One Bite at a Time




Thursday, April 7, 2016

Twenty Questions With George Williams



George Williams was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of a novel, Degenerate, and two collections of stories, Gardens of Earthly Delight and The Valley of Happiness. His stories and essays have appeared in The Pushcart Prize, Boulevard, and The Hopkins Review, among others. He is the recipient of a Michener Fellowship and a grant from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. He teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design and works as a consultant and writer for Corra Films.

George’s newest, Inferno Stories, drops April 18 from Down and Out Books.

One Bite at a Time: Tell us about Inferno Stories.

George Williams: It’s my third collection. It’s called Inferno so some online buyers will confuse it with a bestselling writer’s latest novel. When they discover it’s dreaded “literary fiction,” they’ll call for an Amazon drone to return it to the warehouse. Or use it for kindling. “Literary fiction” is a publishing term. Sturgeon’s Law applies to it and other genres: 90% of it is crap.  Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels are some of the funniest novels I’ve ever read, but in publishing he wouldn’t be considered literary, so the category is useless. Better to think of writing as good or bad, regardless of the genre. Worth rereading or not worth finishing.
A bestselling literary novelist committed to the page the phrase “the fork of lightning stabbed at the salad of the trees.” This wretched metaphor made it past his agent, his editor, book reviewers, et al. It was deliverance from ever having to read another line of his.
                                                                  
OBAAT: It’s an easy question to ask a novelist where he or she got the idea for a novel; an anthology requires several. Is there a common thread that connects the stories, such as a theme, a situation, or common characters?

GW: In this book, the motif, if one can call it that: the popular culture took a right at the river Styx and went straight to hell. That and madness. Darkness visible, to borrow from Milton.

OBAAT: How long did it take to write all the stories, start to finish?

GW: A few are almost a decade old. “The Ethicists,” “Sirens,” and “Inferno” were all written in the last 18 months.

OBAAT: Was the plan always to build an anthology, or did you write one story then another and only later decide to wrap them into a collection?

GW: I wanted to have “Inferno” published alone as a novella, but at 20,000 words, it’s really a very long story, not a short novel.

OBAAT: I have a hell of a time writing short stories. (Of course, depending on who you ask I have a hell of a time writing novels.) They appear to be your preferred medium. What is it you like about writing them and brings you back?

GW: When my wife and I were threatening to divorce one another after only six months of marriage, Donald Barthelme said, “You have the attention span of nutria.” I don’t know if he meant otters or rodents, but the point was clear enough. I suppose one does most what one does best, or better. I went back over six novels I’ve written in the last ten years and only one of them was salvageable. Perhaps I mostly write stories because like many writers I began as a poet and went onto to become like thousands of other prose writers a lousy one. But at their best there’s no difference between prose and poetry, Nabokov said.  There are lines in Lucia Berlin’s stories that are better by magnitudes than the poetry I read in magazines and journals. I don’t know enough about contemporary poetry to claim it’s in a sorry state, but a few years ago The London Review of Books published a long poem by Jorie Graham. It was clear they published it to say to English readers, “See? This is what Americans consider great poetry.”

OBAAT: How did Inferno Stories come to be published?

GW: Eric Miles Williams recommended I contact Eric Campbell and Down & Out Books and see if he would be interested in a collection or a novel. He liked a novel and “Inferno” but asked that I put together a collection.

OBAAT: What kinds of stories do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors, in or out of that area?

GW: The last two writers I’ve read and reread are James Salter and most recently Lucia Berlin, who is one of the best stories writers in English, now or ever. Of Hemingway’s The First Forty-Nine, six or seven are near letter perfect. Lucia Berlin wrote dozens. I won’t claim I discovered her work the way Rosellen Brown discovered haiku in the basement of the Columbia library in the 1950’s. I’m surprised I’d never heard of Ms. Berlin until her Selected Stories was posthumously published last year. Joy Williams’ first three collections—Taking Care, Escapes, and Honored Guest— are peerless. Thomas Bernhard entire.

OBAAT: What made you decide to be an author?

GW: Decisions! My mother was a journalist and over her desk was an etching of a bearded and terrifying man I thought must be an Old Testament prophet, or God. It was Charles Dickens. The first day of eighth grade, our English teacher, a short fierce and uncompromising Jewish woman named Mrs. Green, said to the class, “Come in, sit down, and shut up.” She read to us the first chapter of Great Expectations. My mother and father were bookish. Every Sunday we drove downtown to the Birmingham Public Library. On the mezzanine was a bronze replica of the sculpture of Romulus and Remus suckled by wolves. In the main room under the vaulted ceilings and above the dark shelves were images of representative Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians and Arabs.  Having been in church that morning, I felt like I was in a forbidden and mysterious place. I never wanted to leave. Add to that the odor or scent of books and the near reverential silence. When I go into the main branch of Savannah’s public library, everyone is plugged into one of dozens of computer stations.  The sounds of so many keyboards bring to mind insects or rats gnawing on paper. I’m not against the digital age or e-books, but nothing electronic is as aesthetically pleasing as a well-published book. The smell of the paper, the feel of the pages, the sense of time and proportion as one reads the story and turns the pages, closer and closer to the end. The last page, like the last line of a good story, if it is done well, is what has been called “the sting at the end of the scorpion’s tail.” I travel with a Kindle, but prefer the three-dimensional object called a book, which can be a work of art unto itself. The humorist Roy Blount was a guest of the Savannah Book Festival a few years ago and during a talk to SCAD students he said he was waiting for opportunity to sign a Kindle version of one of his books. With a Sharpie he’d write his name in outsized letters on the screen.

True, at 12 I was only interested in books about the Green Bay Packers or Alabama football, but one day at home I was bored and picked a sibling’s anthology of modern poetry and read Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion.” Great Expectations and “Death Shall Have No Dominion” looked like the best escapes from reality ever invented.

OBAAT: You’ve referred to yourself as a “reformed anarchist.” How do you think your life experiences have prepared you for what you write?

GW: That phrase is a joke and a bit of a cop out. A way to not talk politics with strangers, family, friends, or colleagues. I used to pretend I wasn’t interested in politics, but that’s not true, because politics is history. Before I stopped voting, I voted libertarian, a political philosophy I stole from Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is A Harsh Mistress when I was fifteen, so it’s fair to say my views are jejune and ossified fantasies decades old. One of the virtues and strengths of our system is that you are not required to vote. You have to participate—pay taxes, for example—but, unlike Australia, you can’t be arrested for not casting a ballot. Elections have consequences, of course, but would an Obama-naught in ’08 have believed Barry would sic the IRS on his political enemies, kill American citizens with Hellfire missiles, and turn out to be yet another crony capitalist?  Given that he’s a lawyer and a politician, what are the chances he’s not a psychopath? As Orwell wrote, politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.
            Not much of my fiction is autobiographical, so I’m not sure how my experiences influence my fiction, unless you consider reading an experience as much as an escape from it.
I grew up in a big, high-strung, talkative, opinionated and sometimes combative family with an absurd and occasionally cruel sense of humor.  When I was five, how did my tricycle find its way to the top of a tall pine tree on Signal Mountain, Tennessee? I was convinced it had grown wings and perched itself on a limb. My brother had hauled it up with a rope. We promised to make one of our sisters the star of a home movie. When the camera rolled, we beat her up, much to her surprise. I was as sinning as sinned against. I still owe my youngest sister a bicycle. At the time, I fancied I was a metallurgist, like my grandfather.
One recurring argument between my mother and father: she considered Joyce’s Ulysses great literature. He found it boring and preferred Graham Greene.

OBAAT: What do you like best about being a writer?

GW: Nothing, since I’m not a writer but someone who occasionally writes fiction. A friend who is a documentary filmmaker met a producer in L.A. who railed against the word “producer.” “It should be a verb, not a noun. Producers don’t produce anything.” When I think “writer,” Paul Theroux comes to mind. Even his own brother, Alexander, a far better though less prolific author, can’t stand him.

OBAAT: Who are your greatest influences? (Not necessarily writers. Filmmakers, other artists, whoever you think has had a major impact on your writing.)

GW: The writers mentioned earlier. Terrance Malick, Fellini, Bergman, Krzysztof Kieślowski and the documentaries of Henry Corra, but I don’t know how they influence fiction, mine or anyone else’s.  It’s true the typewriter changed prose, and no doubt movies allow writers cut out pages of exposition. A film can give the audience the where, when, and what in 30 seconds.  Look at the first chapter of Smollett’s The Adventures of Roderick Random, a novel that calls itself a memoir. It’s pure exposition. But to claim movies have changed contemporary fiction would mean I’ve read much of it, which would be a colossal lie, even by a writer’s standard.

OBAAT: Do you outline or fly by the seat of you pants?

GW: A blank screen. I recommend Donald Barthelme’s essay “Not Knowing” and Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners. The pleasure of not knowing where a story is going is the same pleasure the reader has when reading the story for the first time. Joseph Heller couldn’t get a line out of his head. “The first time he saw Yossarian the chaplain fell madly in love with him.” That turned into Catch-22 (originally titled Catch 25, but his editor didn’t think it sounded right . . .). Faulkner had an image of a girl in a tree, an image he couldn’t shake. It turned into The Sound and the Fury.

OBAAT: Give us an idea of your process. Do you edit as you go? Throw anything into a first draft knowing the hard work is in the revisions? Something in between?

GW: Some editing as I go. When a draft is done, I go back over it. Again and again and again. Stories like poems are not finished but abandoned.

OBAAT: Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a theme song for this book? What music did you go back to over and over as you wrote it, or as you write, in general?

GW: No, though I knew a writer who because he wrote all night couldn’t stand the silence, so he went to an all-night dance club in Houston and wrote there.  Music interferes with the sounds and rhythms of the prose. Inferno doesn’t have a theme song but I’ll give it one now. James Brown’s “The Big Payback.” Or Mozart’s Requiem.

OBAAT: As a writer, what’s your favorite time management tip?

GW: Early to bed, early to rise. Benjamin Franklin is a brilliant satirist. No one that I know of has ever read that maxim as a double entendre.

OBAAT: If you could give a novice writer a single piece of advice, what would it be?

GW: Read. Perhaps start with contemporaries and go back in time to see how they compare. From Homer to Shakespeare, Dante to Browning, Chaucer to Dickens. The great French and Russian novelists of the 19th century. Contemporaries like Lucia Berlin and Michel Houellebecq.  Euripides.  Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel. Don Quixote, which has the most pitiful ending of any novel I’ve ever read.  Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. And much nonfiction. Simon Winchester, Jon Ronson, Mary Roach. David Hackett Fisher, whose Albion’s Seed: Four English Folkways in America is one of the best history books I’ve ever read.

Umberto Eco, whose nonfiction is more interesting than his novels. And then there is nonfiction read mostly if only for research. Stick and Rudder: An Explanation of the Art of Flying. When I was researching flying for Degenerate—the narrator is an aeronautics engineer and an amateur pilot—I read that a 747 is more fuel efficient than a hummingbird. You never know where you’ll find a story. “Bay of Drake” in Gardens of Earthly Delight was written on a Sunday in the late ‘80’s after I read an article in the celebrity-besotted Parade magazine about a Navy ship.

OBAAT: Generally speaking the components of a novel are story/plot, character, setting, narrative, and tone. How would you rank these in order of their importance in your own writing, and can you add a few sentences to tell us more about how you approach each and why you rank them as you do?

GW: Character, plot and conflict are three sides of the same coin. Tone is established by the first page, if not in the first line or paragraph. Setting is important because I usually write about places I’ve never been, so research is important. A student in a workshop wrote a story about hiking in the Himalayas. It was so convincing, a classmate asked, “Have you ever been to the Himalayas?” “No,” he said. “I read about it.”  Never underestimate the power of imagination. And research. One expects any writer who writes about Iraq or Afghanistan war to be a veteran, but Stephen Crane, who was born in 1871, wrote what veterans of the Civil War thought was the best novel about it.

OBAAT: If you could have written any book of the past hundred years, what would it be, and what is it about that book you admire most?

GW: That’s not a thought experiment I’m inclined temperamentally to conduct. Why would I want to have written what other writers probably half-killed themselves to complete? Good writers borrow, great writers steal, the old saw says, but that wouldn’t be stealing, it would be first-degree murder.

OBAAT: Favorite activity when you’re not reading or writing.

GW: Trying to sleep. Going to the Y and exercising into a state of non-thinking. Walking around Savannah’s historic district when my daughter’s in town. Drinking. Frank Sinatra called New Year’s Eve “amateur hour.” Using my Smart TV for target practice.

OBAAT: What are you working on now?

GW: What could be called a “fake.” A burlesque of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, The Places You’ll Go!  It’s about the internet.

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