SAMUEL LIGON is the author of DRIFT AND SWERVE, a collection of stories (2009), and SAFE IN HEAVEN DEAD, a novel (2003). 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 teaches at Eastern Washington University’s Inland Northwest Center for Writers, in Spokane, Washington, and is the editor of WILLOW SPRINGS.
Robert Lopez: Writers often talk about the differences between stories and novels. As the author of Safe in Heaven Dead, a novel, and now a new collection of short stories, Drift and Swerve (Autumn House Press), what are your thoughts on form and movement in both stories and novels? What are the similarities and differences for you as a writer working on a novel or story? What’s the relationship between the two?
Sam Ligon: One big difference between novels and stories, to me, is that successful stories seem to open up at the end, to suggest a kind of expansion, becoming much larger than themselves or the moments of their dramatic movement, and I’m thinking here of stories like Joyce’s “The Dead” or Chekhov’s “Gusev,” which seem to open to a kind of connection with entire worlds or even all of humanity at their respective ends, but also much smaller seeming stories like Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” in which the character’s life actually telescopes down to a tiny moment, a memory, which, oddly, also feels incredibly expansive, as if that beautiful, pure moment when the character is still in love with language, still unruined by his life, will open up and exist for eternity. And the character himself also opens in that moment, becomes so much larger and deeper.
Or I think of Amy Hempel’s “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” in which the entire movement of the story is toward this gradual revelation, the reader aware of an enormous gravity of absence in the story, but not quite able to pinpoint it—the missing mother—until the end of the story when we see the father actually mothering his daughter, brushing her hair, talking to his daughter and listening to his daughter as a mother would. When you reread, you realize the mother is missing on every page, in every line, her absence outlined everywhere. The last line of the story is dialogue from the father—”There is no bad news,” he says, and though the story resolves with the family together or connected or okay for the moment, the movement in the story is toward that opening , revealing the hole, the absence, as if the entire narrative is stretched over that canyon underneath it. So the story opens itself and then it’s done.
And I don’t think novels work that way. I think they certainly have to open, to sort of accelerate and accumulate weight and potential and meaning, to open and open and open, but then they also seem to have to close. I’m not talking about neat resolution, here. I’m talking about the movement of the narrative, the shape of the thing. A story, for me, works best when it opens and ends. But I think a novel has to close itself up somehow to feel satisfying. And that’s why I think so many novels feel like failures or seem to lose steam for me in the last third. They’ve been opening and opening and opening, and now they have to start to close. When that turn happens, it can feel like all the potential draining out, a clock winding down. Though when it’s done well, the shape just feels perfectly complete.
I do think that both novels and stories deal with the same thing, though—using dramatic movement to reveal characters—people—in depth and complexity, examining, exploring, illuminating various aspects of what it means to be human. And for me as a writer, both are all about connections and disconnections and failed connections between people, about loss and struggling in the face of loss, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So I think they’re working the same terrain, and of course they’re both made of language and rhythm and voice, but I just think they have to be shaped so differently.
And a novel, of course, allows for so much more sideways movement. The shorter form seems to require more urgency behind it, propelling it, whereas the novel can settle down a little. As a reader I sometimes want to be in the world of the novel, because I want to live there longer, spend more time with the characters and explore them more deeply than a story will allow. Other times, I want the sort of urgent glimpse of a story. And that’s why I love collections that feel unified, that seem to be doing a little of both, and I’m thinking here of Amy Hempel and Dybek and Denis Johnson and Mary Gaitskill and Tim O’Brien and Breece Pancake and Stacey Richter and Aimee Bender. In their books of short fiction, I feel like I get to spend more time in more multi-faceted “worlds” than a single story can offer. And I don’t just mean linked collections. Dybek’s I Sailed With Magellan or Johnson’s Jesus’ Son operate in many ways like novels, with that kind of closing movement for the book as a whole, but those stories are explicitly linked. Hempel’s Reasons to Live or Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior or Bender’s Willful Creatures create what feel like unified worlds to me, without using the novelistic closing shape.
One’s not better than another—story, novel, linked collection, collection unified in some other way—they’re just different. And I like being able to go to both—as a reader and as a writer.
RL: How do you know what’s a story and what’s a novel? How did SIHD become a novel and the title story, Drift and Swerve become a story?
SL: I knew Safe in Heaven Dead was a novel the minute I wrote the first line—”Robert Elgin died on the street, knocked down and run over by a Second Avenue bus while pursuing a woman he thought he could not live without.”
