Interviewed by Jacob Guajardo
The following interview was conducted over e-mail correspondence during a few weeks in April and May (2017).
The first question I had for you, George, came up while I was reading the first paragraph of your story “Eclipse.” “I might not have earned an associate’s degree in culinary arts from an accredited junior college…” your narrator, Tommy, says in the first sentence. He repeats these “might nots” later. It teaches us about his character, and yet a lot of the first paragraph is about getting the setting right. How important is it when you are writing a story to balance these elements early?
“The “might nots” kind of serve, in my mind, as a chant, or an echo. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently while teaching Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan. He throws in “We are all alone in this world” a bunch of times, offered by a number of major and minor characters, plus even a parrot. I started thinking about how sometimes writing a story might be like being one of the good pollinators—honeybee, or hummingbird. A bee will go from blossom to blossom, taking and depositing pollen. In some stories, it might be worthwhile to keep offering up pollen to the reader (I’m going to kill this metaphor somehow) so that the reader gets an ongoing sense of Voice, and a little memory-tap to what occurred earlier in the story.
As for opening paragraphs—I seem to be always stuck writing a six-to-ten sentence opening that somehow shows a little bit of the conflict immediately. (If you have undercooked chicken and margaritas in the first paragraph, only conflict can ensue, though the final conflict/resolution in this story really has nothing to do with chicken and booze.) I try to get the reader comfortable with the situation (some of that Journalism 101 Who/What/Where/When/How/Why advice). It’s like throwing the reader into the deep end of the pool with an in medias res scenario, but also allowing the reader to walk down the steps in the shallow end, acclimating him- or herself to the water’s temperature.
I love this. If you can’t introduce the conflict of the story in the first paragraph, like you said, there must be a kind of immediate tension present. What gets you into a story usually? A problem that holds a lot of conflict? A character?
For me it’s usually voice. I’ve never been accused of writing a plot-driven story, I doubt. It’s a voice with at least a tinge of discomfort—mental, psychic discomfort. “I didn’t want to be seated next to the guy I’d seen spit massively on the host’s garden gnome right before I entered the house.” That kind of thing. “This relatively normal looking woman tried to convince me that all people could communicate with the recently deceased.” On and on.
So, “a voice with at least a tinge of discomfort—mental, psychic discomfort…” gets you into the story. I can sense that discomfort, that unease, throughout “Eclipse.” How do you sustain that discomfort? Is it the writer’s job to alleviate any of that discomfort for the reader by the end?
I guess it’s like being a hurdler, in track. You make that one leap without clipping the hurdle, and you look ahead and go, “Man, another?” More often than not, though, one grazes a hurdle. Will it plain shimmer back and forth? Will it throw the writer (and reader) off stride? Will the writer collide into that last hurdle and ruin the entire story? I don’t know. Sometimes I smack a hurdle and think it’s okay, though editors don’t. Other times I send out a story thinking, Man, I hope the editor doesn’t see how I got so off stride that I went into another lane. Who knows?
When do you start researching, especially if you are writing about jobs? Tommy works for a caterer, how much of writing about his job is research and how much is imagining what it’s like to be a caterer?
I didn’t do any real catering research, other than watching caterers at, say, Senior English Majors Party Before Graduation! events. My only past experience in the food industry happened a long time ago, straight out of college, when I worked as a dishwasher at a steak house for a few months. Boy was my father proud of me…
I tell you this, though: When I started writing in college, I made two gigantic mistakes: A.) I thought that I couldn’t write about small towns, seeing as they might be boring; and B.) I thought the main character had to be a lawyer, doctor, astro-physicist, you name it. Big mistake. I either needed to know about those professions, or do a ton of research. I’m lazy. I don’t want to do research. Luckily, when I was about twelve, my father taught me how to paint a house and said, “You learn house painting, you’ll never be without a job.” Best advice ever. Between ages fifteen and about twenty-eight I’d painted, worked construction, driven a garbage truck, and so on. Consumer “research” like the Pepsi-Coke Challenge, ran a splitting and skiving machine for a textile supply place, graveyard shift security guard, et cetera.
Manual labor jobs—or even mind-numbing office temp jobs—are perfect ways to, without knowing it, gather research.
I completely agree. I think it was Barry Hannah who once told a student, when she asked how she could become a more interesting writer, that she must become a more interesting person. That doesn’t mean, at least in my interpretation, to become a lawyer, a doctor, an astrophysicist, but to become a person who asks more questions, who does more interesting things. This advice from your father about painting houses informed your ideas of character. What have other people taught you about writing?
I hear that Barry got scolded for saying that. Good grief. I see nothing wrong with such advice. It’s true, for the most part. I guess Emily Dickinson didn’t have what most people would think an “interesting” life, but for most writers, I would think that stepping into dangerous, mystifying, life-changing, challenging, heinous—hell, almost all the -ing and -ous words, now that I think about it—situations and dealing with them offers nothing but perspective and possibilities.
Every human being that I talk to teaches me something about writing. Listen, if I go to one of my neighbors (I live in the country) and say, “Tell me a story,” that person is going to say, “The fire department showed up and this guy told me there was still a burn ban.”
