Conversations; 204; Tribute to Willie Morris
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Hello again I'm Gene Edwards and welcome to conversations from Mississippi TV tonight we are going to talk about Willie Morris Willie would have been 65 on the twenty ninth of November and that was a night that all of his old pals got together to tell Willie stories and to celebrate the republication of his first book north toward home and his newest book my cat spit McGee. Jill Connor Brown was there to talk about the book will he help her write and she is here tonight. And Rick Cleveland was there he was one of Willie's close pals. He was here too. And later a conversation with Willie Morris that you've not seen before.
But first welcome. Thanks Rick. I did you meet him. Both of you.
I met Willie because of my own riding that when I was on the what do you know when they came here with Michael Feldman.
If you've seen the show you know I have used Maine when they asked me to be on the show I said who because there's always a fatted calf you know somebody that's the burnt offering and that's it you know is that the old blues man that's what it's not going to be hammered. And Willie Morris and skins not going to be him and me.
So it was for me and it happened that Joe and Willie were sitting in the audience in front of where we had been sitting where my friends were sitting when I was on.
And so while I was on it that my friends reported to me after the Joanna will ever say you know who is she she's funny that we now are. So I use that as my on try to insinuate myself into their lives. Good to get up to help me with my writing which that day I gotta just call them up and say that I need some help.
You said that yours was it was such generous he was calling any time if I mean I just you know I just called and reminded him who I was and he said sure would love to come on over.
And there you were and you was it through your dad.
Or no no no. When Willie came back to Mississippi as a writer in residence at Ole Miss I was covering Ole Miss for the Clarion-Ledger and one or all for Who was that director at Ole Miss at the time. Got us together at a reception they were having for the OS the CS guy Rogers and Willie you know and as he always was with so can he. He said I've read your stuff I really like your stuff. Coming up pull up a chair we need to spend a couple hours to get there and we did you know and that's about it off you with yeah and you know and your life was never the same never no no never the same innocent and then we moved to Jackson of course that was just what a bonus. Yeah.
HE What people don't know that story about what happened on the night that your dad died that these past away.
Oh yeah it's. It's a nice story really was one of Willy was on a book tour in New Orleans and I guess it was a New York days and he got a call from Joanne or he had a call from a restaurant where they were all having dinner. He told me was he having dinner at Galatoire's or something. He was someplace like yeah and hit any Joe Antonio that dad had passed away. And Willie excused himself from the dinner and walked outside and hailed a cab said I need a ride.
So where you going he said Jackson Mississippi. And a friend of mine's dad is yeah a friend of mine's dad he's down and I need to get home and and it I think I think the tab was $300 but the best part of the story is that he and the cab driver became like bosom buddy so I'm sure it works.
It was a life changing experience for the cab driver you should know you spend three hours with really you know lots of time change a little bit I guarantee you.
Well you know that and they talked about that so much. Everybody has those stories to tell about how to get in the car and and go and look at graveyards and drive it around the zoo and all those of things all those people who were involved in making those movies fell under his spill you know thing.
He was a this is just one of the most charismatic quietly charismatic and generally yours not flamboyant and not it out when I wrote a column about a week or so after he died and with a lot of my personal experiences with Willie and I must've gotten a jillion e-mails and calls from people that I didn't know and never heard of who all had their own personal experience. It might have been in the gym in the bar in Oxford it might have been at a bookstore it assign it not to you. Yeah and might it not have been at the some might have played Little League baseball with an American Legion baseball with it but everybody had their own you know their own store.
There was always a kind thing that he did there were yeah it was something that made a difference in their lives. You know I met him at the Little League baseball field. You know that story when he. Years ago when Johnnie Evans convinced him that he should write the poem for the start of the Little League season. John also convince him that he should come out and read that prayer to begin the day being it's not easy and I I had just moved here I had just begun working for the television station and I think I read it in your column. Did you print it and you know you don't. Yeah you printed the prayer in your column at least read it parts out and it's kind of neat. I called John and John said well you know Willie's going to read this thing.
So we went out and covered it and I got to meet Willie and that was it.
Ever since boy he was nervous that night was that he was he was he was nervous before performances. Yeah he was but then it was like an hour and something clicked in and he and he was great. One of the last trips he and I made together was for coup Papa Bell day the day they dedicated a monument to KU papa bear on the start it was and he was a little bit nervous on the way there because he was going to be speaking and he and then.
Then he gets up there and they you know turn the mike on and there's cameras going in and I saw he had her by spellbound.