I wanted to write a novel. I was trying to write a novel. When I got that line, the novel world sort of opened up for me, because I thought, Well, who is this guy and what led to this meaningless death, and who’s this woman he’s running after and why is he pursuing her? It just felt like a much larger canvas. I had more questions. The story can’t explain why he died, but the story was interested in what led up to his death. That became the question for me as a writer. So it wasn’t going to be dealing with moment like a story does. It was going to have a bigger scope. And it was going to take its time, weaving around that big idiotic question—my question, as a writer—without ever answering it, but just sort of examining these different elements, these different threads that sort of led to his demise. And of course I had the closing of the story built into the first line. I knew the end, knew how it was going to close. Elgin would be dead.
The story “Drift and Swerve” feels like a line story to me and very much in the moment. Small scope. Urgent rhythm. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen on this night. Now. There was something pushing hard behind it that I wanted to discover, but there was not going to be a lot of time. And in that particular story, I was playing with a distant third person that granted no access to characters’ interiors. So all I had was voice, rhythm, and scene. There’s no way I could have sustained that point of view for a novel. The narrative would have come to feel unmodulated, flat, monotonous. And there was only going to be that one moment, that one night. The compression is what’s so great about a story. There’s urgency because the clock is ticking a different way. And the ability to stretch and go deeper, to handle time differently, is what’s great about a novel.
RL: Four stories in the collection, “Providence”, “Dirty Boots”, “Austin”, “Orlando” concern the same character, Nikki, an adolescent girl. How did you find Nikki? What were the challenges of writing about and from the “perspective” of a teenaged girl? Are you finished with Nikki or will we see more of her?
SL: I discovered Nikki trying to write a story for a collection of fiction, the American title of which is Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth. A British writer and editor, Peter Wild, had started a series of story collections in which various writers are asked to title a story with a song title from a band, and then the stories are collected. The first book was shaped by titles from The Fall; the second book relied on Sonic Youth titles, and next comes The Smiths. He’s got other ones lined up as well—The Ramones, Velvet Underground. I thought it was a great idea, and I love Sonic Youth and knew the title I wanted immediately—Dirty Boots.
So I wrote the first story, which was “Providence,” and it was too long for Peter’s book, so I didn’t send it, but it didn’t matter, because I was really interested in this fucked up but really tough, bright, damaged adolescent girl who had run from home and was living in Providence in 1987. And I was listening to all this music from then and studying maps of Providence, and I just wasn’t anywhere near done with her. So I wrote another one, “Orlando,” but, again, it was too long, and again, it didn’t matter, because I was still really interested in her—she was becoming larger for me—and I knew I wasn’t done with her and was sort of falling in love with her. Then I wrote “Dirty Boots” (the previous two, “Providence” and “Orlando” had also started with that title) and that was the right story for the collection, right length, etc. At that point, I thought I’d have a book of Nikki stories, but when I finished the next story, “Austin,” I was somehow done with that movement. It was over. There was some kind of shape for me in those four stories and I started putting them with other stories—”Drift and Swerve” and “Animal Hater” and “Something Awful”—and I started to see a collection of stories that the Nikki pieces would sort of anchor or provide the weave for, which became Drift and Swerve.
And if felt great to finish that project. But I was sort of disappointed at having lost Nikki. I had a novel that had been sitting in the drawer for two years, and I realized that what it needed was Nikki. I cut about 90% of that book, which had been a single first-person narrative, and introduced Nikki to the story—another first person voice—but now thirteen years older than when I’d last worked with her in “Austin.” I knew so much about her and was still so interested in her, and now I got to hear her actual voice in the first person. It was really cool. She reanimated the novel for me. And as I continue to work with her—I’m about two-thirds of the way through that book—I’m learning more and more about her.
RL: How does the writing change when your main character is male or female?
SL: I worked with a female character in Safe in Heaven Dead, Carla, and I worked with Nikki in Drift and Swerve, and now again in this new novel. So opposite gender doesn’t feel weird to me. And I don’t think it does or should to any fiction writer. I think we’re capable of imagining and sort of inhabiting people other than ourselves. In fact, I think you have to push the character away from yourself, to find out who he or she is, to let them sort of become themselves. Otherwise they don’t come to life. So maybe I feel comfortable with these female characters because they can’t be me. And, paradoxically, with that freedom, maybe I actually let more of myself go into them. I don’t know.
RL: Many of your characters can’t quite connect with those closest to them. I’m thinking about the second person unnamed narrator of “Animal Hater”, the entire cast of “Something Awful”, “Cleavage”, etc., how does this theme work for you? Are you conscious of it as you are working? Meaning, are you thinking about this lack of connection consciously as something to explore or do these people show up and this is how they are, human and damaged, yet hoping to be otherwise, to be better? Where do your stories come from, for instance, these three? How important is hope in your work and in fiction in general?
