MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Winning awards isn’t a new thing for Rick Bragg, a prolific Alabama author and journalist from Pelham who has even earned a Pulitzer Prize.
But this new one’s a little extra special. After all, it’s named in honor of Bragg’s favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.
“People have always asked me what Fitzgerald meant to me as a writer,” said Bragg, who is a frequent visitor to Montgomery, but has never seen the city’s Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald Museum before.
“It’s always been easy to answer because, you know, I grew up on pulp wood roads. I grew up between cotton fields. I’m not trying to be rustic. That’s just the way I grew up. My first job was pick and shovel work, hay bailing, ditch digging. I worked on a farm,” Bragg said. “Reading Fitzgerald kind of opened up a different world to me. Especially ‘The Great Gatsby.’ I know they called it the Jazz Age, but to me it was kind of this gilded age of parties and big cars and old money, new money.”
On Sept. 24, Bragg, a longtime journalist and author of 11 books, said he’s looking forward to being a tiny part of Fitzgerald’s legacy as the sixth recipient of the Fitzgerald Museum Literary Prize for Excellence in Writing.
“We have worked very hard to design a fun, safe and interactive evening for Rick and his fans that takes advantage of the beautiful outdoor space of the museum lawns to allow for distancing and fresh air,” said Museum Executive Director Dr. Alaina Doten. “With all the current-day stresses underway, the comfort and joy that Rick delivers through his words is the type of medicine many of us really need to lift our spirits.”
Guests can get signed copies of Bragg’s new book, “The Speckled Beauty: A Dog and His People, Lost and Found.” It’s a story about his canine companion Speck, who will not be in attendance. If you read the book, you’ll see why.
“In the book, you tend to hit the most interesting places,” Bragg said of his real life misadventures with Speck. “The things that don’t make the book were just as bad. They just weren’t quite as interesting.”
Bragg has the honor of being the only person Speck has bitten since being rescued, though the dog chases every delivery person or worker that comes near him. “He nailed me a couple of good times, but never anybody else,” Bragg said.
While there’s a lot of humor in Bragg’s new novel, it also touches on sadness. Bragg’s brother Sam, who was a major figure in the book. passed away toward the end of writing it from pancreatic cancer.
“He got sick toward the end of the book, and I was not going to write about my brother’s passing in a dog book. I just wasn’t going to do it,” Bragg said. “But it had to be addressed because he was such a big part, with his interactions with Speck. He didn’t like Speck at first. I found toward the end of the book that I could say some things about my brother that I always wanted to say... Toward the end, they kind of came to like each other.”
In addition to the award presentation, the event serves as Fitzgerald’s 125th birthday party.
“Finally, somebody older that I am,” Bragg said.
The ceremony is taking place from 6-9 p.m. under a tent in the outdoor space at the museum, 919 Felder Ave., Montgomery. Tickets to the event, which is also a celebration of Fitzgerald’s 125th birthday, are available for $55-$75 at thefitzgeraldmuseum.org.
Previous recipients of the literary prize have been founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson (2020), accomplished Alabama authors Frye Gaillard (2019), Wayne Flynt (2018), Katherine Clark (2017) and Kim Cross (2016).
Bragg took some time to answer a few questions about his life, his dog and his writing:
Q: Have you been in Montgomery much before?
A: “I’ve been coming in and out of Montgomery since I was five years old. We always got lost in Montgomery on our way into Pensacola... We would always stop in Montgomery and eat lunch. We’d stop at those old concrete picnic tables on 21. It always meant fried chicken and getting lost. We’d somehow manage to get lost at least once.”
Q: Did you write a lot when you were really young?
A: “No. When I was a little kid, I grew up with great storytellers. I mean the best storytellers on the planet. But they were talkers, not writers. They could make you hear the change rattling in the pocket of the deputy who chased you down a dirt road. My Uncle James and Uncle Bill and my other uncles were just great talkers.”
“I never would have got into writing if it hadn’t been for the high school newspaper. I was flunking out of drafting class in the trade school because I couldn’t do the math. I always wanted to be an architect, but I couldn’t do the math. I just didn’t have it in me. I’d look at long division and I’d just lose my mind. A friend of mine told me that if I did journalism then I didn’t have to do any math. I joined the school paper and started writing stories. I found out eventually that you could tell a story with the color, imagery and detail the way that my uncles told a story.”
He said journalism also beat doing manual labor jobs. “You weren’t going to fall off the roof of a house writing a story,” Bragg said.
Q: Have you always been a dog person?
A: “I’ve always loved dogs, and I’ve always loved the idea of dogs. I grew up with dogs. I had a Weimaraner puppy with one eye, and had a basset hound and had a hundred mongrels... I had dogs until I started working for newspapers, before I went to work at the Birmingham News. Then all of a sudden I was working 18 hours and on the road, living in apartments. I just didn’t have the heart to put a dog in a little bitty apartment. I didn’t have another dog for 30 years. Maybe longer.”
Q: So tell us about Speck.
A: “I found Speck starving to death on a ridge line behind the house there in Calhoun County, behind my mama’s cabin. He’d been there for about two of three days just waiting to die. He’d been torn up, and we think run off by the stray dogs that he’d been roaming with. He was just looking down, high up on the ridge about a hundred yards or so just watching the house. After a couple of days, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I went up and got him. It probably wasn’t the best decision I ever made. He was a good dog while he got his strength back. But as soon as he got his strength back he tore up everything for two miles. He terrorized the cats, stampeded the donkeys, and fought the other dogs... He managed to wallow in every form of manure that you can find on a farm.”
Q: As a longtime journalist, do you ever feel that style of writing with the Associated Press rules creeping into your work?
A: “Oh, every day. Oh yeah. I still have editors at Knoph who the first thing they have to do is change my manuscript from AP style. They use more Chicago style. I don’t really know how to write any other way. Now, I’m so thoroughly confused that I would probably fail an AP style test.”
Q: As a writer, has the past year and a half under pandemic conditions been a time to work on new projects?
A: “It has not, and I’ll tell the truth about this. It may have given me more time, but this is an awful, awful time. There’s something about the dread and the worry. I’m not talking about just one person getting sick. I’m talking about every person in your family. I took my mother across county lines to get her a COVID shot because we could get it a little quicker there. The worry about being around people, I don’t think any of that is good for writing. I didn’t respond to it very well.”
Q: Something I’ve been wondering through the years is if writers ever retire? Do you see yourself ever not writing?
A: “It would be kind of shameful to quit a job as easy as this. Again, I did pick and shovel work. I remember once having to tote concrete blocks up a ladder... And I remember thinking, man, whatever I do with my life will be easier than this. Writing to me, even though it’s hard, and even though you may sweat bullets, it really doesn’t compare to what most people do... I guess I’ll write as long as I’ve got something to say, and then maybe one day I’ll wake up and decide I don’t have something to say. Then I’ll get me a lawn chair and a Zebco 202 fishing rod, and maybe a good dog. Maybe Speck will last that long. Maybe me and him will go down and pretend to fish.”