Saturday, August 30, 2014

Imagining Alligators: A Conversation with Sheldon Lee Compton, Author of Where Alligators Sleep

In anticipation of Where Alligators Sleep, the eclectic, at times haunting, at times disturbing, at times painfully beautiful collection of sixty-six short stories being released next month, I bring you a conversation with the author, Sheldon Lee Compton. Not only is Sheldon the editor of the online journal Revolution John- which you Need to be reading if you want to keep up with the latest daring writers and writing on the scene- he is a kindred spirit and the sort of author whose work will make you gasp, step back, and then dive back in for more. His stories are piercing, compelling and addictive. His interview, of course, is right in the same vein. Keep reading…

Steph Post: I was expecting a collection of short stories when I first started Where Alligators Sleep, but I was thrilled to discover that the book is entirely composed of flash fiction pieces. I am a tremendous fan of flash and I think you’ve definitely entered, and conquered, uncharted territory with the genre. How long have you been writing flash fiction and what draws you to this unique form?

Sheldon Lee Compton: Hey, thanks, I dig some flash fiction, too, obviously.  But I didn’t start writing flash until about 2008 and then for only about a period of three years before returning to longer stories and novels. I started writing these really short stories to entertain a writer friend of mine and he did the same.  We would send them back and forth just to entertain each other that way.  But at some point he came across the database site Duotrope and we started noticing a lot of these “flash” pieces were being accepted at a lot of journals we’d never heard of.  We sent a few out and were rejected.  I think we had a combined total of about ten rejections when we decided to have a competition to see who could accumulate the most rejections over the course of a couple months.  For the first month, I won hands down.  And then, strangely, a journal called Eviscerator Heaven accepted the flash story “The Last Tour of Loretta Lynn’s Homeplace” and I lost points in the competition.  We gave two points for a rejection and then a loss of a point for an acceptance. This went on for almost a year and before long I had a decent string of acceptances and was losing to my friend.
So I kept it up for another two years – the writing flash pieces, not the competition.  I think writing without publication in mind in that way, opening up myself to that freedom of form and content and style, helped me develop my overall work.  And writing flash has continued to have that same feel for me.  I don’t think about what journal I’m going to submit the piece to or even if it does anything other than entertain me.  I haven’t been able to capture that same kind of freedom with longer work.  I’m too focused on being a writer at that time and not just having fun.  But I’m still working to make that free and easy flash feeling spread.

SP: I think that most readers who read flash fiction are used to doing so only in literary magazines or the occasional multi-author anthology. With Where Alligators Sleep the reader will be experiencing sixty-six pieces back to back by the same author. How do you think reading flash as a collection differs from the usual way readers experiences this genre? Is there a difference? Do you think that the stories have different meaning or create a different impression when read together as a collection?

SLC: That’s a really good question, because you’re about right – most of the time we’re only getting these flash moments from an author and then moving on, yeah.  I’ve read a handful of flash collections before and now, thinking about mine, I guess there are some common threads running through a lot the stories.  I don’t know if I intended that, but I have several that deal with relationships of the gloomy variety.  And in the collections and anthologies I’ve read, there always seems to be at least a few places where some glue’s been spread and things mesh.  That’s a nice thing to see that happen.  I didn’t exactly intend to do that in the case of Alligators, but I can see it now that it’s in full form.  But then, there’s also stories in that collection that just live in their own world, and I like that, too.  I didn’t set out to have any real cohesion when writing the stories, and I think the relationship stuff became the majority rule because I was going through a lot of that sort of thing while writing over the course of the three years these stories came into the world.  And then sometimes I just thought some of them would be fun to write, period, you know?

SP: While reading Where Alligators Sleep, I noticed specific themes threading their way through each story and connecting certain pieces together in patterns. The theme I found most haunting was that of unrequited love. So many of your characters seem to be at the bottom of a well, calling out for someone who refuses or neglects to throw down a rope. In stories such as “Sweet and Sour” and “Assignment,” you can feel the characters’ hearts aching, but at the same time these characters are somewhat repulsive. They don’t automatically elicit pity and this, I believe, creates a complex emotional response in the reader, which in itself is another thread tangling its way through the book. What do you believe to be the most important theme in Where Alligators Sleep? Do you consciously set out to create pieces with a certain theme in mind or does it happen naturally?

SLC: I guess I just showed my hand in that when I do these interviews I never read through all the questions first.  I answer one and then move on to the next.  So, I guess I covered a lot of this in the last answer.  But, I can say the theme, if I should mention one now after having written them, because I didn’t have one mind while writing, would be the idea of seeing some beauty or power in the gloam, that dusky place before nightfall when it seems you’ve accomplished or failed at all you could that day and still haven’t managed much at all.  Dusk (the time of day I’ve always imagined alligators settle into some kind of ancient sleep, which could be completely wrong for all I know) means the end of a day, but the beauty and that power is found there, too, I think.  Perseverance can be found there and guts and toughness and a stubborn love or a dying hatred.  I don’t know, I’m a little crazy and that’s okay, too.  We all are, and maybe that’s as much the theme as anything else.

