Steve Earle Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner and today it’s my pleasure to be talking with Steve Earle—songwriter, musician, actor, playwright, poet, short-story writer, and now, novelist. His new book is called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive. It’s based loosely on some speculative ideas about the life and death of Hank Williams. And we’re talking to Steve who’s in New York City, here in the recording studio, because he’s also just finished narrating the book for Blackstone Audio, and we’re very excited about that. Steve, is this your first novel?
STEVE EARLE: My first novel. My first book was a collection of short fiction that was published eight years ago, nine years ago, also by what was then Houghton Mifflin before Harcourt ate them. And they were the first eleven stories, pieces of prose, that I ever wrote. I’d written songs for a long time obviously, but I started writing prose mainly as an exercise because I went through a period where I didn’t write anything because I had a really bad drug problem and I ended up getting locked up and there was this four-and-a-half, five-year interruption in my career where I wrote nothing of any sort. And just being paranoid about the process, I started writing stories ’cause there wasn’t always a melody lying around, and a friend of mine gave a couple of those stories—without even speaking to me about it—to her editor at Houghton, and that resulted in a collection of short fiction called Doghouse Roses. As soon as that was published, my editor started trying to figure out how to trick me into writing a full-length novel ’cause that’s what editors like. They don’t like short fiction, they want novels.
GG: So, what did your editor do to trick you into writing a novel?
SE: Well, I started doing it almost immediately after Doghouse was published, and the whole process was eight years before I completed it. Somewhere in there I wrote a play and produced it—both in Nashville and here, and I made three or four records and wrote a bunch of nonfiction pieces as well. And three hundred and sixty-six haiku, because I went through this thing where I wrote a haiku a day for a year. It was just a challenge that was going around among several people that I know. And, what I discovered about the long form in general in the last few years, was that unlike songs, which are usually written in a day or maybe two days, every time I got up out of the chair and went and did something else and came back, it took days to get back into the groove again. So I thought I was going to publish this two years ago and got to the top of a hill and saw another hill and I finally finished it last summer, and it’s finally being published.
GG: Now, was it always about Hank Williams, or did your ideas change or morph over time?
SE: Well, the idea originally came from Anton Mueller who is my editor at Houghton before the company—before the publishing business—started changing so much. He wanted me to write something that had something to do with music, and he tricked me into doing it by telling me how cool it would be. Because my favorite book is a book called Coming through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje, his first novel, which is about Buddy Bolden, who is this legendary cornetplayer in New Orleans. We don’t know what he sounded like because even though he lived into the forties, he was insane basically and the peak of his creative powers was in the first decade of the last century. He disappeared, according to legend, in 1909, and when he came back he was never quite the same again so he never made any records at the peak of his career when he could really play. And we don’t know what Buddy Bolden sounded like, but we do know what Louis Armstrong sounded like and a lot of other players who came out of New Orleans who did hear Buddy Bolden. So, Michael’s book, Coming through Slaughter, is a speculation about what happened to Buddy Bolden during that time that he was missing. I was just trying to come up with a legend of my own to embroider on and I’d heard all of my life that there was a doctor traveling with Hank Williams when he died and that when the police actually were called, when they pulled over to the side of the road in West Virginia and discovered that Hank was dead in the back of his car, that the doctor had somehow disappeared somewhere between Knoxville, Tennessee, where he was last seen—and he was seen by several people getting into the car with Hank, according to a lot of reports. I just was playing with that idea in my head and still not finding the time to sit down and really work in earnest on the book. Then I discovered that the person, Toby Marshall, the doctor I had always heard about, was not really a doctor. He was a quack who claimed to be able to cure alcoholics with chloral hydrate, and he had never really been a doctor at all. Somehow, he was able to write prescriptions and he was a complete and total fraud. But by that time I was so far into batting it around in my head, I decided that my idea that he was actually a doctor was more interesting than the truth and I started creating the character of Doctor Ebersole of New Orleans and Shreveport.
GG: You decided you wanted to narrate this book yourself.
SE: There was no audio version of my first book. I’ve read my own poetry—some friends of mine that have a nonfiction reading series here in the city at the KGB bar that I’ve read in, but I’ve never done anything anywhere near this, listen to my own voice, saying in my own words, quite this much, ever before.
GG: It was fascinating to listen to you work, even though I’m long distance here, it sounds like you really enjoyed yourself.
SE: It was actually more fun than I thought it would be. I thought it would be excruciating. I guess I’ve learned some things that I didn’t know I’d learn. I do a lot of things, I act a little, I do that mainly to say other people’s words. Acting I took up pretty late and acting in films and acting on stage are two totally different things. I'm much more interested in theater than I am in film as a writer. I wrote a play a few years ago. I’m working on a play now. It’s one of the reasons I moved to New York, to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner, and to be able to see theater. That’s the thing, just to be able to see new plays all the time. Going out and saying other people’s words I learn a lot about writing, but this was an interesting experience. I probably, to tell you the truth, wouldn’t have read my book any time soon. It probably would have been years before I would have been able to bring myself to just sit down and read it since I finished it ’cause I was kind of sick of it. But I actually got to read the whole book and I think I like it.
