Even before Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize win, short stories were making news. Short fiction requires a different approach to writing, and I was interested to speak to some of amazing new voices on the short story scene to find out how they take on the sometimes-daunting task of writing in the short form.
Andrew F. Sullivan, author of the breakout short story collection All We Want is Everything was kind enough to take some time to answer a few questions about the writing life, and his take on craft of writing short stories.
Thank you to Andrew for taking the time to answer the following questions.
All We Want is Everything has received many accolades since its release, including making the Globe and Mail’s Top 100 Books of the Year list. The stories are sharp and beautiful, like broken glass; in your characters, you’ve touched on their ‘realness’ and their daily struggle to make something meaningful of their worlds. I often tell my students to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. You do this, and do it well.
A few questions for you.
Are you a full-time writer? If not, what is your day job? (if you’re comfortable sharing) How do you fit writing into your schedule?
No, there is no way I could afford to be a full-time writer, but I have benefited from some generous grant programs in Canada, especially the Ontario Arts Council. As a young writer, it has been extremely helpful and heartening to have that support, especially with the kind of fiction I write. I make room for writing after I finish my shift and before I sleep. I make room when I have stories to tell, but it is something I try to do on a consistent basis. It is a personal choice from writer to writer – there is no real rule. But you do have to do it – you have to stay in practice. You start slipping, letting things slide, taking the easy way out of a story if you aren’t working on your stuff consistently. And then the editing… that’s the real writing.
I wrote most of AWWE while I was working at a videogame store full time and freelance editing business school course materials on the side. Before that I was working in a meat department, and before that, a liquor warehouse. I like to stay busy and unless money starts to show up under my pillow each morning, I am likely to stay that way for a long time. I draw stories from the people I know, the apocryphal rumors and origin stories in the workplaces and cities I’ve known. What people believe happened is often more interesting than the facts, unfortunately.
I am a scavenger at heart. I will build my stories out of whatever is left over in the parking lot at the end of my shift. Or on the subway these days. I’ve worn a lot of hats and I’ll probably have a few more in a couple years. But the writing remains.
When did you first feel you could call yourself a writer?
Shit, since I was writing stories I suppose. It’s not something I go around spouting off. The easiest way for me to tune out of a conversation/argument/Twitter spat is the opening phrase “As a writer…” as if that string of words somehow bestows a great level of gravity on whatever comes next. As a writer, why not just say as a human being? I think storytelling is a very natural, human instinct. I think it is something we all have access to on some level, one degree to another. It’s how we get to know ourselves and the world around us. We need narrative. It’s how we talk about our families, our friends, our history. It’s how I can explain space travel or what the inside of a volcano is. Calling yourself a writer is a fancy way of saying you don’t do much – its saying you record what the rest of us all do anyway.
I guess at this stage I prefer to say “I’ve got a book.” As in, that’s right, I tricked someone into publishing this stuff. Can you believe it?
Which of the stories in All We Want is Everything is your favourite? Why? (Is it even possible to choose?)
For me, it is easy to choose. “Towers” was a story that made me step out of my comfort zone a bit, to take on the voice of a 16 year old girl coming to terms with her place in the world and the relationships that define her life in a run-down, sinkhole infested apartment complex. The sinkhole keeps growing, her father keep drifting away, her friends get more and more reckless, desperate and pissed off. Empathy is one of the best tools writing offers us and I wanted to use it in this story – I felt a deep ache in it, a loss that was hard to articulate. I really enjoy writing women, women with compelling, multifaceted lives, lives often weighed down with losses and obligations that go unspoken.
I don’t know if it is the most polished or cohesive story in the collection, but I think it is the one that haunts me most. I think that age is also a very mercurial time for a lot of people – men and women alike. The folly of youth or whatever – that does not stand up to much scrutiny next to a bottomless pit. Desperation, fear, anxiety – those are all emotions that resonate especially hard as a teenager. I think I wanted to tap into that in the story, to play with a character whose options are running out, someone so disparate from myself. You want to find what binds you.
Your characters are often in desperate circumstances, but are incredibly engaging and magnetic despite their struggles. I’ve found myself thinking of them often since I read your book. In particular, the strong voices of the brother in “Crows Eat Well,” the widow, Anita, in “Pumpkinheads,” and Caleb in and the baby in “ God is a Place” keep coming back to me.
Do any of you characters still haunt you? Which one(s)? Why?
