Wednesday, October 31, 2007

George Singleton

Blog Administration Note:

Sometimes a regular blogger forgets to blog so instead of leaving you with blank space I've decided to post the "lost" post before the blog was accidentally erased a while back. These lost posts will also show up on the weekends as well. This was orginally posted way back in Sept.

You didn't hear it from me. I'm just repeating what THE POST AND COURIER (Charleston, SC) has already declared: "George Singleton is a madman." I also know, since we both live in Upstate South Carolina and I've been a fan of his for years, that George Singleton is, as USA TODAY says, "an ace at locating the pathos beneath the deadpan laughs." Don't miss his readings...they are priceless. He also happens to be a helluva nice guy. I couldn't think of a better way to kick off my contribution to A Good Blog is Hard to Find than by interviewing George Singleton-- "One of the most talented American writers the South has turned out in decades," THE POST AND COURIER boasts-- and whose latest novel, Work Shirts for Madmen is out this month from Harcourt. (Here's an excerpt.) George (you can find out more about him here) is embarking on one of those grueling booktours, burning through Dixie faster than you can say Sherman. Chances are he's coming to a bookstore near you. Check out his schedule, following the interview, below. Tell him I said, "Hey."

My interview with George:
How do you feel about being labeled a Southern writer?

I wonder why this question pops up so often, with every writer living between Mississippi and Virginia. I don’t mind the label at all. Unfortunately I think people equate the term with “drinks like Faulkner and undergoes religious background quandaries like O’Connor.” I consider myself a southern writer, and a connoisseur of sensible footwear, potted meats, and faithful stray dogs.

Work Shirts for Madmen is your fifth published book and your second novel. How would you describe it?
Work Shirts for Madmen is a picaresque novel wherein all the rogues and ne’er-do-wells come to the main character, Harp Spillman, who is trying his best not to drink. He’s working on a commissioned series of welded angels that he doesn’t remember ever bidding on. Harp and his face-jug-making wife Raylou live on a slope of granite, in an area far from any city in northwestern South Carolina. She’s a reliable, rational character. He’s not.

You've said about Work Shirts for Madmen: "Contrary to early reviews, it's not autobiographical. Except for maybe the smuggled anteaters, the heartless republican hitman, the crazy mother, the scary dermatologist, the ex-drinking, the men who fused their elbows together so they couldn't drink, and so on." Do readers often ask you how much of your fiction is autobiographical?
Yes they do. And I always say it’s 100% fiction. That’s what I say. I say it all the time. 100% fiction. If I were some kind of athlete, I’d say that it’s 110% fiction, for athletes always add that little 10% in there.

The question, ‘Is it true that there’s no free will?’ pops up in Work Shirts for Madmen. In fact, philosophical issues often thread through your fiction. Is this a happy (or tragic) consequence of being a philosophy major? (Full disclosure: both George and I are philosophy majors.)
It’s funny, but I think that I try to show some existential pondering in my collections, and certainly in these two novel experiments. I never studied existentialism, per se. If anything, I know more about Wittgenstein. To be honest, if a person threw out a quote from Spinoza, Leibniz, and Hume toward me, I might not be able to identify quote from philosopher. Maybe 25 years ago. Philosophy, I believe, somehow gave me a way of looking at our experiences here on the planet. It’s more of a sideways glance, squinting from the odd glare.

An excerpt of Work Shirts for Madmen appeared in the 2005 summer fiction issue of the Atlantic Monthly. In fact, more than a hundred of your stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies. That's...incredible. There's no doubt you're one of the most disciplined writers around. Do you send out stuff regularly?
I’ve kind of slowed up the last couple years. But yes I do. And over all these years I’ve gotten to know—at least in a submission/100 rejections/acceptance—editors. I still feel more comfortable sending my stuff out than having my agent’s office do so. The agency has much better contact with people at The New Yorker, but I don’t think I’m writing New Yorker-type stories in the first place. I probably send out a new story or two per month, and then go on down the line when they come back rejected. After, say, eight rejections I figure out that the story must not’ve been all that hot in the first place. I’ve been working this way since 1987 when I first started writing short stories. While I waited for that first story to get rejected, I wrote another six or eight and had them in the mail. When the first one got rejected I sent it elsewhere, and so on.

You've said, "writing a novel is a walk across a bridge, while a short story is a walk across a tightrope.I doubt that it’s possible to write a perfect novel, but there’s always the hope of writing the perfect short story." Is your first love still the short story-- or do you find the two forms just incredibly, weirdly different, using a whole different set of writing muscles?
I like stories when they’re coming out nicely. I hate writing stories when I get to page 10, and go back to the beginning, and wonder where the story should go next, and so on. As for which I like better—I like writing stories better only because it doesn’t take long, and I can get it in the mail, and I can get a response sooner. Hell, when I first started writing, I wrote three back-to-back-to-back bad bad long novels. I didn’t even know how to send them out. And I knew they were bad—Three hundred pages into the first, I started thinking about how to take a minor character from it and concentrate on him in the second. Then the same thing happened again. This occurred from 1979-1987. Then I started writing stories. The last two published novels were different only in that the first one was a short story that grew too long; Work Shirts for Madmen was a self-challenge in writing a better novel.

What are you working on now?
I have this little 200-page novel I pull out every time I think up a new joke, because it’s about a 17-year old kid who doesn’t want to go to college. He wants to be a stand-up comedian. His biological father shows up for the first time, in order to take this kid on a college campus tour. The biological father is 67 years old, and he’s a famous and infamous social commentator/critic/linguist. They make it as far as the Grove Park Inn in Asheville NC, and spend ten days there. I wrote it some time over the last year or so, but I keep bringing it back up to work on. This sounds like I’m lying, but twice I’ve heard jokes/stories on television that I thought up a few months before. So I have to go back and delete those things so it doesn’t look like I’m plagiarizing from Family Guy. Also, I’m about 20 stories into a collection of linked stories about a guy named Stet Looper who is trying to finish up a low residency master’s degree in Southern Culture Studies. Fourteen have been published or accepted somewhere. I figure by the time these are ready, it might be a 900-page manuscript. Maybe not a great idea.
But that’s it. I’m having fun.

Mindy Friddle of Greenville, S.C., is author of The Garden Angel. She directs the Writing Room, a new program for writers in the South Carolina Upstate.

(Photo, below, from my personal collection: That's a gaggle of southern writers at Furman University: from L, Ashley Warlick, Tommy Hays, Yours Truly, and George Singleton)

George's Book Tour: (Hint: click on names for more info)

1—River Ridge Books, Chattanooga TN, 7:00
10—Sylva Book Fair, Sylva NC

1—Poor Richard’s Booksellers, Easley SC, 6:30


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