Some of this interview was conducted over a phone. Some of this over the interwebs. This being George fucking Singleton talking to our man Frank, we’ve decided to mostly leave it as is, two badasses and funny dudes shooting the shit:
Frank Reardon: Hello, George, how are you? How are things down in western South Carolina? Loved the new book! Funny as all get out, like always your stories have heart. There’s a realness to the characters even though I’m often laughing. Today a lot of short stories, poetry, and novels are often serious all the time. Dark and often violent. Maybe it speaks to the world we live in, but where does the humor come from? Did you grow up in a family that was comical? Do you use humor to deal with the insane world we live in?
George Singleton: Hey, Frank, all is well here. If it got any better I’d have to go on a diet of liver mush. Listen, I don’t do Dark-and-Violent just because so many writers can do it better. I also don’t write about sex because writers pull it off better. Plus, if I knew any Sex Scene Tricks I wouldn’t be making them public.
I think that sure enough I did come from a comical family. My father was an old merchant seaman, so I grew up with all the stereotypical salty sailor jokes. My mom was a patient woman. On top of all this, my father kind of had a no-holds-barred sense of humor. He’d suffered through cancer when I was two years old and survived a forty-five-foot fall into the empty hold of a ship when I was five. So every day on earth he figured was gravy. When we moved to South Carolina, more than once, I’d be with him on the street and someone would say, “Who are you with?” meaning “Which mill do you work for?” My father would look around, look down at me, say to the person, “I’m with my boy. Are you blind?” He was a whiz at practical jokes, too.
FR: Growing up which authors struck you? Who were the ones you read that made you want to try writing?
GS: I wasn’t a big reader in high school or before. Every southern writer I know makes a big deal about reading Faulkner at age seven or whenever. I call bullshit on that, for the most part. I was more enthralled with his comedian/poet named Henry Gibson from the old Laugh-In TV show. I read Sports Illustrated. When I was about ten my father bought me all these Bobby Blake books—these were kind of like Hardy Boys, but written in 1908 or whenever. Jesus. I hated those books. Bobby and his comrades would get all mischievous and take off for town on mules, things like that. When I was in high school—I swear to God on this one—my father thought it necessary that I read Socialism by Emile Durkheim, and the Communist Manifesto. My father had a tenth-grade education, but he was big on unionizing workers. It was kind of a dead-end fight in the South back in the 1960s and 70s. And, well, today. Somewhere along the line, I should mention that Kurt Vonnegut came into my life right before I went to college, and I also got ahold of Coney Island of the Mind by Ferlinghetti. I’m not sure how I got either of those books in a town without a book store. Then, in college, man, it was all Ionesco, Beckett, Pinter, then Pynchon, and I was off.
FR: After having a nice conversation with you on the phone (you are a fantastic story teller on the phone by the way), you mentioned how you don’t often like to talk about writing. I get that. You spend so many hours working on the stories, the last thing you want to do is talk about writing. However, for the sake of the interview I’d like to ask where do the stories come from? Are you in a grocery store picking out a pork roast? Maybe they are memories from the past? Maybe you are trapped in the DMV thinking “Jesus Christ! Get me out of here!” Can you elaborate how they come to together? Do you have a process?
GS: My pat answer is “Wal-Mart” or “the flea market.” Kind of true. I might be the best eavesdropper of all time. My buddy Ron Rash claims that he “sees things,” that he has visions of a character. I claim that I hear voices. Together, he and I are about ready for the asylum. But it’s true. I’d say that just about every story I’ve written came from the first sentence. Today, for instance, for unknown reasons, came “This guy told me at the school district’s warehouse auction he could get away with murder if he had enough hair collected from a dumpster behind any barbershop.” No clue why I thought that. But now I have to figure out why they’re at an auction, and why the antagonist is hell-bent on covering dead bodies with the hair and DNA of the recently-shorn.
