Massive People (12): Samuel Ligon
Samuel Ligon is most recently the author of the story collection Drift and Swerve, as well as the novel Safe In Heaven Dead. His stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, New England Review, Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, Post Road, Keyhole, Sleepingfish, Gulf Coast, and elsewhere. He is also the editor of the most excellent Willow Springs, and teaches at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, Washington.
Beyond all that, Sam is simultaneously one of the most laid back and yet enthusiastic editors I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He is, above all else, an excellent person, while also managing to be a hell of a writer. He seems to me a model for what a person in the world of language should be: courageous and yet open minded, enthusiastic and yet no nonsense, giving, attentive, rad. Wise blood, as it were, and most certainly a massive person.
Over the past few weeks I had the pleasure of talking with Sam over email about his new collection, his inspiration, music, the influence of Willow Springs on his work, and much more.
1. I believe you mentioned to me at AWP that you had been in a bit of a rut with your writing until you found the Nikki character, who appears in several of the stories in Drift and Swerve. How did you find her? How did finding her wake you back up, and how did that experience shape the book as a whole?
I’d finished a draft of a novel a few years ago, but something was wrong with it, and I didn’t know what. I gave it a rest, and started working on several of the stories that made their way into Drift and Swerve, but I didn’t know I had a book until I discovered Nikki. I was working on something for an anthology of stories called Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, the assignment for which was to write a story that uses a Sonic Youth song title as your story title. I picked “Dirty Boots” from Goo, and started writing a piece that ultimately became “Providence,” and though it was too long for the Sonic Youth book, I was really interested in the protagonist, this girl, Nikki, who was 17 and had run away from home and was sort of messed up but really tough or resilient. I wrote another one with her, which became “Orlando,” and, again it was too long for the anthology. I wrote a third one–the right length this time, and at that point I thought I’d have whole collection of linked Nikki stories. But when I wrote “Austin,” that movement seemed to be complete, and I was sort of at a loss, because I thought I’d be working with her for a long time. I started to see how the four Nikki stories would fit with other stories I’d been working on, and then the shape for Drift and Swerve started coming together. I don’t know how I found Nikki, but she wouldn’t go away. When I finished Drift and Swerve I was still thinking about her all the time. I went back to the failed novel and started taking it apart, cutting almost all of it. Then Nikki inserted herself, and I’ve been spending quite a lot of time with her for the last year and a half. I’m almost done with that novel now, so I’m going to lose her pretty soon. Discovering her gave me Drift and Swerve, and then reanimated this novel. She’s like the gift that keeps giving, which is kind of funny since she’s such a taker. Sonic Youth led me to her. Thanks Sonic Youth.
2. That is interesting, to find your creative process so inspired by a single character, and then having it feed from there into another book. Do you often write off of ideas in this way, or was that particular in trying to write for the anthology? I wonder too if your process varies widely depending on your mood or situation, as there is a really amazing variety of the kind of texts in Drift and Swerve, from the Nikki pieces, to the very tone oriented stories like the title cut of the collection, and really language or sound driven like the ‘American League’ piece. I’m interested in the way these different voices occur to or in you, and how you bring them out, if that’s something you even think about too actively, and maybe also how you went about arranging those modes in the creation of the collection.
I like that you’re asking about sound here–because while poets and readers of poetry talk about sound all the time, it seems that fiction writers talk about it less, though sound and voice are probably just as important to prose as to poetry. For me, a piece usually starts with the voice, the sound I hear of the story, tone and mood coming through that sound. I almost never have an idea for a piece or a sense of where it’s going, though sometimes I do, like in “Arson,” in which I knew I wanted that couple going home to start divorce proceedings after first evacuating a hotel due to a false fire alarm. I knew I wanted to get to that alarm and evacuation before I knew anything else. I think every other story in Drift and Swerve, though, came together and found its shape only after I found the voice for the piece–which I think involves tone and language, and shapes the emotional gravity of the story, the mood, sometimes pointing to just what kind of trouble the character’s in. And finding and shaping the voice seems to have a lot to do with hearing a rhythm that feels right somehow. There’s a different rhythmic feeling to many of the stories in Drift and Swerve based on the lines or sentence structure of the pieces. The Nikki stories are made up mainly of longer lines, creating a different kind of breath to the prose than many of the other stories, like “Animal Hater or “Drift and Swerve” or “Cleavage,” which are hard line stories, made up primarily of shorter sentences, and creating a different kind of tension. I liked the way these longer line stories and shorter line stories worked together and against each other, all of them concerned with rhythm and sound. But sound is just one element. That’s just one kind of surface. And of course, I have to get under or past that surface to find something that has emotional resonance and creates some kind of larger meaning for me as a writer or reader. Still, that surface–of sound and rhythm–feels important to me in finding my way into a story. On the other hand, something else is ultimately more important than the sound. The Nikki stories in Drift and Swerve are third person stories, with those longer lines I was mentioning, but in the novel I’m working on, Nikki’s point of view is 1st person–which means I’m hearing her actual voice–and the prose doesn’t feel as concerned with those longer lines. So the sound is completely different, even though the character is the same person, albeit older. Still, at the beginning, when I’m trying to find a way into a piece, and I guess later, too–all the way through–sound and rhythm seem crucial to me.
3. I agree, there is not nearly enough eternal attention when speaking of prose and its sound qualities. I wonder, then, with your wide ability for many styles and voices all housed within the same text, what variety of sounds and tones influenced you in your becoming as a writer? I imagine that would go beyond just writers that influenced you, though I am certainly interested in that, but also, and in reference to your Sonic Youth mention, perhaps music? Or perhaps even something else?
