"You can't drink when you're dead": An interview with Steve Earle


  • Photo: Ted Barron

"I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" is the title of a beloved Hank Williams Sr. song. It's also the title of Steve Earle's new novel, as well as his newest album, and if it's not the motto tacked to his New York City apartment door it damn well should be.

We reached Earle in Houston, the scene of his youth and any number of past mistakes and triumphs, to discuss his work as a fiction writer. See Earle in person during a reading at the St. Louis Public Library, Schlafly Branch tonight, Monday, May 16.

As a songwriter, playwright, fiction writer, activist, actor and radio host, Earle has long burned the creative candle at both ends -- and straight down the middle, relentlessly pouring out words and images and melodies and gestures that sting and soar with country soul.

The novel I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive follows the doomed trail of Doc Ebersole, a fictionalized version of the phony physician who, rumors have it, was with Hank on the night he died. And in Earle's telling, he's been haunted ever since, both literally and metaphorically. The world Earle creates is at once magical and malevolent, dark and delirious, violent and redemptive, comic and brutal. His sentences, as you'd expect, sing.

Roy Kasten: Tell me about the spark for the story and situation of the novel.

Steve Earle: My editor wanted me to write a full-length novel and not any more short stories. He knew my favorite novel was Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje's first novel. He kept suggesting, if there was something semi-legendary about music it would be interesting if I wrote about it. I was suspicious. I knew part of it was marketing, and it's not that I'm against marketing, but it's usually a bad impetus for art.

I was resistant to it, but finally after banging that idea around, I remembered that I'd always heard there was a doctor traveling with Hank Williams when he died. It was a couple of years before, and I'd even written I think the opening of the book, before I did any research. I talked to my friend Marty Stuart, who is a collector and authority on Hank. He was the first person who told me that the person traveling with Hank was actually a quack. His name was Toby Marshall. He had no license to practice medicine or even a degree from anywhere. But he was somehow able to write prescriptions for chloral hydrate, and he claimed that he could cure alcoholism with chloral hydrate, which is a really strong barbiturate. And it worked. You can't drink when you're dead.

It's part of what killed Hank. There was some in his system when he died. There were lots of witnesses who said Toby Marshall was in the car when Hank left Knoxville. But he wasn't there according to the police reports by the time the police got there. By the time I got around to discovering that he wasn't a doctor, I decided that my character, who was a doctor, was more interesting. So I forged ahead and came up with Doc Ebersole.

Aside from having Marty Stuart as a resource, did you do other research?

I read everything that's available. The Colin Escott book. I talked to Marty and Chet Flippo. He's written a couple of Hank Williams books. But I am writing fiction. I put as much research into abortion, and our Lady of Guadalupe and Catholicism as I did on Hank Williams. I'm not the kind of fiction writer who would be loose with that kind of framework. I'm a big Gore Vidal fan. I love historical fiction. I know Madison Smartt Bell. I have a great appreciation for the facts that are woven into fiction. But my character is not Hank Williams. He's the ghost of Hank Williams, which is a different thing in a lot of ways.

Quite frankly, that gives you a lot of freedom. It's easier to write. Someone asked me at some point in this narrative, "Is it a memoir?" And I was like, no way would I fuck myself out of that much material! For songs or fiction or poetry. That seems like a bonehead move that if you want to make something up to give away all the goods like that.

The protagonist, Doc, like all the characters, is a doomed figure, an outsider. But you don't romanticize it. The specific way that he's haunted is interesting and believable.

The main thing for me is, I am a recovering addict. The parts of this about detoxing and getting high are uncomfortably authentic. It may not even be all that good for me to write that part of it. The part that's terrible is OK for me to write, my sponsor wouldn't object to that. But other parts border on euphoric recall, which is discouraged. I started this book eight years ago, which is half of my recovery. I've been clean 16 years. I'm a really different person than when I started this book. I recorded the audio book the other day. I read it in three days. I probably wouldn't have read it for months or years. When you finish something this long, especially if you're a songwriter by trade, you're fucking sick of it. But I kind of liked it. In retrospect it maybe took exactly the amount of time it needed to take. Every bit was written in exactly the part of my life it was supposed to. There's some healing that takes place in the book, and for me to be a little more healed up to write the book was a good thing.

