Steph Post: Okay, before we get to your story collection God in Neon, I have to ask about South Carolina. When we did our last interview, you were still in Florida and your first chapbook, When You Cross That Line, filled with Florida-related stories, had just debuted. Whenever I hear of yet another crazy Florida happening (which is pretty much every day down here), I think of you and wonder how you would turn it into a story. So, are there just as many weirdos in South Carolina for you to write about? Is it the same kind of bizarre or does it have its own Carolina flair?
Sam Slaughter: My first inclination is to say no, South Carolina doesn’t have anything on Florida, but the more I think about it, I’m not sure. When I was living in Florida, I was in school for a little bit, but I also spent time working and living and being out and about. Now that I’m in South Carolina, most of my life revolves around school and teaching, so I’m being a bad writer in that I’m not keeping my eyes and ears open as much as I should. I mean, there have to be people just as weird or crazy or criminal as there are in Florida, but I haven’t experienced them.
That being said, I went and looked through some news over the past few months and I have to say, I think Florida does have an edge or something when it comes to the bizarre. I don’t know if it’s the humidity or the water or the fact that no matter where you look, you’re liable to see a gator, but I think there is a special breed that comes out of Florida. Part of that, though, may in part be self-perpetuation, if that’s a thing. The words sound funny, like maybe that’s not a phrase, but I’m going with it. Now that Florida is the butt of jokes when it comes to crime in the nation (finally, people are not calling Jersey the armpit of America, and for that, I am thankful), it makes me wonder if people have thoughts like, well, might as well, when in Florida…Part of me doubts that that is true, some of the crimes committed don’t really reek of forethought, but the writer in me wants that to be true. I want that angle.
I guess what I’m saying is I have not clue. It could, for all we know, be something as simple as there’s such a variety of people in Florida coming into contact with each other that it breeds discontent.
SP: So, God in Neon just came out from Lucky Bastard Press. It, too, is a story collection. What draws you to the short story genre? Do you consider yourself primarily a short story writer or is there another genre waiting in the wings? And does a writer even have to define him/herself by a specific form or genre?
SS: I really hope that writers don’t have to define themselves by a genre. It’ll still happen, I’m sure, because defining by one characteristic is easy, but, I don’t know. Obviously marketing comes into that—personal branding and all that—but it seems reductive. I don’t want to do just one thing because doing one thing, even if the stories are vastly different, can get boring. I think it would be easy to fall into a rut. So, instead, I force myself outside whatever comfort zone I’ve gotten into. After I finished my first novel, I went back to short stories, and now I’m back to working on a novel (which has radio script-like elements in it). I’m also working on spirits stuff, as well, so it’s just a mish-mash of everything. It keeps me on my toes, I guess? Maybe?
When I think of stories—both short and long—I like them for their ability to rock me, to punch me in the gut and then kick me when I’m down. When a story does that, then celebrates by pouring one out over my prone body (am I taking the image too far?), I know I’ve found something I’m going to come back to again and again and again. For me, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son does that for me, among many other collections and stories I’ve read in the past ten or so years. But that is the one that, every time, I put it down and go, damn, just damn.
The stories and novels that interest me the most are the ones that stop time. I forget that I’m reading on my couch or in bed or crammed into a coach-class seat. They’re the stories that, when you look up from the book, life has changed in some way because of what you’ve just learned about the human condition. I’m going to keep writing stories and novels and whatever else I can that will, hopefully, evoke that in someone else, even if I never meet them.
SP: The stories comprising God in Neon, while standing out individually, are linked by their inclusion of gritty, sometimes strange, mostly alcoholic, bottom of the barrel types of characters. This is one of the many reasons why I love your work- you're not afraid to embrace the "losers." Why do these types of characters haunt your stories? And do you think they will always be present in your work?
SS: They haunt my stories because they’re interesting. I’ve never sat at a bar by myself and talked to the guy who has his shit together with a 401k and no debts and wanted to continue that conversation past one beer. The complacency of that, to me, makes them boring. Not to say that they’re not good people, many of them are, but when thinking about stories—short or novel-length—that can get boring quickly. I think there’s more potential in the less savory characters. Part of it, at least with the characters I find myself writing about, is because they have less to lose. When your back is against the wall, why not try everything you can to change the situation? It’s those moments, when everything seems like it’s up for grabs (even if it isn’t), that interest me the most.
As far as writing into the future, I’m sure they will continue to be present. How? I’m not sure. Will they still be the ones that populate dive bars in small mountain towns? Probably not. As I get older, I’m obviously learning more about the world, watching more people, seeing how things happen and it’s all of that that will wend its way into my fiction. I’m just as curious as you are to see whom I’m writing about in a decade. Maybe I’ll have to eat crow because I’m writing about a hedge fund manager or something similar because I’ve realized the intricacies that pilot a life like that.
SP: Out of all of the stories in God in Neon, "The Dead Rabbit's Society" is my favorite. It's the sort of story which sticks with you, because it bites down to the quick. It's brutal and, at the same time, profoundly poignant. Can you give me a little background on this story and how it developed?
