September 1, 2020 |

Our Conversation with George Singleton

George Singleton is the author of various short story collections including These People are Us (Harcourt, 2001) and Staf Picks (Louisiana State University Press, 2019), as well as two novels and a book of writing advice. Singleton was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in 2015, and is set to release a new collection of short stories entitled You Want More this September. His story, “What a Dime Costs,” appears in Story’s Spring 2020 issue. Singleton currently teaches at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

INTERVIEWER

Thank you so much for meeting with me, George.

GEORGE SINGLETON

Hi, Sarah. [Laughs] By the way, my hat says FU on it, but this isn’t because of you. I went to this place called Furman University. I like wearing this hat in public a lot because it usually doesn’t mean “Furman University” when I’m wearing it out there.

INTERVIEWER

[Laughs] I guess it can kill two birds with one stone.

SINGLETON

It does, yeah. I’m not Christian, but Furman is a Baptist school, so I kind of know the Bible. My favorite book of the Bible, unfortunately, is Job. I don’t know if you know about Job in the Old Testament, but he’s just a man from Uz, and all this bad crap happens to him. That’s my kind of guy. I love him. It’s a beautifully written and disastrous story. Let’s all just play by the Golden Rule. Let’s all do that, and we’ll all be okay.

INTERVIEWER

I absolutely agree. I think if we all love each other, that’s what matters. So, George, how did you start writing?

SINGLETON

I was born in Anaheim, California, but my dad was from Texas and my mom was from Michigan. My dad was in the Marines until he had a bad accident. He fell forty-five feet into the hull of a ship. He broke his hip, his back, and about fifty-seven bones, so we moved to South Carolina where his family was living at the time. It’s where his dad and his step-mom were. I was brought up in a tiny little town called Greenwood, South Carolina, about 60 miles across. I went to college in Greenville, and I went to graduate school in Greensboro. I lived in DC for about nine months and hated it. It was back when Reagen was president, and everybody’s talking about how great Reagen is now, but it was terrible. There was terrible unemployment. I’m a yellow dog Democrat—please say that’s okay, because I don’t get it around here, I’ll tell you that. [Laughs] Thus why I wear this hat.

And here’s the thing. Everybody I know who’s in the South has this “southern writer” thing. All my buddies say that they started reading William Faulkner when they were six years old. Oh, bullshit! When I was a kid, there used to be this TV show called Laugh-In. On Laugh-In, there was this little old guy named Henry Gibson, and he would show up with this big giant flower and say these stupid poems, these ridiculous little rhymey AB AB poems. When I was twelve years old, I thought, that guy is funny, and I’m going to try and write these little poems too. That was my hero– Henry Gibson.

In high school, I read all those god-awful books that they should not teach, like Wuthering Heights, any Charles Dickens stuff, The Scarlet Letter, and I thought, Man, this is all depressing! But when I went to college, I had a couple of professors who said, You know, you’re kind of funny, read this stuff. They gave me plays by Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, and works by Thomas Pynchon, John Irving, John Barth, and especially Donald Barthelme.

And then, for some reason, I just started writing. I don’t know why. I’m real hard-headed. When I was studying abroad in France, this friend of mine said to me, “You’re just going to end up as one of those old, crotchety men who never gets published, and you’re going to be angry the rest of your life.” And that just stuck. I’ve got a big chip on my shoulder, sort of an I’ll show you. Part of my whole thing is that. I think, Oh yeah? I’ll show you.

Then, I started writing some fiction and it was all bad, bad, bad, but I couldn’t stop. I just wrote. I knew it was bad. My first manuscript was about 450 pages, and I wrote it during my senior year in college and my next year out. I was working as a dishwasher, painting houses and doing manual labor jobs, but I was also just writing. I knew it was bad around page 200, but I just finished it. Then, I took a minor character out of there and made him the main character in the next god-awful novel that was about 250 pages. That was terrible too, but it was my thesis in my MFA. Somewhere in between there, I worked for a year or two. My dad got sick and died, and I had to run his little business, but I was still writing. I don’t know what happened. One of my first creative writing professors once said to me, “You’ve got the disease.” You know, that was it. I just got some kind of disease where I couldn’t stop. Now, I teach funny stuff, because until I was in college, I didn’t know about it. Although I rarely write a lot of creative nonfiction, I teach a lot of it, like David Sedaris. My students enjoy that and they always ask me, “Wait, you can write this shit?” and I say, “of course you can, it’s fun.” Nowadays, I think that creative nonfiction is the way to go, on a practical level. I know writing isn’t about money, but if you want to pay some bills, it’s the way to go.

INTERVIEWER

Have you ever experimented with creative nonfiction, or do you usually stick to short stories?

