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SS: There are definitely moments in the book where that’s going on, and I immediately think of the first story, “Stalin” — and the title story in the end — where you have all this talk of the father reading Khrushchev’s memoirs. The last story was particularly good in that respect. But that leads me to this: What is — or who is — Bear Bryant?

BV: Well, I guess what he is is an icon, and who he is is a mystery, maybe. For those who didn’t grow up in Alabama, or who weren’t alive in the Sixties, Seventies or Eighties, he was a national figure who would be as recognized as anyone who’s in a tabloid today. In fact, he was so beloved by this state that, in my opinion — and from what I’ve researched — he probably had the largest American funeral ever. It was certainly larger than the funerals for Elvis or Martin Luther King. Somewhere between 250,000 and a half-million people lined the streets between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham to send this man off to the netherworld. A distance of 60 miles. There’s tremendous psychic power attached to this person and his name, and his legend. That may be a little lost on a lot of us now. I guess what I did in the book is project a future in which he’s more important than he is even now. And the same thing could be said about many messiahs. I’m certain Jesus had more followers in 1000 AD than he did 40 years after his death. And the title “The Bear Bryant Funeral Train” is a play off of a Guy Davenport story, “The Haile Selassie Funeral Train.” Selassie is of course the messianic figure for the Rastafarian religion, and whom a very small portion of the global population believes was a messiah. And I kind of feel it’s the same case for Bear Bryant: We are a very small portion of the population that believes he was somehow divine, almost. So I was trying to play with those ideas of myth and cult of personality.

SS: There’s a little bit of a joke in that, but there’s also a healthy dose of sincerity. Can you parse the two, or is it not possible?

BV: It would seem that they are mutually exclusive, but I think the book is dedicated to making paradoxes live together in harmony. I think the controversy arose partly because of the fact that I love Southern gothic realism. I also love ironic international postmodernism. It would seem that those aesthetics would constitute a paradox or be mutually exclusive, but it was my goal here to make sure that they weren’t. And to me, looking at things ironically and objectively means looking at them sincerely, and not sentimentally. There’s something kind of crazy about Bear Bryant, you know? He was a scary person, too. He was just such a hard taskmaster. The book is filled with father figures, and he is the ultimate father figure for Tuscaloosa. And I both loved and revered my own father and was also afraid of him. I think we feel that way — we have ambivalent relationships to father figures like that.

SS: You’re father actually was a principal.

BV: He was in fact a principal at Walker elementary. The first story in the book is a very autobiographical story at least in that father-son relationship. The rest of it not so much. When I was growing up, he was mainly a high-school teacher, but he started and ended as a principal.

SS: What drove you into writing in the first place?

BV: I’ve just never wanted to do anything else. I’ve never had a desire to pursue any other activity or leisure. I would like to be a musician, and I played in bands as a kid, but at 15 I hit a wall with the guitar. I realized, you know, I don’t have a facility for this.

SS: Were you in bands in high school?

BV: We would just get together and jam.

SS: You never did the punk-rock putting out records kind of thing?

BV: No, I never put out any records. I think I played one show in my entire life where other people came to see us. The thing that stopped me was that you could teach me songs, but I couldn’t learn songs. I couldn’t sit down with a record and figure it out, and I couldn’t play a solo or anything complicated. I had no ability to play any way other than very mechanically: these three chords, these three chords, this bridge, that kind of thing. And that became disappointing. Like I said before, I find the celebrity culture surrounding film so ridiculous that I never wanted to be a part of that in any way. And I was a good student, so it was really easy to stay in school and write. That seemed like a natural course for me to take. I grew up on the campus of the University of Alabama. Even as a kid I was going to see shows at Foster Auditorium in Tuscaloosa. I was a college kid at 15, and then I was actually a college kid and then I was still myself and I felt like, well, I still need to be in college. And here I am: I’m 33 and I’m still in college. That’s how I’ve seen my entire academic career. I want to be on a college campus, I want to be around young people.

SS: I’ve read that when the whole controversy erupted, your immediate instinct was to apologize.

BV: Yes.

SS: But then later on some of your Yankee friends said, “Oh no, you shouldn’t have done that.”

BV: Yeah. “Take ’em to court! Get a lawyer!” Coming from polite culture, you think that there’s no situation that cannot be resolved through politeness. That’s the South. What you find is that in a larger political world — a world that is driven by some kind of political engine — your manners turn you into a victim. I feel like that a little bit: If I were meaner and smarter, I would have saved some trouble. But on the whole, considering that Georgia Press did what they did, this has come out about as well as it could have.

SS: How is this version of the book different?

BV: The stories are ordered in a radically different way. And there are epigraphs in the new book — none of those epigraphs are in the old one, just the stories themselves. So “Tuscaloosa Knights,” the most controversial story, was the first story in the old version, so it’s the first thing you would’ve seen.

SS: And there was no epigraph from Carmer?

BV: None. And I’m sure the Tuscaloosa librarian probably read the first four pages and threw it down. That was likely all it took to start this campaign.


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