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An online exclusive interview


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Messing With the Bear
An interview with Brad Vice

By Todd Dills

In 2005, then 32-year-old Tuscaloosa, Alabama native Brad Vice got word that he’d won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction from the University of Georgia Press. His winning manuscript, a book of short stories called The Bear Bryant Funeral Train, would be published later that year. All in all, it was long, arduous effort come to triumphant conclusion.

Vice had done everything a young Southern writer needed to do, short of moving to New York, Chicago or the West Coast: He’d been on the administrative staff for a time at the Sewanee Writers Conference, gotten his Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati (the closest he’d get to Up North) and gotten on the tenure track at Mississippi State University in Starkville. “The name of the town is perhaps appropriate,” he says, “but I have a lot of affection for the place.”

But the book didn’t make it very far — a public librarian in Tuscaloosa recognized the first sentence of the first story in the UGA edition, “Tuscaloosa Knights”:

“And that’s how it began. Three distant notes, high blasts on a bugle, then a drop of a minor third on a long wailing note.”

It’s a direct reference to the beginning of a chapter of Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama, a work on nonfiction released in the Thirties. (It’s also the slogan that, until recently, graced the state’s standard-issue license plate.) Carmer was a New Yorker teaching at the time at the University of Alabama. One particular chapter of the book, “Tuscaloosa Nights,” narrates the story of a Ku Klux Klan rally on old River Road (now Jack Warner Parkway) in Tuscaloosa. Vice’s version of the story takes the basic plot structure and explodes it in a parodic narrative that is altogether unique. It’s a technique that brings to mind the work of many novelists, playwrights and filmmakers — part revisionism, part humorous alternate realism. (In Vice’s version, a young Bear Bryant, then a tailback for the UA team, is murmured to be under one of the hoods before the wearer’s true identity is revealed.)

This wasn’t enough for the UGA Press, which pulled the book and pulped every copy it had. Vice subsequently lost his tenure-track position at MSU and has decamped from his the United States altogether to Pilsen, Czech Republic, where he’s a visiting writer at the University of West Bohemia.

But the Bear Bryant Funeral Train is back, out in a new edition from Montgomery-based River City Publishing — deep in the heart of the culture that both birthed it and took its first edition to the grave.

On Vice’s tour of the Southeast this past spring I had the opportunity to read with him at a coffeehouse in Birmingham — the interview took place a few weeks prior at a friend’s home just over the mountain in Homewood, Ala.

Stop Smiling: What’s the significance of the film reel on the book’s new cover?

Brad Vice: The film canister is best of all worlds, because film is the working model in the title story and is in the background of a lot of the other stories. In the story “Stalin,” the narrator’s obsessive-compulsive fantasies are represented as bad movies. And in “Artifacts,” the narrator compares herself to sepia-toned movie starlets and then the Super-8 is the functioning material of the title story.

I have no desire to be part of the film industry or write scripts, but I think I enjoy film on such a pure level that I don’t even want to get mixed up with it. After the book was destroyed, reading was painful, and so I got rid of television and I got on Netflix and would watch two or three movies a night. I began to explore Godard, because Don DeLillo’s a big Godard fan. He’s said his books are a mix of Godard, Joyce and jazz. And I can’t really go there with jazz so much and I’ve already done all the Joyce I wanted to do, so I started watching all the French New Wave films, which is one of the things that artsy people would do, right?

SS: Extrapolating from the book, though, you’ve been into film in a pure way for a long time.

BV: I think the primary sense for me when I’m writing is visual, so film makes a good composite to that. I don’t want to come off so high-minded, because I love movies of all kinds. And I really think one of the most important moments for me as a kid was seeing Jaws, [particularly] the Robert Shaw scene where he has the tattoo that’s removed and he tells the story of the USS Indianapolis, which delivered the Enola Gay that dropped the bomb. All of a sudden you realize that the shark in the water in the present is related to the power of the sharks in the water of the past, which is related to the detonation of an atomic bomb, which changes the course of history, and somehow that’s all together there and you can feel the weight of all that history looming over the shoulders of the guys in that boat, who have their own dramatic situation. So, in any piece of writing, if I can get that feeling, that’s what I want to do.


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