There are a few who still linger for me. The kid in “Hatchetman” has a whole world of hurt coming his way and I don’t think I am immediately prepared to handle it. A lot of these narratives are pretty harsh climates to inhabit and I know a lot of these stories leave a lot of people stranded in some uncomfortable places. Hatchetman is stuck with a lifetime of uncertainty and disappointment and I’m the one who put him there. So, you know, I hope he doesn’t hold it against me.
A lot of the stories do sort of ride on pivotal moments of change or end on notes of no return… a lot of these people cannot go back to how things used to be. One of the one’s that sticks with me still is The Magician from my story “The Magician Rides Again.” It is a shorter, simpler story in the collection. Not a ton happens – it is more like a catalogue of loss for this character and his cousins. But I feel like The Magician has a lot to say, a lot to explain, but my narrator won’t let him. The world won’t let him. He’s denied a voice. The last line of the story is “I can’t hear a word he says” and I think that still sticks with me. When the world decides it owes you nothing – that’s what haunts me.
Your stories have an enormous presence. The reader is immediately immersed in the worlds you create. The characters and the situations you’ve put them in are unfamiliar and singular, and yet, there are echoes of a familiar discomfort that resonate with the reader. In the darkest corners of these tales, the reader can almost recognize parts of him- or herself, a through-the-looking-glass kind of feeling of “that could be me.”
What is your process? How do you achieve this presence in your stories? Do you find the characters come first, or the setting, or the conflict?
I think for me it comes down to some sort of root conflict based in an emotion that is not always easy to solve. AWWE is filled with a lot of loss and anxiety, but those emotions are usually connected to some long running conflicts which eventually erupt inside the story. I guess I always feel a little bit of dread, but not in a negative way – just a knowledge that there’s something lurking just outside the frame.
There is this one great short story writer, Jim Shepard, who said something in an interview about how it’s not enough to just have a conflict for your characters along the lines of “I love my father and I hate my father.” That isn’t enough. You can go on for seven pages without saying anything significant, dancing around the issue at hand, exploring your manufactured “conflict” without actually doing anything about it. Shepard tells you to get them both in a car for a road trip, for anything, for a ride across town even. Make your characters active participants in the conflict.
I think that’s where the stories start for me. Relationships as organic, combustible, fluctuating masses of flesh and emotion. Applying pressure to them and then seeing how they react. I think that’s a human instinct – we want to see what happens when we tear away the scab, want to see if we can heal. I’m just digging around old wounds and seeing what breaks or seeps out.
If you could have one day with any writer, to work on a piece in any genre, who is the writer and which genre would it be?
I guess I am going to have to say Richard Matheson here because I want to learn how to write horror that borders on the real, that makes people uncomfortable and that gets made into a movie every twenty years or so. Matheson hustled and pounded out the pages for years and I admire that work ethic and his chops. Will Smith may have ruined I AM LEGEND for the majority of the world, but to me, it’ll always a great story on its own terms – as bloody, transgressive and devastating as those terms may be in the end.
Also, a big shout out to Jim Thompson, (The Killer Inside Me, The Getaway) but I am pretty sure he would get me killed within the span of a week.
Writers are often asked where they get their ideas, as though they can be found on any shelf, in any shop, on any old street corner. However, if there were such a thing as an Idea Store, what would yours look like?
My idea store is probably a truck packed up with strange shit you find sitting on someone’s lawn in mid-October or a few weeks after Christmas. Stuff that still works but has been tossed aside nonetheless. Books with loving inscriptions sitting in banana boxes for whoever stops by, old photo albums ruined by water damage. There might be some old McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and a few broken lamps that still work, but the has cat chewed the cables and the owner is worried about them starting a fire. This truck would travel around selling these wares for close to nothing, but people would still find what they needed. What they wanted for themselves, even if it hurt them or broke them. People will take what they want. There’s a great Mountain Goats song called “Palmcorder Yajna” with the lyric, “And I dreamt of a factory / where they manufactured what I needed.” So lets put that factory on wheels. What we need isn’t always what’s good for us in the long run. That’s where all my ideas linger for pennies on the dollar if you don’t mind a little water stain or mildew along the edge of the page.
AFS: New stories, hopefully. Books about bad people who don’t know how to do the right thing. Books about organs and witch hunting and the taste of Styrofoam. It is hard to say right now. I am just trying to keep up with the pace.
Thanks for your time. Looking forward to reading more from you!