An Interview with George Singleton, Author of You Want More: The Selected Stories…

George at his now defunct liquor bottle wall at home in Spartanburg, SC

I had the pleasure of attending one of your lectures where you said, “All beginnings must kiss the end.” I revisited my entire collection of short stories based on that advice. I asked you then if you needed to kiss the middle and you said you’d get back to me.  Time’s up.  What do you think?

Ha. That’s another thing—kissing about each page. It’s not a bad idea to have an echo. Let’s say I write a story about a character who takes one of those Here’s Your Career tests in high school, and it came out, say, ornithologist. The character’s now 50, telling the story. On every page it might be wise to throw a bird reference in there. (Gee, guess what I’m in the middle of writing right now? A tenth-grade teacher decides to offer up every student—in her American history class—their career destination. My guy—now 50 and working for a non-profit—gets “ornithologist,” which the teacher, and fellow classmates, thinks is “orthodontist.”)

There are short stories I reread annually: “Cat in the Rain” by Hemingway for its brevity and what remains unsaid, “How Far She Went” by Mary Hood for tension-building, “The Witch” by Shirley Jackson, because it’s simply wicked. I’ve officially placed your short story, “Four-Way Stop,” in my annual rereads.  What are some of your go-to stories?  And Why? 

Another great question. When I can’t go from Point A to Point C, oddly enough, I go reread some John Cheever. I have exactly zero connection to Cheever’s world—northeastern, lower upper-class people—but boy oh boy can that guy write a story. So, there’s something like “The Country Husband.” If I’m dead in the water for language, I go to just about anything in Barry Hannah’s Airships. If I’m looking at how to write a funny/sad story, it might be Allan Gurganus’s “The Wish for a Good Country Doctor,” which is about to come out in his Uncollected Stories.

As you can tell, I’m a little fixated on your short story, “Four-Way Stop.” I mentioned in my review I felt this story was the perfect balance of comedy and tragedy. Tough question, but how in the hell did you accomplish this?

There’s nothing more fun than to do a reading, and have audience members laughing like all get-out, then the story takes a turn, then seeing people’s faces go, “Uh-oh, should I have been laughing?” It all goes back to Samuel Beckett saying something like, “There’s nothing funnier than human misery.” Right? We might be all “Man, my life sucks,” and then read a story about a character who’s worse off. My life sucks, but it ain’t as bad as this guy’s life…” “Four-Way Stop” starts off with ridiculous trick-or-treaters, but then ends up with two characters’ child getting killed at an intersection. Maybe the saddest story I’ve ever written.

Back in the day, fiction writers would never consider writing novels without first mastering the shorter form.  Now, everyone starts with the novel.  What’s the future of the modern short story?  What has changed since you began your career?

I do everything backwards. I wrote three execrable “novels” before I ever wrote a short story. Godawful. 450 pages, 250 pages, 300 pages. I’d had great professors say, “You’re ready after 1000 pages.” I guess they were correct. I started writing short stories then—after peckering around with novels from 1979-1987 or thereabouts. I don’t get why short stories aren’t more popular, or why publishers and agents pretty much demand a novel. Idiots, I think. Right? With the attention spans of people these days, you’d think that there would be a demand for poetry.

I love linked narratives and Drowning in Gruel spoke to me. Has anyone advised you to “convert” those stories into a novel?  Have you ever felt you had to defend this form against the more traditional longer form of the novel?

So, I was writing a bunch of stories for Drowning in Gruel. I got some pressure from my agent and publisher/editor to write a novel. As a joke, I started a short story called “Novel,” about a guy named Novel. It got kind of long. At the time I was with Algonquin, but my paperback dude was Andre Bernard at Harcourt. He called one day and said, “What’re you working on?” Maybe I had been drinking. I said, “I’m writing a novel, called Novel….” And then I made up some stuff. He made an offer. I finished the novel, then went back to those stories in Drowning in Gruel. What the heck. There’s a story in the collection that mentions a tombstone with a guy named Novel Akers, who dies at sea.

I once took a Business of Writing (not at my MFA program) course and when I introduced myself as a short story writer, the instructor said two things: No one publishes short stories and why don’t you just make your stories longer…meaning into a novel. I literally had a panic attack, and I didn’t take the advice.  What’s your advice for short story writers attempting to break into the industry?

