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Hemphill's return

Atlanta author Paul Hemphill calls on a kindred country spirit in his comeback bid



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Atlanta had forgotten Paul Hemphill.

And, Jesus, did it hurt.

With the first book's success, Hemphill and his first wife, Susan, moved to St. Simons Island with their three children, David, Lisa and Molly. He wrote for major magazines, but the marriage began to fall apart. "I was writing books, but I was married to a woman who, to my knowledge, had never finished reading one," Hemphill wrote. They divorced and his ex-wife took the kids back to Birmingham.

Hemphill began to drift. His drinking got worse. In 1975, he was teaching a night class in Tallahassee. One of his students was a Florida state employee, a young woman from Atlanta who remembered that Hemphill not only was quite a writer, but was also quite cute. When Hemphill took a column-writing job with the San Francisco Examiner, the student, Susan Percy, followed. They were married and this fall will celebrate their 29th anniversary. They have one daughter, Martha.

In San Francisco, Hemphill clashed with Publisher Reg Murphy, former editor of the Constitution, over Jimmy Carter's presidential campaign -- Hemphill was for him, Murphy was not. Hemphill quit again. He turned down a sports column job in Chicago that was offered by a young Sun-Times sports editor, Lewis Grizzard, who soon returned to Atlanta to become a Southern folk hero as a humorist before his death at age 47.

Hemphill and Percy moved back to Atlanta, where Percy got her journalism career on track. She became a writer and editor at Atlanta magazine. Today, she's the editor of Georgia Trend, a monthly business magazine. When they arrived from San Francisco, they hoped for success with Hemphill's first novel, Long Gone, a minor-league baseball story that won a glowing review in the New York Times. In Newsweek, Pete Axthelm said, "Hemphill bears comparison to Faulkner in his lighter moods."

One day, Hemphill was mowing the yard when Percy called out that he had a phone call. "I thought it was Al Braselton, my friend who did great impersonations. He said, 'Paul, this is Dustin Hoffman.' I said, 'Yeah, right.' And I slammed the fucking phone on him. I went back out in the yard. And Susan comes up and says, 'You've got another phone call and it may be the same guy.' I said 'OK.' I started in and he said, 'Wait, wait! This is me, this is Dustin Hoffman. Really."

Hoffman wanted to play Stud Cantrell, the manager in Long Gone. Hemphill was ecstatic. If Hoffman made a successful movie based on the story, book sales might go through the roof. But then he learned his first important lesson about Hollywood: "You've got to get the screenplay. It better be good."

Unfortunately, the screenplay by a Hollywood writer wasn't good enough for Hoffman, who went on to do Tootsie instead.

Covers of Hemphill's books are framed on the wall behind the author and his wife, Susan Percy. - JIM STAWNIAK
  • Jim Stawniak
  • Covers of Hemphill's books are framed on the wall behind the author and his wife, Susan Percy.

Eight years later, the book became a made-for-TV HBO movie starring William L. Petersen and Virginia Madsen. Newsday called it "one of the best sports movies ever made."

Hemphill ran into the same roller-coaster of emotion with his next two novels.

Oscar-winner Jonathan Demme struck out with a screenplay for The Sixkiller Chronicles and two-time-Oscar-winner Ring Lardner Jr. failed to sell his screenplay of King of the Road, Hemphill's novel based on his father.

Of all people, Hemphill could relate to the disappointment Hank Williams must have felt when few people appreciated the most beautiful song he ever wrote, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

"[T}he marvelously poetic dirge that Hank himself would call the favorite of all the songs he wrote" ended up on the B-side of a record, Hemphill writes. "[T]he best it ever did on the charts was No. 43, in 1966, more than a dozen years after Hank's death."

In the '90s, Hemphill kept returning to nonfiction despite the advice of his old friend Terry Kay. Hemphill wrote about racism in Birmingham and Little River, Ala., about baseball and stock car racing.

"I've been telling him for years and years and years, 'Paul, for God's sake, write fiction, write fiction, write fiction,'" Kay says. "But I think he feels more comfortable with nonfiction."

Hemphill protests that "fiction is so fickle. You can't make a living at it. When you present a proposal in nonfiction to a publisher, that's easier. The publisher can put their finger on it."

With all his ups and downs, Hemphill never bothered seeing a therapist. He used his keyboard as his couch. His breakthrough with introspective writing came with a New York Times Sunday Magazine piece about his relationship with his father. He called it an emotional "bloodletting." When the article came out, his parents bought every copy of the Times they could find and burned them in a backyard bonfire.

For his seventh book, Me and the Boy, he tried to exorcise two demons at once -- repairing his relationship with his son, David, and beating the booze. He walked the Appalachian Trail with David, who had flunked out of the University of the South. They hiked 1,000 miles before the old ballplayer's knees gave out.

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