A former reporter with the New York Times and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Rick Bragg is the author of the bestselling memoirs “All Over But the Shoutin' ” and “Ava's Man.” His new book, “The Prince of Frogtown,” is about becoming a father to his stepson, Jake, and rediscovering the life of his own father, a violent alcoholic who drank himself to death when Bragg was still a boy. Rick will read from the book at noon, Friday, April 17, at the Darragh Center at the CALS Main Library. We spoke to him via phone from his home in Alabama.
AT: I just finished reading “The Prince of Frogtown,” and I've got to tell you. I think it's the best damn book you've ever written.
RB: Why thank you. That one was hard, brother. It was hard. But I know that because I sweated over it for five years, I was proud of it when it came out. You know how it is when you stare at something for so long, you can't really see it objectively? I was more relieved than I was happy when I got it done, but people have just responded to it so well.
AT: The book is about your father, of course. He made appearances in “Ava's Man” and “All Over But the Shoutin' ” but I got the sense from those books that you thought he was a man who had wasted his life. Do you still feel like he wasted his life?
RB: I'm not bullshitting you: That's probably the best question I've been asked. A lot of people have asked me if I feel differently about him, but no one has asked me how he felt. What happened was this: I knew as I was reporting this thing that I couldn't make it too complicated. All I really wanted to know was one good story about my Daddy. In “All Over But the Shoutin',” he had been kind of the one-dimensional demon. I just knew there was more to him. There has to be more to him that that. I didn't want to get old and die and not have anything said about him. So I went from house to house — I mean, sometimes people who I had never met — and I knocked on the door and I said, “Tell me one good story about my daddy.” It took years. It took years to finally to land on the half dozen people who were willing to tell me good stories about my dad. I knew the bad stories. I knew just about all of them. Of course, what happens is that you get bad stories too, and you can't ignore them. I got some really dark stories about daddy, but I also got stories from people who believed my Daddy had tremendous value on this planet, as a best friend or as a playmate. I even found a different man where my mother was concerned. I think what happened was this: He did feel that he had wasted his life; that he had no value; that as he drank himself to death, it was just as good that he erase himself. But other people did think that he had value. I guess that's why it was so hard to do. That's not exactly easy stuff to think about. More than anything, I got people to say, let me tell you what your Daddy did in 1945. I'm very grateful to those people.
AT: In the book, there's a passage where you track down an old friend of your Dad's and you ask about what made your father an alcoholic — if it might have been his experiences during the Korean War. The old guy says: “No, some people are just born on that train.” Are some people just doomed, you think?
RB: I think if you have it in your genes, you're inclined [to be an alcoholic]. Certainly there's enough evidence in my own family that yeah, you can be doomed — predestined for it. But I've always believed that a man ought to be stronger than something that small. Then again, my wife tells me I ought to be stronger than a three-piece dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken. Everybody has got their weaknesses, and everybody has got their failings. But I've always believed that a 6-foot-two-inch man ought to be strong enough to put the cork in the bottle.
AT: The book is structured so that you get these stories about your dad, and then you get interludes about the relationship between you and your stepson, Jake. I couldn't help but see some anxiety on your part in having the book put together that way.
RB: There's always the fear that A) you'll run away, or B) you'll just come to pieces. But it doesn't have to be that way. My boy, Jake, is a big part of the reason why we [wrote the book]. There was rarely a time when I got him, when he was about 10, that I didn't think about my dad. It is funny how those two would be tied together in that way.
AT: I've read in some interviews that you've done where you said that this is the last book you're writing about your family. Are you going to stick to that?
RB: I think what we're gonna do is this: We've got one more non-fiction book; a little book of essays about cotton-mill people. A lot of the people who I kinda touched on in this book, I'm going to develop their stories just a bit more — kind of a poor-man's “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.” Then I'm going to do a novel for Knopf. You get tired of always seeing the good guys lose — the good guys suffer and the good guys fail and the good guys lose their jobs. In a novel, you've got the power to do otherwise. It'll be based on the same people, though, the people of the foothills of the Appalachians.
AT: Have you started work on the novel?
RB: Yeah, I'm supposed to be well along on it. I hope they don't find out I ain't (laughs). Nah, I'm working on it, but I really need to crack down on it.
AT: How is it working on the fiction versus the non-fiction?
RB: I don't know. I'm not far enough along to know. I do know this: that the problem with nonfiction is that you're going to defend even the smallest points. If you describe the fence, you're going to have to defend your description of the fence. The worst thing, though, is that the people you love are going to come to you, and they're going to decide: either you have done them a service or some kind, or you have done them an injustice. In three books I've written about family, I think the injustices have been small — at least that's what my people tell me. But there's that fear that you're gonna be clumsy; that you're going to hurt somebody without meaning to hurt them by telling an awful story. That vanishes with fiction. It's like having this great weight lifted off your shoulders. If somebody does come to you and says, “Was that me?” You can say, “No! Of course not!” There's this great freedom.
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