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'I need to encounter new things and places and ideas'

A conversation with Hal Crowther

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Hal Crowther gets around. The son of parents from the American South, Crowther was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1945. His father was a naval officer. After attending Williams College and Columbia University, Crowther began writing for Time magazine in 1967 at the age of 22.

Since then, Crowther, who now calls Hillsborough home, has traveled to every continent but Australia and Antarctica, chronicling world events as a journalist and as a columnist, insights delivered with an incisive punch few writers rival. That peripatetic essence, perhaps a relic of his father's employment, is a spirit central to Crowther's best work: He writes from a world-savvy pen and with the steady axiom that Place X--be it New York, North Carolina or England--isn't the world.

In part, those same qualities prompted his work's popularity--particularly his writing in TheSpectator in Raleigh, for which he served as executive editor from 1984 until 1989, the Independent and The Oxford American. Previously, he has won the Baltimore Sun's H.L. Mencken Writing Award and the Association of Alternative Newsweekies' top prize for commentary. His latest collection, Gather at the River: Notes from the Post-Millennial South, is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism. His five fellow finalists include William Logan and John Updike. Crowther is now working on a collection of essays on memorable, deceased Americans called Remember Me, as well as a longer project on the loss of American innocence entitled Babe in the Woods.

"The way I look at it, three things can happen: I can lose to John Updike, which isn't bad; I can lose with John Updike, which is pretty good company; or I can beat John Updike, which, well ..." says Crowther from Fernandina Beach, Fla., where he has been with wife, novelist and N.C. State writing teacher Lee Smith, since he recently served as a panelist on the Key West Literary Seminar, discussing his recent trip to Cuba.

 

Independent Weekly: I suppose it feels good to receive this award nod?

Hal Crowther: It's been a long time. I've had a few awards and things over the years, but still I've had a very hard time being published in places like TheNew York Times and TheNew Yorker. I've kind of come to think that Southerners are definitely prejudiced against as far as publishing. I didn't look through the other finalists carefully, but I might be--I'm pretty sure I am--the only one from or writing about the South. I mean, it's very nice to get a pat on the back, but there has also been a lot of frustration over the years. I worked in New York for 10 years, and now those people say "What are you doing down there in the South?" as if I made some kind of attempt to be a missionary to the pygmies.

As a writer who's 22, there is still a good deal of pressure to move to New York, as if that's the only place someone can be successful. Do you still see that?

Wow, it sure would be good to start over at 22.

Really? Why's that?

You get to understand people better and what they're up to. Like with people you seek out in the mating dance and people you try to understand, you wouldn't waste as much time. You start thinking that you have lots and lots of time, yet it becomes more important when you realize you don't.

Are there any decisions you particularly regret or value in that way?

I'm glad I moved back to North Carolina. I didn't much care for New York or L.A., but I went there because I started climbing the ladder and getting better jobs and making more money, and I ended up in a lot of places I didn't really feel comfortable. But, as for the pressure, it is there. ... But with all the new different publications, I'm not sure it's important to be in New York for music magazines as it is for newspapers. In New York, there is a group of critics and writers and publishers that all have lunch with each other, and they decide so much. It's really these New Yorkers that are the most provincial people in America. I think they have a very narrow view of the world and just don't understand anything else.

Why is that?

The fact that they're all reviewing each other and congratulating each other on their own work. ... They're all friends and all part of this group which I hadn't quite understood. Really, they're writing to top each other and to amuse each other, and that's not necessarily a good idea. I pay more attention to writers who go their own way, and that's just my own critical prejudice. In Gather at the River, I wrote about James Still, who just sat up on a creek in Kentucky and wrote some wonderful things, really. His reputation suffered but his work didn't, which is more important for me.

You don't really sit on a creek in Kentucky. You travel a lot, and that is communicated in your books. Is that essential for your writing?

My wife is a creative writer and a novelist, and she can sit in a room by herself and make up all these worlds and characters in her head. She travels for pleasure, but she doesn't travel because she needs to do it. I do need to travel. It's my impulse, and it's journalistic. I'm a reactive writer, and I need to encounter new things and places and ideas to keep it flowing.

Speaking of travel, how did you get access to Cuba?

We did it through a group I participate in with the faculty of the Key West Literary Seminar. My wife and I have gone several times. The writers who were involved, including former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, had a special deal to go to Cuba set up by the people who run the literary seminars. You can get in with some restrictions. We flew right in from Miami and back again, but part of the deal was I had to go around and distribute over-the-counter drugs to students. We had to go into the schools and hand out these packages to fulfill our humanitarian duties.

In your essay, you use the term "his people" when writing about Castro. How interchangeable is that term and "Cubans?"

These are his people, and he determines their fate and he cares about their fate, even for all of his shortcomings. Everyone with absolute power does some truly ugly things to retain that power. But there is a lot he's tried to do with Cuba, and he's still done remarkable things with education and health care. ... He's devoted to them, and they're a little less devoted to him mainly because they know just across the channel their relatives are living like kings. There is a world of magical wealth just miles away. ... They sympathize with him and have affection for him, but plenty are also wishing he'd die or go away. They know that it will not happen immediately, but eventually a lot of his old-fashioned socialism will be watered down and investment will come in. He's thumbed his nose for years at the U.S., and Cubans hope the U.S. will take a warmer attitude to them when he goes. But if his brother Raul is his successor, it may not happen because he is just as hard-line as his brother. But they think when the Castro line leaves, things will open up and foreign investment will come and socialism will be swept away. They feel that socialism has failed to give them what they all think they deserve.

That's interesting because, in your essay, you write that America's "most depressing moral failure" is its "corporate imperialism." It seems that tradition will only expand when the Castro family cedes power.

It's a threat and a danger, and it's been that way since the 19th century. It doesn't take a lot of American history to know we tried to run Latin America. Our corporations took over whole nations. Cuba is in this situation because we ran it like this crooked corporation. For us to pretend that we invaded Iraq because Saddam Hussein is this dictator is the most hypocritical thing, because we supported hundreds of dictators in Latin America, and we put many of them in power. They were hand-in-glove with our companies. Once Castro is gone, if they're able to and if these businesspeople think Cuba is worth the time, which it likely is--the prospect of offshore oil around Cuba is very promising--companies will be standing in line to get in there.

And that's kind of the American way?

For the last 25 years, at least ever since Reagan, there has been a corporate culture of congratulating ourselves for our conspicuous consumption and for consuming the largest share of the wealth and food and for the lack of the guilty conscience. It's no longer popular to apologize for having too much when others have too little. Really, social and economic Darwinism--this survival of the fittest-- has been official or unofficial policy of the people that set the program of this county for years. People use compassion as a political buzzword. ... Seriously, I think we're going through a bad period. People who call themselves Christians but don't behave like.

 

Do you remember it, and especially the South, as being better?

I'm not so old that I can go back that far, really. But I can go back 30 years or so, and even then the South was a place of small towns or farms. As a Christian, when you lived in such a small society, you and the people in your circle tried to help the guy with a bad crop or whose wife had died or something like that. A lot of people who aren't from the South have moved in, and big corporations have come down here and they've brought jobs, which are good. They've also brought a lot of nomadic people who don't understand the small town principle of helping your neighbor. At the same time, the government is pulling away the money that used to be available to help people, and, again, communities and families aren't as close as they used to be. On two different levels, the idea of Christian charity and supporting your neighbor isn't as strong as it used to be. But that's just my opinion.

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