He was great. Yeah. When the last time that I was with him too was at to Indianola when they did the Medgar Evers Remembrance Day and I'm there and Charles was there and really was there everybody was together but he you could tell he was really nervous. Did he have any idea he was so ill.
Did anybody you know I mean when we knew he was going to run a marathon.
Well I always he did run. Yes his life was a McBride a marathon. You know you always knew the way Willie lived his life that that something would be getting away with it.
Yeah that meant that he peered to Bill Yeah yeah breaking all the rules and get away with everything you know and I guess that's why it was so shocking to everybody when I said it was so sudden and he was just gone and all the other people you think of who were saved at the very last minute and we really thought it was going to be a wake up call and he'd finally quit smoking and he finally quit all the things that you know that.
How did he help you as a writer.
Oh honey you know I mean I went and talked to Joanne and she told me what to do and I set about it about doing it and that then she would work on it in the daytime when I gave her the manuscript she would work in Willey would work on it at 9:00 and and sometimes he would change just one word on a page.
And Joey was kind of stupid her way.
We're going way back to that. And and then the the main thing he did was just change the whole failing of of of my book was that because a lot of it is pretty wild. And your book is the sweet potato sweetheart acquaints book of love. I had it but hey.
And he loves the humor in it but he there's also a lot of sweetness in it and he said that was the most important thing and that I had to close with that I had to I had to bring him back to that and so that's what we did and it's people's favorite part of the book where I talk about Charlie Jakobsen.
And that's really that's the kind of writer he was you know it you know it always struck me especially during the Medgar Evers book. It struck me that there were some critical things that he wanted to say that there were some things that he may have felt deep inside about that but the way that film turned out. But gosh he just he was Willy he just couldn't say those things could he know used sweets and he just could be mean spirited now.
There was not a mean bone in his body and he was means that what a gift to me as a baby writer to write and to have him you know take an interest in me and and just they so generous with his time and sot proud when it was success so proud was separate from him.
And your columns he was the same way was.
Yeah he he was he was like you know I don't to me because I mean any by that makes their living writing words.
When you say when you read Willie it made you think I mean he made it's made riding look easy and it's the hardest thing in the world to I mean it I mean it's like Fred Smith said It's it's easy you just go in there and open a vein and believe but will when you read with it just saying he made it seem so easy. I think what he helped me with morning thing else is he made me see things differently just from talking to him I would say. Willie always saw the big picture and you know he always and any help he helped you see.
I mean all the base stuff go and you know people and you know and he was always in his corner. And no matter what was going on I mean he would be sitting there and there'd be just kind of this far off look and then you know after a few minutes he would just expound on something that was going that was just a whole different way of looking at it what was right in front of us and that's just how I was.
That's one of the things that you know when we heard that somebody had gotten Willie's eyes and could say yeah and what it you know the first thing I thought would it be something if I could see things the way you know.
Willie Morris was one of the best people to visit with on television and a couple of years ago before they started filming skip and just before the release of the Medgar Evers book Willie came by this studio to talk about a book that he wrote and contributed to a book about coming of age.
Old enough to read this book. I don't believe it.
You and I have had so many conversations over the years birth both all day and often I don't think you're old enough.
Well it's a confession I never made before. But you don't look at it. But I attended your wonderful birthday party my 30th.
Yeah when I guess that that was the night that you discovered that you were old enough to read the book. That's right. Or to write for him or to write write.
Did you discover that night that you were becoming cranky as well.
Well I've had intuitions and I know that my crankiness was giving a way to go to a more mellow tolerance when I've been as I as I have had the strangest experiences I write about in this book for about three hours every morning I have briberies Can I have your names and I have reveries of my transgressions of my past and kind of. Diabolik reveries but not major transit transgressions only semi transgress just a minor but it's done something to him you know why and I'm a writer I make my living as a writer.
I think we all are most of as mellow as we have age.
I'm glad that I think I've mellowed. That helps to have a good marriage and three spirited cats and to live and x in Mississippi.
But I think this is a very interesting telling about this idea tell me tell me about the well it's the Reader's Digest Books and I think this book is going to be a bestseller and got a great review I think New York Times I think was a goldmine of wit and wisdom but now it's got John Updike. It's gotten it was Al a Nobel Prize winner right on down the list and when they asked me to contribute to it and they gave me a little roster of the other's work and they were all over 50 Thank God. Why not.
Did you write specifically for it or had you done this piece for someone else. I've actually done it for a magazine called New Church new choices which is owned by Reader's Digest. But I've done three or four pieces with this very strange magazine isn't based in New York over the 50s readership. The first one I did was on the back with drama. Otherwise I would not have written about that if they hadn't asked me to but I think the new Joyce's magazine and Raiders and I just sort of collaborated on this particular book.