SS: Sure. The short, easy answer would be “I don’t know, it just happened,” but that’s cheap, so let’s see. I wanted to try and write a story that looked at a father/son relationship because I hadn’t really (at least not one that was worthy of people seeing it) and this is what came out. I was also thinking a lot about the mountains, and isolation, and how those things changed relationships, and how that would matter in the life of two people when communication as we know it—words, sentences—was not necessarily an option. When I write fiction, too, I’m interested in body language. What we say without saying anything is interesting to me because we’re trying to render these things without the ability to actually see it, which leaves it up to the writer to be good enough to help the reader visualize it. There’s a lot that can be said about watching a couple sit at a restaurant, silent, holding hands while they wait for their food. Are they looking at each other? Is one person rubbing the knuckles of the other with his or her thumb? Is one person’s knee bouncing uncontrollably under the table? All of these things matter and change how we perceive the situation. Maybe they’re quiet and comfortable. Maybe it’s been a long day. Maybe they’re in mourning and they forced themselves out of the house. Or maybe this is a day or two before they break up and they’re doing this because they feel they have to. The body language here matters, and I try to make it matter in my own stories. When you have a character that doesn’t necessarily speak, it becomes even more important.
As far as the rabbits and the taxidermy, I wanted something that the father could do that was desperate, that most people wouldn’t really think of doing. Gestures like that interest me because as humans we do crazy shit to show love, I’m sure both you and I (I know I have), and anyone who ends up reading this can think of at least one time where you’ve done something for someone that, looking back, you’re like, “Wait, I did that? Why?” At the time, though, it made perfect sense. It was how you proved you cared. It was your John Cusack with a boom box moment.
SP: In addition to writing fiction on your own AND being an MFA student AND writing and reviewing for several publications AND who knows what else, because you are a literary social butterfly, you write for an online magazine called The Manual where, it appears, you get to drink lots of expensive alcohol and then write about it. I'm just your average bartender-turned-teacher-writer, but what's it like writing about spirits professionally? It sounds like the perfect job, but I imagine that it's harder than it looks.
SS: I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s harder, it’s just different. As a writer, I’m sure, you’re at a point where reading for enjoyment means you’ve got a pen and you’re underlining or highlighting or making notes or something regardless of what you read. Gone are the days of picking up a book and not necessarily thinking about anything beyond what’s going on in front of you. Or, in movies, for example, watching and saying something like, “Why did the director choose to start at this point?” or “What’s the advantage of using this character’s POV in this scene? What does it add to the movie?” I’ve realized that these workshop-y questions are now part of what I think about when I drink something, even if it’s not for TM (though, when I drink, I’m always thinking about whether or not I can write about the beverage sitting in front of me). That manifests itself in some simple ways—nose, mouth feel, finish, et cetera. But it goes a little bit beyond that, as well. If it’s beer, I’m wondering about the hops, and how they impact the aforementioned qualifiers. If it’s a cocktail, I’m thinking about the process as well as the product—was it shaken or stirred? Are the ingredients made in-house? Is there balance? What makes what I’m drinking desirable? At the same time, if I’m out, I’m thinking about the bartender and the environment. How does this drink go (or not) with this place. What are the bartenders like? Are they interested in engaging with me, a stranger, or is it just a transaction of alcohol for money? If it’s Sunday, and I’m drinking a Bloody Mary, I’m thinking about the spice blend in the drink, about the garnishes, about how everything works together. So, I guess, in a sense, it’s like reading a book as a writer. After a while, your sense of enjoyment changes, it becomes more complex.
That being said, I wouldn’t change a damn thing about it. I love what I do. I’ve gotten to meet some amazing individuals and experience some crazy stuff. The anthropologist Mary Douglas talked about how drinks are one of the ways that we as humans socialize. A meal shared is for friends and family—you don’t typically sit down to eat with strangers. A drink, however, a drink can be for strangers. You can drink with an acquaintance or a stranger and still make some sort of connection. It’s that social aspect—the community that could be formed, the potential that is there—that keeps me coming back to the bar, so to speak.
SP: As mentioned above, you're a tremendous supporter of the literary community, doing everything from reviewing books to writing for literary magazines to promoting your fellow authors. Why is the lit community so important to you? And why does being a "literary citizen" matter?
SS: When it comes down to it, they’re the people that matter in my life because they’re the ones that are as or more often more passionate than I am about their art, whatever it is. I want to support the people that are baring themselves for whomever to see. They’re showing us what they’re made of, and aside from the strength and courage that that takes, they’re doing so with poise and grace and beauty, and if that doesn’t make you want to support them, then I’m not sure what will. As far as being a literary citizen, we’re for the most part our own audiences. Our friends and associates are the one’s reading our stuff, they’re the ones sharing our links and telling others to read us. If you’re not doing the same—if you’re so focused on yourself that you forget that you’re just one writer out of millions, no matter how good you are, you’re being an asshole. Straight up. Wherever you are in your career, you got there with the help of someone because they believed in you even if you didn’t believe in yourself. It only makes sense to pay it forward, not just with people that come after you, but with the people who are your peers. What it comes down to for me is, again, don’t be an asshole, and, hopefully, people will recognize that.
SP: As always, I love to end by bringing up other authors and their works. And if anyone has a pulse on new releases, it's you. So, what debuts should I be looking for in 2016?
SS: Hmm. You’re calling me out on a question I feel ill-equipped to answer, so I’m going to not answer it. There are a couple presses, though, that I’m looking forward to books from.
Archipelago Books does wonderful translations, and as I try to broaden my own reading horizons, I’ve found myself picking up more and more books by them.
Two new presses that are poised for some kick-assery are Jellyfish Highway Press and StillhousePress. They’ve both only put out a few books so far, but what I’ve read, I’ve really enjoyed, and I look forward to what they’ve got coming out in the future.