SL: As I said earlier, I am interested in those failed connections and almost connections and little connections. I guess it seems to me that people are just almost entirely alienated—from each other, from themselves—and the stories I’m interested in sort of explore those gaps, but also, maybe a sort of transcendence, however small, of those gaps. And I think that’s where the hope comes in for me. People sometimes refer to my fiction as “dark” which always feels strange and sort of insulting. Because I think all the work I do is in those connections, some of which are failures, or maybe small, but for me those are the larger moments in the work. And it seems easy to be only dark in the work. I mean, that’s only one tone. And I think, Wait, isn’t the work funny, too? Isn’t there tenderness? Isn’t there so much more than just one note?
And so the whole movement of “Animal Hater” for me is the father toward the daughter. Not that the story’s redemptive. Just that there’s this moment where he sort of recognizes her, and her connection to him. I mean he really sees her. And, yeah, he’s certainly damaged, but I think that’s just true to life, and necessary for story. Something’s got to be wrong for there to be a story.
“Cleavage” works that way, I think. The protagonist is just obsessing on tits, filling some kind of hole with all these tits, but I do think he moves toward the woman in that story, his girlfriend, maybe kicking and screaming, and maybe he doesn’t know why, and maybe there isn’t a why, but the story is in that movement.
“Something Awful” is different. That’s movement away. That’s disintegration.
And Nikki is always just kicking and fighting. Those stories seem to be about a kind of resistance. But against what? I mean, she’s pushing against almost everything, and though she’d never admit it, she’s dying for that human connection. That’s why “Orlando” felt right for the end of the book. She’s in the back of the bus on her eighteenth birthday with this little kid Breece and they’re saying “Shitpile” to each other, and it’s kind of funny and kind of fucked up and kind of sweet, but there’s this connection between them, maybe—again— this sort of recognition. And that makes the story so much larger to me, sort of elevating it above the shitpile.
RL: There is a distinct energy, desperation, and leanness to your prose that is at once recognizable. “Desperation” in that it always feels like your narrators have to say what they are saying and there’s no time to waste. The work feels urgent and necessary. I can spot a Ligon passage a mile off. How much time do you spend on syntax and diction? What’s your revision process like? Are you spending more time stripping down sentences or trying to find a particular tone or does it all come together at once and there’s no differentiating between what’s being rendered and how it is rendered?
SL: So much of it seems to be about rhythm and sound for me. So I struggle with the first line to hear something that somehow pulls me or pulls the narrative. And, of course, there’s got to be push behind that first line too—and the whole story—something pushing it to be told. Sometimes I can’t finish a story for 5 years. I’ll like the sound of it, or the movement, but I can’t figure out how it works. Other times, the process is faster, but it’s never that fast. I’ll think it’s done, and then I’ll start playing with line 7, paragraph 12, rewriting the line, and then the whole paragraph collapses, or paragraphs surrounding it, because the rhythm is now wrong. I hate that.
And I always want to cut. And cut more. And keep cutting. And get it right down to the bone. Which doesn’t mean the lines or language can’t be rich or lush, just that I don’t want any fat in there.
One thing I liked with Drift and Swerve, was the stretch in the lines with the Nikki stories, compared to some of the other stories. I mean, “Drift and Swerve” is a hard rhythm story, shorter lines, harder beats, and I think “Animal Hater” is too. The Nikki stories get a different kind of rhythm with those long lines, sometimes turning in on themselves, but hopefully pushing hard forward too. And sometimes those long lines caused paragraphs to sort of implode, so I’d have to go back and work them and work them. But the same was true of the hard line stories, in that I rewrote and rewrote.
I revise a lot listening for the right sound and beat, but then I fear over-revising a story too, worrying lines to death. And I think that happens if I’m only working on the line level, if I’m only attuned to rhythm and sound and not feeling the—I don’t know—emotional movement of the story, if I’m not open to the story suddenly doing something new, even though I’m on draft 45 and thought it was done. So I guess the balance for me is sort of obsessing on the lines while somehow keeping the larger movement alive. And when I fail and have to walk away, something has to reanimate the story for me, some larger thing that isn’t on the line level. I guess I want to obsess on lines and sound and rhythm but still keep the larger mystery alive. And I think many writers rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, and I think it occurs to many writers, as it does to me sort of late in the process: If I can just, finally, cut every single fucking word from this piece, it will be perfect.