What's the next meal?: An interview with George Singleton

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In my first fiction workshop of college, I tried to write a story about a guy who shit himself whenever he got anxious.

He got anxious a lot.

My professor, author Tom Franklin, wisely wrote at the bottom of my first draft, “cut the shit.” He also wrote the name George Singleton somewhere in that draft. The name meant nothing to me at the time. I thought it might’ve been a note Tom wrote to himself, like a name of a new hotshot mechanic in town who was recommended to him or something. Later, he told me that Singleton was an author and that I ought to read him.

“It’ll help,” he said.

Reading Singleton, I learned that you don’t need to turn your story into a poop joke to be funny, and you don’t need have something “slide out” to make your characters interesting. Good fiction isn’t a quick emotional trick – it’s a full emotional investment that draws your mind back later and makes you think, “Goddamn!” while you’re alone in your car noshing on a cheeseburger.  Singleton did that for me. He was a torch!

Anyways, you ought to go read his work, and you have plenty to choose from. He’s written five short story collections and two novels. Plus, one book of writing advice. He’s also got a couple books coming out soon. If you read this interview, you’ll learn more about them.

A couple months ago, Singleton spoke to me for about forty-five minutes. Afterwards he went and picked a few muscadines.

George Singleton

George Singleton

Phil McCausland: How did you get started with writing?

George Singleton: Well I’m old, so it’s gonna take a long time to explain this.

The more I think about it, I started writing when I was about fifteen or something, but I didn’t know it. I was a distance runner, so I’d get up real early in the morning and run. And I’d run sort of like Forrest Gump – six to nine miles in the morning. I was an okay distance runner. I mean, I was good. So I ran, ran, ran.

I didn’t do all that great in high school – I didn’t care. I went to college because a track coach said, “Come here.” I ripped a ligament in my senior year of high school, so I kind of couldn’t run anymore. And then went off to that same college, it’s called Furman. I was so far behind, and also because Furman was really Baptist and I wasn’t, I hid in the library a lot. So I really started writing in college.

So then I wrote bad poetry and bad plays and then bad novels. About the age of twenty, I started writing bad prose and did that for about eight years. In between, I got an MFA somehow and started writing short stories. And then that all took.

Meanwhile, some of my professors had said, “hey dickhead! Try writing in first person because you’re trying to be funny, and you can’t do it in third person.” And then I wouldn’t do that. After that a bunch of them said, “It takes about 1000 pages before you’re ready.” And I thought, I’m a lot smarter than that, it won’t take me 1000 pages. But it took a 450 page novel, and then a 300 page novel, then 450, then 250, then a 300 page novel before I really started getting published.

Everybody was right, I was wrong. That’s how it goes.

I started writing short stories like hell because I hadn’t read a lot of short stories. I was a bad reader – I am a bad reader now. I’m forever catching up. But I started teaching college in a whole lot of English 101 classes, and I didn’t have the patience to write more bad novels. I didn’t even know how to send them out. So that’s how that happened.

Meanwhile! Somewhere along that line, towards age 28, I started reading some good short story writers, like Barry Hannah and Flannery O’Connor, and went, “Oh, I can write about the South and small towns.”

I’d been told earlier, “Quit writing about France because you’ve been there for a week. Write about where you’re from, shithead.” And then it all kind of caught up. Then I started writing about kind of the same thing I’ve been writing about for the last 20 or 30 years.

Not thirty years, I’m not that old. Twenty-seven years, Phil. Twenty-seven years.

PM: What was your first publication where you thought, alright this is going to happen?

GS: I went to this MFA school at George Mason for a semester back when I was twenty-three or twenty-four, and they had this magazine called Phoebe. And I kind of did a little excerpt, but it was because my buddy was the editor and it was a new magazine. And then I was in Greensboro, I’d just got out of Greensboro [UNCG MFA program], they did a little excerpt from a bad novel. But it was just because I had gone there.

What I think is my first real acceptance, where no one really knew me, was at a little magazine called Sou’wester. S-O-U-apostrophe-wester. It was a regular short story. And then I went, “Okay, that’s all right.”

