Professors and students filled Hamilton Hall to see him accept the award and to hear his advice on being working writer -- ironic considering Brown seemed to be the only one with no formal education in literature.
Regardless, Brown's eight-book bibliography asserted him as a highly successful writer. He is the only two-time winner of the Southern Book Award, and the experience of being a writer and a Southerner was the focus of his lecture.
"Writing is basically trying to turn characters in your head into living, breathing people who get rained on, drive cars and eat ribs in Mississippi," he said.
Although Brown often muttered his words into the microphone, the audience listened intently to his instructions, which mainly reaffirmed that old adage of "write what you know."
For his first writings, he did not follow his own advice. "My first story was about a man-eating bear in Yellowstone, a place that I have never been," he said.
That tale, incidentally, was never published, but Brown has a rich history to draw on for his stories. He was drafted in 1970 and served in the marines in the Vietnam War. And even after he became a firefighter he still worked day-jobs painting houses, hauling hay or sacking groceries.
"I never use an outline. All my novels were done one day at a time," he said, responding to a question about writing a new book. There's only one rule he always remembers, "The worst crime that a story can commit is to be dull."
He also suggested that aspiring writers study their favorite works of literature. He named Stephen King as one writer who he admires. "He has the ability to create sympathetic characters and interesting stories, and he has the added advantage of being able to scare the hell out of people," Brown said.
Brown grew up in Oxford, Mississippi, the famous home of William Faulkner. But he didn't originally have any intention of following in those historic footsteps. He was a firefighter until he decided to start writing at age 29.
This is the second award of its kind, as author Tom Wolfe was the first recipient of the prize last year. In the meantime, Brown intends to keep writing novels and short stories about the South. "I figure every story in the world has already been told," he said.
But that won't stop him from trying to re-stage them in his own down-home eloquence.
The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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