Persevering against hard knocks and strife, the residents of Calloustown are rendered with humanity and humor by short story master George Singleton.
Shelf Unbound: How did you come up with the book’s title and what does it mean?
George Singleton: Calloustown, the setting, appeared in my head as just one of a hundred or so ex-textile towns in the Carolinas fighting near-ghost town status. I could’ve called the town Nine Fingers, or No Hope Left, really. Inconceivable Dream, South Carolina. I guess that I chose Calloustown for a couple of easy reasons: the lost attitudes hard-won by the denizens of the town, and the homophone for “callus.”
Shelf Unbound: In your book, Pep Talks, Warnings, and Screeds: Indispensable Wisdom and Cautionary Advice for Writers, you write, “In writing, it’s much easier to cut your story or novel down than it is to add fifty pages. Overwrite, in regard to length.” Do you still follow this advice when writing, and how much and what kind of things do you end up cutting?
Singleton: I probably don’t mean to do it, but in the editing process I usually—for a short story—have an easy 500 words that I can cut (or that an editor asks to cut). These can be plain old wordy sentences, or redundancies, or bad jokes that only I find hilarious. And redundancies (that’s a joke—that would be cut later, now that I think about it).
I’m serious: Pick up a telephone and pretend to have an editor say, “We need you to cut this novel by 10,000 words” or “We need to cut this short story by a page.” Now compare that with, “We need you to add about forty pages to the novel” or “Find another 400 words for the story.”
Which is more difficult? In my world, it’s adding.
Go build a spec house. Someone says, “It’s too big. Make it 800 square feet smaller.” That’s easy. Go cut off the sun room. But if someone says, “Add 800 square feet”—and you already have a sunroom—what’re you going to do? Add an extra two bedrooms? Make some kind of mother-in-law suite? You have to think about the actual lot—how’re you going to do this without encroaching on the neighbor’s land?
Or: Cook a great seafood stew. Someone says, “Cut out some of the spices.” Okay. I’ll take out the red pepper and bay leaf. Someone says, “Add some spices!” What do I do?—look at everything from which I have to choose—salt, pepper, bay leaf, paprika, those million other options down in the herb garden. What do these diners want? Shoot me.
Shelf Unbound: What appeals to you about writing broken-down characters?
Singleton: Samuel Beckett believed that there was nothing funnier than human misery. Aristotle had all that stuff to say about catharsis. Harry Crews said something about the best fiction concerns everyday people doing the best they can with what they’ve got.
When you (or at least when I) add all that up, it seems to me that most Americans like to read about broken down people. They’re more interesting, for one. And then there’s the “Man, my life sucks and I’m a bad person, but at least I’m not that bad and my life doesn’t suck that much …” feeling one gets. “I lost my job, but I didn’t kill my daddy, have sex with Mom, and stab my eyes out.” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Job from the Bible. Joe Lon Roberts in A Feast of Snakes. Even Madame Bovary. Both the Misfit and the Grandmother, both Hulga and Manly Pointer in Flannery O’Connor. I think I’m thinking correctly here when it comes to broken characters.
Shelf Unbound: The story “Muddling” is 20 pages, but the main plot doesn’t begin until three-quarters in. Can you describe how you went about conducting this story?
Singleton: First off, I never thought about the main plot starting until three-quarters in. Hell—you’re the first person who’s ever even said that I had any kind of plot in my fiction. Maybe I “muddled” through the story, ha ha ha. (This joke would be cut, I know …)
I don’t really remember the process of particular stories, and I’m not being coy. When they’re done, to me, they’re dead meat.
(This is the truth: I just got up and got the collection, looked for “Muddling,” read the first page, jumped toward the end, and it came back to me.)
I would bet that the beginning of the story came to me after noticing how gas stations’ prices always seemed to go down immediately after I filled up my tank. So there’s that.
For better or worse, I kind of start off with a character in an uncomfortable situation and see where that leads. I would bet that when I had the narrator get gasoline, I had no clue that there would be a man trying to sell blackberries out of season, on a moped, and that he’d follow the narrator soon thereafter.
Because of your previous question, I’d bet that both protagonist and antagonist are broken. The narrator’s obviously been wounded by his ex-wife, about his fathering a child out of wedlock, about not succeeding as a ukelele luthier. The antagonist (hold on while I go look that dude’s name up) Ruben Orr might be broken for being a hoarder, for having a bastard grandchild, something.
I don’t know. Here’s what I would love—for every reader of this interview to go buy a copy of Calloustown, and tell me what she or he thinks. I can see it now! My sales skyrocket from 100 people buying my work, right up to 125,100. And then I’ll buy a Quonset hut and shove needless ukeleles in the thing.
Shelf Unbound: The stories in Calloustown are in first person and third person. For the final story, “What Could’ve Been,” you switch to second person, which I found to have great impact, making it feel like all of humanity resides in Calloustown. What were you trying to do with that final story by writing it in second person?
Singleton: That second-person story was some kind of gift from the gods. I mean, I’d like to say, “What a genius I am to carefully wrap up this entire collection with a story that you, dear readers, understand to be infiltrating your own lives.” Not the case, sadly. Listen, I don’t know how many times I’ve had a stranger come up to me and think it necessary to say, “You only write in first person!” It’s not the case, though I do “hear” stories in first person narrative, and I feel more comfortable writing such.
I love reading other writers’ third-person narratives, but when I write the things they come off, in my head, as sounding slightly dull. I try to write a few third-person stories per year, just to stay in practice, but it’s kind of a painful slog-fest when I do it.
Anyway, I think that if I had written, “I took a left out of my driveway, took another left, then saw a McDonalds,” et cetera—or if it went “Margaret looked over at the grocery store, that used to be a Bi-Lo, that used to be a Food Lion, a Piggly-Wiggly, and IGA,” then it wouldn’t have the universality. I think.
It’s hard to pull off a second-person narrative without coming off as didactic, presumptuous, cutesy, and a number of other bad things. But I think it worked for “What Could’ve Been?” I read that story a ton during this last book tour, and I can’t think of anyone who came up later and said, “You’re a jerk.”
Yes, I did plant that story at the very end of these linked stories, kind of hoping that the read will say, “Oh, yeah, man—maybe these characters shouldn’t wish for so-called Prosperity. Every town is starting to look alike.”
But maybe I’m wrong. Hey, if everyone reading this interview goes out and buys Calloustown, then contacts me…!