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Monday
Sep222014

“Getting to the Line Without Crossing It”: An Interview with George Singleton

George Singleton is the author of two novels, six story collections, and one book of writing advice. A 2013 SIBA Book Award Finalist, his work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and Playboy. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he was awarded the Hillsdale Award for Fiction by The Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2011. He holds an MFA degree from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and teaches writing at Wofford College. He currently lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

His story, "Operation," appeared in Issue Sixty-One of The Collagist.

Here, George Singleton talks to interviewer Thomas Calder about cutting down story, cunnilingus, and the impossibility of satisfying every last reader.

What was the idea or image or perhaps piece of dialogue that got this story going?

I had been trying to write a novel about these folks. I finally gave up after four drafts, and kind of just started writing stories about Start and Cush.  The image of a social worker coming in—stranger comes to town, pretty much—and how Cush would lie his way through it seems to be the image I had in mind, plus ways he’d try to show that the kid was okay in a variety of ways.

What were some of the issues you had with the novel that led to your decision to turn it into a story?

Well, it sucked, for one.  I kept writing and writing and nothing happened worth mentioning.

Throughout “Operation,” we hear moments about Start’s past, as well as Cush’s own time in Vietnam. How much of these characters pasts did you explore in earlier drafts and how much of that, if any, got cut down during revision?

In the novel(s), there was a ton of past, of course.  There was a whole lot more about his parents and their reason to scram town.  So it all got cut down about 75% or more.  This particular story—with its past as a wannabe novel—is kind of like a reduction process in cooking.

Cush comes across as a wild card. I could imagine him saying just about anything. But in the end, his words and anecdotes are never random. What were some of the joys and challenges of figuring out Cush’s character?

With a character like Cush—whom the reader is either going to like or despise, I imagine—it’s always a game that involves getting to the line without crossing it.  But there’s no daggum way to satisfy everyone.  That scene that involves his describing cunnilingus certainly tests the readers’ sense of decorum, I’m willing to bet.  But so what? I’d rather see how far I can push things, compared to being safe, safe, safe and probably a little boring.

You know, I was trying to come up with a question about the cunnilingus scene. It’s one that I don’t think I will ever forget. Personally, I was drawn to Cush and the sort of mad logic he possessed. Earlier you mentioned Cush lying his way through the interview to make everything seem a-okay. And while there are hints from Start that his life isn’t anything ideal, there are also moments of great pride and protectiveness over his Uncle. It’s such a wonderfully complex relationship. I’d love to hear more about your thoughts and process in constructing it.

I want Start to be both in love with his uncle, and scared of him.

I see from your bio that you teach writing at Wofford College. I’m always interested in hearing individual approaches, as far as balancing teaching and writing. Do you have a set schedule? Do you write when you can? Or is your approach something completely different?

I’ve been on this job for a year.  One year and seventeen days, to be exact.  In the past, I got up in the morning and wrote.  I’m talking something like 4:30 to whenever.  7 or 8.  I haven’t quite figured out my schedule here.  So I’m doing the “write when you can” thing.  So far, it ain’t exactly working out in a way that makes me happy.  And it’s not like I’m teaching hours on end, far from it.  But I have 8 and 10 o’clock classes on MWF, and a 1 o’clock on TTh. In between there seem to be an inordinate amount of meetings.   Something about writing late afternoon some days and early morning others has me perplexed.

What were you doing prior to Wofford?

I taught for thirteen years at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities—it’s lately rated the 101st best HS in America according to US News and World Report.  Kind of like that old TV show Fame.  Smart kids.  Twelve in a class at most.  They wanted to write.  They did.  

You’ve write short stories, as well as novels. Do you find that your novels begin as short stories, or do you go into each new project knowing what form they will take?

Over the years I’ve sat down to write novels, and I’ve finished some of them, and I’ve sent out a couple of them, and nothing happened.  With Novel and Work Shirts for Madmen I sat down to write a story, and it kept going.  More often than not—and this will happen with Cush and Start (or at least a crazy uncle and a half-orphan)—I just start writing stories with the same characters.  That’s kind of what happened with Why Dogs Chase Cars.

Who are some of your favorite characters in literature that remind you in some way of Cush? (This is me wanting to know what other stories/novels I should read, in that I truly loved the tension Cush’s character creates in “Operation.”).

Some of my favorite loose cannon characters are Rooster Cogburn in True Grit; Norwood in Norwood; Sugar Mecklin’s daddy in any of those Lewis Nordan books; Smonk in Smonk; the father in Brad Barkley’s novel Money, Love; God in the Old Testament (ha ha ha).  This is off the top of my head.  There are probably a hundred.  Harry Monroe in Geronimo Rex, for sure.

What are you currently reading?

Yesterday I finished a fine novel by David Joy called Where All Light Tends to Go.  It’s coming out in March, I believe. I’m re-reading Kentucky Straight by Chris Offutt.  Next novel on the list is Hold the Dark by William Giraldi.

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