Journalist and best-selling author Rick Bragg shares Southern stories

Authored By chloe.morrison

Alabama native, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and best-selling author Rick Bragg said Thursday night at a discussion and book signing that he felt at home amongst Chattanoogans and his readers here.

“These are people who’ve lived my books, a lot of them,” he said. “You go back a generation or two and they know my people…”

The Southern Lit Alliance brought Bragg to town, and after his signing and discussion, he had dinner-prepared by Easy Bistro chefs-with locals to raise money for the organization. 

Standing behind a podium on stage at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center, in front more than 100 people, he spoke with a Southern drawl of a Southern experience, to which many people in the room could relate.

The Southerners Bragg writes about and relates to knew what it meant when a stream of smoke trickled up from the mountainside: whiskey-making, he said. 

Southerners, like Bragg, love their mamas.

The author spoke tenderly about his mother. But don’t get him wrong, “she’s a pain in the ass,” he said.

Those Bragg personifies are likely descendants from people who did back-breaking work. (Bragg asked the audience how many in the room came from people who worked with their hands. Almost everyone raised their hands.)

“I come from a noble people who swung hammers, dug coal, worked in steel mills,” he told the audience. 

He had a self-deprecating humor throughout but also expressed shame for being a writer and not someone who does the work of a man in a coal mine or in any occupation that would force his hands to become dirty and rough. 

Throughout the talk Bragg kept coming back to his experiences on airplanes, where he’s inevitably squeezed against “the next biggest guy” who is a “working man,” and who asks what Bragg does for a living. 

When Bragg admits he’s a writer, that man will respond with, “I bet that’s fun, ain’t it?”

“Like I cut out paper dolls,” Bragg said. 

But after sharing tales of a standoff with a bull, the purchase of miniature donkeys named Bucky and Mimi for his mama, and the nasty things white liquor can do to a man, he ended with a proud sentiment about being a writer. 

After all, he doesn’t want to tell that man sitting next to him on the plane that he’s a miniature donkey wrangler, he joked.

“I say with conviction, almost with a snarl, I’m writer,” Bragg said before taking questions from the audience. 

Below are more highlights and quotes from his talk:

-Bragg joked with a woman in the first row of the audience who taunted Bragg by saying “War Eagle,” which is the Auburn Univeristy football team’s battle cry. As a native of Alabama, one surmised that Bragg did not care for Auburn, which is Alabama’s rival.

-“I’ve seen a good part of this world-if you’re going to interview people and talk to them about living, this is the best place on earth.”

-Bragg also said that he loves Chattanooga and said his parents got married in Ringgold, Georgia. 

-“Writing is hard. I don’t like writing. I like having written.”

-Lesson from Rick Bragg: Miniature donkeys don’t cost less than regular-sized donkeys.

– When asked about why he loves writing about the South, Bragg said part of it involves generally staying away from politics in his writing but that he would be remiss not to discuss it briefly. “We should care about whether the lady wiping tables at Waffle House has health insurance.”

-“My favorite thing about the South is the way we treat our dead … we keep them alive with stories.”

-Bragg is now a writing professor at the University of Alabama’s journalism program in its College of Communications and Information Sciences. On writing he said, “Most people don’t follow the simple rule of writing, which is: show me, don’t tell me. To show and not tell is the key to the castle.”

– He listed Eudora Welty, Charles Dickens and Larry McMurtry as admirable writers. 

-“I think if you write pretty, and you write pretty about ugly things and you write pretty about pretty things, then you win. If you write of violence where you can taste the blood in your mouth, you write about love where you get weak in the knees, then the reader wins-and you’re going to win because they’re going to write you a big check to do the next one.”