Steph Post: Okay, I've got to start with the obvious here: what's with you and wild animals in the trunks of cars? Is this something you've had experience with?
Sam Slaughter: Oh lord. There was this one time when I lived in Montana that we were tooling around in this beefed-up Dodge Nitro and we may have been a little drunk and it was us or the baby bear and, well, ‘Murica.
It didn’t occur to me that it was a thing until this question—maybe because the first one is a hatchback? I realize that’s a lame excuse and that it should honestly be chalked up to coincidence. The short answer is no, I don’t have experience with putting animals in trunks. The closest I’ve come is when I would transport puppies for a humane society and one puked in my backseat one time. I think the reason that it came up in almost as many stories as it didn't was that—especially in the case of the latter story—there’s an element of surprise in having an animal in there. What is contained one moment isn’t in the next and that is when all hell breaks loose. In reality and seeing as I grew up in the suburbs, if I were to encounter a wild animal in a trunk unexpectedly, there’s about an eighty percent chance that I’d scream at the top of my lungs.
SP: Maybe it's just because I live in Florida, too- the state where anything and everything strange happens and no one bats an eye- but I got the sense that your stories all started with a real moment, a real event that you witnessed or heard about. Given that the stories in When You Cross That Line are borderline bizarre (alligators, a welding grinder, an old man in a kimono brandishing a sword and so forth), I have to ask- where did these ideas come from? Are they purely fiction or is there some truth lurking about?
SS: Each of the stories is rooted in something that really happened. There is a Twitter account (and a sub-Reddit) called “Florida Man” (as well as “Florida Woman”)—and now that I think about it, a documentary—that catalogues all of the Sunshine State stupid that happens. [As a sidebar, I think Sunshine State Stupid needs to become the motto of something. Anyway.] They’re the stories that make you stop and go, “What in the hell?” Each story could just as easily appear on the Onion as it could on a real news outlet. That was my starting point. Having spent a couple years down here now, a day doesn’t go by where something doesn’t happen (and, to make sure of this, the first headline to pop up, only 16 hours old, is “Man who was kicked out of Florida bar lights bouncer on fire,” so there you go). With that in mind, there was plenty of fodder to choose from. I can quote any number of writers who talk about using real life, but we’ve heard all the sayings before, so I’ll just leave that right there.
The extent to which the real comes through in the fiction varies, though. Take, for example, the first story, “When You Cross that Line.” The bit that I took from real life was the fact that a guy tied a ring to a gator and proposed to a woman with it. Beyond that, the rest was a fiction. As much as it may seem like fun to involve the craziest things one comes across, it just sometimes doesn’t work, so it was my job as the writer to figure out how to best use the nuggets that I extracted from the Florida Man stories. I laughed out loud when I heard about the gator thing and knew that I needed to use it, so it was a matter of finding the right place for it. To add to that, I guess, as a writer there are times when you just know in your gut that a certain thing has to go a certain place. With all of these stories, that was generally how it went. There are plenty of options out there, but these little bits were the ones that spoke loudest to me. Or really, since this is Florida, they were the details and instances that announced themselves by riding on an air boat, blasting Skynyrd and chugging some High Life while shooting a shotgun in the air.
It was clear I needed to use them, somehow.
SP: One of the many elements that you do very well in When You Cross That Line is the crafting of honest dialogue. I could hear every word that your characters spoke and this added greatly to their development in the small space allowed for a short story. How important is dialogue to your work? Do you find it harder or easier to write than straight narration?
SS: First, thank you. I guess the voices in my head are finally paying off. Anyway. When thinking about dialogue I think about the piece of advice that I heard somewhere—and I’m sure that countless writing professors and writers have said this over time—make every word count.
In a short story and ever more so in a flash piece like these are, this idea really applies. Any word that is not conveying some sort of important information and advancing the story forward shouldn’t be there. I don’t know if I’m always great at that yet, but I’m learning. In general, I firmly believe that we’re reading stories because they’re what isn’t happening (or can’t happen) to us. I don’t read stories or novels to read about something eating breakfast or going to the bathroom or even having sex unless it adds to the story somehow. I go to the bathroom every day, I know what goes on in there. It doesn’t need to be in a story.
This is where dialogue comes in—it’s extremely helpful to relay important information in a small amount of space. People rarely talk in full sentences and so, by utilizing clipped or fragmented sentences you are able to use fewer words while getting ideas across.
The important thing then, on a craft level, is to make sure that it sounds natural. You can use all the fragments you want, but if they suck, then, well, the dialogue will suck, simple as that. I need to be able to hear it in my own head first, then I need to be able to say it out loud so that I can hear it and be okay with what I’ve written.
SP: Your work is all over the place right now. In addition to the publication of When You Cross That Line, you have many short stories, non-fiction pieces and book reviews published. You're also involved with several literary magazines, internet hubs and events. And you have a forthcoming novel! I'm not even going to ask how you have time to do everything... but I would like to know what part of your literary career you find the most rewarding. And the most challenging?
