Friday, January 22, 2016

No Fear of Fiction: An Interview with Brown Bottle author Sheldon Lee Compton

Sheldon Lee Compton's first novel, Brown Bottle, debuts early next month and I'm excited to bring you an interview with the author as a preview. Compton has a reputation as a hardcore short fiction writer, one who isn't afraid to embrace authenticity and grit, and his novel contains everything that readers have come to expect from him: memorable characters making tough choices as a means to survive in an often cruel, but sometimes beautiful, world. Read on as we discuss embracing a genre, writing dialect and what it means to be a writer representing eastern Kentucky.

Steph Post: I've been a huge fan of your flash and short fiction ever since I read your collection Where Alligators Sleep. Brown Bottle is the first novel-length work I've read from you, but I could clearly see the influence of short fiction in the precision of your writing. What is the biggest difference in how prose is used in short versus longer fiction?

Sheldon Lee Compton: There's a lot, for me at least. The biggest would be that the prose had to be more stripped down, functional. I really didn't care for that all too much. If I hadn't been working on stories while writing the book I would have been a pretty unhappy writer, to be honest. But then I've just finished a second novel called The Wendigo where this wasn't the case. It's a bit shorter, and that helps I guess, but I was able to sustain a more lyrical prose style throughout. Something I don't plan on is writing another book where I have to work so much to keep the writing so stripped down. I mean, I'm happy with the book, entirely happy, but it was at times burdensome.

SP: With that same idea in mind, how did you approach the process of writing a novel? Was it more or less enjoyable than writing short fiction?

SLC: It was less enjoyable, but still rewarding. The Wendigo felt more like a series of short stories - was in fact written in this way - so that made it a project that spoke more to my tendencies as a short story writer. I consider myself a short story writer first and a novelist second. The short story form is my favorite. It's the form I most like to read and most like to write. It's taken me several years to finally accept this about my work, mostly because it seems the novel is held in higher regard and, well, every writer wants to be held in high regard. But lately I've just embraced being a short story writer. It's fine. It's more than fine, it's what's most desirable for me. As far as the process for the novel, I tried for the first year writing it in the same way I write short stories, no planning, no outline, all discovery. It absolutely did not work. I had to end up doing all the things that I don't prefer. Planning a story out kills the energy for me, kills what I find most enjoyable, those beautiful moments when something just happens seemingly all on its own.

SP: One of my favorite elements of your work is your ability to capture and render dialect perfectly. The characters in Brown Bottle are brought to light by their actions and descriptions, yes, but also by the dialect that clearly implies a place and a culture. A people. How do you go about converting the spoken word to the written word?

SLC: Since my first year of college I've focused on retaining my eastern Kentucky accent and dialect. My professors tried to convince me to clean up my talking because I was an English major and I should speak "proper" English and it basically pushed me to work harder to keep it. Because of this, I've actively studied the local dialect a great deal. When I'm writing a character, I really only have to think of how I would say something, then consider the character and what they would say about a certain topic, and then go with it. I surely thank you for noticing and saying kind things about it. It's good to know that it's being noticed. I think our dialect and accent are beautiful and unique.

SP: Like myself, you write about hard people in hard situations making hard choices. Brown Bottle is no exception and because of the length of the work, the reader is able to become totally immersed in the world of Wade, Nick, Mary and the others. To many readers, these characters and their circumstances will seem alien, but I know they will be captured by them all the same. Do you think, however, that readers will be shocked by the gritty reality of Brown Bottle? Do you think everyone can relate to the story on some level?

SLC: It's going to be a hit and miss with various readers, but I do think the general idea of striving for a better life is something everyone can relate to in some way or another. Mostly I think readers who may not be familiar with eastern Kentucky could make the false assumption that some of the details in the book are less than realistic. But to be clear, nearly every detail in the book is based on some true story from where I live, even Fay Mullins and his backstory. In fact, Fay Mullins is based on a group of four people from my hometown who did exactly the same first murder-for-hire job detailed in Fay's introductory chapter. 

SP: Brown Bottle is being published by Bottom Dog Press as part of their Appalachian Fiction Series. Tell me more about the series and how Brown Bottle fits into it.

SLC: Bottom Dog Press has put out a lot of good books, particularly anthologies, that deal with Appalachia. The general goal that publisher Larry Smith has with the series according to Bottom Dog's website is to "strive to bring you the best writing from this vital region. Writing meant to reveal and share a sense of people and place." My knowledge of the press before working with Larry on this novel was having been included in the anthology Degrees of Elevation, which brought together a lot of established and emerging writers from the hills in one place. It was this anthology I had in mind when I contacted Larry about publishing Brown Bottle. I sort of worked through Charles Dodd White, the editor of Degrees of Elevation, in order to see if Larry would be interested. But the fiction series works, I think, on a lot of different levels, the most important of which is to share what life is like in contemporary Appalachia. This sensibility for the here and now in their titles is what most drew me to Bottom Dog. Working with Larry has been rewarding. He is a man who knows what he wants to publish and has been doing it for a long time. I respect him and his vision a great deal.

SP: I have to ask- what are you working on now? Have you permanently made the jump over to novelist or can we expect more short collections from you in the future?

SLC: I haven't made the jump exclusively to novelist, but I did just finish another novel, the one I mentioned previously called The Wendigo. That novel I suppose will be classified as a horror novel, and I'm perfectly fine with that, but it's also part fabulism. I'm working on edits with it now while writing two or three new short stories about every month. I will write more novels, just not the type and style as Brown Bottle, most likely. I like doing something different with each project I work on. Most of the new short stories I'm finishing lately are for a linked collection of western stories that revolve around a main character named Buckaroo and his friend Jim. I've wanted to write a linked western collection for a long time and only started that project about three months ago. So right now it's edit on The Wendigo and various stories, most of which will be for the as-of-yet untitled western collection. I'm having a ball with both.

SP: Who are you reading right now? What books should be piling up on my kitchen table?

SLC: I'm reading a lot of Etgar Keret lately and anthologies of short-short fiction and flash fiction. I really am enamored by how well Keret can write these stories with magical, strange elements without losing the heart that makes any story truly move forward. Also a lot of Japanese short stories, both classic and modern, but most recently the stories of Ryunosuke Akutagawa. His story "The Dragon" just killed me. I definitely recommend him if you've not dipped in yet. Another writer I've been checking out is David Slade. Cloud Atlas was a little tough, but worth it to see the innovation at play and Slade House was just a fun, fun book. I'm also working my way through some Italo Calvino. Next up on the nightstand is Borges's short fiction.
Be sure to pick up your copy of Brown Bottle next month!

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