Harrison: Books deliver ‘great characters’ of history

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 71 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — Some authors will stand before an eager crowd, presenting their written words with deliberate emphasis and measured pauses. The exercise feeds their egos.

Not Bill Harrison.

Instead, he marked the publication of his latest novel, Black August, with a gathering of friends, in a community he’s called home for more than 45 years.

This special event, held recently at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville, was about books and how they feed the intellect and nourish the soul. Harrison celebrated with more than 50 friends of like mind and similar spirit, including family. This was a rare public event for Harrison, who doesn’t speak at writing conferences or do book signings.

Perched on a wooden stool, Harrison told about his favorite New Yorker cartoon, which shows a person at a crossroads signpost offering two choices: “fiery furnace” or “poetry reading.” As he poked fun at literary readings, he was delighted to see the standing-room-only crowd gathered in the bookstore.

Harrison has written a mystery, a very conventional format that is a first for him.

“In this book, as in every other one, the protagonist and the killer have a meeting toward the end of the book that settles the problem,” he said. “It’s not very original, and it’s a wonder that I got it off, even on somebody else’s format. But I’m happy to have it out there after this time.”

A Texas native, Harrison came to Fayetteville in 1964 to teach, and he and the late James Whitehead soon founded the creative writing program at the University of Arkansas. Though retired for 12 years, Harrison proudly bragged that graduates of the program have had 450 books published by New York publishing houses and major university presses.

Now 78, he’s been pretty prolific himself over the years, writing nine novels, three short story collections, two major screenplays, essays and travel pieces.

Harrison wrote the Black August manuscript about five years ago, and it was sitting in a drawer when his editor for his 2005 short-story collection, Texas Heat and Other Stories, asked if he had something new. That was about a year ago. As with Texas Heat, he bypassed the lengthy process of trying to go through a New York publishing house and had Black August published by Texas Review Press. He’s also rewriting a screenplay based on Texas Heat.

Harrison’s favorite novelist is Alan Furst, who writes historical spy novels set amidst Nazi Germany and World War II. He absorbs history by reading mostly biographies and autobiographies, and he enjoys writers like Randall Woods, a professor in the audience at the Nightbird Books event, who authored a biography of Lyndon Johnson.

“That’s the way I meet some of the great characters of history,” Harrison said.

Harrison recently finished reading three books about “great women” — Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie; Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff; and Just Kids, an autobiography by the rocker Patti Smith, recommended by Nightbird Books owner Lisa Sharp.

“That’s why I read. I believe people are large. And they shape history, and they arrive when events prepare the way for them,” he said.

After talking about his love for reading, Harrison opened the floor for others to share, and share they did.

They recommended books about the Rev. Martin Luther King’s assassination; conflicts of interest in Congress; the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the Vietnam War; and Irish monks who saved Western culture during the Dark Ages. Others recommended early American history, for its instructive value regarding current events; Helen Keller’s letters; a detective story set in Brooklyn; and works by British authors, including mysteries by Elizabeth George.

Harrison called on Roy Reed, whose broad reading interests include everything Arkansas-related. Reed surprised Harrison by reading an excerpt from Black August, which explores the dark side of human nature, and is set in Austin and Lake Como, Italy.

And, eventually, Harrison’s wife, Merlee, came to stand next to Harrison, whom she met when she was 15 and he was 17. Leaning on him, she explained how this man, her husband and father of their three children — Laurie, Sean and Quentin — had changed her life. That happened when he introduced her to literature.

“It still changes my life,” she said, adding that he’s been the most influential person in her life, through their “long, interesting marriage.”

She doesn’t usually read short stories, which she likens to watercolors. With that genre, she said, “you have to get it right.” In novels and oil paintings, the artist has time to fix his mistakes.

“In a short story, you have to get it right.”

She recommended You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon, a short-story collection set in Fort Hood, Texas.

Sharp also spoke about why she opened an independent bookstore amidst competition from big-box stores, Amazon.com and e-readers. She gets joy from sharing her love of books and the discovery of great reads and authors.

“Everything good you can get from a book.”

“Is this not a great town?” Harrison said.

Then, he proceeded to sign some books.

Copies of Black August ($24.95) are available at Nightbird Books. The painting of the author on the back cover was done by his wife, Merlee. And the photograph on the front is of his oldest son, Sean, and Sean’s stepdaughter, Olivia Goodwin-Harrison.

For readers who want more from Harrison about writing and his life as a writer, there’s a very different kind of book, The Mutations of Rollerball: Essays. This collection of essays, which he self-published in 2010, is available at Amazon.com.

Titles suggested by Bill Harrison and the crowd at his recent book event at Nightbird Books in Fayetteville include:
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer
The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes
Hellhound on His Trail by Hampton Sides
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
Longitude by Dava Sobel
The Price of Butcher’s Meat by Reginald Hill
A Man of Parts by David Lodge
The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley
The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
The Quiet American by Graham Greene
You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon