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SS: That’s interesting. So was it a group decision to remove most of those epigraphs, since they give a better clue to what you’re doing in terms of directly referencing original source material, particular in “Tuscaloosa Knights?”

BV: No, it was a commercial/aesthetic decision on my part to remove most of them. So I ordered it.

SS: I understand the compulsion — you don’t want your book to look so academic that no one buys it.

BV: It just looked so egg-headed to me. A teacher of mine said, “Well, postmodernism doesn’t sell, and this looks postmodern so people are going to be alienated by it.” So I removed all the epigraphs except the two that go before the title story. And that was the submission to Georgia Press, and when I was being edited by them they asked me to remove the other two, and so I thought, “Oh, I did the right thing by removing all those epigraphs.” The epigraphs were never intended to deter accusations of plagiary, they were only intended to be a rubric for the reader. And so by removing them I did not recognize that I was opening myself up to this kind of cynical reading of the story.

SS: I think they’re functional — they work as clues, opening up new aspects of the stories. Though I don’t think I would’ve gotten what you were doing if I didn’t know this story from the controversy.

BV: I was asked by another interviewer, “How many people did you expect to ‘get it’?” And I don’t have an answer for that question. I don’t know what proportion of the population would “get it.” I just thought that if you did get it, you would like it, as opposed to not liking it. I knew that the book was the source for the legend on every license plate in Alabama. It was the source for the hit song in 1934. The book was a best-seller in nonfiction and inspired the hit song. Many more people know the song than know the book, but I thought that this was a fairly large cultural artifact. I bet there are a lot more people in Alabama who have the book on their shelves than have actually read it, but it’s sitting there. And then I thought, of all those people, a small proportion of those people would get it and they would like it. It was shocking that someone would get it and then read it in this really cynical way.

I taught Huckleberry Finn this past semester, and there are two models of literacy in there. There’s Mrs. Watson, who’s teaching Huck how to spell, and she’s threatening him with hellfire every time he does something wrong. And the other model of literacy is Tom Sawyer, who’s this incredibly well-read, precocious brat, and he fabricates these incredible hoaxes using Don Quixote or ... he calls them “the authorities” “Oh, you can’t be a robber like that, ‘the authorities’ tell you you have to be a robber like this...” And it’s hysterical, because he’s telling you there are rules for being an outlaw, and you’re breaking the rules for being an outlaw. So perhaps that’s my relationship to the Tuscaloosa librarian who started all of this. And Twain ridicules both equally.

SS: You talked about Guy Davenport’s “The Haile Selassie Funeral Train.” What exactly happens in that story?

BV: Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia, is dead, and he’s in the back of a literal train, a cargo train, in which mourners are present, and these mourners are famous modernists from all over the globe — James Joyce and Mallarmé, for instance. And anonymous mourners, too, from China, ambassadors — “field marshals from China,’ I think he says. People from all over the world are on the train to mourn the death of Haile Selassie, and then they go around the world, so it’s almost magical realism and to me very much works in the same way that the Sgt. Pepper album cover works. That’s why I added Sgt. Pepper as a kind of rubric for how that story should be read. It’s a classic example of postmodernism that’s used in postmodern anthologies a lot. So I thought the next step would be to make it not a literal train but some kind of digital re-creation.

SS: With Bear Bryant.

BV: Yeah, with Bear Bryant as Haile Selassie. I think that’s a fair comparison — those guys probably reach about the same number of worldwide followers. In no small part I think this controversy was fueled by the fact that I was messing with the Bear, that I was messing with a very holy person. But what they don’t understand is how much I admire and respect him — not so much that he was the greatest football coach but that he was a self-mythologizer. He was mythic because he made himself mythic.

Somebody asked what was my favorite comic of all time, because I write about comics in the intro to the book. And that’s far and away Batman, because he doesn’t have these supernatural powers. Batman’s just this dude with this incredible will power. And he “becomes the bat.” It’s his metaphor. He conquers his fear of bats, and conquering that fear becomes the power by which he fights crime. Bear Bryant is exactly the same kind of person. He’s a self-overcomer. Some call him a redneck Nietzsche, and he is: He’s pure will to power. Wrestling a bear as a youth and overcoming that — he used that to mythologize himself. He’s from Fordyce, Arkansas, and when he was 13 years old he wrestled a bear at a theater and that’s how he got the name. He was evidently over six feet tall when he was 13. He was incredibly poor.

And again, I’m really not making fun of him. I’m making fun of the fans a little bit, but I have pure admiration for him. It’s kind of the difference between the way people blow things out of proportion and what’s really there. What’s really there is he was a remarkable person who had vision and dreams and thought he was ... he made himself in a kind of Ben Franklin way. He was a self-shaper, he was a personality sculptor. He was even going to be a movie star at one point — he did a screen test with Lana Turner. He was an assistant coach at Alabama, and the team had gone to the Rose Bowl again. On his way to Pasadena, he stopped off and somebody had gotten him a screen test. Of course, the world of celebrity sports and the world of celebrity Hollywood is always intermingling. And he had a model in that one of the most famous cowboys at the time, Johnny McBrown — who was a matinee-movie cowboy like Tom Mix, Autry, and those — had been a football player at Alabama, had gone to the Rose Bowl, had gotten a screen test and had become a movie star. Bryant saw that. He saw that and he said, “Hey, that is a possibility.” Somebody told him his accent would hold him back, that his drawl was too strong for him to be a movie star. He felt, “This movie star world, I don’t understand that. But butthead football, mean mean football, I understand that.” He knew that he could master that in a way that he just couldn’t master Hollywood.


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