It was a real short story. It took me a couple weeks to write, it took them nine months to accept. It’s like giving birth. That’s kind of the first one I think.

I always think it’s Sou’wester as my first successful one. I didn’t feel guilty about it, you know?

PM: These People Are Us was your first short story collection, right?

GS: Yeah, but that first story that got accepted was like 1986 or ’87 and my first book came out in 2001.

PM: But I heard a rumor that you don’t look back fondly on These People Are Us.

GS: Well I’m not a big fan of anything I’ve written in the past because it’s kind of dead meat. I’m serious. I go, “Okay, that was then.”

You know, there’re some okay stories – they’re okay. I bet if I got hit in the head and forgot who I was and read those stories I’d go, “All right, maybe they deserve to be published in a magazine.” But I’m not sure I would.

It doesn’t matter to me. There are these people out there who talk about these meals they’ve eaten years in the past, and they go, “That was the best meal I’ve ever eaten twenty years ago in Paris.”

Okay, good for you. I just say it was food, and what’s the next meal?

PM: How do you come up with story ideas and how do you develop stories?

GS: Usually I kind of hear in my head a little voice that says a sentence. Let’s see, what am I working on now?

I got a buddy named Ron Rash and he always says, and I make fun of him, he says, “I have a vision. Like when I wrote Serena, I had a vision of a woman on a white horse.” I don’t really have a vision, but I have a little voice that says something. And it usually has some kind of conflict in it.

Let me look at what I’m writing on today… Oh geez… I can’t find it. Lord, I hope I didn’t lose that whole goddamn story.

Okay, this one goes, “Nobody wants a roommate between the ages of say twenty-five and eighty.”

So I heard this voice. There’s this story by Rick Bass called “Cats and Students, Bubbles and Abysses,” and I kind of had that in my mind. It’s a great story. It’s an unreliable, vindictive, angry narrator, and I knew that this narrator, in whatever my story is going to be – I’m not even half-way through – is going to be a guy that was forced to get a roommate because of foreclosure, his wife left, and all this stuff. I just kind of went, “okay, see where that goes.”

Usually there’s some kind of conflict that shows up – right away. And you just kind of fly and see where it goes.

GeorgeSingletonBooks

PM: So you never have your story planned out? You just have a first line and go from there?

GS: No, no, no. I kind of never know. I mean, I do know this: I kind of know because a long time editor for me at Algonquin once said to me, “George, a good short story’s ending kisses the beginning of the story, and your stories tend to grope the beginning of your stories. You’re raping the beginning of your story.”

What she meant was if I start it in a used car lot, I should probably end it somehow in a used car lot or the narrator driving by a used car lot or some kind of thought about a used car lot. So I know that this one is probably going to end with looking for a new roommate, having to put out an advertisement. I kind of know. It makes it a lot easier. I kind of know how it’s going to end. I’m not worried about it.

PM: I read this thing that you said once, “A writer gets his best work from excess.” I was wondering if you still believe that idea.

GS: Everything in excess instead of moderation? That kind of thing? That kind of thought?

PM: Yeah.

GS: Well I’m just being mean really because I had this background in philosophy and there was that guy Aristotle who said, everything in moderation. I just hate that idea of moderation. I’m not a real big fan of human beings who are in moderation. I’ve met people before and they’ll say, “I can drink one beer a day.” And what I say is drink real hard or don’t drink at all. Either one.

Don’t be like them because they’re boring.

My writing style probably is like that. I write it out real fast and hard usually and then cut. Instead of a little bit at a time. It works either way. I mean some writers, like I have friends who really work on a paragraph forever and ever and ever and the next paragraph forever and ever and ever, and after a year they got this one story, and it will probably come out in the Atlantic Monthly. But I don’t have that kind of patience.

PM: How long does it take you to get through a story? Is it different story to story?

GS: God! In the old days, I’d write like – old days being up until a few months ago, I just took a new job and things aren’t going so hot – in the old days, two a month.

Now I’m getting older and I’m running out of ideas. Hell, I spend half my time just trying to think up names. I’m just going, “God, I’ve used that name – Frank! Frank has shown up in a hundred short stories. I got to think of a different name.”

