I remember seeing George Singleton at a lit fest
in some New Southern Hotspot—Memphis or Charlotte, one of those cities with a flower for a theme and lots of corporate sponsorship. I’m taking this elevator downstairs to the lobby and the door opens and there’s George, stinking of cigarettes with a can of beer in his mitt. It’s, like, eight in the morning. He starts howling, “Steve Almond! Steve Almond!” like I’m his favorite hunting dog returned from the dead.
I had met George only once previously, at a gala party in New York City for a magazine called Book, which is now (and this really does come as a fat shock) defunct. George was plastered and I was stoned out of my fucking mind. I believe we necked.
Anyways, down in Charleston or Richmond or wherever it was, George dragged me to this abandoned bar in the hotel where he continued to drink and smoke. It emerged that he had not slept the previous evening. Then he looked at his watch and said, “Shit. I’ve got a panel.”
So George lurched over to the panel, where he read with despicable grace and brio, then answered questions in his big, braying voice and made everyone laugh without intending to and made the other esteemed writers up there with him seem like total dweebs. Everybody was thinking, “Wow, that George Singleton sure is good at pretending to be drunk off his ass at eight in the morning.”
Although he’s been sober (if not clean) for a good while now, George works hard to maintain a reputation for bad behavior. Less often recognized is his emergence as a master of the modern short story. Over the course of five story collections and two novels, he has developed one of the few voices that I want never to stop. His new collection, Stray Decorum, has all the markings of his native genius: the stories are absurd without being ridiculous, profane when required, fearless in the face of human folly and utterly compassionate toward same.
George has never studied literature with me. There’s nothing I could teach him that a good bottle of cough medicine hasn’t already. But he has been enrolled in my online Judaism class “Sex and the Single Shegetz” for several years. I’m pleased to report that he can now imitate Yiddish with no significant pain in his prostate.
We’re all very proud of him.
Right. Let’s get this train wreck started…
The Rumpus: Are you, at this moment, inebriated?
George Singleton: Only inebriated with life. It’s eight in the morning and I’m reading student stories.
Rumpus: You recently sent me an e-mail ordering me to ask you why it’s been six years since your last book of stories. Have you been lazy or something? What’s going on?
Singleton: Here’s what happened. In 2005 my copyeditor at Harcourt, David Hough, had to subcontract out Workshirts for Madmen to an eighty-five year old woman who lived in New York City. She kept changing sentences like “I only want to dig a hole and sit down in it” to “I want only to dig a hole…” I wrote “Stet” in the margin. She kept changing these sentences, and I kept writing “Stet.” Somewhere along the line she wrote “Do you people in the South not know this rule of grammar?” When she changed it the next time, I wrote “I want only to kill you.”
I must’ve written “Stet” 300 times on the manuscript. Later, David Hough called me and said, “I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work out. Don’t worry, I let the changes stand.”
At this point I thought, I’m going to write a slew of stories all featuring a character named Stet, just to mess with editors. I did. I got to work. I aimed and fired those stories out. By somewhere around 2009 or 2010 I had thirty-five of them published. Sometimes Stet was the main character, and sometimes he took on a cameo role. In my mind I would have a two-part collection of stories.
Now. I sent it to my agent, and she said, “No one’s going to publish a 450-page collection of stories. No one’s going to even want to publish a collection!” I swear to God, too, she said something like, “Maybe you people in the South don’t understand, but the Publishing World is undergoing drastic changes!” and “Maybe you people in the South don’t understand, but the economy’s messed up!”
She said, “I don’t want to try to sell a collection of yours until you write a novel that I like.”
I thought, Maybe people up in NYC don’t understand that I don’t like being told what to do. I thought, Maybe agents up in NYC don’t understand that their stable of Southern writers helps them buy lavish apartments, et cetera.
So we broke up.
I sent the 450-page collection to the agent Kit Ward and she said, “I’ll take you on, but no one’s going to publish a collection this length.” Damn damn damn, I thought. But she didn’t say, “Write a novel.” No, she said, “Don’t try to outguess what’s going on in publishing, and write what you want to write.”
Then she picked out the stories that would make up Stray Decorum—most have stray dogs, all have stray humans, one has a stray monkey—all of which (I think) have Stet Looper still playing a role in some capacity. The next collection—due out in the summer of 2014—is called No Cover Available, and includes the other stories, more or less.
Rumpus: The collection has lots of dogs. Please discuss your feelings about dogs. Include a heartwarming story about a dog not named Tapeworm.
Singleton: See a short anecdote published in Garden & Gun, in their “Good Dog” column. Here’s a link: “http://gardenandgun.com/article/good-dog-back-grave.” That’s how all the kids are doing it these days, from what I understand, down here in the South, where we hear nothing…
Rumpus: Let me be the first say, for the group, that I find it really disappointing that Garden & Gun magazine does not feature photos of Southerners shooting flowers. Nonetheless, I’ve been reading your stories since “Santayana Speaks Through You,” originally published back in 1967. What always knocks me out is how you’re able to fool me into thinking I’m reading some shaggy dog story, then you drop the hammer on my heart. How does that work? Do you have to buy the hammers in advance or what?
Singleton: One day we will all cherish the memory of having blacksmiths on every corner.
Rumpus: I think you are being modest, but I can’t be sure. But you do have this reputation as a “literary hellraiser,” which means—so far as I can tell—that you occasionally speak your mind. There are also lots of stories out there about your “drunken antics.” Please rebut each and every one of them in 150 words.
Singleton: Gilles Deleuze believed that every society needed a madman so we could feel better about ourselves. I do my best to fill that role. Is anyone out there thanking me? I don’t think so. Ingrates. Think about it: I’m a bad, inconsistent person, but at least I’m not a member of the Tea Party griping incoherently about too much government, but flashing my Medicare card every other day to a doctor because I’m 400 pounds overweight.
On that note, I smoke cigarettes, too. I don’t smoke because I like to do so, but because it makes me pay cigarette taxes, which helps build roads and water supplies. Boy, think about all the selfish non-smokers out there, driving around on asphalt, drinking water out of the tap, not even thinking about how smokers’ taxes help pay for it all.
Rumpus: Why are you not yet inebriated?
Singleton: I have to deal with seven ex-stray dogs, and one ex-stray cat. One dog is nearing nineteen years old. Before I go to teach, he likes for me to tell him bedtime stories.
Rumpus: I loved the story “Perfect Attendance,” how this sweet kid has to absorb the sorrow and betrayal of his father. I’m always struck by how deeply you understand teenagers. Does being a teacher help with that?
Singleton: Probably. And there’s a ton of truth in Flannery O’Connor’s notion that “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
Rumpus: NWA urged us to fuck the police. Who would you urge us to fuck?
Singleton: I’m a peaceful person, so my only answer to that—which will turn my house bullet riddled presently—is the NRA and the politicians in their pockets.