Issue 12

An Interview with Sam Allingham

 · Nonfiction

by Partha Chakrabartty

Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection The Great American Songbook (A Strange Object). His fiction has appeared in One Story, Epoch, American Short Fiction, n+1, No Tokens, and The Atlas Review, and his nonfiction at The Millions, The Kenyon Review, and Full Stop, among others. He lives in West Philadelphia.

I want to start by signaling my skepticism about the entire business of receiving and dispensing writing advice, given how much writing resists generalization. Having said this, can you recall any piece of advice that has been particularly memorable or helpful?

I agree with you that writing “advice” can be highly suspect. When I teach fiction, I try my best to work with each student to figure out what, exactly, they’re interested in doing with the space of story before suggesting they build walls, floors, etc. What if they want to build a yurt, for example? What do I know about yurt-building?

But what I do know is that the writing of a good story always has something to do with the unconscious mind. Planning is all well and fine, but there needs to be some space within the story where the author is genuinely surprised by what happens. So my suggestion has to do with figuring out how to access this unconscious space where your fingers move just a little ahead of your brain, where language is, to some extent, writing you. For me, that usually means writing for a long time, six plus hours, so that by the end you’re too tired to think too much. Also, writing late at night. Some people like drinking, but that makes me sentimental, so I can’t partake!

As for helpful suggestions, my undergraduate advisor Dan Chaon told me once that forcing your work to be over-intellectual and clever is a bad idea, and I couldn’t agree more. Cleverness and intelligence should be natural, instinctual, part of the prose itself. You actually have to become smarter, and that doesn’t always work the way you think it does!

One way of getting good advice, I feel, is in asking not for answers but for the questions that a writer likes to ask. What is a question you ask of your own work?

I always ask myself the question, “Have you done this before?” If so, I might want to try something else. Of course, this is different from “Has this been done before?”—since everything has been done before. But I find that I’m happiest when I’m working in a form or structure that’s new to me—which is why I don’t really have a “voice.”

By extension, what is the reading process like for you, especially of a story or a novel that you particularly like? What questions do you ask of such a work?

If a novel is mediocre to good, I read very structurally. I’m paying attention to how the author is achieving effects, how their characterization is rendered, tense and POV, that sort of thing. (Sometimes I’m reviewing, so I take a lot of notes. Which is really tiring and a little boring, sometimes, to be honest.) It’s sort of like watching sports, in which the pleasure consists of seeing how people play within clearly defined rules: no holding the ball, no traveling, and so on. But when a book is really great, that persnickety part of my brain shuts off; it’s an experience of pure delight. The nice thing is, this feeling of pure delight doesn’t have to do with particular styles or structures, but with the joy and control the writer invests in their material. Books as stylistically divergent as Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper have all given me this sense of joy and release from the cares of a critical framework. Afterwards, of course, you wonder how they do it; you want to figure it out retrospectively. But that’s for later, and anyway it’s almost always unsuccessful. No rules in heaven! No diagram for genius!

Since we are discussing a collection of short stories, it is interesting to me that you are citing novels as examples. At your reading at Temple University, you mentioned having unpublished novels under your belt. Is there another in the works? How do you sustain the experimenter’s restlessness you mentioned above through the long campaign of a novel? Or does that only apply to short stories? Was your approach to a novel very different?  

I refer to novels because I read more of them than short stories! I like short stories, for sure, especially as craft examples, and if I were teaching I would certainly reference them more often. Mary Gaitskill’s stories are ones I frequently use as examples for how to manipulate readerly sympathy, for example. But, to be honest, with the exception of real short story masters, like Kafka, Munro, Milhauser, and Joy Williams, I think the range of the short story (at least in the hands of most practitioners) is just smaller than the range of the novel—partly by necessity and partly by inclination.

And then, on the flipside, it’s much easier to keep a story afloat using one particular structural experiment; you can’t get away with such things in a novel! (Unless it’s a really amazing structural conceit, like the “listening” narrator in the recent work of Rachel Cusk, or the lipogram in Perec’s A Void.)

Yes, there is a novel in the works. Hopefully the first draft will be done in the next month or so. As far as experimentation goes, I think that in the past I made the mistake of thinking that a novel required me to follow the thread of a narrative more closely than I would have in one of my stories, that I couldn’t experiment as much as I wanted—which is, of course, ridiculous. I mean, Moby Dick is just one narrative digression after another. Same thing with Renata Adler’s work. And the novels I like the most are the ones which use the form to pack in different voices, a heteroglossia, an abundance! All of which might be a way of saying that I got my autobiographical, strict narrative novel out of the way, in the desk drawer, and now I feel much freer to have a good time. I just had a very nice afternoon editing a list of the works of Theophrastus and working on some sex scenes. I get to read a lot of Sappho, do more research. I’m having more fun.

