Susan Tepper:  Often a story begins with a word or two that pulls you in by the neck.  Such is the case, Sheldon, with your story Where Alligators Sleep.” Your first line reads:

The husband and wife had been side by side in the whiskey light of the room for years.

Whiskey light.  I don’t know quite what that is.  But I can taste it, smell it, see its amber essence.  I was immediately hooked.  What does whiskey light mean to this story?

Sheldon Lee Compton:  Thank you for those kind words about the opening, Susan.  I appreciate it.  Whiskey light.  Well, I saw the room sort of soaked in a brownish color, in fact, I saw everything about this couple’s room in that way.  I thought of the color of whiskey when you pour a couple fingers full and the bottle tilts into the light just a bit and that brown color.  Beyond that, I’m always working to find what I think of the “first choice” words.  The obvious would have been the “the brown light” of the room.  Well, I go to my second choice, then third, then fourth and usually stick with that.  It links back to a moment in a Thomas Pynchon novel when Pynchon has someone wipe themselves after using the bathroom outdoors not with “grass” but with “clovers.”  As shown with Pynchon, even with nouns writers always have the chance to make a more original moment happen on the page.

Susan:  That is exactly how I took it in as a reader.  You accomplished your mission, not something we writers always get to do.  The whiskey light puts its cast over the story.  It gives us insights into them as characters, as well.  You named him Leviathan, her Mary.  What is that all about?

Sheldon: Of course there are the religious aspects at play there, but I took more pains in thinking of the name Leviathan than I did with Mary.  This story is the first section of a longer one I’ve been working on for awhile.  When I started thinking about it several months ago, I knew certain things about the old man.  I knew that later in the story he would transform into sort of a monstrous character.  The name Leviathan brings that home for me, and it also has the added benefit of being shortened to Levi, a common name for the region in which the story is set, Eastern Kentucky.  Mary is the Mary you’re thinking about when I say there are certainly religious aspects to the names.  And the reasoning there is that Mary will eventually be the character who brings Levi under control, calms him.  At least I think that’s what will happen.  I never actually plot any story in any way.  I just let things happen and then look back and make sure I plowed the line straight enough for a good harvest.

Susan: “…plowed the line straight enough for a good harvest” is such a beautiful way of expressing your process.

Now, you have them sleeping in a room that I feel is full of love.  And because of circumstances, this room has twin beds.  There is 6 feet of space separating them.  Why don’t they push the beds together?

Sheldon:  That’s a good question, and I’ll get to it but I just wanted to say that I’ve been editing in my head since we discussed the “whiskey light.” I remember I later refer to the light as “the old brown light” near the end of the story. So, I’ve edited in my head to delete the word “brown” from that sentence. Okay, sorry.

The twin beds. Well, that detail comes from the half-memory I’m drawing from in writing the story. For about a year, shortly after parents divorced, my mom and I lived with my grandmother who was, at the time, living with and caring for her elderly parents. They were what we’d call bedfast where I’m from. They rarely left the bed. For whatever reason this couple, the real couple, my great-grandparents, had twin beds. Maybe it was linked to the fact that couples did that way back in the day and then pushed them together if they wanted to be intimate. I’m not sure. But that’s why. And then, by extension, I realized it allowed me the opportunity to play with the idea of the two of them crossing the space that separated them in the room and also crossing the space between time, as both are beginning to lose track of the present and past. It was one of those details I thought was going to just be a detail, and then watched it become something larger I could build on within the structure of the story. I rely on those moments, those surprises. It’s what makes the process most enjoyable for me.

Susan:  There is a great deal of pain in this story, too.  You write:  “There is sadness all around, spread out like mud through a hog pen.”

Do you think contemporary literature can exist outside the confines of some sort of pain?  Real, existential, or otherwise?