But if you think you write six or eight hundred or a thousand words a day, and a short story at the max I think should be five thousand words, that’s going to take a week. And then a week of tinkering with it.

PM: You start early in the morning every day when you start writing, right? You get up at 4:30?

GS: 4:30 AM. Yeah.

PM: Do you need music or something? Do you hang out in the dark by yourself?

GS: Gosh, it’s kind of changed a little bit because right now I’ve moved to a new house and my study is right above the bedroom, so I can’t crank music or Glenda is going to yell at me a lot. Wake her up. I guess I could use headphones – I didn’t think about that.

Normally I have bad, which I think is good, punk music or whatever: White Stripes, that’s not so punk, Hüsker Dü, Replacements, Minutemen, something like that – something that’s kind of white noise to me.

PM: I’m just kind of curious about what your twenties were like because I’m in my twenties, and it seems to be an interesting time for most people.

GS: Twenties for me were the 1980s, and maybe there were a lot of drugs more prevalent, and maybe, but I’m not saying, I started drinking real early. I started drinking when I was thirteen or fourteen. But I worked, especially in graduate school.

You could talk to my old friends and they’d go, “Yeah, Singleton was a bad drunk, but, for some unknown reason, he’d get up early and did his work.”

And I did. I kind of liked it. It was fun to get up with a hangover. It’s kind of fun.

It’s kind of like if you go on a big road trip, you get real drunk the night before and you got a bad hangover, and then, say you’re driving from here [northeastern South Carolina] to Memphis, by the time I get to Nashville my hangover is gone, and I’d say, “Oh, I only have a few more hours to go.”

And that’s kind of how it was with writing, I’d go, “Oh goddamn, my hangover finally let up, and I’ve written five hundred words – good.”

PM: So do you have a secret for getting over hangovers easily then?

GS: I wrote an article one time for Oxford American about hangover cures, and it came out in like Best American Food Writing oddly enough. It involved Vienna sausages and habanero peppers. I wouldn’t recommend that to everyone.

PM: Tom Franklin fed me my first Vienna sausage last year.

GS: Oh yeah? Oh man, they’re good and good for you. They’re also good for sick dogs. Whenever I have dogs that won’t eat – you know I got dogs, right?

Dog goes, “Man, I can’t eat, I’ve fucked up, I ate a rabid squirrel, or whatever.”

And I say here, “Here you want a Vienna sausage?”

And they’ll go, “Yeah, I’ll eat a Vienna sausage. I won’t eat dog food, but I’ll eat a Vienna sausage.”

PM: I heard you got a pool, and you were really excited about it but now you hate your pool. Is that true?

GS: There’s a pool at this new house. This morning I got up and graded papers, then I wrote, then I went out with this fucking net, because there was a bad storm and there were leaves all over the fucking pool, so that’s what I did to the pool. And it’s too cold. I guess I need to put some kind of net on it because it’s too cold now. Although two nights ago, it was really cold and maybe I’d had a beer or two, and I said to Glenda, “Hey, let’s get in this pool.”

And she said, “No, are you fucking crazy?”

I jumped in. It was real, real cold. I can’t swim. I can barely swim. You know I’m not like some swimmer. I don’t even think you should swim unless a shark’s coming after you.

So, we’ll see. That’s how I’ll die. I’ll drown in that pool.

PM: Yeah, just walk into the pool.

GS: Just like Virginia Woolf.

PM: Exactly. Just in a swimming pool. It’s a lot more poetic.

GS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

George Singleton with his dog

George Singleton with his dog

PM: This is a question that everyone asks, but I want to know. What are you reading right now?

GS: Yeah, I’m teaching a bunch, so I’ve been teaching standbys for me. I’m teaching a fiction writing class…

Actually I went around my class the other day, and these are twenty year old college students in a fiction writing class, and I said, “Besides the classics, besides what you’re being asked to read in classes, and besides Harry fucking Potter, what have you read?” And it was nothing, nothing, Hunger Games, Hunger Games, nothing.