FR: As a guy originally from New England discovering Southern and Appalachian writers changed me. There’s something in the water down there that created a majority of my favorites, like yourself, Flannery, McCullers, Crews, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, Mary Miller, William Gay, David Joy, Dorothy Allison, Hannah, etc. Is it the last bastion of original and unique culture? Or has the entire country been taken over by Olive Garden? Does the unique come from the person, or the place? Maybe both?
GS: Fucking Olive Garden. Hilarious. I hope Bull doesn’t take ads from Olive Garden. Listen, in the old days they said that the Army started to ruin southerners’ ways of talking. Then it was TV and the homogenized dialects. I think that there’s enough great fiction coming out of writers from other parts of the country—I know there is—but I think we’re still living in the “Hey that old boy’s from the South so let’s watch him…” act nuts, implode, lose his temper, act fool, drink into oblivion. There’s the theory that southerners still hurt from losing a big war. Me, I don’t sit around brooding over the Civil War. The correct team won, if you ask me. But I’m with you on Flannery, Harry, Barry, and the rest. Great writers with signature unmatched voices.
FR: Let’s get into Staff Picks. Again, I loved it. There’s nothing more exciting than a new book from one of your favorites. You have some off-the-wall, fantastic lines, like this one from “Eclipse”: “What the fuck did mental health have to do with Cinco de Mayo?” And these ones from “Columbus Day”: “One the second lap I notice a man sitting on a bench across from a place called Brows ‘n’ More—a joint where people sit in public to have their eyebrows waxed. Who does that? There’s another place called the Relaxation Station where people get chair massages and sea-salt foot baths right in front of everyone. Listen, I don’t consider myself a prude. I had a cocaine problem. I’ve drunk at least fifty liters of every bourbon ever bottled. Sitting in my home office I crank Hüsker Dü, the Ramones, even Joy Division. But Jesus Christ, there are some things that mall-walkers shouldn’t have to encounter daily.”
You have a wonderful way with putting two things that don’t belong together in the same deadpan ball park. That’s talent! Where do you come up with this stuff? Have you just gone completely mad?
GS: Ha ha ha. Those lines about mall walkers, waxers, and Hüsker Dü don’t belong in the same paragraph? Damn, Frank. Seriously, I do have a certain love for trying to gather varying absurdities into the same room, make them sit on a couch and talk to one another.
FR: How long did it take to put Staff Picks together? Did you just say “fuck it” and collect a bunch of stories you published recently? Or did you sit down and bang them all out one after the other?
GS: Originally, I wanted to sit down and write a series of holiday stories, just so later—like if I got asked to do a reading somewhere—I could go, “Hey, it’s almost Labor Day, and I just so happen to have a Labor Day story.” Well, I didn’t realize that there’s a whole fuck-load of holidays out there. And it got to the point where I would write a story, forget about the holiday, then try to shove it in inorganically: “And then Frank went out to the sidewalk and projectile vomited. It was St. Patrick’s Day!” So that little game went by the wayside—though there’s still a Halloween story, a Flag Day story, a Columbus Day story, a Cinco de Mayo story in there. Kind of. The title story just came around with that woman named Staffordshire, named after a dinner plate, and then how she had to keep her hand on an RV, and then I thought—because I ain’t got anything else to do in South Carolina but think up scams—hey, maybe if I call a collection Staff Picks, unsuspecting bookstore browsers will see the title and say, “It must be good! The staff picked it,” et cetera. For the most part, I imagine it took me two or three years to write these. Of course there were another dozen or so that just didn’t work out. Maybe more.
FR: Young and/or new writers are always looking to learn about the publishing side of the business. With Staff Picks you published with LSU Press. How was it working with them?
GS: I wanted my very first book to be with LSU Press only because they published A Confederacy of Dunces, and I Am One of You Forever by my professor Fred Chappell. Other publishers somehow got in the way. Now I’m at a point where hardly anyone will touch a short story writer who won’t say, “Oh, yes, I promise, promise, promise to write a novel next, yes yes yes.” Almost a decade ago I had a big-old collection that ended up being divided into Stray Decorum and Between Wrecks, and a few NYC publishers said they’d publish it if I wrote a novel that they liked first. I said No. I always say that it’s like I’m a plumber, and I love being a plumber, and someone comes up and says, You should be an electrician. That ain’t going to happen if I love what I’m doing. Back to LSU—I worked with the great writer and editor Michael Griffith. He was relentlessly keen-eyed and made Staff Picks about 100% better.
