Bragg remembers being out in Seattle where he told the crowd that working people in the South — mill workers, steel workers, coal miners — were the toughest people on the planet. That’s when a woman stood up to argue, saying her people had pitched nets of fishing boats in the Pacific Northwest.
“And she had a pretty good point,” Bragg said, “But if it were a fight, I’d stick with the South.”
Bragg isn’t likely to face any such argument Friday for Jacksonville State University’s “Reflections and Reading: An Evening with Rick Bragg.” Born and raised just outside of Jacksonville, Bragg learned to be a storyteller by listening to the tales of his own family, which is why coming home is such a joy.
“The difference is the people looking back have lived the stories I’m telling,” said Bragg, who now lives in Tuscaloosa, where he is a professor of writing at the University of Alabama. “When I talk about home, people really know … When I talk about my grandfather, who was a roofer and a whiskey maker, somewhere in that crowd will be someone who’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know he was a whiskey maker, ‘cause my daddy bought it from him.’
“I don’t get that anywhere else.”
Friday’s event will be a fundraiser for JSU’s honors program. Bragg promises the evening won’t be some stuffy lecture, but rather loose and often unscripted.
“Lord, I never have a plan,” he said, laughing. “I guess if I did I’d come across as more professional. I know some people call ’em ‘lectures’ — God, what an awful word. I don’t do that. I just talk and tell stories from home.”
One story Bragg is sure to share will be about the deadly tornadoes that hit Alabama on April 27. While he’s comfortable writing stories about his own backyard, such a cliché became a terrible truth when the storm tore through his own neighborhood in Tuscaloosa, destroying a third of the houses on the street. Bragg described the destruction in an August 2011 story for Southern Living.
“Every story in every medium that’s worth a damn is told from the heart, from some place deep,” he says. “But when it happens close to home, something drives the words stronger. I guess it’s simple emotion. I’ve never written as well about strangers as I have about the people close to home.”
During a 24-hour period, 163 tornadoes were reported by eye witnesses. One of those, a mile-wide tornado that bisected Alabama, killed more than 200 people. In Tuscaloosa, a mile-wide tornado killed 32 people. Returning from New Orleans to the Glendale Gardens neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Bragg found his home damaged, but still standing. Despite the destruction, no one on his street was killed, allowing Bragg’s story to focus on recovery.
“That gave me a little distance to write about good people helping each other out,” he said. “And I’m glad for that.”
Bragg appears to have settled down a bit. In addition to being a professor of writing, he also writes a back-page column for Southern Living called “Southern Journal.”
“I’m writing lighter things than I ever have in my life, and I’m glad it’s worked out that way,” he said. “I’ve been writing about killin’ and dyin’ all my life. It’s time to write about something else for a change.”
Contact Brett Buckner at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reading and Reflection: An Evening with Rick Bragg
When: Today, 5 p.m.
Where: Stone Center Auditorium, Jacksonville State University campus
How much: $35, includes an autographed copy of The Prince of Frogtown
Contact: Janet Whitmore at 256-782-5696 or e-mail her at email@example.com.