Write what you want. If you’re an electrician, don’t listen to people who tell you to be a plumber. My father—who had a tenth-grade education—asked me in my junior year of college, “What are you going to do?” I said, “I guess I’m going to law school.” He said, “Do you want to be a lawyer?” I said, “Not really. And I hate everyone I’m in classes with who’re going to law school.” He said, “Why would you want to go do something for 40 years that you hate?” I said—and I was a philosophy major, but not smart or committed enough to do a PhD in philosophy—“I want to be a writer.” He said, “Well, go write.” I should mention that my father called me often, like at 5 A.M., and said, “I’m looking at the Want Ads and don’t see ‘Philosopher for Hire’ ha ha ha.” He died when I was 24. Maybe that’s where the funny/sad stuff comes from.

What’s on the agenda of George Singleton?

Who knows? I’m writing a bunch of stories about characters involved in the non-profit sector. Kind of linked stories. My working title is The Curious Lives of Non-Profit Martyrs.

What are you currently reading?

The End of Vandalism, by Tom Drury. It was published about 30 years ago, and I’m just getting to it. Funny and sad.

I saved the most important question for last. Is it possible to write a story about a dog or even a story that includes a dog as a minor character where the dog doesn’t die?

Ha. Well. I got that one story….

TO PURCHASE You Want More: Selected Stories by George Singleton at Hub City Bookshop or via Amazon.

More about George…

George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice that includes illustrations by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, One Story, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and has ten stories in the New Stories from the South anthologies. Singleton received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, and he’s a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

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You Want More: The Selected Stories of George Singleton, a Review

I’m fairly certain George Singleton was a ten-month baby.  This isn’t meant to be derogatory.  God, I hope not—I was a ten-month baby myself.  In the introduction to The October Country by Ray Bradbury, Bradbury says he was a ten-monther, and while in the womb for that extended amount of time, his senses were sharpened; he felt everything, completely aware of everything from the moment he was born. This gave Bradbury an advantage when he later started writing. I’m not going to delve into the science or truth of Bradbury’s statement. My takeaway here is this: to be a good writer you must be an eyewitness, a spectator, pay attention, and you must, must use all your senses.  Clearly, Singleton is paying attention with his latest collection of short stories, You Want More, which captures small Southern towns and characters in all their glory. His characters are what us literary types call round, not rotund, by fully fleshed out. They’re beer and bourbon drinking philosophers, grumpy old men with heads in the gutter, scam artists, miscreants, underdogs, and if employed, have odd occupations like prebouncers which I didn’t even know was a career path.  They may seem deeply flawed, but there’s always one Shakespearean fool in the story spouting truth, and for all their bad behavior his characters are loveable. His stories guarantee to entertain, but underneath the hilarity there’s satire, there’s irony, and symbolism. Singleton uses every tool from the tool shed, and to do that, you must be paying attention.

I met George at my MFA residency a couple of summers ago.  I was driving back from the Dollar General near the campus with a bottle of bleach the salesgirl suggested I use on my poison ivy (another story).  It was Georgia, June, and boiling and from my car I saw a man hitting the asphalt with a determined gait clad in a ball cap that should have been put out of its misery years ago.  I thought, “That’s George Singleton.” I had a copy of Drowning in Gruel and Staff Picks sitting in my passenger’s seat.  I looked on the back of the cover for his headshot and sure enough–George.  It looked like he knew where he was going.  Thirty minutes later when my roomie and I headed out for the nightly reading, George was still navigating the parking lot, but now appeared pissed.  I rolled down the window and said/asked, “You’re George Singleton.” A bunch of expletives about not being able to find the expletive library emerged from his mouth and he jumped in the back of our car.  Rather than telling him how much I admired his work or that I am a short story writer myself and because I was nervous, I launched into questions about another author, William Gay, who I knew was friends with George. I said, “I got to pick your brain for some William Gay stories.” I wrote about William Gay for my critical thesis; he was still haunting me, but I wanted to pick George’s brain about his writing, too. It was kind of rude, seeing George was the keynote speaker and looked like he just exited a Temazcal and Mother Earth or the Shaman kicked his ass, but he took it graciously and later that night walked into our dorm room (where the rest of the residents had gathered) with a case of PBR and those stories. I still have one of those PBRs.