FR: Most writers published or not have to have a 9-5 job to survive. I’d say less than 3% live comfortably off their work. I think Harry Crews once said, “You have a better chance becoming a world class brain surgeon than you do a successful writer.” I find that to be somewhat true. Thoughts on the Crews quote? Also, you are one of the best short fiction writers in America. You are also a teacher, but it wasn’t always that way. What were the worst three jobs you ever had in your life and why?
GS: Crews is correct. And the ones who are making a living off writing—this is a vast generalization, I know—kind of depend on formulaic plot lines. One time I had a woman say to me, “Don’t you just love Nicholas Sparks?” I said, “No. He might be one of the worst writers, sentence by sentence, in the English language.” She said, “But he’s a millionaire!” I can’t believe that, for once, I had a comeback immediately. I said, “People in America spend a lot more money on baloney than they do filet mignon. That doesn’t make baloney good for them.”
Worst three jobs were all, in their own ways, great: garbage truck driver one summer in college; house painter from 18, off and on up until age thirty; scam artist for a “marketing” outfit called Consumer Pulse of Washington. All three had their weird drawbacks, but also deep wells to drop my bucket later as a writer. Hell, that Consumer Pulse gig showed up in the story “Columbus Day.”
FR: On social media you’ve been posting photos of all your book signings/readings for the new book. Judging by the pictures seems you are having a nice turn out at some of them. You like giving readings? What’s the oddest/funniest things that’s ever happened to you at one of your readings?
GS: They’ve actually been pretty great this time around. I think it might be because people think, Singleton’s getting old and might die at any point—hey, maybe we can witness his death in the middle of a reading…
As for odd and funny, well, I got thrown in jail one time, back in Mississippi, right after a book signing/reading. That wasn’t exactly a highlight of my life. One time I had ZERO people show up in 2004, in Lexington, Kentucky. It was October. The Red Sox and Yankees played post-season, and there might’ve been a presidential debate, or something to do with politics—both being aired on TV. This little guy working the book store said to me, “Will you read a story just to me?” It kind of creeped me out. I said, “I’ll sign stock, but I want to watch the baseball game, too.”
FR: Okay, I lied, I’m going to ask you to put on your Nostradamus hat. What’s the future hold for George Singleton? Any more stuff in the works beyond Staff Picks for George Singleton? Yes, feel free to speak of yourself in the third person.
GS: George just signed a contract for a Selected Stories. It’ll come out, I think, in early 2021. Right now I have it whittled down to thirty stories, from all eight collections. Meanwhile—again, because I’m always setting up little tricks for myself—I’m writing stories with an overall title of The Venturesome Lives of Non-Profit Martyrs, but different kinds of non-profits. For example, I’ve already finished one about a couple old-timers in a group called VAGINA: Veterans Against Guns in North America. We’ll see how that all works out.
BONUS QUESTION: The cover of the new book has bowling pins, so I have a bowling question for you. If you could have an endless supply of pitchers full of beer; free and endless bourbon, and a 24 hours free pass to the local lanes, and you could drunk bowl with any three people from your history, or world history, who would you bowl with and why? Think you could beat them?
GS: Oh, man, Frank, you set them up and I’ll knock them down:
Stephen Hawking—and I’d beat him. (I totally understand that this answer is probably politically-incorrect, but what the hell. I would’ve liked to hang out around Hawking.)
Harry Crews—I never got the chance to meet him. If I were winning in about the sixth frame I’d start throwing gutter balls, just because I know how he might react.
John Lee Hooker—you said there’d be bourbon and beer, so we’d have 2/3ds of one of his great songs complete. And he’d beat the crap out of me, more than likely.