SINGLETON

I’ve had a creative nonfiction piece called “Acting Squirrelly” in this magazine Garden & Gun. I don’t know if you know about it, it’s kind of a Southern magazine. I had another piece in a dog magazine called Bark, and in a magazine called Oxford American. I actually had a creative nonfiction piece, believe it or not, in Best American Food Writing. Man, it pissed off my wife because she knows that I never even cook, and that it was a joke. It was about how to make this Vienna sausage casserole or something. I was in there with Anthony Bourdain. It was all these chef writers, and then me, like an idiot.

But no, I don’t. And the reason why– oh man, I hate to admit this– but I just kind of make my own life fiction. When I was a kid, I was brought up as upper-lower class or lower-middle class. Like the characters in “What a Dime Costs,” my dad used to drive my mom and me to Akon, South Carolina, and go to these polo matches, where all the rich people were. There used to be a hotel where you had to pay a dime to use the bathroom, so I would slide under the stall doors to save a dime. The stuff that’s true, I just put into fiction, for better or for worse.

That story in Story is a first-person retrospective. There’s stuff that’s made up in there, like my dad was never a house painter, although he did teach me how to paint houses when I was twelve, and he told me that if I ever learned how to paint houses, I’d never be out of a job. When I first started teaching college back in the 80s, they paid nothing, and so I had a paint company in the summers. I painted houses. I made more money painting houses than I did teaching full time at a weird college. In that story, the stuff about the turtles is made up, and my mother was not an alcoholic. She didn’t sit by a pool with me spraying her down, my dad didn’t run away from the marriage—that was made up.

But that image of the polo balls—I hadn’t thought about it in a long time. I had forgotten about it altogether, but my mom died about five years ago and I was having to deal with taking care of her house. She was about this close to being a hoarder and I thought, What the hell, this whole closet is filled with Christmas crap! But I found an old polo ball. And then I remembered going to those polo matches and my dad saying, “get that ball, get that ball,” and bringing them home. That was probably the germ that started the whole story.

INTERVIEWER

That’s what struck me so much in “What a Dime Costs.” The imagery felt so potent, real, and familiar. I find that I pull images from a similar place. They just stick with me and somehow make it into my writing. I always wonder how they get in there.

SINGLETON

Yeah, there’s always that How did that get there? kind of thing. I have this buddy named Ron Rash, who’s a pretty famous writer, and when people ask how he started one of his novels, he’ll say, “I saw a woman on a horse. It was an image.” I always say that I hear voices. So he sees things, and I hear things.

INTERVIEWER

Have you noticed any pattern to the images that you pull? I know that most of your stories are set in small, Southern towns. What ideas are you drawn to?

SINGLETON

You know, I don’t think about it. And I’m not being a smart aleck. I don’t think about it because if I did, I’d probably freeze up. When I was exactly your age, and I started writing, the first thing I wrote was set in Nice, France because I’d spent ten days in Nice, France. And then I wrote about Oregon, and DC. I wrote a whole novel that took place in Memphis and I had never even been to Memphis! But I had a map of Memphis. So I would look down at the map and write, “uh, and then he walked down, uh… Elon Street!”

My professors would say, You know, George, you’re from a tiny cotton-mill town, and you’re trying to write about these other places… It took me a while to figure it out. I started reading Flannery O’Connor and I noticed that she was writing about places even smaller than where I’m from. That’s how you do it. And if you do it right, it works anywhere. If you just keep in your mind that the protagonist wants something and the antagonist is standing in their way, it doesn’t matter where the heck you are. You can be in the North Pole, and write a story about wanting some whale blubber but having so-and-so standing in the way. You can write a story about wanting Samantha to love you, but Frank is in love with her and she loves Frank more. Just keep that in mind.

I just finished writing a draft of a story and about halfway through, I thought, Who the heck is the antagonist? It’s just a husband and wife talking. They’re getting along just fine, except that she lost her job and she hadn’t told the truth about it. But she’s not really an antagonist. I had to go back and rewrite the beginning of the story to bring somebody in who’s going to stand in the way.

In one of my linked books, the town is called Forty-Five, and it’s about 10,000 people. I thought that was a lot of people. I wrote one novel where it’s just a hill—a hummock—where there’s one family and another family because I thought, Well, the less characters, the easier it is to write about.

INTERVIEWER

Very true. Speaking of, I know that you’ve written a great number of short stories and also a novel, which is called Novel. When I found that out, I thought it was the funniest thing. I told everyone about it.