You literally began the novel eight years ago?

I started and stopped and backtracked and peeled things back. At least half of it was written in the last three years. It was a lot of stops and fits and starts. For instance, a big turning point for me in the creation of the book was sort of like, there's a point in Huckleberry Finn where supposedly Twain stopped writing, just as Huck and Jim are run over by a riverboat. Everything after that changes, the tone changes. Twain had to go on the road and pay some bills. He comes back and then it becomes the great American novel, the second half of it, it's darker and more serious. In this book, there's a turning point where the priest and Big Tiff show up. Those two new characters were created in the last two and half years. Things started to accelerate and I kind of knew where I was going when they showed up.

The world of the novel isn't completely inoculated from politics. In the middle of the novel the assassination of JFK erupts. But it's really a novel of conscience and flesh and spirit.

It's my world, in the sense that they tell you to write what you write. San Antonio is my hometown. I was there when John Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy landed at San Antonio International Airport the day before he was assassinated. I was eight years old. My father was an air traffic controller. He called my mother and said, "Kennedy is going to land at 10:30. Keep the kids out of school." He was on the midnight shift. So we went.

I didn't know how the book was going to end when I started it. I set the novel in 1963 just arbitrarily based on ten years. It was ten years after Hank died. What happened in 1963 in San Antonio? Well, John F. Kennedy show up the day before he was assassinated. So it's not there for political reasons. I'm not someone who believes for a minute that just one person killed Kennedy. I didn't know anybody growing up who did. It's a recent revisionist idea that everybody embraces the Warren Commission Report verbatim.

The novel is a ghost story and others have noticed the magic realism in the novel. Do you have a special affinity for that genre?

I do. I have a friend who said you can't write this in English. You have to write this in Spanish. I grew up in San Antonio. I lived in San Miguel in the late '70s. I read all the Carlos Castaneda books. I really wanted to believe that he had met a Yaqui sorcerer for a long time, probably longer than most people. I really wanted to believe it. I didn't have any trouble believing he could fly. It's when he sewed a lizard's eye shut with a fiber from an agave that he lost me. That's when it fell apart. Being into that stuff, being into Tolkien, being a hippy growing up, when magic realism came into English and was translated I read all of it. Townes [Van Zandt] was into all that stuff.

I intended the book to be a much simpler ghost story than it turned out to be. Then it got out of hand and became sort of a Harry Potter book for adults. I love Harry Potter books. I like stuff whose intentions are good. I don't mind dark, I don't mind scary. But I've kind of stopped reading Cormac McCarthy. I'm not sure his intentions are good. He writes his ass off. I baled about half way through The Road. I couldn't finish it and haven't read anything by him since.

I really think if you're going to take my time and I'm going to take somebody else's time, I want them to feel they got somewhere, that there was some kind of journey and it was worth it. You're asking people to take time out of a busy world and read something, especially a book, or go to a play. People bemoan the shortening of the American attention span. I hear it all the time. I sort of moved to New York because of theatre, to breathe the same air as Tony Kushner. I wrote a play and I'm writing another play now. I love theatre. I go see baseball and theatre, that's all I do when I'm not working. Plays are getting shorter and shorter. Getting people to sit through three acts is almost unheard of. Ninety minute one acts are an evening of theatre now.

It's just the whole deal that there are a lot of things you're competing with. It's not that people are stupid. You're just competing with a lot of different distractions. A lot of them are potentially great mediums for art, all this electronic stuff, computers, you know, satellite radio, all of those things are potentially forces for good. They don't have to be bad. But you have to be realistic. When you drag people through all that stuff and bum them out, if bumming them out is the end result, they're going to stop coming back.

I do want an audience. It doesn't have to be the biggest audience in the world. It's just like my records. I don't sell millions, but I have an audience that expects a pretty high standard from me. I have respect for them and they have respect for me. They go with me when I do all this weird shit. I don't take every single one of them with me, but I've kept enough of them who want to see what I'm going to do next. I'm pretty proud of that.

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