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"Whale as Witness": An Interview with Gregory Lee Sullivan

Gregory Lee Sullivan's stories appear or are forthcoming in The Collagist, Permafrost, Barely South Review, Buffalo Almanack, The Nervous Breakdown, and other literary journals. Before turning to fiction, Greg worked as a newspaper reporter in Georgia and Tennessee. Read more of his work at his website or find him on Twitter at @SullivanGL.

His story, "The Allatoona Whale," appeared in Issue Sixty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about lake culture, Balderdash, and animals in unexpected places.

Why write about the Allatoona Whale? What draws you to it as a subject?

I worked at a marina on Lake Allatoona during the latter part of my time in high school and when I’d come home from college the first couple summers while I was a college student at the University of Georgia. The lake culture always kind of fascinated me. This isn’t a period of my life that I think back to all the time, but it was that time between childhood and adulthood and independence, so every once in a while it comes to me (I’m 31 now, so not very old but just old enough, I believe, to feel genuine nostalgia about anything). A lot of people where I’m from spent a good amount of their time on the lake to the extent where it was central to a lot of peoples’ family traditions. We never had a boat growing up, but I was always drawn to the water, so I think working there helped my imagination. I got to drive the boats around all the time too, even if they were mostly shitty rental boats. It was quite a crowd down there. You’d have all the rednecks from where I’m from doing their thing, and then you mix that with all of the upper middle-class Cobb County people (Atlanta’s long-established northern suburbs) doing their thing with the nice boats that they owned, and then on weekends you’d get Atlanta people and international tourists coming up to rent from us. It was a shit show, but shit shows are good for writers.

As a side note, I’ve always wanted to write something about some of the almost-encounters I had there and turn them into real encounters, especially how it’d almost get weird all the time when European tourists would think the men’s restrooms were locker rooms and they’d be standing around in the restrooms completely naked and hairy when a local group would stumble in off a beat-up bass boat with a dip in their mouth, having never left the county before and with their five-year-old son in tow. The truth of the matter is, somehow I never saw a fight, or even a yelling match, break out over that kind of thing. Man, what a potential explosion, though! The lesson there is to never assume you’ve got the local people figured out.

But I should get to the whales. Whales live a really long time apparently. And there have been real shit shows for a really long time (sometimes funny shit shows, sometimes very sad and depressing ones), so I wanted to bring the whale in as sort of a witness to all of the shit shows of this place that I still find endlessly fascinating and that I’m usually very proud to call more-or-less my place of birth.

This piece takes the form of a scientific profile, which suggests (for me at least) that stories can be found in unexpected places. What do you think makes a story? At what point does a text become a story?

The piece plays with the reader’s assumptions of the scientific profile, so that’s a good point that you’re making. Like a traditional story, the storytelling is revealed a little at a time within the form it’s delivered. The revelation of the story within the less-traditional form made this a fun one to write for me. Have you ever played the Balderdash board game? I think all writers have probably played that game. Writing the first draft of “Allatoona Whale” was like playing that board game except I was by myself when I wrote the story.

That last part of what you’ve said is a great question, and it’s not an easy one to answer. Most of my stories probably have what people would say is some degree of weirdness to them, but most of them don’t tend to employ non-traditional forms like “Allatoona Whale.” The decision to use the form was an unconscious one. Looking back, I think doing so allowed me a window to gaze at what I know very, very intimately and play with the idea that I might could still be objective with the source material.

As far as what I think makes a story, I think it’s healthy for writers and readers to debate the issue from time to time. I don’t feel entirely comfortable declaring what a story is. I prefer to weasel out of doing so by quoting Supreme Court Justice Stewart from the sixties, who was the guy whose famous legal threshold for obscenity was that we know it when we see it. But since this is a story about lakes, I’ll instead sidestep by referring readers to the form of abductive reasoning most of us know as the Duck test: “If it looks like a duck,” etc.

This story alternates between the believable and the fantastical, between literal language and metaphor. I love the surprise in this detail:

“Some Allatoonas have what are essentially pink tattoos carved into their skin, indicating the many different cultural eras an adult whale has lived through. Scientists use these tattoos as dendrologists do tree rings, to determine the age of the Allatoona […]When left unaltered by man, an Allatoona's skin is as smooth as a slippery snake boot.”

Can you speak to the experience of switching between two forms in one piece?

I love you right now for quoting my story.

I like Karen Russell, and she does this switching I think you’re talking about pretty well. Karen was a guest instructor when I was doing my MFA at Rutgers-Camden. How she pulls off what she does, I think, is she excels at establishing a ratio between the real and the strange. When the ratio is established, the idea most of the time is to keep the ratio consistent through the piece.

A lot of my stories are centered on either metaphor or “story,” but I think you’re right that this one does concern both.

By the way, in retrospect, I really like the phrase that you quoted has “snake boot.” It makes me think of two possibilities looking back. First, a boot made of snakeskin, which are fashionable in some places I guess, or, even better, it makes me nostalgic (yet again) for those rubber wading boots that allow the rural child to walk through creeks and streams without worry of being bit by those poisonous water moccasins that are so dangerous to us. As a child growing up in nowhere Georgia, once I finally got hold of some of those rubber boots, I felt invincible. The devil couldn’t harm me anymore. I would go all over the place, capturing small aquatic animals and placing them in jars.

What other animals (real or fantastical) should we absolutely know about?

I think the word has been getting out for some time, but there are some pretty crazy wild hogs in North Georgia. I have written about them a little in my story collection. I guess we’d be talking about them as metaphor again there, too. I also have a story about wooly mammoths on the Tennessee-Arkansas border, but I don’t want to give away to people who haven’t seen the story yet, whether they’re real or not or too many details about them, if so. And while I do write about animals a good bit, my favorite animals to write about are people. In real life, I also find myself really drawn to pit bulls.

I should share that once I worked for a small newspaper in Georgia somewhere, and I did this one story about this family that kept seeing this panther in the woods by their home. This was in Central Georgia, so nowhere near the Florida panther of South Florida. This is something that really happened. I would link to it if the paper’s online archive was functioning. The family was happy to be interviewed about it, whether they were just looking for attention, genuinely wanting to get the word out, or playing an elaborate prank. The local agriculture extension agent from the university was not happy about me writing the story because he saw it as me using my official capacity as a newspaper reporter to lend credibility to what he thought, with his expertise, was a bunch of bullshit (my words, not his), and potentially creating a mass hysteria. That extension agent, God help him, had no idea what it was like to write for twelve months out of the year for a small newspaper. Everything I wrote about was, in a sense, writing about something where we would be lending the subject or issue more weight than it was worth, especially looking back. You could argue that, anyway. But I guess all of these things depend on perspective.

Are you working on any projects right now? If so, please tell us about them!

Well, I’ve finished this collection of stories, of which “Allatoona Whale” is a key one. I should say thanks again, by the way, to your brilliant fiction editor Gabriel Blackwell for his work with the story. About half of the stories from the collection have been published individually or are forthcoming now, so I’m beginning the process of sending out the collection in its entirety to agents and publishers and still trying to place the last few newer stories. Like everyone, I also have a novel that I’m working on. It’s set in Alabama, and its main character is a king who is opinionated but most of the time finds he is powerless. It is in no way whatsoever informed by reality, or I guess you could say it is completely. 

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