SINGLETON

It’s god-awful. I wrote two novels, one is called Work Shirts for Madmen, although a chunk of that novel is a short story that showed up in the Atlantic Monthly. It was kind of shoved in there. That wasn’t so bad. But Novel…

Here’s how it went. I wrote these bad novels when I first started writing, and then I started writing short stories and getting published. I’d been writing for about eight years at that point, so it wasn’t like it was happening overnight. I think the first short story I sent out got accepted by some little literary magazine, but I’d been writing for eight years. I wrote stories, stories, stories. And then some agent contacted me and asked if I had a book of stories. I said that I did, even though I really didn’t. But I made it work. He tried to sell them and then he asked if I’d thought about writing a novel. I said, “I’ve written some, but they’re so bad.” He told me to write another, so I did. I sent it to him. This was before the internet, and I swear to God, I put it in the mail, and I still had my arm in the mailbox when the rejection came. I mean, it was like, Ow! He said, “I don’t like this novel. Write another.” Well, I thought, I don’t like people telling me what to do. If I’m an electrician and I like working with electricity, but someone tells me that I’ll make more money being a plumber… I don’t really want to be a plumber.

That was in 1988, or thereabouts. I wrote short stories hard from 1988 until 2004, and had all those books of stories came out. Meanwhile, my agents and my editors kept saying that I needed to write another novel. And you know, I got this drinking problem, so I was kind of drunk, and my publisher at Harcourt called me up one day and asked what I was working on. Now, I’d been drinking, so don’t be like me– I said, I’m writing a novel, it’s called Novel, the main character’s name is Novel, and he’s writing a long poem.

My publishers offered me a whole lot of money without seeing it. And I’d not written it. I mean, I was writing a short story called “Novel,” but it had gotten too long. It was about forty pages. So, I had to write it. I got the money, and I wrote it. It’s a little bit on the metafiction side. I mean, it’s kind of… it’s just dopey. I wrote the other novel just to see if I could do something with it. But I don’t like writing novels. I’m not good at it. Half of the time, I’ll sit down and say that I’m going to write a novel, and then later I think, Oh, that’d make a nice short story. When I’m dead, and someone looks through all my papers, they’ll notice that this big three hundred page novel became a short story.

Honestly, I kind of felt guilty about that, but then I read an interview with Barry Hannah, who’s a Southern writer that could write sentences like you wouldn’t believe. He said, “I don’t know how many novels I’ve written that have just become short stories.” So, I don’t feel that bad about it.

INTERVIEWER

That’s so interesting. I was just about to ask whether you preferred writing novels or short stories.

SINGLETON

It’s not even close. I don’t have the patience for writing a novel. I kind of get bored. The voice of my writing can get old over three hundred pages, but it might work for something shorter. If someone was sitting at the barstool next to you, telling a funny story, you wouldn’t mind them telling you five minutes of the funny story. But you don’t want them to tell you four hours of a funny story. That’s how I am with novels. I mean, even I know that.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve also experienced and heard a lot of authors say that it’s hard to keep track of everything that goes on while writing a novel. The voice can change so much since it takes quite some time to write it.

SINGLETON

It took me a little while to understand this, but most of my short stories, like “What a Dime Costs,” take place within twenty-four hours. The character can say, “I remember five years earlier when this thing happened,” but they’re still in that moment. It puts boundaries as a writer to remember where I’ve been and where I’m going.

INTERVIEWER

You mentioned that you had been writing for quite some time, about eight years, before you decided to send out one of your short stories for publication. What was the impetus for finally sending out a story?

SINGLETON

I didn’t even know how to send them out at first. For those three bad novels that I wrote, I had three professors tell me that I was going to be ready at about a thousand pages. I thought—because, you know, I was a little punk—I thought that I was a lot smarter than that, and it wouldn’t take me so long. I wrote a 450-page manuscript, a 250-page manuscript, and a 300-page manuscript. I’m no genius, but that’s a thousand pages. In that third bad novel manuscript, I thought that with this character and this little section, I could write short stories. None of those professors told me how to send anything off, which may have been my saving grace.

A sane person, when they get a rejection, would’ve quit. But I’m so hard-headed, with that I’ll show you kind of thing, that when I finally started writing short stories and reading more short stories, I started looking at where other people were getting published. I would look and see that one was in the Chariton Review, which is a little tiny magazine, so I’d send it to that place. Then I started sending them everywhere.

It was like a treasure hunt. You’d send a story out, wait, and think, Oh boy, I’ll hear from them pretty soon! It’s only been six months, I bet I’ll hear from them soon. But rejection is hard. If I was in high school and I said, “Hey, Marybeth, you want to go on a date?” and she says no, and I keep asking, “Saturday? Monday? Next week? How about in February?” and she says no every time, sane people will quit. That’s a lot of rejection. But for writing, if I get a rejection that says that they’re not going to take this one, but to send them something else, I think, Oh boy, oh boy, I got some positive feedback! When you have one accepted, it’s worth all the rejection. It’s like the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. This one acceptance beats the twenty rejections I’ve had.

