“…And They Were Guard Donkeys”: An Interview With Samuel Ligon, Part Two

Ligon Covers

In the first part of our interview with Samuel Ligon, we discussed the connections between his two new books, the collection Wonderland and the novel Among the Dead and Dreaming. For part two, we ended up delving into the creation of the collection more–specifically, the role of artist Stephen Knezovich and Ligon’s collaborative relationship with him. Also up for discussion: Ligon’s recent interest in nonfiction, a short film adapting several of the stories in Wonderland, and a fateful encounter with a guard donkey.

Most of what I’ve read from you has been fiction. Do you also write nonfiction?

About two years ago, I started writing nonfiction, essays. More memoir-based. More of what a fiction writer would do, so narrative-based nonfiction. I’m writing them short and I’m loving it, because I don’t really knowing what I’m doing, I have a lot of friends who are nonfiction writers, some of whom are way more uptight about rules than any other writers I know. “You can’t have this dialogue?” Are you kidding? Of course you can have that dialogue! But most of my nonfiction writer friends aren’t like that.

Was it [Stuart] Dybek who said that when he writes nonfiction, his allegiance is to memory, and when he writer fiction, his allegiance is to imagination? That’s how he differentiates. I keep that in my mind. As long as my allegiance is to memory, I might get a little bit wrong. But as long as I’m not going for an act of imagination–even though, of course it’s an act of imagination–if your allegiance is to memory, I think you’re okay. But what I love about it is that I don’t know what I’m doing. And yet, it’s going to do the same thing that fiction does or poetry does. There’s going to be rhyming action, there’s going to be metaphors talking to each other, ultimately the shape is going to be allusive and surprising and have inevitability in it, if it’s complete.

I met a cop in Iowa, and it took me a long time to realize that he was a bigot, because he was super nice, and I couldn’t process what he was saying. And then it happened in Omaha, too, with a different guy. A bunch of weird shit happened like that. And we’re at a time with race right now, where we’re talking about it. I’m a white dude. Other middle-aged white dudes are coming up to me and laying this bizarre racist shit on me, and I keep thinking, “Why is this happening?” It was awesome ground for an essay.

The phenomenon of people deciding to just confide their bigotry in you is something I really don’t feel comfortable with.

I couldn’t believe it. And I’m in the Midwest, where people are super nice. I’m not that nice. I don’t know that culture. But I liked Iowa; I liked the people. But then, inevitably, I’d do something wrong. I’d be in line and say, “Hey, it’s my turn!” Some New York-y thing that would clearly alienate everyone in the room. I’d still do that kind of stuff. But I was trying not to. So I kept wondering, why are these racist people coming up to me? It made me feel culpable. And then I thought, “Am I culpable, maybe?”

[What followed was a lengthy discussion touching on questions of social media, politics, craft whiskey, the recent Mast Brothers chocolate scandal, and InBev’s relationship to the hops market.]

With Wonderland, when did the illustrations come into play?

The illustrator, Stephen Knezovich, had been my student, and now he works for Creative Nonfiction. He was managing editor of Creative Nonfiction, and now he’s on the marketing side, and has some other editorial role. He’s a great visual artist. He had done the cover for one of my girlfriend’s zines that I thought was really, really cool. He was my student ten, twelve years ago. I’d always liked this guy. So when I saw this visual thing he’d done, I was doing these stories and thought, “I can make this into a book.” When I got the contract for Among the Dead and Dreaming, I thought, “I want to bring this out now, too.” It just somehow happened. The original thinking was, I’ll do a chapbook. And then I thought, I want to do more with it, and I want to see if I can do illustrations. I asked Steve if he would be interested; he looked at it and said, “Yeah, I really want to do this. But what you’re doing isn’t long enough.” And because he’s an excellent editor, I trusted him to look at the work.

He said, “Why don’t you send me more stuff.” I had a lot of other short stuff that wasn’t going to fit for the book; I needed more relationship stories, love stories, sex stories. I sent him a bunch of stuff, and he said, “This is no good; this one we can make work; this one….not sure.” That became a collaborative process in the development of the book. He helped me choose the stories and he helped me with the edits of the stories. Then he did the art, and would send me the art as he did it. I would accept and reject the art in the same way that he had accepted and rejected the stories. The thing evolved like that. To me, the book wouldn’t exist without the art. The art makes the book; it’s what holds the book together. It’s this connective tissue. And it’s beautiful. It’s what makes the book beautiful, and it heightens the play, and also gives it more weight. I love that.