It seems almost passé to reference Faulkner and Hemingway as influences, but so many other, later influences seem to come through them, and I think they have such radically different approaches, almost opposite approaches to line structure, and, as a result, sound. So I think of Hemingway’s hard line stories, and the kind of beat and rhythm he establishes, as opposed to the much longer lines and breaths in Faulkner’s work, and while I don’t want to create a false dichotomy, I do sometimes think of those two writers as sort of rhythmic poles. And while someone like the great rhythmic writer Robert Lopez might show influences of Beckett and Hempel in his work, I also think of his beats and incredibly clean lines as coming to some degree out of Hemingway. But I feel the same way about Hempel–who also feels like a major influence on me–that her sense of rhythm comes from the kind of economical, muscular line we might associate with Hemingway. And it’s not just the line or rhythm that feels like a Hemingway influence in her work, but her use of absence or withholding, how she creates these silhouettes by the use of what she calls negative space, by what’s not directly looked at or mentioned. Her work is also incredibly lyrical, and she’ll let a story use image as transition–and I’m thinking here of a story like “In a Tub,” which has no real narrative drive, and seems like such a risk for a story writer. Kim Chinquee does that too–will shape the narrative through voice or image or absence in a way that doesn’t seem to rely on a traditional narrative driver. It’s hard to know what directly influences you, because everything probably does, but the writers I read and reread–Dybek, Hempel, Tobias Wolff, Coetzee, Denis Johnson, Joyce, Larry Brown, Juan Rulfo, Faulkner, Carver, DeLillo–I’m sure these writers have all influenced my sense of sound and story. And because I edit Willow Springs, I’m constantly reading not yet published prose and also a lot more poetry than I would probably otherwise read. I’d be reading poetry anyway, but editing the magazine means that I read poetry constantly, which surely must influence me, and I love, as a reader, being that immersed in sound and line. I must steal from poets constantly–Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, Denver Butson, Ray Amorosi, Christopher Howell, Robert Wrigley, Paisley Reckdal, Jim Daniels and on and on and on. And then there’s music, which for me as an influence isn’t classical or jazz, but almost always music with lyrics, so you get the joining of sound and language, and also this whole attitude or sensibility. There is no way I ever would have shaped Nikki the way I did without an understanding of the feeling she got from bands like Sonic Youth or Jane’s Addiction or Throwing Muses or The Breeders or Pavement or the Replacements or Pixies, this kind of pissed off, beautiful toughness, woven through what feel like incredibly astute observations on what it means to be human and alive. I love how music creates feeling or mood against which lyrics can be placed, contextualizing the language, giving it much greater meaning than the lyric would have by itself. It was sort of a revelation to me when I was young that lyrics that seemed so powerful in song felt so flat on the page, that the lyrics in song relied so much on the music, the contextualizing sound, to create feeling. So that’s what sucks about being a writer without music. You have to create the context for the language, the music that helps create emotion, out of nothing but the language. I don’t think that’s harder or easier. Just different. The line, “I didn’t care, I didn’t care, I didn’t care, I didn’t care,” might have some power on the page, but when Kristen Hersch sings it against the aural texture created by Throwing Muses in the song “Drive,” the sound of the music against the sound of her voice and inflection creates so much more feeling and meaning than the sounds of the words by themselves on the page. And the sounds and meaning she creates in the song have power over me as a writer. I want to try to capture that kind of feeling on the page with just the sounds and rhythm of language. That song and sound influenced me by itself and even more because it influenced Nikki, creating some kind of emotional resonance in her that I wanted to get onto the page, that I wanted to use as a way to open her up to the reader and to me. I also love in music–and poetry–how often I won’t know what a lyric means exactly, but connect to it through the feeling of it, the sound of the words, their inflection and tone, against the sound of the music, meaning arising from a kind of emotional landscape that transcends rationality. Prose should do that too, I think. Fiction should do that–create meaning that both involves and transcends rationality. And for me, so much of that meaning or emotional backdrop comes from its sound.
4. You’ve been editing Willow Springs for a good number of years now, doing what I think is one of the more edgy and fresh litmags out there. How has that experience affected your approach to your own work, if any? Also, would you talk a little bit about what it is you look for in work when reading for WS?
I get to read a lot of great prose and poetry in my editorial work, much more poetry than I would otherwise read, which I think makes me more aware of rhythm and line and sound. And I spend a lot of time working with writers, going back and forth on edits, learning from them and their writing. I’m so frequently surprised by something in a story or line or voice in the work we receive, and I think that’s what I’m really looking for as an editor: something surprising, something I haven’t seen before, something fresh in voice or syntax or the way a character unfolds or how the writer approaches whatever he or she is looking at. So it’s really hard to say what I’m looking for as an editor, because I don’t know until I see it, until a piece really grabs me. We try to have a pretty open aesthetic at Willow Springs. We publish experimental work and traditional work and everything in between. But it’s always about how a writer sees and hears, and how much authority they bring to what they see or hear. And whether or not they find what feels like a complete shape for the poem or piece of prose. I know that’s vague. But I don’t know how else to say it. It’s sort of like asking someone why they like what they like in a song or a poem or a novel or a story. You can kind of answer. And you can always talk about what doesn’t work. But the stuff that really works, that really hits you in the guts, and then moves up to your brain while still ringing in your guts, much of what animates that seems to transcend a sort of rational explanation. It’s how the artist sees and hears and articulates what they see and hear. And if the writer finds a fluid, complete form for that, a shape for the story or poem or essay, then the piece will bring some kind of news and excitement and “completeness” to the reader. Again, I know that’s vague. But, ironically, one more thing: I’m looking for clarity. That doesn’t mean a piece can’t be difficult or obscure or convoluted if it needs to be. But it should also be as clear as it can possibly be. And–oh, God, what we all struggle with as writers–it should feel seamless.
Pick up Drift and Swerve here.