GALEN HOLLEY: Meeting a hero in Alabama

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

His prose is the voice of the rolling hills of central Alabama, a place where men who need money gut and quarter other men’s deer. A place where, as he once wrote, “The Word leak(s) out of white-wood sanctuaries, where preachers thrust ragged Bibles at the rafters.”
I couldn’t decide whether or not to call him “Mr. Bragg.” One doesn’t, after all, address a Pulitzer Prize winner by his first name. But the voice in the e-mails was definitely “Rick.”
“Man, you’re not bothering me at all,” he said. “Come on over and see me next month, if we’re still livin’.”
Rick Bragg is a big man, with the broad head and massive shoulders of a Kodiak bear. He dresses in Carhartt shirts and workman’s boots, and he brooks no quarter for the affectations some consider befitting a writer.
He is patient and gentle with his students, and takes compliments with a self-effacing ease that only the truly talented possess.
Rick Bragg is all work, and no show. He is exactly what he appears to be.
A rattlesnake skin hung on his wall, along with a big mouth bass and a wooden cutout of Hank Williams. Above his desk, he’d thumb-tacked a ragged little piece of paper, with a quote from Sherlock Holmes: “Celebrity is the last refuge of the idiot.”
“There are times when I’ve actually sat down with your work and tried to copy you, word for word,” I told him. “I should be ashamed.”
He waved his hand, as if brushing away a fly, and said he was flattered.
When a pretty, young female student came in, he took her work and read the first two paragraphs in silence, then began to smile. He read the opening paragraph aloud, to me.
“Could you write a lead like that when you were 21?” he asked me, shaking his head.
He noticed the wedding ring on my finger, and he said, “That changes things, doesn’t it?” I said it did, and we commiserated about how our wives are filling our houses with clutter, every flat surface covered with knick knacks.
“She’s got me in the basement,” he said, describing his home office, the place he goes to be surrounded by his books and music and the things that help him be creative.
I told him I like living in the country, in silence and darkness, where wild things walk across my property in the moonlight.
Meeting Rick Bragg was not like meeting the Dalai Lama, and it was his humility that made it so. He called me “Galen,” like a friend, in front of his students, and invited me to give them advice about the newspaper business.
I sent him an e-mail last week, thanking him for the visit, and he told me to come back, anytime. “We’ll get something to eat,” he said. “Something real bad for us.”

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.