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SS: And he probably was not at a Klan rally on River Road in the Thirties.

BV: Most certainly not. Which is another thing that I think fueled the controversy — just the idea, the hint, that he could have been was just so offensive to people. Really he’s a heroic figure that looms above all that at the end of the story.

SS: And in “Tuscaloosa Knights,” it turns out he’s not there, of course. From what I understand, he wanted to be the coach to integrate the Southeastern Conference.

BV: He tried to integrate the University of Kentucky in 1954. He was the head coach, but he was not the athletic director. His equivalent in basketball would have been Adolph Rupp — he was the basketball coach and was also the athletic director, and he prevented Bryant from integrating the team in 1954.

Let’s be realistic: What Bryant wanted was not equality for all men. He wanted a winning team, but I think meritocracy was what he really believed in. He might not have been a civil rights — he wasn’t pure, by any means, but maybe even beyond a Sixties notion of civil rights. He believed in meritocracy, for anyone. For whatever reason, he left Kentucky. Many people believe it was over that issue. It probably wasn’t over that single issue, but it was certainly over the idea that he had a boss, that Adolph Rupp was the athletic director and the athletic director was his boss. He said he would never take another job where he wasn’t also the athletic director. And the reason he went to Texas A&M after that was because they agreed to give him a five-year contract and let him be athletic director, after which he had a whole new set of problems. It was an ROTC school — integration wasn’t even up for grabs at that point. And by the time he came to Alabama, he was so famous.

But guess who was governor? Now George Wallace is his boss. There’s all these pictures of them glad-handing, you know, and mugging for the cameras. But the real truth of the matter is he blamed the loss of the, I believe, 1964 championship on Wallace. He thought the poll writers denied it to him to punish the state of Alabama. He hated Wallace. He thought Wallace reflected poorly on the state, and at the cost of his own personal reputation. The glory and accolades that he could be receiving were being impeded by the segregationist policies of the state. This doesn’t quite explain why the University of Alabama integrated so late, and I think it’s some kind of a tragedy that he didn’t facilitate integration earlier.

SS: The place where you grew up seems to be as big an influence on your book as anything else.

BV: I wanted to write a book — and I’m not comparing myself to these people — but like James Joyce’s Dubliners or something like that. He’s really just a hometown boy, if you really think about it that way. But he has this international prestige. And I guess I wasn’t very proud of Tuscaloosa growing up. I was in the backwater, I was surrounded by all this red mud, I was surrounded by these hillbillies.

Then I read Barry Hannah’s Ray and everything changed. I was like, “Here’s this guy who sees all this magic and wonder in this town, but did I just miss it?” There’s Doctor Ray in contemporary Tuscaloosa, and then you’ve got the Civil War characters, and then the soldiers under Hernando De Soto exploring the Tuscaloosa area and all of them exist at the same time. You’ve got these three layers of history all on top of each other, this anachronistic archaeology. Could I do something that inventive? Could I bring that kind of insight and weirdness to a place that I had thought was boring before? And then you start thinking, well, what’s Faulkner doing? What’s Joyce doing? Really, they’re writing about their hometowns. And so I wanted to write a book that emulated those kind of writers, that — again, I said the Southern gothic seems mutually exclusive to postmodernism. I guess that’s what I wanted to do. To write what I call “regional postmodernism.”

I think my techniques are the techniques of Stoppard. They’re pretty studied techniques. I think Barry Hannah’s a very original writer, but it just kind of pours out of him, and Padgett Powell’s this linguistic genius — his version of postmodern regionalism, this whole kind of sideways syntax that he has that probably comes from studying Latin. Really, he writes these Latinate periodic syntaxes and such, and that’s how he makes South Carolina or Florida very original and weird. You’ve got rednecks talking in periodic sentences. With my limited skills, what I tried to do is: Here’s Stoppard, here’s Guy Davenport, here’s Don DeLillo. And he’s not very regional at all. DeLilo is the opposite of regional. He’s run from his Italian, New York upbringing. Underworld is the only place where he tried to do anything autobiographical. I thought that if I could somehow meld these worlds, study the techniques of these postmodernists and write about my hometown in some way that would make up for my lack of Hannah-esque vision and talent, the undeniable talent that those guys have, just kind of tour-de-force.

SS: You’ve made some cryptic statements that you weren’t planning on working on anything anytime soon.

BV: I don’t have anything to say. I’m utterly speechless at the events that have transpired. And I don’t have a clear way of focusing my ambition. What the future holds for me is very much a question mark right now. I can only assume that once I move to Europe, and move to Bohemia, which is like moving to a metaphor, that at some point I’ll move there, I’ll settle down, and I’ll get into a routine. Somewhere in there. writing will start occurring again. I think if I do write again, it will be a novel. I can only make it in the academic world as a short-story writer, the same way that poets only make it in the academic world. In some ways I think now more than ever, having been damaged by universities, I need to strive to be independent of them.

SS: How long do you plan to be over there?

BV: Until something better comes along. I’m keeping my house in Mississippi. I will be home months at a time, every year. My mother lives in Tuscaloosa, and I’m actually closer to my family’s farm in Starkville than I was in Tuscaloosa, so that will always be home base. Where I go from there is uncharted. It’s very possible that family obligations will require me to come back, and that will be okay.

SS: Ever kill a chickensnake?

BV: Just like it happened in the book. That was the autobiographical part of that story. I chopped off its head with a hoe, and my cousin squeezed out the fledglings it had just eaten. At the time, it was just another day on the farm — a pretty cool day, no doubt — it wasn’t an important day, a day I would write about.



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