“It Felt Like An Escape”: An Interview With Samuel Ligon, Part One

Samuel Ligon

This year brings with it two new books from author Samuel Ligon: the novel Among the Dead and Dreaming and the collection Wonderland. The former is a brilliantly jarring novel of revenge and the aftermath of violence, told through a series of voices; the latter is an often-surreal collection of short stories about love and relationships. He’s also one of the writers behind Pie and Whiskey–described as, “we bake 25 pies, we get two cases of whiskey, and we make a chapbook of the event”–which sounds fantastic. In the midst of a sprawling conversation (so sprawling, in fact, that a second part of this interview is forthcoming) at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, we touched upon everything from the performative nature of literature (or not) to the counterbalancing of novels and short stories.

You have a novel and a short story collection coming out in rapid succession. Is it coincidental that they’re coming out at the same time, or was there any overlap in the time that you were working on them?

There was a lot of overlap. The novel is fragmented; it’s a novel in voices, it’s a collage. I was working on these various voices, and the joy of the collage is that you can do five hundred or a thousand sections. One draft of that book actually was way too big. I had written all these small first person points of view, and expanded it to the point where I was going into the 19th century. I have a lot of dead characters in this book, a lot of dead voices, and so I said, “I can do anything.” It became way, way too big and diffuse. It felt out of control to me.

So when I finished that draft, I thought, this isn’t working. It felt self-indulgent, and I put it away. Around that same time, an editor has solicited me for a short for an anthology, and the length was three hundred words. I said, I can’t do it. I thought, why would anyone do that? Poets do that. But prose writers, I thought, don’t do that. The content’s going to determine form, form will ultimately shape itself, and I think that’s a really naive and stupid way to think–and that was how I thought. I didn’t understand what poets know, which is, you want the restriction of the form. You want a constraint, a problem, in the form to find the solution which is going to create the art.

I said no to that editor, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tried to write a 300-word story, and i struggled with it. I had a really hard time. Doing it, everything changed as a result of writing this short. Syntax changes diction changes, the whole voice changes. The whole thing changes, and I felt stupid–I read a lot of poetry, so to not know that the poets were right?

I wrote this 300-word piece, and then I became really interested in form in a way that I really never had been. I got solicited for something else, and had to do it again. Then I started a reading series called Pie & Whiskey, which required work to be under a thousand words. I started writing 1000-word, 800-word, 1100-word, stories. And in the meantime, I was revising the novel. And a novel is heavy work for me. It felt like work, and the stories felt like play to me. It felt like an escape from the work.

I think the first time I saw you read was in 2009 with Robert Lopez and Blake Butler, in Brooklyn.

Blake was reading from Scorch Atlas.

That was definitely a reading where the performative aspect of things played a big part, for all three of you.

Lines matter. Language matters. Sentences matter. And they’re fundamental. J. Robert Lennon asked me about the performance aspect, if that was something I considered. At first I didn’t, and now I do more. But I’m not afraid to write dark with it. I’m less likely to read those pieces right now, simply because the novel is so heavy. So I’ll read from the novel first, and it’s super-heavy, and then I’ll go lighter. I’m not going to read the darkest story in the collection right now. But even the darkest story is completely absurd.

It’s interesting to read your novel, because I feel like I could see a similar plot, with the lies and revenge and everything, told in a more traditional noir fashion. Did you always have the plot in mind, or did it emerge from the editing of it?

I like that you said noir, because I love noir. I feel like it also goes with the lines I write. Lately, I’m writing shorter lines, and I’m liking the terse rhythms. I like noir and I like everything about it. Chandler, Cain, Hammett, even someone like Crumley later. Even somebody like Elmore Leonard, who I think is more playful than noir, but the rhythms and the beats are absolutely perfect. I love that sound.

I wrote that novel the first time as a straight chronological linear narrative, but there was only one first-person character; most of the characters weren’t in it. It was a totally different story.

Who was the character?

