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Big Books Feature

Next of Kin

Rick Bragg Gives His Family Tree Another Shake in Ava's Man

Big Books Issue 2001

Next of Kin Rick Bragg Gives His Family Tree Another Shake in Ava's Man | By Frank Diller

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By Frank Diller | Posted 9/26/2001

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times, Rick Bragg makes his living telling other people's stories. After his grandmother passed away in 1994, however, he felt compelled to tell his own tale.

Bragg's 1997 book All Over but the Shoutin' chronicled his mother's struggle to raise three boys in rural Alabama. Margaret Bragg picked cotton during the day, ironed other people's clothes at night, and protected her children from her husband's drunken rage. Bragg's father, an alcoholic Korean War veteran, eventually abandoned the family, forcing Margaret and her boys to rely on her family and the kindness of strangers.

Bragg considers Shoutin' to be an odd memoir because it discusses his childhood, his journalism career, and his travels with his mother to accept the Pulitzer Prize and to buy her a house. "It's an homage to my mother, but I had to write about myself to show what [she] went through," the author explains by phone. "You shouldn't write memoirs when you're 35 anyway," he adds.

Shoutin' was a critical and commercial success, but many readers felt that Bragg told only part of the story. They speculated that Margaret's strength originated in her own childhood. And so Bragg takes a look at that time in Ava's Man (Knopf). A wonderful companion piece to Shoutin', the new book details the life of Margaret's father, Charlie Bundrum, a hard-living roofer who stayed one step ahead of unemployment and the law by moving his wife and seven children 21 times during the 1930s. Bragg's project prompted his family to reminisce about Charlie after 40 years of silence, and gave the author a sense of the grandfather he never met.

It seems that when Charlie Bundrum died in 1958, his legacy began to die too. "It was a family tradition to stop talking about people after they passed away," Bragg says. "They needed a purpose and a reason [to talk about him], and I think Ava's Man gave them that reason." Even if he hadn't been curious about his grandfather, reader response to Shoutin' almost required Bragg to write a follow-up. "There's nothing better than knowing that people want a book before it's written," he says.

Bragg culled the colorful stories about his grandfather from interviews with friends and family. It was a chance to talk to many older relatives--two of whom have passed away since the start of the project--and to document the family's stories before they were lost forever. "There was no other way to do it except getting it secondhand and sometimes thirdhand," he explains. "But even doing it that way . . . I know him now, and that's the great gift."

It was difficult, however, for Bragg to let the story run its course. When his family got to the subject of Charlie's death, Bragg says, "[they] clammed back up again and hated thinking about my grandfather." The sentiment also affected Bragg as he wrapped up the book. "When I had to kill him off, I hated it because I didn't want to write it," he admits. Bragg took about two years to complete Ava's Man, and he spent three to four months of that time simply writing and revising the final chapters.

Besides providing material for the new book, Bragg's family played a part in the first edits as well. "They know stuff and they'll tell you what you got wrong," he says. While he appreciated their interest, he didn't want to upset his kin with the darker elements of the book. He asked them to look at the whole work and not get too hung up on a specific paragraph or page. "If they'd wait and read the whole thing," he remembers, "I guaranteed that they'd like it, and they did."

Still, Bragg says he was willing to scrap the whole thing if his family raised any objections. "There's no reason to make four 70-year-old women mad at you," he says. "We would have done something else."

Bragg considers his memoirs to be much more personal than his newspaper work. "A newspaper story is like shaking hands with a stranger," he says. "A memoir is like having every member of your family lay their hands on you." That sense of community also seems to extend to Bragg's fans. Approximately 600 people were waiting in line when the author arrived at a recent appearance in Oxford, Ala., near where he grew up, to promote Ava's Man. Almost 200 more people showed up during the event, and Bragg signed books and greeted readers from 6 p.m. until after midnight.

He devoted a good portion of the time to listening to readers share their personal stories with him. "People want to talk about their family, and you better listen, 'cause if you don't, the foundation of Shoutin' and Ava's Man crumbles," he says.

His readers' stories may also be useful to Bragg in the future. "I've had some people tell me, 'If you ever do a novel, you can use that.' And I will," he notes. He plans to work on some fiction in the next few years--possibly a "Southern novel set in the foothills of Appalachia." The thought of writing fiction was attractive to him for a while, he says, "but I always had these great [family] stories to tell. [Fiction] would be like eating dessert first when you've had these great first and second courses."

With accolades as both a journalist and author, however, this might be the ideal time for Bragg to loosen his belt and indulge a little.

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