Then one girl said, “Well I like to read the classics that I’m not assigned. Right now I’m reading Gone With the Wind.”

And I went, “You dumb fuck, that’s a goddamn romance novel.”

And then it was nothing, nothing, and then two of them, they’re twenty years old, they were talking about YA books by Jonathan Green, and I was appalled. Now meanwhile, I have had them read Richard Ford, Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, Mary Gaitskill – I’m only like three weeks into the class – Bobbie Ann Mason, Dale Ray Phillips, Pendarvis, and a few others. I mean a bunch, so it’ll eventually take.

Me personally, the last great books I’ve read recently are: Why We Live in Water by Jess Walter, Bobcat by Rebecca Lee, Jamie Quatro… I can’t think of the title of her book [I Want to Show You More]. I can see the cover. It’s got a lot of silver tinfoil on the cover. Those are great bad marriage stories. That’s about it for me that I can think of off the top of my head.

I’ve also read a biography of John Cheever by Blake Bailey that is great. And Cheever was once stationed in an army base called Camp Croft, and it’s kind of right across the street from where I live right now. I mean Camp Croft land is about right across the road. So I like to think John Cheever was running around my yard at some point in his life.

PM: I remember in my fiction workshop we read “The Paperhanger” by William Gay. It freaked half the class out.

GS: We haven’t read that yet. I’m reading that on Halloween day. It’s a great story, and William was a great man. I loved him. I have about six million stories about him and his crazy pit-bull. I miss him terribly.

PM: Well I don’t know what else I have for you. I’m kind of nervous. You got anything you want to add?

GS: I think you’d be better off hanging out at City Grocery or Ajax, drinking all afternoon, and making up answers that I said. That would be fine by me.

PM: Yeah?

GS: Catfish dip! Hey, listen. One time I was in Ajax – you know there for a while it was like a goddamn book tour every fucking year or I’d be doing something, and I’d end up in Oxford. I really liked that catfish dip they had at Ajax, and I don’t know who owns Ajax or anything, but one day I said, “Hey, I sure wish I had the recipe for this stuff.”

I think it was Tom [Franklin] or Jim Dees or someone who said, “Well we can maybe get it.” And they got the owner.

She came out and said, “I’ll go print it out for you.”

I said, “Oh God, that is so kind and nice of you. What a friendly gesture.”

She came back with a piece of paper that started off, “Take four hundred smoked catfish filets…”

And I went, “Well I don’t want to make enough for a fucking town, man. I just want to make enough for me. How do I reduce this?”

PM: You got something new coming out?

GS: I got a new book coming out May 13. And I presume I’ll probably be on another book tour, although summer book tours suck. I mean, book tours suck in general, and summer book tours suck in particular. Because people are at the beach, or they’ve got better things to do than hang out in a fucking book store at night. But maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll be in the fall.

PM: Can you tell me about the next book?

GS: The next book that’s coming out is stories and a novella. It’s called Between Wrecks. My last book is called Stray Decorum, and it used to be four hundred-some-odd pages, but because of an agent it got cut in half.

So I got an ongoing narrator named Stet Looper, and he kind of shows up in both, and then he tells this novella. And the novella, it’s called I Would be Remiss, and it’s all acknowledgements. You know how at the end of a novel or any book now, “I would like to thank my agent, I would to like my editor, I would like to…” So I wrote one that’s ninety pages long. You can kind of figure out what the guy’s book is about by what he says in the acknowledgements.

I hope. I hope.

Then I’m supposed to be, I think, writing this novel, which really isn’t going that well. I think it’s called Poke. It’s about a guy being brought up by his uncle. But the more I write it, the more I think that his fucking uncle sounds like that dude on Duck Dynasty called Si. And that’s pissing me off. So I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that one. Maybe just in the drawer with the rest of the bad ones.

PM: Aw…

The world will be okay without it.

PM: Are you going to get some muscadines now?

GS: Yeah, four o’clock. Four o’clock I’m going to pick muscadines and scuppernong, too.

PM: Well enjoy the muscadines!

GS: Yeah, yeah. No lie.

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