With Stray Decorum, his fourth short-story collection, George Singleton has cemented his reputation as one of the country’s finest — and funniest — masters of the short story. The new collection — which includes work originally published in The Atlantic, Oxford American, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review and other leading periodicals — brims with stray dogs and stray humans, all looking for a place in this world.
Singleton recently answered questions from Chapter 16 via email prior to his appearance at the Southern Festival of Books, to be held in Nashville Oct. 12-14.
What is it like to be master of a form that fewer and fewer people seem to read? Why do you think the short story has fallen out of favor?
I’m also the master of carbon paper and slide rules. I don’t think I’m any kind of short-story aficionado, but I do believe I write the things better than I do novels. Or poems. Ha ha ha — like I’d ever write poems. Maybe reviewers feel sorry for me and throw that bone my way. Anyway, to the more important question, yes, why are American readers so gung ho about novels as opposed to stories? I don’t get it. You would think, with this attention-deficit disorder stuff going around, that people would want short stories. You’d think they’d be clamoring for haiku.
As the title and cover art suggest, a number of dogs (and a few other animals) populate this book. They exhibit a sort of country nobility that outshines some of the humans around them. What is your own relationship with dogs? Have animals influenced your way of looking at the world?
At this moment we have seven stray dogs and one stray cat. We’ve been up to 11 dogs, and as few as four. Every one of them was thrown out near where I live. There’s a tree farm across the street, and not much elsewhere. Believe me when I say that we’re not hoarders of animals — we’ve found homes for a good few dozen and had to call Animal Control concerning the sicker, or more feral, dogs. I’ve had one stray live to be19, and one right now that’s 18. My dog Dooley — I’ve written about him in an essay or two — is going on13. They eat normal cheap dry food. They have their alpha dog spaces in the yard and house. They show nothing but unconditional love, you know — maybe that’s what my characters strive for. I bet a certified psychiatrist could tell me the truth about this. Or maybe Dear Abby.
Many of your characters, even in the most rural settings, possess advanced degrees. Yet higher education doesn’t seem to have done them much good, in terms of monetary success or personal fulfillment. In fact, it seems to lead them down some hilariously bad paths.
Listen, I’ve been reading all these studies about how maybe college degrees aren’t really worth the student debt that will ensue. If it’s all about money, that’s probably right.
My father — who ran away from home in the 10th grade and never returned — actually pointed out to me that education wasn’t a means to an end, but an end in and of itself. It’s good to fill up one’s brain, or to be able to use it creatively. Unfortunately, well-educated people, especially ones with degrees in the humanities, might at times sit around thinking, “I have helped a whole generation learn to love reading,” or whatever, “while some kind of numb-nuts politician/athlete/lottery winner is doing nothing to help further humanity.” These people — if they’re really paying attention — will probably reconsider Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus.
As a writer who has continued to produce both novels and short stories, could you speak to the different ways you approach each form?
The two novels I’ve written spawned from short-story ideas that got out of control. Simple as that. Every time I’ve sat down thinking — OK, novel time! — it has bogged down mercilessly somewhere around page80, and then I’ve pounded the keyboard hoping something would magically create a veil that would keep the reader from understanding that no plot existed. Hasn’t worked yet.
As of this writing, the Amazon Kindle edition of Stray Decorum is ranked as a nonfiction travel book. While I’m not sure the book is exactly a reference guide for the visitor to South Carolina, or to the South Atlantic Region in general, it does point out the degree to which your work has been labeled “Southern,” even as you continue to publish in some of the best Northern magazines and journals. How do you feel about being a recognizable Southern writer?
First off, screw Amazon. I see nothing but bad things coming out of a corporation wishing to monopolize what the public can read. Does Amazon bring in writers to do readings and signings? When I buy a book from Amazon in South Carolina, does someone in my community make any money, then use that money to, say, buy her child organic sweet potatoes? I could go on and on, and I would be fighting a
losing battle I think.
As to “Southern writer,” I figure it must be some kind of badge of honor. I don’t care what people label my work. Or me. As long as they’re talking, I’m alive to a certain degree, I figure.
To read an uncut version of this interview — and more local book coverage — please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.