If I’m reading a book I plan to write about, I fill the pages with micro-post-it-notes tagging lines I enjoy and larger sticky notes with comments.  Later, I’ll read through my notes and it all comes together from there.  Pretty common procedure. My notes for You Want More went something like this: A travelling aquarium salesman, forced to attend a motivational conference, hooks up with the speaker’s scar-faced, ex-gangster daughter; A former child-star of a statewide lice documentary returns to his hometown and high school reunion and has an epiphany; Pam, a dog-healer (not a veterinarian, but literally a dog who heals), licks away diseases, illnesses, and infection with her tongue; A Halloween miracle occurs when Jesus Christ and his two thieving companions go trick-or-treating; “The Novels of Raymond Carver” (???? If you don’t get it now, you’ll get the joke when you read the story); Richard Petty, who has written the great American novel, delivers his acceptance speech for the National Book Award, and manages to squeeze in every sponsor. According to Aristotle, “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.” You see where I’m heading here.  Anyone unfamiliar with George’s type of genius–who perchance read my sticky notes–may recommend inpatient therapy.  Yet, there’s something grander going on with these quirky stories. “Four-Way Stop” is a masterpiece of balancing comedy and tragedy.  In “Richard Petty Accepts National Book Award,” Singleton compares pit-road with the writing industry, which turns out isn’t much of a stretch. And every time I end up in the town of Gruel, like his characters who cannot seem to escape or otherwise get sucked back into Gruel, it’s as if I’m reunited with my own dysfunctional family.  There’s Victor Dees, the proprietor of the Army-Navy store. There’s Jeff, the owner/bartender from Roughhouse Billiards. If you are a short story writer, reader, or maybe just want to read literature that won’t induce you to pen a suicide letter, then get a copy of You Want More.  Hell, get a copy of all of Singleton’s books.  His stories are like the loyal dogs he frequently writes about. They will be waiting for you by the door. If you’re really good, they may fetch you a beer.

Singleton is a first-person point-of-view wonder boy.  His third-person point-of-view feels like first-person narration, because it’s just so dang close. There’s even a second-person point-of-view story in You Want More (“What Could’ve Been?”), and that isn’t the easiest thing to accomplish. It’s both funny and not so funny when you put it in perspective.  Even though his narration is super tight, occasionally the narrator sort of stops and chats about writing.  For any other writer this would come off as an intrusion, but it works and for us writerly folks who ponder the same issues it’s a nod to the craft.

Then there are the classic Singletonian lines that every writer wishes they came up with first: “You’ll have twenty lies, all of which you will recycle the rest of your life.” Or, “My team members stared at me as if I piped up about how Jesus was a gay man and couldn’t decide which of the twelve disciples to date.” I’m not giving away anymore Singleton lines for free. Buy your own copy!  Buy them all!  For what my opinion is worth, Singleton epitomizes what is best in the modern American short story and should be on every syllabus starting in high school. If you’re concerned with language and/or content, I have a friend who teaches “Trombones, Not Magic” from Staff Picks to his AP English high school class. Generally, these are feel-good stories with a moral to the story and it’s never force-fed.

I read an article about how Tennessee photographer, William Eggleston, depicted suburban American life like a John Cheever story.  I see both these masters in Singleton’s works. If John Cheever was the “the Chekhov of the suburbs,” then George Singleton is the John Cheever of the small Southern town.  But if I had to compare Singleton’s stories to another photographer, it would be Chris Verene, who at a young age started documenting his friends and family from his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois.  Like Verene, Singleton articulates honest stories about the everyday person anyone can understand. His stories remind me of flipping through the family photo album. It feels like home, and yes, we want more.

TO PURCHASE You Want More: Selected Stories of George Singleton, visit Hub City Bookshop or Amazon.

More about George…

George Singleton has published nine collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice that includes illustrations by Daniel Wallace. His stories have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, One Story, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. He’s received a Pushcart Prize, and has ten stories in the New Stories from the South anthologies. Singleton received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2009, and he’s a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

Write the story you want to live!