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A week of Florida writers – Part 2

Florida writer Harry Crews led a hard life.

He was born in Alma, Georgia, at the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp in 1935, the son of a sharecropper. At age 17, he joined the Marines and fought in the Korean War.

After Crews came home, he drifted south to Florida and enrolled in University of Florida on the GI Bill. It didn’t last. He dropped out to travel.

He did eventually get back to UF, graduated with a degree in literature, then trucked over to Jacksonville where he taught junior high English for a year. I said he had a hard life.

Crews went back to the University of Florida for a master’s degree in English. While there, he and his wife divorced.

Crews got his master’s, then went next door, to UF’s creative writing program, and said let me in.

The administrators refused to do so, so Crews trucked down to Miami and taught English at Broward Community College. Here he and his ex-wife re-married.

In 1964, their older son drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool. The tragedy proved too much for Crews and his wife, and they divorced for a second time.

In 1968, Crews moved back to Gainesville where he joined the faculty in the University of Florida’s creative writing program . . . the same program where administrators a decade earlier decided Crews couldn’t be a student.

Life takes strange turns.

He published his first novel, The Gospel Singer, the first year he taught creative writing.

Crews would publish 15 more plus two collections of short stories, a collection or two of his essays, and a memoir before his death last year.

New York Times reporter Margalit Fox says that Crews’s novels and short stories “out-Gothic Southern Gothic by conjuring a world of hard-drinking, punch-throwing, snake-oil-selling characters whose physical, mental, social and sexual deviations render them somehow entirely normal and eminently sympathetic.”

How he wrote was a puzzle even to Crews. Said he in one interview, “I’ve never begun a novel that I knew how it ended. I just start and try to find out what it is I think about whatever it is I am writing about.”

Crews also said in the same interview, “Listen, if you want to write about all sweetness and light and that stuff, go get a job at Hallmark.”

He wrote dark, dark stuff and comic stuff, populating his stories with odd characters, perhaps most famously, a man who eats a Ford Maverick, four ounces at a sitting.

That book, Car, came out in 1972.

Tomorrow: Carl Hiaasen

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