GG: You have an album coming out in conjunction with this book. I think it has the same title, is that right?
SE: Right. It sort of accidentally has the same title. The book was always gonna be called I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive for obvious reasons. Hank Williams’ last recording session he recorded a song that he wrote called “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” which is actually a novelty song, it’s actually pretty funny, and he released it. At the time that he died on New Year’s Day in 1953, it had been released in December. And it was coming on up the charts like his records did. His career was somewhat in disarray because of his own actions by that time. And so his records didn’t climb quite as fast as they had before. But this one, I think it was in the top ten, and then he died, and then it went straight to number one the following week. So, it was the last record he released while he was alive, and his first posthumous number one, of several.
GG: Do the two of them relate to one another? Is it tied in?
SE: They do in the sense that they’re about spirituality and mortality, and mortality not as a morbid subject but just a punctuation mark, and probably even a comma, rather than a period. It’s the idea that death is the one thing that we’re all gonna have to do. I mean, they say death and taxes, but the fact of the matter is you can not pay your taxes. It is your choice you can make, I’ve done it and there are consequences—but you can elect not to pay your taxes. But death, we just gotta do that one. I lost my father three years ago. When your friends start to die, which I’ve reached an age where that started to happen to me, I’m fifty-six. Like the four guys I sort of hung out with in high school two out of those four are gone now, and one of the other surviving ones has cancer. He’s got a relatively survivable form, but he’s got health issues, and nobody ever would have put their money on me being the healthiest of us at this point in my life. My father passed away as well. He was really sick the last few years of his life, and watching him leaving this world and watching my family go through it, I became sort of plugged in to how we do that in this society, in this culture. I think we do a pretty bad job of it. You know, our funerals are sort of pagan rituals that are for the benefit of the living—the whole process of dying doesn’t pay very much consideration to the person who’s actually having to do the dying. It’s all about the living. And I guess that’s okay, and grieving is healthy, but I think it’s sort of incomplete. You can’t help but think about that stuff. When the generation before you is gone, then you know you’re next. It’s just the way that that is, and I’m not bummed out about it—this is a pretty happy, productive time in my life. I’m doing a lot of stuff. I’ve just, on purpose, become a father again in my mid-fifties—that’s optimism. You have to admit right there—that’s pretty optimistic, to become a father at fifty-six. Or to become a parent at all in this world. I am thinking about these things. I can’t help it. It’s on my schedule, and there’s nothing I can do about it.
GG: Did your own drug experiences kind of inform the story of Doc, would you say?
SE: Yeah, the parts about getting high and the parts about detoxing—you can kind of trust ’em in this book. I didn’t have to make that part up. And there’s other things—I was there the day that John Kennedy landed in San Antonio, that day before he died. I was at that scene in the book where they all go out to see Kennedy and Jackie land at the airport because my dad was an air-traffic controller and he called my mother and said “Kennedy’s landing at ten o’clock—keep the boys out of school,” and he took us to see Kennedy and it’s a very, very vivid memory of mine from when I was eight years old. It’s in the book.
GG: So how do you like New York?
SE: Oh yeah, I love it. I couldn’t imagine why I waited so long to live here. But part of it is maintenance too. Being an artist, as you get older I think it requires more stimulus, not less. I’m here for a reason. Being able to be someplace where I can see any play, any movie, get any book. Mark Rylance is here right now … and Jerusalem, this Jez Butterworth play, and I’m gonna get to see it (laughs). It’s one of those things. It’s a big deal. And it helps, and you need more of those jolts as you get older to keep making anything that’s sort of relevant, keep people interested.
GG: Well, Steve, thank you so much for talking with us today. We really, really appreciate it.
SE: Thank you.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview. You can find all of Blackstone Audio’s titles and more at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in April 2011.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive
Doc Ebersole lives with the ghost of Hank Williams—not just in the figurative sense, not just because he was one of the last people to see him alive, and not just because he is rumored to have given Hank the final morphine dose that killed him.
In 1963, ten years after Hank’s death, Doc himself is wracked by addiction. Since he lost his license to practice medicine, his morphine habit isn’t as easy to support, so Doc lives in a rented room in the red-light district on the south side of San Antonio, performing abortions and patching up the odd knife or gunshot wound. But when Graciela, a young Mexican immigrant, appears in the neighborhood in search of his services, miraculous things begin to happen. Graciela sustains a wound on her wrist that never heals, yet she heals others with the touch of her hand. Everyone she meets is transformed for the better, except perhaps for Hank’s angry ghost—who isn’t at all pleased to see Doc doing well.
A brilliant excavation of an obscure piece of music history, Steve Earle’s I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive is also a marvelous novel in its own right, a ballad of regret and redemption and of the ways in which we remake ourselves and our world through the smallest of miracles.