Interviewed by Gavin J. Grant
George Singleton is the author of two collections of short stories, The Half-Mammals of Dixie and These People Are Us. He received his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and now teaches writing at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities.
George Singleton: Out of all the stories in The Half-Mammals of Dixie, when they orginally appeared in magazines, only a few of them took place in a fictional town called Forty-Five. Shannon Ravenel at Algonquin thought it might be wise thematically to have the town show up in each story. I thought so, too. What the hell.
There is no Forty-Five, South Carolina, but there is a Ninety Six, a Six Mile, and so on. I was brought up near Ninety-Six, and heard about a half-dozen different stories of how the town got named. It seems to me that, a lot of the time, such a town's residents choose the most patriotic, awe-inspiring, somwhat fantastical version of these tales. And so it happens in Forty-Five. (Personally, I always wanted to live in a loose, bar-infested, wild town called Sixty-Nine, but that might be over the top.)
Do you think you'll continue writing about it?
I have finished a new set of stories and novellas called Nothing's Enough -- not a novel -- wherein each story is narrated by Mendal Dawes. Mendal's the narrator of "Show and Tell" in The Half-Mammals of Dixie. All of the early stories he narrates in Nothing's Enough take place in Forty-Five.
Would you like to write a novel about any of the characters?
I don't want to write a novel. It seems that short story writers get pressured into novels -- and I'm sure that if Nothing's Enough ever sees the light of day it'll be called a novel-in-stories -- by publishers, agents, and editors. I don't understand why. For me, novels tend to ramble on slowly, kind of like a serpentine river on flat, flat land. Short stories are kind of like hard blasts of water from a garden hose, directed toward some unsuspecting person minding his or her own business by a practical joker hunched behind some boxwoods.
Are you a big fan of swap-meets and fairs?
I love flea markets. There's a big one down the road in Picken, SC. This summer I'm building a 14x8 foot shed out in the backyard, pretty much to hold the 1000+ glass advertising ashtrays I have bought over the years. I also collect yardsticks. I'm going to cover the interior walls of the shed with those. It'll certainly make it easier to figure out the square footage.
Ever thought of selling those things instead of storing them? Think what a stall you'd have, you could sell ashtrays by the foot, or yard.
I'm planning on selling the ashtrays and yardsticks about retirement time. It's my 401K, my Roth IRA. Check e-Bay in 21 years. My yardsticks and ashtrays. And carbon paper, slide rules, and Billy Beer....
Some of the characters in your stories leave Forty-Five, but they usually end up coming back. Why is that?
They leave Forty-Five, and they come back. It's like an anti-Thomas Wolfe thing -- I've said forever that I wanted to leave South Carolina, that I couldn't take people knocking on my door to preach at me. I've left for short periods, then returned. It's like Purgatory. It has to do with Hope. Why do the conservative right wing people around here think the way they do; and why do the foreigners, and transplants, and liberals keep hanging around? Oh, it's a dichotomy, baby. It's a place where nothing but conflict can evolve.
Do you think of yourself as a Southern writer?
I'm a Southern writer only because I live in the south. Writers in the south, these days, don't seem to be so caught up in the "Grandma's on the porch snorting snuff and telling a story from her rocking chair" variety of yarns. In my opinion, Maxim Gorky was a southern writer. Gogol was a southern writer. Faulkner was just as Russian as Dostoyevsky.
The southern writer thing, though -- I know that NYC is a melting pot, but it's kind of a melting pot here. There are just a whole different set of animals getting boiled down. And they're fun to write about, or thinly disguise.
Did you grow up thinking you might be a writer?
I grew up wanting to be a track coach. A ripped ligament in my senior year in college stopped that thinking. Then I wanted to be a public defender, until I took some college courses with lawyers-to-be and realized that I didn't want to spend my life around those people. I started writing about my sophomore year in college, after reading Beckett, Ionesco, Gravity's Rainbow, The Sotweed Factor, and The World According to Garp. And Yeats.
Have you done the usual series of odd jobs (roadbuilder, dishwasher, chicken sexer, tree -ing counter, parsley blender) that every writer seems to try before realizing it's the nonprofit (i.e. writing) route for them?
My father made me drive around with him, always, doing whatever he though was "work." Mostly we met up with his cronies and drank coffee, and met people from all walks of life. Then I got a real job in high school at a pharmacy. During summers in college I drove a water truck, dump truck, and garbage truck for the city of Greenwood. I've worked construction, roofing, and painting houses. I got a job in a Budweiser warehouse (stupid move on those people's parts). I manufactured replacement aprons -- bevel-ended calfskin belts that go on cottom mill spinning frames for two and a half years. Even when I taught at a college in S.C., I painted houses in the summer -- which paid me more money than teaching.
What are you reading?
In the last month I read Summer of Deliverance by C. Dickey, Papa Hemingway by Hotchner, Essays and Aphorisms by Schopenhauer, Hollow Ground by Stephen Marion. I'm finishing A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain and would like to invite him down here for barbecued groundhog and "peach bounce" moonshine. I'm always reading short stories in a number of literary journals.
Do you have a favorite bookshop?
- The Open Book in Greenville SC
- The Happy Bookseller in Columbia SC
- Square Books in Oxford Mississippi -- there's a town where a writer's welcome
- Lemuria in Jackson MS
- The Little Professor in Charlotte.
Understand that I can't drive a hundred yards without hitting a church of one form or another, but the closest bookstore's 20 miles away.
If you worked in a bookshop, what would be on your staff picks shelf?
Staff picks recent:
- Yonder Stands Your Orphan (and Geronimo Rex) by Barry Hannah
- Among the Missing by Dan Chaon
- everything by David Sedaris
- Clay's Quilt by Silas House
- The Last Cowboys at the End of the World by Nick Reding
- A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
Staff picks not-so-recent:
- My People's Waltz by Dale Ray Phillips
- anything by Carver, Cheever, and Flannery O'Connor
- Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha by Roddy Doyle
- anything by the poet Rodney Jones
Author photo by Glenda Guion.
 The Open Book, 110 South Pleasantburg Drive, Greenville, SC (864) 235-9651
 The Happy Bookseller, 4525 Forest Drive, Forest Village, Columbia, SC (803) 782-2665 email@example.com
 Square Books, 160 Courthouse Square, Oxford, MS (662) 236-2262 firstname.lastname@example.org
 Lemuria Bookstore, 202 Banner Hall, 4465 I-55 N, Jackson, MS (601) 366-7619
 Little Professor Book Center, 4139 Park Road, Park Road Shopping Center, Charlotte, NC (704) 525-9239