From his first novel, The Gospel Singer, published in 1968, to his most recent work, Celebration, published in 1998, Southern gothic writer Harry Crews has developed a cultish following of readers who admire his hard-living, hard-drinking lifestyle and his violent, freakish characters. This fascination he inspires has motivated many, from former students to journalists, to interview the writer, who confesses, “I want to be vulnerable. I want to be naked. I want to be right out there and just let it all hang out.”
In Getting Naked With Harry Crews, Eric Bledsoe, a Crews admirer and professor at the University of Tennessee, has collected 26 interviews conducted between 1972 and 1998. No biography has been written about Crews, and only one of his books, A Childhood: The Biography of a Place (which many consider to be his best work, though it’s long been out of print), is an autobiography—and it covers only the first seven years of his life.
In these interviews, Crews is ballsy, holding nothing back. To one critic, who called a novel—the first he wrote after a 10-year drinking binge—a “repellent little book,” Crews spewed, “I’m going to have to tear that guy’s head off and puke down his lungs.” When he turns the same gaze inward, he becomes almost embarrassingly honest: “My personal life is, and has been, as long as I can remember, a shambles.” He captivates reader and listener alike with his tales of bar fights, knife wounds, motorcycle accidents, his divorce, tattoos, and mohawk. He shamefully recalls the night when he punished his son by making him stand outside in the pouring rain while he fell asleep drunk, again.
One journalist walks into Crews’s beer-can-strewn living room to find a female grad student languishing on the couch and a naked Crews barely stirring after a night of bingeing—their appointment all but forgotten. In many of Crews’s novels—A Feast of Snakes, Naked in Garden Hills, and Scar Lover—the characters experience a similar unbridled chaos within their lives. In a final, previously unpublished interview, Bledsoe asks whether Crews’s rough-and-tumble legend will overshadow his writing accomplishments. Crews admits that people seem to be more interested in talking about his life than his work. He says he only concerns himself with the difficult task of writing and the rush that occurs when he’s finished a manuscript: “Before me, this was not. Because of me, this is.”