Interview with George Singleton,
author of Drowning in Gruel
lives in Pickens County, South Carolina, with ceramicist Glenda Guion and their mixture of strays. More than a hundred of his stories have been published nationally in magazines and anthologies. He teaches writing at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities.
In his new collection of nineteen hilarious tales, George Singleton
revisits the fictional town of Gruel, South Carolina. We meet the residents of Gruel as well as reencounter familiar places and faces. Etched in Singleton’s signature style, his characters have fractured relationships and interesting obsessions, but are generally likable folk who celebrate the migratory habits of hawks, chop down Christmas trees they do not own, and keep their flip-flops in the refrigerator. Drowning in Gruel
is further proof of George Singleton’s
status as a master of the comic short story.
Q: You are primarily known for your hilarious short stories, but you have also ventured into writing novels. What is the appeal of the short story, particularly to those who primarily read novels?
The difference between reading a novel and reading a short story is like drinking cough syrup instead of drinking bourbon to get drunk. One can get drunk on cough syrup, but it sure takes a long time. As for writing both genres, writing a novel is a walk across a bridge, while a short story is a walk across a tightrope. For a writer, too—in terms of craft—the short story offers more problems in that a mistake ends up glaring quicker and brighter than in a novel. So it’s a test of one’s self, really. I doubt that it’s possible to write a perfect novel, but there’s always the hope of writing the perfect short story.
Q: As a faculty member at the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, education is clearly important to you. In “The Novels of Raymond Carver,” Ellis Cary teaches multiple sections of a popular English 101 course that has no syllabus and a lesson plan that emphasizes real-life issues rather than Carver’s “novels.” What was your inspiration for this imaginative and educational tale? Could such a class wind up on a college course roster?
Oh, yes, it would end up in a college course catalog between The Architecture of Flannery O’Connor and The Zoological Discoveries of Ezra Pound. And, more than likely, the professors would get big, fat grants to teach such classes.
I probably thought about writing this story about the same time I realized that talking in a classroom about writing—or about being a writer—is rather pointless. Young (and older) writers should spend their time writing and reading, instead of talking about writing and reading. Chefs need to cook instead of talking about cooking. Watching Bob Vila won’t make you a better carpenter until you’ve mastered the framing hammer.
Q: Some of your characters are stereotypical “backwoods Southern boys.” They might lack a bit of common sense, but their antics are humorous, their intentions are well-meaning, and they are likable people who can be forgiven for their faults. How do you portray these flawed characters in such a positive light?
First off, I try not to make fun of them. I want the reader to recognize that these characters are endeavoring to play a game of chess even though they’re missing some important pieces. But at least they’re trying.
Q: As a resident of the South and because your tales transpire in small fictional towns in that region, you are often labeled a Southern writer. How much are your characters framed by geography? Could they exist outside the Southern territories; for example, would Victor Dees survive in New York or Los Angeles?
Victor Dees could survive anywhere because he’s a scam artist. Scam artists learn to adjust. It might take a closet of different clothes and a compass in hand, but these odd folks live everywhere.
Q: It is hard to believe that you would spend your days gluing toenail clippings from a cat onto a car as Amanda Futch does in “Soldiers in Gruel.” Aside from working on another one of your clever yarns, what do you for entertainment?
I have an old glass Alka-Seltzer tube filled with my cat Herb’s discarded claws right here on my desk, behind a Coco Joe tiki doll, a gargoyle, a blowfish, and my father’s Zimaloy artificial hip (from when he had another operation). The claws sit beneath a Howard Finster Santa Claus painting on plywood and an R. A. Miller tin cutout called Blow Oscar. I collect things—everything. I drive aimlessly, a lot, but that will quit when gas reaches $40 a gallon. I catch field rats in Havahart traps and relocate them to better places. I mean, I cut the grass and everything, but I’ll talk to the water meter. Not the water meter reader
—the water meter.
Q: Roughhouse Billiards figures prominently in the Gruel stories as a central meeting place for drinkers, trick-shot pool players, and semi-recovered gamblers. Do you have a similar sanctuary near your home in Pickens County, South Carolina?
I live ten miles from the closest bar. There’s a nice pool hall over in Easley. There’s a scary place about twenty miles away called Scatterbrains—an outhouse in back, seven-foot-high ceilings with beer cans stapled to them, banjo players who come down mysteriously from the mountain on Friday and Saturday nights. Downtown Greenville has some nice bars, but I don’t jones much for those places.
Q: Drowning in Gruel is a collection of stories, most of which were previously published in literary journals and newspapers. When can we expect your next project and will it be a novel or short fiction?
The next book’s a novel called Work Shirts for Madmen,
I hope. A big chunk of it appeared in the 2005 summer fiction issue of the Atlantic Monthly
. It’s set in a smaller locale than Gruel. It’s set mostly on a slab of granite, as a matter of fact. And right now I’m writing some linked stories and a novella about a guy who enters a low-residency master’s program in Southern culture studies.
Q: Your stories are all the more amusing because they are narrated from the first-person perspective. Is there any part of you represented in these protagonists?
Um. Well, now that you mention it. Gee. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, organizations, and events are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
I’m going to have that printed on my tombstone. Unfortunately, I am
my main characters, for better or worse.