Ampersand Interview Series: George Singleton Interviewed by Caleb Bouchard

Ampersand Interviews, Arts & Letters

In the latest Ampersand Interview, we spoke with George Singleton about flea markets, the South, and comedians. Singleton’s “Spastic” was published in Arts & Letters Issue 27.

A&L: Flea markets are a recurring motif in your stories. What is it about this setting that attracts you as a fiction writer? Are flea markets a secret breeding ground for stories?

George Singleton: Flea markets showed up frequently in The Half-Mammals of Dixie, and in a number of stories between about 1998-2002 that didn’t make it into collections. I was more or less unemployed from 1996 until 2000, and I thought about how I wanted to write a story set at a flea market. That meant actually selling behind a table. Then, by weird coincidence, my father’s old shop got hit by a tornado sixty miles away from where I lived—he’d been dead for fifteen years, so this building had been a mini-storage warehouse unit, more or less, filled with tools and machinery. I scavenged what I could, took it to the Pickens County Flea Market, and got hooked. I talked to people from all walks of life—art collectors in Atlanta to down-and-outers from the area. The stories, mostly imagined, hit me fast. And in a way working flea market circuits is a lot like writing—always looking for a certain treasure, usually not finding one, but ecstatic when something decent appears.

By the way, those guys on American Pickers probably owe me some kind of royalty money…

A&L: Do you think you would have become a writer if you weren’t born and raised in the South? If not, what do you think you would have become?

GS: I was actually born in Anaheim, California. My father was in the merchant marines. We moved to South Carolina when I was seven—he’d fallen forty-five feet into the empty hold of a ship, became disabled, and we moved to be nearer his family. My father was a great, and ribald, storyteller, and in California I lived in a trailer, then an apartment. So I might’ve had writer-needs even if I stayed there. Who knows? I might’ve started writing earlier—it wasn’t like I had access to a slew of books in South Carolina, nor anyone to point me in a beneficial direction. And then, even after I started writing, in college, I tried my best to choose locales far from the textile towns I knew best. I wrote about Nice, France, and D.C., and then Memphis. I’d spent ten days in Nice, nine months in D.C., and had only a map of Memphis. It wasn’t until I read Flannery O’Connor that I went, “Oh, now I get it—that’s how to write about small towns, and small town denizens,” and so on.

I’ll take some of those random pieces and pair them up, see where I can strike sparks until I get a dangerous place, a character who’s hurting, an interesting problem to throw their way.

A&L: What is the toughest bad writing habit that you have had to break, or do you advocate for embracing bad habits?

GS: The bad habit of mine is coming up with slap-sticky ideas and not knowing to abandon them, to conjure up jokes that maybe I find funny that no one else finds funny. It’s the whole “kill your darlings” dictum of Faulkner.

A&L: In a recent interview, you mentioned you are a big fan of Rodney Dangerfield. As a writer, are there any tricks, techniques, or philosophies you’ve borrowed from stand-up comedians you admire?

GS: I admire, and borrow from, I hope, the comic timing of people like Bob Newhart, Dangerfield, Steven Wright, and Brian Regan, among others. I like the life-is-absurd notions of those comedians. In a way, they’re summoning Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco—two playwrights I read voraciously in college and later. Back to my favorite comedians: They seem to tell stories wherein they, or a character, is backed into an uncomfortable situation, and the listener/viewer wants to see how they’ll get out of it, or if they will. I’d bet that 90% of my stories are about everyday men and women stuck in an uncomfortable situation with an antagonist, and the reader—I am hopeful—wants to see how they get out of it. I know for a fact that in this last collection, Staff Picks, I started every story with a blank screen or page, and  my saying—usually out loud to myself, like an idiot—“Uncomfortable situation.”

George Singleton has published seven collections of stories, two novels, and a book of writing advice. Over 200 of his stories have appeared in magazines such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, the Georgia Review, the Southern Review, the Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Hillsdale Award from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and the Corrington Award for Literary Excellence. He lives in Spartanburg, SC, where he holds the John C. Cobb Chair in Humanities at Wofford College.