12 minute read

GEORGE SINGLETON 100-PROOF by Mandy Haynes

GEORGE SINGLETON 100-PROOF

Interviewing authors can be difficult. You don’t want to waste the author’s time, you don’t want to bore them by asking questions that they’ve already answered a hundred times already, and you want to give readers something more than what they can read on the author’s website (if they have one––George doesn’t).

“Interviewing” George is anything but difficult. You don’t interview George, you listen. He is a master storyteller who has the ability to turn day-to-day events into a story, and if you pay attention you’ll get the answers you wanted without asking the questions.

But before we get to the interview, let me introduce him. George Singleton is the author of nine short story collections, These People Are Us: Stories, The Half Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars: Tales of a Beleaguered Boyhood, Drowning in Gruel, Stray Decorum, Between Wrecks, Calloustown, Staff Picks, and You Want More. Two novels, Novel and Work Shirts For Madmen. And one non-fiction that, per George, is a weird book on writing advice he wrote on a dare titled Pep Talks, Warnings, And Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom And Cautionary Advice For Writers.

Over two hundred of his stories have appeared in journals such as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Cincinnati Review, Tin House, Garden & Gun, and elsewhere. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. In 2013, Singleton accepted the John C. Cobb Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Wofford College where he taught fiction writing and editing. Singleton was inducted into the Fellowship of Southern Writers in April 2015 and awarded the John William Corrington Award for Literary Excellence in 2016.

George’s writing is brilliant, his characters are hilarious and heartbreakingly honest. They’re southern stories but they don’t take place in rocking chairs on the front porch with sassy grannies sippin’ sweet tea, they’re not focused on Oxycontin addiction, and his protagonists aren’t poor little hillbilly boys ashamed of where they’re from finally getting out of the holler.

Because there’s more to us than that.

You won’t find any cliches in George’s writing, because his characters are more than words on a page, they’re people we know.

George doesn’t ignore the big red elephant in the room and he doesn’t gloss over the ugly aspects that are still a huge part of the American South. You’ll find that most of his protagonists, though very southern and not formally educated, are way smarter than people give them credit.

There are open-minded liberal thinking people in small southern towns and George gives them a voice without changing who they are or where they’re from. He celebrates the good and does a damn fine job of pointing out the bad without being condescending or watering down the stories with familiar and sadly––y’all know it’s true––expected stereotypes to make them easier to swallow. No, George serves them straight from the bottle.

He's the master at making you laugh when you’re not sure you should, and causing a lump to form in your throat and tears to well in your eyes when you’re reading a phrase or description that’s laugh out loud funny but hurts at the same time. Let’s face it, we’ve all had times in our own lives when a sense of humor was the only sense we could find.

George says, “It’s like Samuel Beckett the Irish playwright said, there’s nothing funnier than human misery. That sounds really mean but that goes back all the way to Aristotle with the notion of catharsis you know when you got Oedipus stabbing his eyeball out. You may go man, my life sucks, but at least I haven’t killed my daddy, had sex with my mama, or stabbed my eyeball out. And that goes back to what Beckett was saying. You know we don’t mean to, but when we see someone slip on the ice and fall down,” he chuckles, “we laugh.”

George lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina with his wife Glenda Guion (an incredibly talented artist) and their dog Cleo who sat at George’s feet as we talked. At one time George had eleven dogs, all strays that had been dropped off and left to fend for themselves before finding their way to George’s house. He can name them all––Dooley, Hershey, Ann, Mabel, Maggie, Nick, River, Cleo, Lily, Charlie, and Mary.

I was introduced to George’s writing thanks to Dooley years ago at The Southern Festival of Books. I saw a poster for a panel of authors talking about their stories in the anthology Literary Dogs and Their South Carolina Authors outside a conference room and slipped in to grab one of the last available seats right as George started talking. In just a few minutes everyone was laughing as he described how he tried to convince his neighbor’s mother-in-law that the skinny, mange-covered, stray was her dog–not his––to wiping away tears and hanging on every word as he talked about the trip to the vet when Dooley had to have emergency surgery. I kept leaning forward to look left and right down the aisle at the faces in the audience to see if they felt the way I did, if they knew how damn lucky we were to be sitting there. The looks they gave me told me they absolutely did and that I was late to the game. The man at my left took pity on me and asked to borrow a pen. He then dug a wrinkled Harris Teeter receipt from his pocket and wrote a list of Singleton’s books he thought I should start with.

After that I read everything I could get my hands on about, and by, Singleton. I told George about my first experience of hearing him read live at The Southern Festival of Books.

George said, “Some of my best memories are when I’m reading a short story and people are laughing and you can see the minute the story turns and the look on their faces are like, Uh-oh, should I have been laughing this whole time? If I can pull that off, which I do about 1/100ths of a time then I’m happy.”

“You’re the master at it,” I said and meant it.

George answered, “No, the real master is a fella named Lewis Nordan who grew up in Itta Bena Mississippi. He wrote Music of the Swamp, Wolf Whistle, and lots of good stuff. You should look him up.”