I think that in this department we can get inspiration from a certain bookish, historically and culturally aware group of female British writers of the 20th century, who don’t get nearly enough play in the States: writers like Penelope Fitzgerald, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Iris Murdoch, Beryl Bainbridge, Hilary Mantel. These writers saw no reason why you couldn’t seamlessly blend experimentation and narrative—or, more intelligently, they saw the narrative field as inherently experimental. So I try to follow that approach, to surprise myself within the language-field.

Since we are speaking of experimental structures, we can now discuss your recent collection, The Great American Songbook. Some of the stories in the collection, like “Rodgers and Hart”, “One Hundred Characters” and “Bar Joke, Arizona,” play around with (or even entirely eschew) chronology and dramatic structure, while “Stockholm Syndrome,” “Husbandry” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” pursue characters over a period of time. How do you think through chronology in your stories?

I think you’re right that one of the few true things that marks a structure as “traditional” is a relatively linear handling of time. (Although, for the record, “Stockholm Syndrome” actually has some fun with chronology, in the form of those pseudo-academic intrusions, which were hard to work in!) And when you slip into that familiar flow of “next week,” or “next month,” or “the next time I saw X,” it really is its own kind of constraint; your mind starts supplying bits that might feel appropriate for a gap of such and such a length between actions. Plus, a reader finds this sort of structure familiar because it reflects the way we tell stories to each other. “And the next time I saw him, he was with X, so, of course, it was like Y.” Chronology is a way that we measure process and change.

Measuring that change is harder in fragmentation; you run the risk of running through permutations of one idea without ever actually changing the fundamental nature of the situation at hand—sort of like a musician performing endless variations on a single fragment. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. Worked pretty well for Bach, I think.)

Given the title of the collection, the two stories that bookend it (one featuring fictional versions of the composer-lyricist duo Rodgers and Hart, the other a fictional version of Artie Shaw), the two stories that refer directly to songs (Talking Heads’s “Love Goes to a Building on Fire” and Modest Mouse’s “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes”) and the little tease in your bio about working “for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children,” you have pointed readers to reading these stories while thinking about music. And yet, I see in these stories little to no description of music per se. It is not even the character’s response to music, but rather their relationship to music, as creative people, that seems to be your emphasis. In spite of all the evidence above, would I be right to say that this book only uses music as an accessory to understanding characters? That music is your angle of attack, or approach, while your true obsession is with these people?

Music is impossible to directly describe through language. If you try it, it’s inevitably embarrassing; you resort to visual or structural metaphors that have nothing to do with music itself. I’m thinking of that slightly ridiculous passage in Howard’s Endwhere Helen sees goblins while listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, which is leavened slightly by little ironic touches. (I tried the same thing in “Rodgers and Hart,” in the bit about different varieties of musical love, and Hart’s response about a dumb bear.) Music is a direct art, where form and content are indistinguishable; there’s no use trying to mimic that in language.

Even a really good book about music and musicians like Coming Through Slaughter orDoctor Faustus or Europe Central weds music to psychological interior: how music makes people feel. But in the stories about musicians, I wouldn’t say I’m less interested in music than I am in character. I’m not sure I see the two as distinguishable. Rodgers and Hart and Artie Shaw are all, in a sense, consumed by music. They see life through it, and in the end their lives are indistinguishable from their relationship to it, their insufficiency in the face of its power, which they alternately deny and are frightened of. I can relate to that. We’re all insufficient in the face of music, musicians most of all.

Speaking of characters, I must also note how much of these stories live within the characters, rather than between them. Even the most gregarious of your characters, Thomas in “Stockholm Syndrome” and Richard Rodgers, have intense inner lives. Thomas hides his true self behind his social veneer, and Rodgers seems to be too busy to have relationships of any depth. Is that how you see the human condition, as essentially lonely, or do you see those parts where we are alone, and unable to distract ourselves through social interaction, as the most interesting material through which to explore characters?

Looking at these stories as a whole, this is the thing I’m most disappointed about. When I was younger, I think I thought inwardness, rumination, and linguistic alienation were the “proper” subjects for fiction, whereas more social, humorous, large-hearted subjects were somehow less worthy. It’s a young man thing, really, to idolize solitude, inability to connect, access one’s emotions, etc. All that Hemingway garbage, just dressed up in experimental forms. It’s really pretty embarrassing.

The social world is certainly not a distraction; it’s the fabric of our lives, what gives us meaning. Again, my hope is that reading socially minded, extremely smart, and historically aware female English novelists from throughout the 20th century will be very helpful for me in trying to avoid these inward habits in the future!

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