George Singleton has published four collections of stories, two novels, and a book of nonfiction. His stories have appeared in Georgia Review, Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Zoetrope, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts in Greenville. His story “Humans Being” was published in the Summer ’12 issue of The Kenyon Review. Follow the link to read an excerpt.
Tell us a little about your KR piece. How was it written? What was the hardest part about writing it?
I hand wrote the first draft, because I’m superstitious. The last few stories that I had accepted had all been handwritten first. I’ll do that for a while, then write a couple bombs, then go back to typing on a computer for the first draft, et cetera. More than likely I listened to loud music while writing the rough draft–Husker Du, Replacements, Supersuckers, Dash Rip Rock, Social Distortion, the occasional Sonny Boy Williamson II. Wait–is this what y’all mean by “How was it written?” I hope you don’t mean something like “How was it written in regards to what Derrida, Giles Deleuze, and Stanley Fish have said about the writing process,” or anything like that. I try not to think of those guys too much when I’m writing. I think about them when I’m, say, smoking a pork butt out back, but not while writing. Indirectly I think about Schopenhauer while writing, and about how I don’t cotton to Aristotle’s notion of moderation–as this answer proves. I think of Beckett and Ionesco.
I’m not so sure about the hardest part about writing “Humans Being.” More than likely I painted myself into a corner and, instead of being wise and retracing my steps in order to find the correct route, I worked myself into a lather trying to figure out how not to get footprints on the wet paint. Well, not really “worked.” I’m getting tired of people who say that writing is such hard work. It’s great fun. Work involves callouses, pained arches, cuts, abrasions, and so on. If writing was (or were–which of these verbs is correct?) so much work, only masochists would be handwriting, listening to Social Distortion, trying to keep Derrida out of their heads…Uh-oh.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Last five years: I find myself cursing a lot more often these days because, just as I’m getting used to a computer and its latest programs, the computer dies, I get a new one, there’s a whole new system, and so on. When the hell did this thing called Pages show up? I ain’t a fan, so far. Listen, as to the regular process over the last five years, it’s the same as it’s been for the last twenty-five years: Get up at 4:30, write, finish about 8. Lots of busy work, editing, and so on during the regular day. I’m a creature of habit and I don’t do well with change, at least not for a while.
Apart from this one–can you share with us the literary magazines you most look forward to reading, and why?
Georgia Review, Southern Review, Greensboro Review, Carolina Quarterly, Ecotone, Five Points, Mid-American Review, et cetera. I like these journals--Kenyon, certainly, yes–because the editors are for the most part picking and publishing stories, poems, and essays that will last. I don’t want to name names, but some journals these days, it seems to me, are printing stories that are cute and topical and, for a short time, slightly enjoyable. It’s the difference between eating a well-balanced, nutritious, gourmet meal and eating a bag of chemical-laced Doritos.
Philip Larkin has a great short essay on writing called “The Pleasure Principle.” In it, he sketches three stages of writing a poem. The steps begin like this: “the first (stage) is when a (hu)man becomes obsessed with an emotional concept to such a degree that he is compelled to do something about it. What he does is the second stage, namely, construct a verbal device that will reproduce this emotional concept in anyone who cares to read it, anywhere, any time. The third stage is the recurrent situation of people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Are his stages germane to your writing process, and what you try to make when you write?
I think of Philip Larkin when I smoke pork butt, too, but not during the writing process. I took a course in 20th Century British and American poetry back in 1979. We read a great Larkin poem called “Sunny Prestatyn.” It concerns a placard in the Tube–or whatever they called their subway system–being defaced. Hell, I thought it was about a guy driving past a billboard out on some kind of English highway. I was brought up in Greenwood, South Carolina. We didn’t have subways or placards. We had billboards, by god, advertising Heaven or Hell, but that was it.
Stages of my writing a story: 1.) I have a first line come to me out of nowhere and it’s like a bad itch that I have to keep scratching. My buddy Ron Rash says he has a vision or image. Sometimes I have an image of a bunch of dogs chasing Ron down to a crossroads in Mississippi where he meets up with Robert Johnson and some other guy I can’t quite figure out. But that’s another story. Anyway, a first line hits me. Then I get completely obsessed. I think about how Shannon Ravenel used to tell me “A good story’s ending kisses the story’s beginning, George, and too many of your stories’ endings are groping the beginnings.” And then I just write toward the end, and I watch, figuratively, as the end nears my beginning. In “Human’s Being,” I had the idea of a stranger coming into a guy’s life–not exactly cutting-edge brilliance–and I knew intuitively that it needed to end with said stranger leaving the abode. Now, I didn’t have any clue about the ex-wife or the ex-brother-in-law or the gold, but that’s what showed up along the way.
I’m not so sure what Larkin means about “people in different times and places setting off the device and re-creating in themselves what the poet felt when he wrote it.” Jesus. Poets…
In the 1950’s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
I stick with what Harry Crews said on the topic: Write about everyday people doing the best they can with what they got.
Tell us about a teacher (“teacher” construed broadly!) who has been important to your writing.
My first creative writing professor was Gilbert Allen, at Furman University. He also taught that 20th Century poetry course I mentioned. He was extremely important to my writing because he never intimated that I should stop–and he could’ve easily done so. I’m talking this man had the patience of Job. He’s one of the good guys. Later on I had Fred Chappell–brilliant man–who once stared at me in a poetry workshop, and later said, “Stick to fiction.” He, too, had great patience with me, but when a silence occurred in fiction workshop I knew that I’d let him down and that I had to do better. I had to think better. These two teachers stick in my mind, and I hear their voices in my head most days.