It's like it's a little goldmine my friend Larry Elder as opposed to Larry writing the Larry King who wrote Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and other works. I think he finally at the end of his piece says that scribble it man. The more you get older the more your furniture is worth.
Yeah but were your other favorites in here this is this must be like a reunion or an old home we love you friends of mine Arthur Miller of course they're a distinguished playwright.
Death of a Salesman. I was scribbling down author discusses the meaning of family and what keeps it from chaos. John Updike ends his essay about getting older with two suggestions. One love one another and to seize the day. Nobody Dan Wakefield says cultivate young friends and learn from them. Bill Kaufman the importance of three or four deep friendships and quotes Emerson. The only way to have a friend is to be one. Richard Rhodes family values are practiced not preached. Penelope Lively ponders the power of memories especially that vision of the world we preserved in childhood.
As a writer and a man I've tried to preserve that having grown up in Mississippi. I have so many memories I was like a you know a storage of Alt.
Do you find yourself now you know a rush to get them all down.
Not really. Yeah I mean. I find that I consistently work. I don't have that terrible urgency toward you know producing quickly. And a lot as I did as a younger person but I'm constantly working. And I indeed have to work well because I really have no choice but words and like I can to reach a point where I kind of like writing for a long time I thought writing was a sort of Iron Maiden of blanks. I don't feel that anymore I just I feel the urge to write and I write that I enjoy it so much is that you know I have to do it. And what I really want to do. Do you do it every day. When I'm really working on something big I do you try to put in about my four or five hours a day. I'm. Living on the banks of purple growing Greek which overflows in the rains which it is to say on this day of rain. And I feel very good about my work. And I just stick to it.
I talked to a couple things that are interesting that are happening in your life. This new book. This book is going to be popular. It's a collection of but this book is your book and this is it this is the this is the rough copy of it more going to do a whole lot more about it as the weeks go along and actually get published. This has been a labor.
It was a tough one. I didn't think it would be so tough. The it's not per se about the movie The Ghosts of Mississippi all of that sort of the organizing thread that runs through than I do. It's a profoundly personal book. It's about me it's about Medgar Evers place and when I was there a lot of time in Hollywood. Murli Evers and I were the consultants are on the movie. And I spent more time in Hollywood than I ever had in my life in a lot of Hollywood stuff. Very bizarre material but it's there are a lot of issues here that you hadn't addressed before. It's right when you get undressed with yourself. Exactly. And that's why it was so difficult. And it's why I'm glad I did it. Addressing a lot of national and issues which I had never come to a head with so much and in my writing career and having spent more time talking about the ghosts of Medgar Evers as we get closer to the published I have 10 seconds left to mention wonderful news about a movie.
They're making a movie Hollywood is of my recent book My Dog Skip. They're going to family Emmett in Mississippi in the spring to my aunts. And this is for definite. The guy who did Rain Man the natural and diner. And they're still auditioning Jane around the country for a dog who can bark with a southern accent. So your fans out there if you got a dog and bark up a Southern accent in the ends of the English moved their dogs terrier you'll make millions you'll do it.
Always fun always.
Well so it was two years ago and the movie is coming out here after the first of the year you both seen the movie you know it's so wonderful. We really saw before he died he left it.
Yeah he did it he loved it in fact the last time he talked to both of my kids was he called him from New York right after he'd seen it talking and intaglio both stars because they're both in the movie.
They're both in their families in the movie and my son is that sin that strikes will it will strike someone who will it out in one of the big things even with knowledge that big thing is interesting to watch both of you watching that because when we talk to Willie about being in a rush to get things all down you said well he should have been.
Yeah we she had began. Hey there was a baseball book and in his work write the notes because he wrote everything on the note cards a little chicken scratch on the Iraq and they're all laid out in order I mean he was about to sit down and write it and it was you know Rick you talked about it a lot. It was going to be great.
It's fascinating to see how he outlined a book because it's in its index cards that go up and then cocktail napkins to only go up and down this long table and they go and and it's and that's how he has the book to outline and the two days after he died Joanne took me up there and showed it to me.
And I know enough about a lot of the stories that he had on the cards when it was going to be a wonderful book. It will be an incredible book.
I love that line of Bill's tyrants about really having the most elegant leaf burnished minus the best. Yeah because all those stories were there my gosh I never met anybody a mile in my whole life who had such a wealth of material tucked away in his mind who insists he's not only the sweetest man I've ever known he's the smartest smartest man he really just he just knew so many and was an intellectual and a great I mean Larry I think you had the idea that he would if he was doing all that stuff that's one of my treasures is the last time that we all went out and had supper together we were talking about the the Mississippi century the last hundred years project that I've been involved in and he had several writing suggestions and ideas and was working on his own.
