Sunday, January 29, 2012

Barrett Hathcock: Class of ...

Posted By on Sun, Jan 29, 2012 at 11:05 AM

Barrett Hathcock grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and went to Rhodes College. After receiving his MFA at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he moved to Birmingham and taught at Samford before returning to Memphis and to Rhodes to teach in the school's English Department. Today, he writes for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital's charity arm, ALSAC. Outside of work, Hathcock and his wife and family enjoy living in Harbor Town, north of downtown Memphis. And does this read as a class note, the kind you see in college alumni magazines?

It does, and it's fitting: Hathcock once wrote profiles and class notes for the U of A-Birmingham alumni magazine, and his debut collection of linked short stories, The Portable Son (Aqueous Books), which was briefly covered in the Flyer a few weeks back, reads as a reaction to the class-note blueprint, with Hathcock's central character, Peter Traxler, doing the reacting to two central questions: What the hell happened? And what the hell am I doing?

"It isn't straight-up journalism, and it isn't public relations," Hathcock said of writing those class notes. He was talking by phone the week The Portable Son appeared in print, on Amazon, and on store shelves. "But it was good work, good training."

And a good way to study how we as adults present ourselves to the world?
Barrett Hathcock: Those class notes can be vicious little things. You know, "We just had our eighth child." "John's a partner at "... whatever. "Sally's finished her residency." I started thinking: How do people understand their lives, explain themselves, account for themselves?

How do you explain that these nine stories, many of which started out independent of one another, ended up linked, with your protagonist, Peter Traxler, the main character?
The oldest story in The Portable Son is "High Cotton," which I wrote back in '98 when I was at Rhodes ... that and "Timber Walking" and "Nightswimming," which I also wrote in college and revised in grad school or after. I really had no idea how the stories built on one another, that they could be linked. The lead character, Traxler: He only happened in 2008-'09.

Then a friend read the stories and said, "You realize these are about the same central character?"

I don't know why I hadn't noticed that. I was massively blind? The stories all featured the same sensibility, the same personality, but it took somebody to point that out.

You've pointed out in press materials that you're indebted to Hemingway's Nick Adams stories set in northern Michigan.
I've always been fond of linked stories, stories with the same protagonist, but here's the question: how to write stories about growing up in a specific place and make it important, not trivial.

Hemingway in his Nick Adams stories was certainly a model. And another Michigan writer, Stuart Dybek, whose The Coast of Chicago is about growing up and has a strong sense of place.

Peter Taylor and Alice Munro were models too?
Taylor: definitely. As a Southern writer who lived in Memphis, he's a hero of mine. And the society he wrote about, the upper-class society of Southern manners as opposed to Flannery O'Connor's or Barry Hannah's outcasts, interests me too. But it's the way that Taylor wrote as well: He has a Southern-raconteur, storyteller voice ... leisurely, like a relative regaling you with tales that are long, complicated.

I knew of Peter Taylor, of course, as an undergraduate, but I didn't read him until after college. And when I read his story "The Old Forest," I was amazed I hadn't read it, because there it is, taking place in Overton Park across the street from Rhodes. I couldn't believe I'd missed it.

And then there's Alice Munro. Like Hemingway in the Nick Adams stories, Munro's taking one section of North America and claiming it. And she's finding new ways to tell stories. Her more recent stories are weird, dense, but I admire her commitment. It's something to strive for.

In college, I also read a collection of stories by Rick Bass, who lived in Mississippi for a time ... stories set in Jackson. And I thought, How can he do this? That's where I grew up! Those stories were, for me, pivotal.

And Richard Ford. I don't want to say anything about Richard Ford. He'd kick my ass. But here's another guy from Jackson writing great stories: The prose isn't Hemingway ... spare and cut down and fragmentary. And it's not so accelerated, like some Joycean explosion. It's in the middle there. It's how people think and talk.

Your character Peter Traxler: What do you think of him? Who is he?
I'm working on a novel now, a sequel to The Portable Son, in which Peter and his artist girlfriend get back together. Peter's mother is getting remarried, Peter returns home, and the novel takes place over one weekend.

But I'm finding that Peter for some reason becomes incredibly unlikable in this novel. I don't know if he's unlikable in The Portable Son, but I've gotta figure out how to deal with it, that criticism. In books that I like, the characters often aren't likable ... in that you maybe wouldn't want them over for dinner. But they're interesting. You want to read about them.

Some writers talk about how they understand everything their characters do. Other writers talk about it being some kind of mystic possession thing: The characters speak through them. I'm between those extremes. But ultimately, I don't quite understand my characters, and maybe that's why I keep coming back to them, to some unsolved mystery about them.


For those who missed Barrett Hathcock reading from and signing The Portable Son in January at Burke's, he'll be doing it again and this time on his hometown turf at Lemuria books in Jackson, Mississippi, on Saturday, February 4th, at 1 p.m.

For more on Barrett Hathcock, check out his website,

And one more thing. Hathcock once worked for the Memphis Flyer's sister publication, Memphis magazine. What the hell was he doing? The writer explains:

"I had an internship at Memphis magazine my last semester at Rhodes — winter 2000," Hathcock recalled. "I had to update the magazine's dining listings. I'd call restaurants to figure out if they were wheelchair-accessible and what kind of beer they served. For some reason, those were questions hard to get a straight answer to. Plus, the office was so cold. But I have fond memories of freezing my ass off."

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