Sheldon: I have to be perfectly honest in saying my thoughts on writing rarely if ever extend so deeply.  I’m just a storyteller.  There are half a dozen people who live within ten miles of me who can sit in front of a gas station and spin a better story while eating a bag of chips than I can during a three hour session at the computer.  I mean, of course I’m aware of theory, literary esthetics, etc., and other aspects of craft, but I keep a very simple approach in mind.  Pain is an often leaned to theme in my own work and I know that my writing could not exist, most likely, outside those confines entirely.  I’ve lived a difficult life and I’ve paid attention.  All of that comes out in the work, as it does for anyone doing anything creatively.  Contemporary literature does seem to deal more with the idea of pain, a pained existence, angst, and so forth, but I couldn’t explain why.  I just tell my stories and hope folks like them, connect with them.  They’re not going to be laughing afterwards most of the time, but the connection is everything, no matter the means by which we arrive there.

Susan:  “… but the connection is everything…”

Bravo!  That’s what I believe too.  Shel, thanks for a most enlightening chat!

Read Where Alligators Sleep by Sheldon Lee Compton

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Robert Vaughan

    Bravo indeed. Thanks for this enlightening conversation, felt like camp chat, like we were sitting in our own “whiskey light,” a group of us Fictionauteers, and taking in the writing “process,” after several rounds of gin rummy. Then going to sleep, tossing then turning with our heads so full, in those pushed apart beds. Thanks for the inspiration with this exchange, and both of your incredible artistry.

  2. James Lloyd Davis

    Great story, enlightening interview. Whiskey light is pure metaphor and wisdom in the telling. The color of whiskey, the mood of it. Perfect.

    It’s always telling and absolutely thought provoking to hear a good writer talk about the brick and mortar of what they do. Thank you both.

  3. Sheldon Lee Compton

    Thanks, folks. Much appreciated.

  4. Meg Tuite

    Sheldon, Susan, I loved this!! “I just let things happen and then look back and make sure I plowed the line straight enough for a good harvest.” That’s such a beautiful way of explaining the writing process!!!! Love this story and so loved your interview!!! Thanks so much for sharing it!!!

  5. Gloria Mindock

    This was a great interview. I loved it!
    Congratulations Susan and Sheldon!

  6. Christopher

    Excellent interview. I raise my glass of whiskey to the storytellers.

  7. Foster Trecost

    I love this chat! Susan, great questioning. Sheldon, great answering.

    Sheldon, one of the things I enjoy about your writing is that it’s unpretentious; this interview backs that up very well.

    “I just tell my stories and hope folks like them…” Writers who try do more than this (I’m guilty on occasion) always come across as trying to do to much. You do just enough.

  8. susan tepper

    Thanks to everyone so far who has commented on Sheldon’s Chat! He is a most unpretentious person, and that quality shines through his stories.

  9. E. Wenziak

    This was fabulous! I could read about another writer’s creative process for hours. And, man, I wish I could have come up with ‘the plowed the line straight enough’ analogy. That pretty much nails the feeling.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  10. estelle bruno

    I always love your stoies, yes, unpretentious is exactly what they are.

    Wonderful interview. Bravo to you both

  11. Marcus Speh

    enjoyed this. “the connection is everything” is so true. i like that the pain shines through, as does the passion. great interview.

  12. michelle elvy

    Wonderful story and interview. I can imagine the stories those folks tell sitting in front of a gas station with chips in their hands, but Sheldon tells it real, too. Every time.

  13. Matthew A. Hamilton

    Great Chat. Sheldon is a super storyteller.

  14. susan tepper

    Matthew, I agree, Sheldon is a super storyteller. A born storyteller, for sure. Thanks to all who’ve responded so far to Shel’s chat.

  15. Mark Reep

    “It was one of those details I thought was going to just be a detail, and then watched it become something larger I could build on within the structure of the story. I rely on those moments, those surprises. It’s what makes the process most enjoyable for me.”

    Yes. Good stuff, that, and all the rest. Needed to read something inspiring this morning- Thanks!

  16. estelle bruno

    Mark, good to hear from you on the chat and glad you found it inspiring. I felt inspired, too, hearing what Sheldon had to say on the subjects of writing, life and process.

  17. susan tepper

    Mark, the above comment from Susan Tepper (using my mom Estelle Bruno’s computer) and forgot to log in.

  18. Sheldon Lee Compton

    Thanks again to everyone who took time to read this interview and perhaps read the story as well.

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