INTERVIEWER

I can imagine! It must be an amazing feeling to know that a story has been accepted somewhere and that people can read it. I know that you teach as well as write– have you found that teaching has changed your writing or writing process in any way?

SINGLETON

No, I’ve been teaching for—God Almighty—I started teaching in 1986. There were a couple of years where I didn’t. At one point, I sold a couple stories to Playboy, and they pay a lot of money. Those were probably the cleanest stories that I’ve ever written. They didn’t even have cuss words in them or anything. I thought that I was about to make it, so I quit my job teaching. Then, I didn’t sell another story for eighteen months. I was writing like crazy. So, I went back to teaching, but my writing didn’t really change. It maybe helps me to remember some things, though. I tell my students that instead of trying to write a story about a character that takes place over eighty years, why don’t we pick a day in the character’s life? That reinforces what I want to do.

When my students ask me what they can do when they’re out of ideas, I say, go get a job. Go deal with some human beings who aren’t you, and listen to them. When I hear writers say that writing is so hard, I want to tell them to try roofing or driving a garbage truck. I worked as a roofer, and it’s maybe the worst job in the world. Roofing in the summer in South Carolina is not fun.

INTERVIEWER

It really is so important to go out and live and talk to people. That’s where you find all the images. I don’t know what your experience has been with this, but with the pandemic happening, it’s much harder right now to go out and talk to people. Can you tell me about how that has influenced your writing?

SINGLETON

Here’s what happened. I quit teaching on March 13th. At the time, we were going to have our spring break early and come back on April 1st. I thought that I’d have a couple of weeks to write like crazy, and I did. I wrote like crazy. I wrote a story a week for three or four weeks. And then, we realized that we weren’t going to be coming back. I began wearing a mask and trying not to go out. I learned how to order stuff online. The only person I really dealt with was my FedEx guy, who hates my guts, because I order something every day.

I went through a slump. I read a bunch and I had some blurbs to do, but then I told myself that I had to get back. I went on another tear in the last six weeks, and I’ve written three short stories that I’m pretty happy with. I’m still working on the third. It’s the one about the man who finds out that his wife has been fired from her job. Glenda, with whom I’ve lived with for twenty-eight years, was an art teacher. She was talking about how people are getting slapped on the wrist or fired for things that they’re doing in classes, and she said that back in the day, if a student didn’t have their color studies ready, she made them sit in a chair with a crayon and a coloring book like a six-year-old. Nowadays, you would probably get fired for that. I thought, God, how did I not know that story? So, I wrote a story about a man whose wife hasn’t worked since December 15th because she got fired for making kids sit out. She would get up every morning, put on her clothes, and just drive for eight hours and come home. He had no idea that that was going on until she confessed. So, ideas are still coming up.

A student of mine just wrote to me yesterday and said, “I’m having a hard time coming up with ideas. What do I do?” I told them to go sit in a room, pull out all their books of short stories or creative nonfiction, and just read the first pages. Just read one page. Sometimes if you think that you’re going to read three 5,000 word essays today, it’s too hard. So, say that you’re going to read the first page, and I swear, that first page will give you ideas. I’ve been doing a lot of that. I opened up a story about a guy who’s in some trouble, and he works in an emergency room. I read that, and I wrote a story about a guy who’s a security guard at a vacant hospital that is spooky as all get-out. That’s what I’ve been doing here to make things and generate ideas.

The thing about writing for me is that it’s too easy to write about politics. It’s too easy to have a character say, “I love Trump” or whatever. That’s the one thing I’m trying to keep out. It’s hard to not write a story that doesn’t have people in masks, though. All stories need conflict, and all I’ve got to do is leave my house and drive one mile away to Walmart and see people screaming at Walmart employees because they don’t want to put on a mask.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think that the coronavirus will make it into one of your stories at some point?

SINGLETON

Yeah, it’s already made it into a couple of those stories. I didn’t even mean it. I had these people in a bar, wearing masks and trying to drink with their masks on. But I don’t really want to write them now. I should write those stories in ten years from now, if I’m alive. It’s too easy.

INTERVIEWER

It really is a challenge right now. I’ve also been having some trouble coming up with ideas too, but I’m hoping to take your advice and start flipping through books to help with that.

SINGLETON

[Laughs] You’re going to write an essay as soon as you and I are done, and it’ll be called “Trying to Interview an Idiot.” That would be funny! I would be proud if you did.

Sarah Hume is a Junior at Denison University, where she studies International Studies and Narrative. Photo courtesy of Doug Kerr; view more of his work on Flickr.