Of course I wrote Nordan’s name down and you should too. Then I asked George what he was up to. After we talked about chasing feral cats, missing possums, and growing poppies, he told me about two new books he’s working on.

“This one coming out in September is called The Curious Lives of Non-Profit Martyrs,” he laughed, “nonprofit like working for United Way not a prophet like some guy in the bible. Then I’ve got a book of essays called Asides coming out around the same time. It’s about dogs, bars, growing up questionably, and hangover cures. There’s some food writing in there, one of those essays showed up in Best American Food Writing.”

He says he got the idea to publish a book of essays during Covid after he read a really good collection by someone else.

George laughed, “I said, I need to get together all the essays I’ve ever written––I was drinking bourbon at the time––and put them together. The problem is I don’t save anything. Zero. I found three of these essays on my computer but I had to go online and search for the rest. If I was lucky they were published online, if not I had to order the magazine, journal, or book they were in so I could sit there like an idiot and retype them…”Another great George laugh, “I better make some money off this book because I spent six million dollars gathering all the material.”

I asked George out of all the literary journals he’s been published in, what was the one he got the biggest kick out of telling his friends.

“I was really happy with each of them. It’s like treasure hunting, you know, some days you find a diamond, some days are just rubies or emeralds but it might be a really good ruby that gets reprinted. I was in this magazine called The Quarterly edited by Gordan Lish. He’s a real famous and somewhat controversial editor. He edited

Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah and he’s well known for cutting a lot of work. I was really happy about that one ––even though he cut my ten page story down to three. But I made twenty-five dollars a page which in 1988 probably paid my rent. Then Georgia Review I was really proud of that. Then in ’92 or ’93 I sold a story to Playboy Magazine. It was not a dirty story whatsoever, didn’t even have any cuss words in it––maybe one damn. Matter of fact it was a family value story about a couple who were so excited about the birth of their first child. They had a sonogram and then the man taped over it with a recording of Bonanza. I was proud of that, understand I was in my early thirties what I still considered a whippersnapper so I got a kick out of telling my buddies from college, Guess who’s going to be in Playboy Magazine––my words with all those nekkid women. Now I’m a little bit embarrassed by it. Then in ’99 I went on a tear and had a story in Atlantic Monthly, in Harper’s, Zoetrope, and Georgia Review––I had something like eighteen stories published in a calendar year.”

George laughed, leaned in, and said, “The one I’m most embarrassed about, that’s maybe more interesting. I had this story about a stand up comedian right, so I was looking through this magazine and found a magazine called Inside Joke. I thought, Hey, I’ll send them my story about the comedian. I did and they took it almost immediately. I thought, Damn that was fast. Good. And then when it was time to get my contributor’s copy it was like forty pages of typewriter paper xeroxed with staples in the end. Inside Joke was a magazine put out for prisoners in the New York State penitentiary system. In the next issue I got fan letters from prisoners in the letter to the editor section saying, That story by that Singleton boy down in South Carolina is pretty funny.

Another embarrassing one was back when I was having all that good luck with Atlantic, Harper’s and whatever, I actually got a letter from the editor of Redbook Magazine. A magazine that’s primarily a women’s magazine. The editor was Dawn Raphael and she wrote and said, Hey, don’t forget about us. I thought, Man, that's nice. Glenda got Redbook so I looked through it and saw that the stories were written mainly by women with women protagonists so I went, Okay I better write about a woman protagonist. But there were certain things I just didn’t know. I mean I listen to people, that’s my whole gig–– listening and stealing from people. Anyway, it was a honeymoon story about this couple who just got married and the guy’s deranged uncle was sort of stalking them. There was a line told by the woman that said “That night I went into the bathroom and changed into––and then I put in parenthesis––a Teddy, pajamas, buck naked, choose one of these,” George laughed, “because I didn’t know what she’d say. There was a whole lot of that and I got rejected pretty quickly. Dawn sent a rejection letter that said, Please don’t ever do this again. So I didn’t.”

I asked if he had any advice for writers.

“My advice is read what’s being published now and read a whole bunch of it. I don’t know how many ex English majors try to write a novel thinking it should sound like Charles Dickens or Jonathan Swift or Shakespeare. It’s important to know Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty but if you wrote like Faulkner today you’d have a hard time getting published.”

I asked George if there was one endorsement out of all the great ones he’s received he was especially proud of. George’s answer was if anyone takes the time to write a blurb he’s thankful.

He picked up a copy of his latest book and read, “Singleton’s stories are like epic spitballs from the back of the classroom,” he stopped to laugh, “I think that’s kind of funny.

The full blurb by Jonathan Miles from Garden & Gun goes "A greatest-hits album from a writer whose stories are like epic spitballs from the back of the class: high arcing and unbearably funny protests against the absurdities of everyday life."

George ends with, “I don’t pay too much attention to them because I think they’re usually a little bit hyperbolic. It’s not like, Ah, I’m going to put that on my tombstone. On my tombstone I want, Maybe it’s a mistake…”

Check out the full interview/ conversation with George on WELL READ’s new YouTube channel BETWEEN THE PAGES