SP: Out of sixty-six stories, you chose the piece “Where Alligators Sleep” to lend itself to the title of the book. I’m curious as to where this decision came from. Does the short story represent the collection as a whole or does the title stand alone to represent something?

SLC: There I went and did it again, ha!  But, no, I can say that something about that title story did stick with me.  That old couple dying together in the bedroom, in those half beds separated to each side of the room.  I don’t know, it was a sad situation to me, but one they would overcome each night by meeting in the middle of the room and dancing and being in love and enjoying that moment.  I really liked that idea, and I liked that to everyone else they were these dried up and wrinkled sort of modern-day dinosaurs, but to each other they were all the beauty the universe could ever pour out onto the world.  The story did stand out for me and I realized I was really trying to write about that in one way or another in each of the stories.  There’s something magical and brilliant and just amazing to me about a small, but strong, amount of light in the darkness.  In my mind that idea is like a deep cave with a pool of dark water where every now and then one of those awesome bio-luminescent fish skims the surface.  That damn fish is saying to hell with darkness, I’ll make my own light.

SP: Along the same lines, as a Florida writer who grew up with alligators in her front yard, the title of your collection seems appropriate and familiar. You live and write in Kentucky- what do alligators mean for you?

SLC: Alligators, of which I’ve seen so very few, have always represented endurance and just raw survival for me.  You mentioned earlier there was a sense that some of my characters were in this sort of well and hoping someone throws them a rope, but that they were also repulsive at times.  That’s just it.  Most of us, when we’re struggling to just get through the day, can be pretty reptilian.  It’s this idea, that I have to get through this and if anyone gets in my way I’ll likely devour them to make sure I get the job done.  We don’t like to think about that part of ourselves, but it’s there and we might as well admit it.  An alligator is out to survive and it’ll fucking kill you to make sure that happens.  But, at the same time, it’s just a creature on the planet trying to live and, more or less, mind its own business, you know?  Most of the characters in this collection aren’t much different in some ways.  Hard, but human, difficult, but reserved.

SP: If I had to say only one thing about your writing style, and, trust me, there is much more to say, I’d have to raise a glass and nod to this- your writing has guts. Visceral, bleeding, steaming raw guts. Even when your stories are quiet, the pulse of each character is felt in every word. How would you describe your style? Does it matter to you whether or not readers perceive you and your work the same way?

SLC: I surely appreciate those kind words, Steph.  I really do, because I try to write from that kind of place, and it’s good to see someone recognize it in the work.  It doesn’t much matter to me how readers perceive me, as much as how they perceive, or, rather, enjoy my writing.  But my writing does reflect the life I’ve lived, and continue to live for that matter.  At the risk of complaining, I haven’t seen many easy days. It’s been hard since I can remember, full of those moments when you have to see if you have the get up and go to get through it.  I’ve not done a great job along the way, but I’m still here.  I drank myself to an early heart attack and now I’m in recovery for alcoholism, was born poor and still barely survive.  I have more scars than I can count and enough pain to fill four lifetimes.  But I’m looking for something good every day, even on days I have no faith whatsoever there’s anything good left at all.  People will find that in my stories and novels, and that’s how it goes, I guess.

SP: Finally, the word on the street is that you have a novel coming out in the near future. What can readers expect from this new work? How will it be different from Where Alligators Sleep and your first story collection, The Same Terrible Storm?

SLC: Yes, indeed, I do.  I finished it earlier this year and it was accepted by Artistically Declined Press last month.  It’s a novella called Brown Bottle and has a loose publication schedule of late summer 2015.  I’m thrilled and thankful to ADP honcho Ryan W. Bradley for seeing something good in it, I tell you.  Readers of my first collection will recognize the main character Wade “Brown Bottle” Kingston from a short story included in that book called “Purpose”.  This book is more closely connected in style and theme and all the rest to that first book of mine, The Same Terrible Storm, in that it’s a regional book set in eastern Kentucky.  It deals with addiction and love and defending what you love and sacrifice and those sorts of things.  And even though its gun heavy and blood heavy, it’s also a love story.  I’m pretty happy with it and hope people will enjoy it on some level.

SP: You’re an amazing, ass-kicking author, Sheldon- thanks so much!

SLC: Then we both kick some ass in many amazing ways, Steph!  Thanks for so generously taking time to talk with me about the craziness.

Want to know more? Connect with Sheldon on Facebook and Twittter and don't forget to be on the lookout for Where Alligators Sleep, forthcoming from Foxhead Books.

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