Journey of a Linguistic Ace

Lightning on the page. That’s Rick Bragg. Raw talent like his can’t be taught. It’s innate, ingrained in the genes, as natural and bracing as an Appalachian spring. But it can take time to develop.

“I didn’t exactly distinguish myself as a youth, ” he laughs.

Bragg vividly recounts his north Alabama childhood tribulations in his best-selling 1999 memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’, ” and his later books “Ava’s Man” (2002) and “The Prince of Frogtown” (2008) further limn the rough edges and hard lives that defined his world. Writing wasn’t part of that world, but reading was, and Bragg did a great deal of the latter in junior high. “I was a selfish reader of thrillers and mysteries and stories about war and pestilence.” When he opted for an English composition class, a teacher bluntly told him, “I don’t think you have the maturity for English composition.” Bragg had to agree and instead signed up for a journalism course.

To say that the rest is history would certainly be true, but the path was anything but obvious or smooth. Like many writers, Bragg is dismissive of his juvenilia. “I was not a good writer. I wrote straight and flat and dull.” Eventually, however, a light came on, and Bragg made the connection between the colorful family storytelling of his growing years and good journalism.

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His first real writing job was with the Jacksonville (Ala.) Daily News. Surprisingly, the future ace journalist and Pulitzer Prize-winner was the paper’s second choice. “Their first choice took a job with the Kentucky Fried Chicken.”  (Here, Bragg pauses for effect; anyone who has heard him speak knows he is a master raconteur with pitch-perfect timing.) “The money was better.” Loosed on the community with a reporter’s notebook and pen, he found it difficult to put his recent epiphany into practice. Great storytelling didn’t appear to lend itself to “a library board meeting.”

Bigger and more important things were to come, however. Bragg secured a job with The New York Times in the early 1990s and distinguished himself covering tough events like the Oklahoma City bombing, the Susan Smith trial in South Carolina and unrest in Haiti. Looking back on all the “gritty stories” he did back then, Bragg says he does not miss that kind of work. But it was good for his career.

“Those stories will get you attention.” Bragg quickly disavowed any gravitas for writing about such things. For him, it was about the victims. Telling such stories in his inimitable fashion — with sympathy and compassion — was his hallmark. “I was truly honored to write about people in trouble.”

I ask Bragg when he realized that he was a gifted writer. “Editors from time to time would say nice things, and I’d strut around a little bit.”

He’s ashamed about acting that way now. But those editors weren’t wrong. After “All Over But the Shoutin’, ” “some really kind people began to talk about the words.” And then there was Willie Morris. The acclaimed Mississippi author took Bragg to dinner at a catfish restaurant, brown-bagged a bottle and got sauced. Afterwards, Morris guzzled black coffee, took Bragg home, sat him down and started reading “All Over But the Shoutin’” aloud. “He kept reading, page after page, ” says Bragg. Finally, after about half an hour, Morris reached a stopping place, “snapped it shut” and leaned forward. “You see, son, ” he emphatically declared, “you say it’s the story, and I say it’s the language.”

Bragg is now comfortably ensconced as a writing professor at the University of Alabama, and he and his wife, Dianne, divide their time between Tuscaloosa and Fairhope, where they have a home. He glories in teaching and concentrating on book-length projects. He likes his students and finds them thoughtful and attuned to newspapers and magazines. “My job is to teach them to write with color, imagery and detail.” As for his own writing, Bragg likes the bigger landscapes and luxurious time frames that books allow. “Writing a book is like being handed the keys to the kingdom. You have the breadth and the depth.” His biography of Jerry Lee Lewis is coming out soon from HarperCollins, and he is at work on a novel based on the textile mill strikes of the 1930s. Of the latter, he says, “I just might let the good guys win for a change.” Whoever prevails in the novel, however, it’s a sure bet that Bragg’s many readers will be the real winners.

John S. Sledge’s new book, “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart, ” comes out in March. 

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