SS: Good question. I’d like to pause here to bring up that the words ‘literary career’ are not ones that I’ve necessarily associated with my own work yet (they’re in the trunk with the wild animals). Those are my own hang-ups, I guess.
On to actually answering your question, though. The most challenging part is easy to answer and, I think depending on who you talk to about me, the answer may vary: I feel forever behind. I never feel like I’m quite where I want to be. I’m not missing deadlines necessarily, but I never feel like I’m where I should be. I’ve had this conversation with a fellow editor and friend Nick Sweeney and he’s usually the one to talk me down and remind me that I’m doing just fine, which is nice of him. Even if he’s occasionally lying to my face. I’m okay with it if he is. (Keep it up, Nick.)
The most rewarding? I think seeing something published is always a great thrill. With social media, it’s fun to pass it along and if someone comments on it, well hot damn. I’m happy someone took the time to read something I wrote and it reminds me to do the same with others. Independent literature is an amazing place to exist within and it’s amazing because the people involved are doing amazing things. Simple as that. That’s rewarding, too, being able to interact and work with people who fucking rock.
SP: Considering the upwards trajectory you're currently on- where do you see yourself in five years in terms of your writing career?
SS: My pipe dream is to run an artist residency/independent publishing company/distillery. Books and booze are both very close to my heart (in the literal sense, even, as I have a Sam-I-Am tattoo on the inside of my arm and he’s carrying a wine bottle) and at this point in my life I’ve decided that I’m not going to let anyone stop me from doing whatever the hell I want. I’m smart, I’ve got degrees, I’ll have another degree soon enough and the rest I can figure out along the way. That’s what Google is for. And Networking. And getting people boozed up at AWP. I’ve talked with many people much more talented than I am in a number of different fields and I plan to continue doing that so as to find the requisite knowledge for accomplishing the aforementioned dream because, let’s be real, who wouldn’t want to go to the Slaughterhouse Artist Residency (or be published on Slaughterhouse Books or, and this one is key, drink Slaughterhouse Spirits)? To wit, all of these would work perfectly with #getslaughtered and #slaughterhoused. I’m just saying.
In reality, this probably won’t happen in five years, I see those three things happening (ideally) over the next ten to fifteen. In five years, I hope to have another book published, maybe even two. I’m going to keep writing and see what happens.
SP: Is there any one book that served as the catalyst for you wanting to become a writer?
SS: I don’t think it was any singular book, but I’ve been an avid reader since I was a kid. I’d walk to the local library and load up a book bag with ten to fifteen books at a time. My parents were very encouraging of this habit. I was kept busy and I was building strong back muscles. Win-win.
As I got older there were a few authors I read voraciously that probably contributed to me wanting to write. Starting in sixth grade or so when I started writing stories: Brian Jacques (author of the Redwall series), Caleb Carr, Jonathan Kellerman, Kurt Vonnegut, and TC Boyle.
In the beginning I was all about finding mystery and intrigue and those were the books I hunted down. I’m probably still a reader and a writer today because even when I was reading things for school that I didn’t like (mostly because I was too damn dumb to understand them) I kept reading what I did like. Eventually, I got a bit smarter and started reading from “the Canon” and whatever else I thought I should be reading because I was finding more value in the “literary” works I was being told about.
SP: Finally- and you're the perfect person to ask as you seem to read and review books like it's going out of style- who or what should I be reading right now? What books or authors would rock my literary world?
SS: Some authors whose books I’ve enjoyed reading or will enjoy reading when they come out:
Taylor Brown (Fallen Land)
Laura Van Den Berg (Find Me)
Matt Bell (The Scrapper)
Kiese Laymon (How to Slowly Kill Yourself)
Mary Miller (The Last Days of California)
Roxanne Gay (Bad Feminist)
Ted Wheeler (Bad Faith)
Juliet Escoria (Black Cloud)
Amelia Gray (Gutshot)
(There are so many others, though, that I’m sure I’m blanking on. That’s the problem—I see so many books, sometimes, that I forget that I mean to read X or Y until I finally happen to see it on my shelf again. I’d really love to have personal book butler, who can just hand me books without me having to think about it. That’d be fun.)
Some presses who are doing amazing things:
Two Dollar Radio
Civil Coping Mechanisms
Atticus Books (I’m partial, obviously, but I don’t care)
(Again, I’m fairly confident with the fact that I’ve missed a lot here. Entropy Magazine does a great series where they interviewing different presses, so I’d say check that out at well.)
Ahem, now do you see why Sam Slaughter is better than sliced bread? You can learn more about him (and check out all of his publications) here. Then, go pre-order When You Cross That Line. Read it, review it, love it. Trust me- you will.