I said, “It’s been raining for a week.”
He shook his head. “Still the law,” he said.
Et cetera. My neighbor’s not going to go all “exclaimed,” “chortled,” “guffawed,” “spat out,” and so on. He will tell the story like normal everyday human beings tell a story.
My professor Lee Zacharias once told me, “Comedy is serious.” True. I’d been relying on slapstick.
My father’s old friend Mr. Bratcher, a shade tree mechanic, told me, “There’s always a cheaper and better way to go about fixing your car than what Toyota says.” Then he put in a toggle switch for five bucks after the spring-loaded headlight knob had boinged out to the tune of $95 plus labor (back in about 1979). I’m not quite sure how that can be shoved into writing advice, but by golly I’m going to say that it does.
There is a point in this story when Tommy realizes that William, the No Stigma boy, is Willie Earle, “returned from the grave.” How do you handle a surprise like this in a story? How does a writer successfully inform the reader? How do you decide when to keep the character and the reader in the dark? For how long?
That’s a great question. I don’t want to keep the surprise until the last line à la an O. Henry ending. What I tried to do is offer some hints—the scars on Willie’s head, for example—before the narrator has an official epiphany.
But it’s always a gray area, I guess—some people might read the story and go, “You should’ve started out saying that this was a ghost or sorts,” and some people will say, “You waited too long.”
Here is a question about revealing character: Samantha Gowdy-Bright is a sexy character. She “stroke[s] her dead fox…” and she looks down at the narrator’s crotch. I could tell immediately that we were supposed to be seduced. However, there isn’t much in the way of description. How do you manage this? Utterances? Context? Action? Have you found that there is a better approach to revealing character than another?
I might not have pulled that off so well, now that you mention it. Gee, thanks, Jacob. I notice how every New Yorker piece—especially the non-fiction—goes something like, “Ms. Harrumph walked into the restaurant. She wore a teal hat usually worn at the Kentucky Derby, sunglasses twice the size of anything worn by Jackie O, an off-grey pants suit designed by Mabel Mabel, and high-top Converse All-Stars. She held a foot-long cigarette holder in her right hand and said, ‘Hello’ to the maitre ’d.”
I mean, that’s okay, but for me I’d rather just have a character—if I’m trying to make her come off as highbrow—walk into a room, walk up to a character, and say, “You must have had a pitiful upbringing. Will you take care of this for me?” and hand over the stole.
Basically, it’s what a character says and does that comes off more authentic than what he or she wears.
Forgive my pointing out that Samantha is sexy, and that you’ve made her sexy by writing sexy. I completely agree with you. I am more likely to believe a character like yours. What are some other mishaps, blunders, or annoyances that you see in writing?
Well I’ve probably dealt with all of them. Too often I’ve probably brought out my own version of a deus ex machina and saved the day, and I see this in writers whom I teach, especially if they’re trying to write fantasy or sci-fi. When writing first-person, just use said/says, or asked/asks instead of Responded, Queried, Coughed, Sneezed, Belched, Chuckled—I have this thing against people chuckling. I mean, how many times, when a person tells a story to another person, does he or she go, “‘That’s funny,’ I chuckled”? One cannot chuckle out words, for one, and people never say, “I chuckled.” Real people who say “I chuckled” wear ascots and smoke pipes, and we should all stay away from them.
Finally, some basic questions that I think people who read Subtropics (myself included) will want to know.
What got you started writing?
I somehow came across Ferlinghetti when I was in high school. I don’t know how. I lived in a town without a bookstore. I read his poems right before I went off to college. Up until this point, it had all been Wuthering Heights, Charles Dickens, The Scarlet Letter. Ethan Frome. I didn’t know that one could be funny and/or weird. Then in college I had a French professor who turned me on to Ionesco and Beckett. Then came Barthelme/Pynchon/Barth. Man oh man. I went nuts. I wasn’t an English major—probably a good thing—and I got the disease, as my first writing professor said of me.
Who are your important influences?
Here’s a funny story: Every one of my southern writer buddies goes, “William Faulkner!” or “Thomas Wolfe!” or “Flannery O’Connor.” Liars, all. To be honest, I started writing as a mimic of the late great Henry Gibson, from this show in the early 1970s called Laugh-In. He came on stage with a gigantic flower, and recited these little poems. I liked the guy. He was better than Nathaniel Hawthorne, at least. Then came those writers I mentioned above.
What’s next for you?
Zippo, probably. I was late into the Self-Promotion game. I didn’t join the Facebook or Twitter until recently. Publishers, agent, editors kept saying, “You need to get on social media and talk about yourself!” I thought that’s what publicists at publishing houses were supposed to do. Am I wrong?
Anyway, I guess I have a collection ready. Get this: a baker’s dozen stories that have been published in Subtropics, Atlantic Monthly, three Georgia Reviews, a Pushcart anthology, Oxford American, LitMag, Shenandoah, and so on. But my last few collections ain’t sold a million copies, so no one wants to touch another collection. Me, I’m old and don’t really want to go out anymore hawking books. So be it.
Or I could write another novel. Ha ha ha ha ha. Why in the world do publishers think novels will sell better? Aaaaaaargggghhhh.