A guy named Mark. He actually had a different name; his name was Will. He’d lost his girlfriend in a motorcycle accident, fell in love with a woman who was the partner of the other person who’d died in the motorcycle accident…. That inciting action was the only thing that remained the same. Everything else was different. That was a massive failure as a narrative. It was chronological, it was linear, and it was boring. It failed, so I put it down and I wrote this book of stories that had this character Nikki in it. I thought I was going to write a whole book about her, and it ended up being a four-story movement that was in this collection called Drift and Swerve. I thought I was done with her. But it turns out, I was still really obsessed with her, so I kept thinking about her. I thought, I’m going to bring her to the novel. I wrote one first-person section from her point of view. It was short; it was a page long. When I’d written her before, it had been in the third person; now, it was in the first person. I was hearing her voice directly.

I knew that she was 13 years older than the last time I saw her, and I knew that she had a daughter. And I realized that the daughter that she had was the product of this rape. I’d written the rape before, and the fact that she stabbed this guy. And I realized that the guy she stabbed died. And then I thought, shit, this is coming together.

I was thinking, too, that I wanted to write a romance novel, an honest-to-God romance novel. A formulaic romance novel, which is that, against impossible odds, the lovers come together. I wanted to write that, and I wanted to write a villain. You know Charles Baxter’s book, Burning Down the House? He writes about mindful villainy. I wanted to write a character who’s villainous, but not necessarily a mustache-twirling villain, but antagonistic. A guy who’s coming to get somebody and is an ominous presence in the novel that’s going to give the novel narrative drive. I wanted that and I wanted the romance novel.
It never occurred to me to write it in that straight, linear chronology because I’d already written a straight, linear chronology of one of those characters. You know David Shields’s book Reality Hunger? He talked about the groaning contrivance of the fictional apparatus in that book, and that resonated with me. I see so many novels that just bore the shit out of me. And, of course, there are so many novels that don’t bore the shit out of me that I love. As far as narrative movement in this book, I wasn’t interested in straightahead chronology–I was interested in voices. I couldn’t do it straight. I would have no problem with someone else saying, I’m going to do this in a straight way, and I’ve done that before. But with this book, I was more interested in the voices.

Ultimately, the latter half of the book is just a straightahead suspense novel. And a romance novel, which was super-fun, too, because I said, “Fuck it, I’m doing this.”

There’s something interesting about reading an antagonist who doesn’t have any self-doubt. He doesn’t seem to have any problem with being a bad person.

Although I’m sympathetic to him. I don’t expect the reader to be sympathetic towards him, but I am. I took a lot of stuff out, but–I feel like this guy’s gotten a bad hand. What he does is inexcusable, but Nikki got a bad hand, too. I’m looking at two characters who are poor, underclass, uneducated, struggling in a world where money dominates and class dominates. These are trailer people. So the fact that they clash is interesting to me. It was hard writing his voice, and yet his voice is the most interesting to me. It’s the voice I ended up liking the best, because I like country music; I like the blues. I like Southern music. I wanted his Southern voice to feel authentic. But I have not lived in Waco. My brother lived in Houston; my family’s from Virginia, but I never lived there. I wanted that voice to be authentic, and I hope it is.

I wanted the menace in that book, and I also didn’t want it to be condescending to the trailer. That was the thing that made me nervous, was being condescending.

You mentioned having cut things from the novel–did any of that find its way into the collection?

Some of the things that I cut I ended up putting back in at the end of the novel. And some of the stuff I cut, I don’t know what I’m going to do with. When I was going to the collection, it was straight-up relief. But, the similarity between the collection and the novel is that both of them are love stories. I really do think that the novel is, at heart, a love story. The stories in Wonderland are all about love. They’re about relationships, and they’re about men and women. It happens that the people in this book are heterosexual, but it’s about couples and people in love and people falling out of love. That’s the thing that links the two books. I don’t think that I pulled anything from Among the Dead and Dreaming that went into Wonderland except for the fact that I was interested in relationships. I think I was in the same terrain. But the cool thing for me was to get away from the weight of the novel, and to go play in Wonderland, was awesome. Now all I want to do is have that kind of playful experience. I don’t think I could do that in a novel. Having it in a short–you get in and you leave. And I think the play informs the longer work.

The second part of our interview with Ligon will run later this week.

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