George Singleton has published four collections of short stories (These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, Drowning in Gruel); two novels (Novel, Work Shirts for Madmen); and one book of writing advice (Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds). A new collection of stories, Stray Decorum, will appear in 2013. His fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Oxford American, Playboy, Georgia Review, Zoetrope, Southern Review, Kenyon Review, Epoch, Glimmer Train, and so on. His work has been anthologized widely, including ten appearances in the annual New Stories from the South. He was a Guggenheim fellow in 2009, and received the 2011 Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Singleton teaches at the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, and lives in Dacusville.
What is your feeling about having mentors as a writer? Talk about the mentor relationship if you will, its importance to a writer.
I had some fine writing professors in undergraduate and graduate school, and I think that what I’ve learned from them and from some other writers I don’t know but admire is this: Get your work done. Richard Yates, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver: All of them had addictions of one form or another, but it didn’t stop them from working hard and fast.
Back when I drank hard hard, I still found a way to get up pre-dawn and type away. I should mention Flannery O’Connor, too — no horrific addictions that I know of, but she couldn’t have felt all that perky most days.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired and does it work to trick the brain into working?
I don’t let myself get out of the chair at my desk until I’ve written a decent page of something. Oh, I’ll want to get up and do everything from changing the oil in my car to looking for snakes in the back yard, but if I go off and start one of those projects it usually ends with a sad reductio ad absurdum of other projects. Better find some alcohol for the snake bite, for example.
Are there favorite writing exercises you use/can share?
I think this only when starting a new story: Two characters, one of them is uncomfortable about something, see where it goes. Sometimes I’ll write a 500 word sentence so I don’t get stuck thinking about grammar problems, then go back and find what’s inside there, which is usually a little kernel that goes something like, “I didn’t want my wife telling our neighbors about her fascination with leeches.”
Suggestions for making characters live? Do you know who they are before you write or do you find out who they are in the writing? Do you already know these people?
My first-person narrators are basically me. My female characters are basically me wearing a dress. Seeing as the level of my well is still pretty high, I continue to write about — for better or worse — scam artists, and people trying to figure out what’s the right thing to do, et cetera. Around here, in the upstate of SC, somebody will usually say something odd or colorful or mesmerizing, and I’ll steal it pronto.
What are some good habits for a writer to develop?
I know writers who spend a lot of time exercising so they’ll live a long time and be healthy and have time to write. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to write much now because of the exercise regimen, and then daily commitments to family and work. I may be wrong, but it seems to me their muscles might not be rusty now, but their writing organs are going to be pretty tarnished at age 65. I could say eat well, and do everything in moderation, but that doesn’t seem to work for, say, my mentors listed above. Get up early. Start writing before you’re fully awake. Don’t hang out with quick-tempered crackheads.
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
Comedy is serious. This goes hand in hand with Samuel Beckett’s notion that there’s nothing funnier than human misery. And that harkens back to Aristotle’s notion of catharsis.
Do you have an idea for a story before you write it? Where does inspiration or the concept of “a great idea” play in for you?
Sometimes I have an idea. Most of the time it’s one sentence, and the rest spills out. Most editors will say that my stories tend to spill out in the wrong direction, or decide to go upstream in an impossible manner, and so on. I haven’t ever kept tabs, but I imagine that most of the time when I went “What a great idea for a story!” I got bogged down hopelessly.
What’s next for you?
A collection of stories called Stray Decorum, coming out in 2013–as if there will be a 2013–from Dzanc.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.