He’s into it as much as I am. And when I think of the project, I think of it as an art book as much as it is writing. We’re doing a handmade version of the book, so he’s trying to figure out how to do the book where you can take it apart. We want people to be able to pull the art of the book so that you can put it up, or do something with it. We’re figuring it out now, and we’ll probably do 100, 150 handmade versions. We’re super-stoked about that.

As I read more and more, I began to notice the pieces of connective tissue between them–the musician referenced in the first story shows up at the end, and the goat makes a second appearance. How did that all start to happen?

I think I saw it as I was putting the book together, and then I moved it. You know how, when metaphor rises in a story and you don’t want to look at it too directly? I love that sex goat story. I’ve always used that term to refer to people–I’ll refer to people at goats, or to certain behavior as goatly behavior. In a really positive way. Once that goat story came up, I noticed that there were other stories where goats appeared. But I also put that goat in another story.

Kitty Valor, the fake country singer, she had come up first in “Wonderland,” and then I decided that I wanted to write another story about her. She had a hit song in “Wonderland,” and I was interested in hearing that song. It was a play on the Loretta Lynn song, but it was also in our time of gender–the song is “You’re Not Woman Enough To Be My Man.” Loretta Lynn’s song is “You’re Not Woman Enough To Take My Man.” I wanted to find out more about Kitty Valor, and I wanted to play with country music in a way that’s totally absurd. I wanted to figure out more of her story.

So I started seeing pairs in the stories, which was super-cool. I had a fairy tale, which was the little goat, and I had a nursery rhyme. I started wondering, how do you pair these things so that they speak with one another? And that’s what makes it a book. The art’s one thing that makes it a book; tone and absurdity make it a book; love and lust make it a book. But these other recurrent images and themes and characters also, for me, made it a book, and made it joyful. When I did the donkey story, that was the same. Donkeys are related to goats in this book.

I’d been writing in Skagit Valley, south of Bellingham, this beautiful agricultural part of Washington. I was staying at this place where they had donkeys, and they were guard donkeys. I said, “What the fuck is a guard donkey?” And the dude said, “Coyotes won’t come anywhere near the sheep when the donkeys are out.” The donkeys would kick dogs, coyotes, anything. So then I started to look up guard donkeys, and it was the craziest fucking thing I’d ever seen. Then I got a copy of Modern Farmer magazine, which had a story about guard donkeys. So guard donkeys are a real thing, which is so absurd–but it’s not. It’s not really.

And I love the Edward Fields poem “Donkeys,” which is about how donkeys will not work for people. You’ve got to beat the hell out of them to make them work. They’re sad. I love the idea of donkeys saying, “Fuck you” to people. “I’m going to work, but I’m not going to like it.” Because I was writing about goats, it let me write about donkeys. When the hell else am I going to write about donkeys, unless it’s play? That’s the other thing about that book–because it’s play and it was so much joy for me to put together, I think that comes off the page. I think it’s there. And that’s different from most of my work.

You had mentioned that there’s a film being made of one of these stories. How did that come about?

I had written to a guy I knew to try to get a trailer for the book. He’s a filmmaker. And he said, “No–I’ll put you in touch with this other guy I know.” He’s a young guy, maybe about thirty, who had just moved up to Spokane teaching where I teach. He had been doing documentary stuff in Los Angeles, and some other weird stuff. I looked at his work and thought that it was beautiful. He contacted me and said, “I read the manuscript and want to make a film of three of these stories.”

We got together and started talking, and I feel like he understood. He wrote the thing and showed it to me, and I though it was incredibly cool that he had used all this visual language to create much greater meaning in his medium. The English language in the story is much less significant than the visual language that he uses to tell the story, but they’re both there. It’s really satisfying to see him transcending actual language to go to visual language and make this beautiful story. And it’s still funny, it’s still absurd, but it’s also poignant. I got to watch him pick the actors, develop the script, and direct them. It was really fun. And to see it change was the greatest thing. I had no problems giving up control of it. He changed certain lines that I love, where the syntax is so weird in the lines, I think those lines make the story. For the movie, they don’t work. They get garbled in the actors’ mouths and they draw too much attention to the language. On the page, it’s great. In the movie, no good.

He just wrote to me yesterday to say that he has a rough cut. So I’m excited to see this thing.

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