WDB Author Q&A: George Singleton

George Singleton, author of Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, explains what's so great about the dung beetle and also offers advice on the writing life.
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George Singleton has published four collections of stories (These People Are Us, The Half-Mammals of Dixie, Why Dogs Chase Cars, Drowning in Gruel) and two novels (Novel, Work Shirts for Madmen). He’s published over 100 stories in magazines and literary journals such as The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Zoetrope, Playboy, The Georgia Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Shenandoah. His work has been anthologized often. He’s taught on the secondary, post-secondary, and graduate levels, and the mistakes made and questions posed by his students inspired this book.

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While writing Pep Talks, did you find you started to speak and write aphoristically at inappropriate times? How did this make you feel?

The good surgeon knows where to cut, but the good mechanic knows his or her bearings. So, yes, to the question. It’s driving me (more) insane.

What piece of advice (aphoristic or not) have you received over the course of your career that has had the biggest impact on your success?

There are many candles in the candle shop. There is not one of them that smells good to everyone. There is not one of them that smells bad to everyone, either. A story might not be for one editor or reader, but it might be for another.

What message do you find yourself repeating over and over to your students?

I have good students, so it only takes about four weeks for me to say this: Shut up. Read this. Conflict, conflict, conflict.

What do they repeat over and over to you?

“I can’t write unless it’s on my laptop.” That’s kind of all I can think about right now.

They seem to know better than to say something like, “It changes points of view because the character’s bi-polar.” I think they might know that I’ll go bi-polar on them if they try to pull that one.

What's the worst kind of mistake that new writers can make? What do you think the corresponding punishment should be?

The worst thing I can think of is for a new writer to say, “I don’t want to read anything, because it’ll interfere with my voice.” Maybe just as bad is a student who decides that he or she will only read pre-eighteenth-century literature from the canon.

Punishment? No punishment. Until that student—no matter what age—understands that he needs to know what’s being published nowadays, writing with no hope of getting published will be enough punishment.

What's the one thing you can't live without in your writing life?

A level-headed editor. Ha! That’s just a joke. Talk about an oxymoron. Wait, who’s asking these questions?

The stock answer might be a dictionary, but the more I think about it, it really might be an editor—I’m serious here—to help rein me in. Oddly enough, a bunch of jokes that come into my head don’t seem to be all that funny to anybody else.

[Editor’s note: Awww. Stop. You’re making me blush.]

What does a typical day look like for you? Do you really crush all those aluminum cans?

There are no more typical days. I used to get up early, do my writing, go to work, come home, look at rejection slips from the mail. For the last few years I’ve gotten up early, done some writing, answered e-mails—not that I have ESP, but I knew this e-mail craze was going to be a problem—go to work, come home to do odd things like writing out answers to interviews, read Advanced Reading Copies of books that get sent to me for blurbs, and so on.

I try to write for a couple hours every day. Sometimes it’s mid-afternoon, though, which I don’t like.

On Sundays I walk out here in the country and pick up litter, so, yes, I’ve picked up aluminum cans, stomped them, and taken them to the recycling center. Joseph Beuys supposedly had felt and fat to account for his art work, and I have aluminum. It started a long time ago when I was broke-broke-broke and used the money for stamps.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you while on the road to promote one of your books?

Somebody, obviously lost and confused, showed up at the signing.

I know this trick: You want the thrown-in-jail-in-Mississippi story. I ain’t telling that story.

What do you see as your biggest publishing accomplishment?

If I thought I’d done something big and worthwhile, I’d probably quit writing. So I try to remember that I still haven’t written a perfect book or story, and therefore I have something for which to strive.

This sounds martyrish, I understand. I don’t care.

If you weren’t a fiction writer and teacher, what would you do and why?

I kind of wish that I’d studied archeology. Or anthropology. I wish that I’d’ve been a little smarter—a lot smarter—in the sciences, so I could’ve been a veterinarian. I wanted to go to law school and become a public defender until I took classes with future lawyers and thought, rightly, I can’t hang out with these people for the rest of my life.

Any final thoughts for current and future fans of Pep Talks?

The poor dung beetle: Everyone makes fun of that thing, pushing poop around. It’s industrious. It’s obsessed and single-minded. It works not unlike Sisyphus, doing what it has to do. The dung beetle’s an insect worthy of being tattooed on the bicep of every writer, if you ask me.

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Learn more about Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds.

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