories, which hinged around an act of dog violence, was that my characters were all “retarded sociopaths.” (I did come to see this remark as a compliment, given the source, even if it wasn’t intended as such.)
At times, he seemed perplexed by stories written by women about women; he would simply ask one of the women in the class what they thought. But as a teacher, he was invested in a way that the best teachers are. When you add in the fact that his temporary move to Texas coincided with the recurrence of his cancer, I will forever admire him for how seriously he took his job of teaching us. Often he came straight from treatment, IV tape still on his hand. He even taught us hours after finding out his friend Larry Brown had died.
Barry Hannah was tough. He was kind. I was lucky to have the chance to learn from him. And most of all, he is goddamn excellent writer.
Barry Hannah was an incredible writer with a wild wit, a kind eye and fearless passion for the written word. I was lucky enough to study with him while earning my MFA at Texas State University. He was an influence and an encouragement for me and many of my friends.
He saw guns as gifts.
He adored Bob Dylan’s lyrics.
He hated to see dogs hurt, even in fiction.
He wasn’t so sure about God, but he sure as hell believed in Jesus.
Lies and truths, wisdom and slurs, all swirled in that man. Sometimes he scared the shit of me. Other times he had eyes kinder than dew drops.
I liked him. I admired him.
I wish I had known him more. He wrote sentence as if his fingers were burning.
I met Barry Hannah in an MFA writing workshop at Texas State University, San Marcos, where he had taken the position of the richly endowed Mitte chair for the year. I’d just finished Geronimo Rex, his first novel: a sloppy, crazed, richly hued coming-of-age story. And I, like many of my peers, was in a state of worshipful terror when he walked into class that first day. I’d heard the stories: that he was an inspired teacher to masterful writers, such as Larry Brown and Donna Tartt; that he was a heavy drinker, and a gun and motorcycle aficionado; that he’d once pointed a loaded gun at a student’s head.
“Well, I’m Barry Hannah,” he said, as if the introduction were needed. He then calmly proceeded to ask each of us a question.
“Do you write family stories?” he asked the big-eyed Texas blonde sitting next to me.
“A… no,” she said.
We would find out later that she did write about “family matters”: inappropriate pregnancies, lost dogs, Thanksgiving dinners. She took his question as an insult, but I don’t believe it was one. In his first five minutes in our company, Barry simply looked harder at us than we’d ever dared to look at ourselves.
“So, are you Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson?” he asked me when it was my turn. I realized with a jolt that this question haunted my writing mind, and that it was often responsible for my intrepid, useless revisions.
“I’m both,” I said, “at different times.”
“And who are you right now?”
“Currently, or right this minute?”
“Right this minute.”
“Emily Dickinson.” There was no doubt: “What I can do – I will – / Though it be as little as a Daffodil – / That I cannot – must be / unknown to possibility –”.
His honesty could feel cruel. I told him once, while drunk and panicked about whether to drop out of the program, that he was my savior, the reason I was staying. “I’m not your savior, dear.” He was right, of course. But he had a way of making people believe he could save them—like a Revival Preacher. He didn’t have the answers but made us feel they were very near.
The thing was, Barry made every moment so grand, so beautiful, so felt, that you never wanted to feel otherwise again. One late night he called and asked me to meet him at a Diamond Shamrock. A couple of guys in doo rags were praising his well-shined motorcycle, and Barry in his leather jacket, shirt unbuttoned near to his belly-button, was playing the part he understood they wanted him to play.
“Hey babe,” he said, and pecked me on the check. As if to communicate to the boys, yes, this is my twenty-four-year-old lady, and soon we’ll be doing 90 on the highway, fucking wildly in the woods, telling each other things we’ve never told anyone. A good story, maybe. Except that at that moment in my life I was a very “good girl,” and Barry had no intention of doing any of these things with me. He wanted to talk about art.
We ate at his favorite Mexican restaurant, got drunk, went home to play with his dog and listen to Roy Orbison at full hilt. In dreams I dream of you… Big, slow tears came from his small prairie-dog eyes, then from mine. We’d let Roy take us there.
“You’ve got everything you need,” he assured me when I pressured him for advice about plot, characterization, language. He flicked my questions away like gnats. “You just need to be more brave.” Bravery was all. Do nothing, if not large. Do it as if living, fucking, writing, loving were religions. Acknowledge that bravery borders on idiocy; acknowledge that hypocrisy rules; acknowledge that you will always fail in your endeavors. But make failure look spectacular.
He had his own failures: he admitted his drinking problem, his bouts of rage. Said he’d never be as good as Faulkner, that shit (I disagreed). He admitted to being a misogynist, though he apologized very politely for the fact. At one of the evening readings, he came in a Hawaiian shirt—in a nauseating shade of yellow—thrown over a striped brown jersey. I had never seen him dress this way. He was usually in his motorcycle get-up or his professor’s: khakis and Oxford button-down. He told me afterward that his ink pen had exploded in the pocket of his pressed white shirt just before the reading. When you fail, fail spectacularly.
We knew his cancer had come back at the start of the term. He had been undergoing chemo. He was tired often, but he missed class only once. Even after a trip to the ICU, he stayed on.
He gave generously to his students, even if what he gave us was not what we wanted. He was secretly and sometimes lavishly kind. He was sensitive—wired like a sea urchin. He loved most of us but would snap like a starving alligator when we tried to love him back.
He wore a necklace on his motorcycle jacket nights: Saint Christopher carrying a child across a furious river. I believe now that this was a motivating vision for Barry: He was just that saint. He was that river too.