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.”