THE WRITTEN WORD IS Paul Hemphill’s lifeblood. The former newspaper man (he wrote a daily column in The Atlanta Journal for years) and celebrated author has published 15 books to date and currently teaches writing at Emory University.
Despite the inroads made by the internet, Hemphill says paper books won’t go the way of the dodo anytime soon.
“Not until they invent a word processor you want to curl up in bed with.”
We spoke to Hemphill by phone in advance of his upcoming appearance at the inaugural Savannah Book Festival, where he’ll discuss his latest work, Lovesick Blues, The Life of Hank Williams — a unique and highly personal look at the art and legacy of that idiosyncratic country music icon. (Read the entire interview at www.connectsavannah.com.)
You’ve said one learns to write by doing three things: reading, writing, and living. How did your life help you write this book?
Paul Hemphill: Well, it helps you to write about Hank Williams if you’ve been an alcoholic, which I have. I’m a recovered alcoholic. I can write about being drunk. I grew up in Alabama, and the first trip my father and I took was from Birmingham to Cumberland, Md. in the Blue Ridges. It took a week round trip and we listened to Hank Williams the whole way on country radio. He was in his prime at that point. I had to do the AA thing, and it took a drinker to fully understand him.
Were you a big Hank Williams fan before deciding to write Lovesick Blues?
Paul Hemphill: Oh yes, enough to make you cry. A grown man would still cry when they hear that lonesome steel guitar. I wrote it from the standpoint of an Alabama truck driver and his son making that trip. It’s couched in those terms. Garrison Keillor gave it a great review.
The quick pace of your book fits nicely with Hank’s short and action-packed life. Did you mean it to be a taut and dense?
Paul Hemphill: Well, it always is. I’m a minimalist. It’s hard to do this stuff. It’s like that famous old quote — “This letter is longer than usual, because I haven’t had time to make it shorter.” You’re right, it suited the short life and the way he wrote himself. I was trying to write the book about him the way he would write a song. It’s amazing how good a writer he was in that respect.
They’re all so simple and sparse, but yet not one-dimensional at all. They’re often truly beautiful poetry.
Paul Hemphill: Well, the words economy and grace were used by Garrison Keillor in that review.
It’s been said that if Hank were to have come along a decade later, he’d never have been accepted by the industry he helped create. Do you feel that’s an accurate assessment of the differences between what country music was and what it became?
Paul Hemphill: Yeah, it certainly is, that’s correct. They could not abide somebody who could play beyond the rules like Hank did. He wouldn’t listen to anything they would tell him. Nowadays, anyone who presumes to write a country song wants to be Hank Williams. That’s the last thing that would have worked in those days! (laughs)
Are you working on any new books?
Paul Hemphill: Well, I’m writing about my life as a cancer survivor. I smoked non-filtered Camels for 50 years, and quit about three years ago. I had a stroke, but it had spread and become cancer. This will be my first live appearance in a year. So, I’m glad to be alive. It was a good experience.