And you had him on a cocktail napkin for you know we rode the route of bodies checks.
Not so at home I have all of these checks it will be nice that I'll never get back to you I hope you know I have a check that he wrote to buy a lever thirty three dollars and thirty three cents for editorial cat advice on a tile or Scott I've got to check that it's really Tyler's gonna check they wrote him for five million dollars.
Oh and then the notation Yeah at the bottom it says four books. Exclamation point.
Very important. Well I have a check that will ease the end in the amount it says it all begins with the land and that's it. That was what he had planned to use as his starting point in his book about about the century. Tell me how you feel about the the cat book because he didn't like Kant's now but he came to that was out.
But after I got my daughter violate to be an extra in the movie My Dog Skip and she read the book and she said but you know when we're going over to the house they have cats.
So how did that happen. And last of all I don't know. She said Well you ought to write a book about that bad as a cat person now and how that happened then. So I told Joanne and she said no. Violet will have to tell him he will listen to her.
And she's very shocked so I would just drag her out of there and throw him out the back yard let him talk and of course you know Willy and he just he drew the best out of everybody and he certainly did with ballet and I spent an hour or so out there and he came back in and announced he was going to write a cat book and did.
And he threw himself into it 100 percent hating I mean he he cranked it in there and got stories from got by Lee to write stories and wrote a best where the writer the check for 33 33 purgatorial cab advise said it was the first installment.
But that's one of the greatest gifts to me that that and I'm sure it's the same way it's it's what willing it to our children. I mean we have that personally but he certainly with all his books and everything is made a great contribution to childhood for evermore.
He was so good with children one night I was put mammy debated shortly after he died and she said you know dad you really always made me feel so small. You know what I mean.
He wrote and buy lace copy the ghosts of Medgar Evers.
My pal ballet MS wizard Ito that fun game at age 2 and you have sensibility in your heart you have greatness and you read good books. Raid Raid Raid Raid underlined then raid some more believe in who you are. Trust your imagination. Be yourself have fun laugh and cry. Don't be afraid to cry or to laugh. Think a lot. Keep your eyes and ears open. Don't miss anything. I believe in you love Willie and you know she never she you know her grandfathers and so that's what he was for her and so. The cane made her feel better about herself because she knew how special he was and so by extension you know that if he gave her.
His time and attention then she must be space special to him and he was the same way with your kids and that's when most any kid that he met Absolutely and all the kids who were involved in that movie became his best friends too then they Hollywood actors and everybody in it about cabdrivers White was the one everybody.
And he became friends again with use with his own son to me. Yes true.
He wrote a pace in a Parade magazine I think it was in 1991 and he ended it with a quote from Norman Wilder said that the greatest tribute that we can have a dad is not great but gratitude.
In jail for Willie It is a wonderful thing to me that the university press people have decided to republish north toward home because as we saw at the bookstore the other night during that worth a celebration there are dozens and dozens of people who are going to be reading it now for the very first time and paying attention to it and that's a terrific terrific gift I think.
Alice books are doing great on Amazon and there are already half way I mean people are are are really and he would you just love that. That's very important to him.
I hope it's people rediscover his sports books the books that he's written about sports because he's I mean he thought that Marcus to play book was his best book.
But some of his short stories always stand in against the bourbon the fun the fumble are the best sports story bests best I've read. I mean he was just the one you love sports so much and one of the lessons he's taught me was that we always write best about what we care most about.
Well he was the best and we miss him and we love him but we're gratified but we're grateful and to know I'm constantly reminded of Bill miner standing up in front of that whole group the other night and mentioning the fact that Willie was kind of the glue that held all those people together that never would have crossed paths otherwise.
And what are we going to do now. Keep on. Well now we're just kind of celebrating.
This transcript is machine-generated and has not been corrected. It is likely there will be errors.
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- Tribute to Willie Morris
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- Series: Conversations Time 27:45 No. 204 Title: Tribute to Willie Morris
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- Chicago: “Conversations; 204; Tribute to Willie Morris,” 1999-12-24, Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed February 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-483j9qk3.
- MLA: “Conversations; 204; Tribute to Willie Morris.” 1999-12-24. Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. February 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-483j9qk3>.
- APA: Conversations; 204; Tribute to Willie Morris. Boston, MA: Mississippi Public Broadcasting, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_60-483j9qk3