An Interview with Andrew F. Sullivan

Andrew F. Sullivan is a Toronto writer, the associate fiction editor for The Puritan and the author of the short story collection All We Want is Everything, published by Arbiter Ring Publishing. The 20 stories are terse, powerful tales of people in hard times and are a mix of gut punches (Pumpkinheads), humour (Satin Lives!) and the fantastical (Clouds). It was listed as one of the best books of 2013 by The Globe and Mail and by The National Post and it was one of my favourite books from last year. Andrew was kind enough to answer a few questions for me about his book, his literary and musical tastes, and his writing style. ARP-All we want-v1.indd Andrew will be reading at this event being hosted by Little Fiction on February 5th in Toronto. Andrew’s website is http://www.andrewfsullivan.com There’s an obvious musical connection with the book, your publisher, ARP, was co-founded John K. Samson of the Weakerthans. How did you come to be hooked up with them? To keep it quick, I wanted to see if John K. was interested in blurbing my work before I sent it out to more publishers in the States. ARP had only recently started to publish fiction again and I had no idea they’d be interested in what I do – I knew ARP existed, but primarily on the political non-fiction front. After I sent the manuscripts along, it was a pleasant surprise when John ask if they could publish the stories. ARP is a great small press and they’ve been extremely supportive of All We Want is Everything. I got the cover I’d wanted for about five years and I was involved in the whole process from day one, which is a great experience to have when putting your first book together. John’s an extremely generous and kind guy, but you probably already knew that.  A Bird in the Hand is Worthless is a Deadly Snakes song, God is a Place is a line from the Neutral Milk Hotel song Engine. Where do your musical tastes lie? They are all over the place to be honest. The older I get the more open I am to different genres and voices I guess. I like a lot of gloomy alt-country and folk music (Strand of Oaks, Songs:Ohia, The Felice Brothers, Bonnie Prince Billy) but I also like my power pop and angry punks and hiphop and death metal dirges. Deafheaven, Michael McDonald, Crass, The Raspberries, Neil Young, The Magnetic Fields, The Builders and the Butchers, Felt, Minor Threat, Mariah Carey, The Broken Family Band, Springsteen, Squeeze, Death from Above 1979, Fleetwood Mac, most of the Motown records, Al Green, Christine Fellows, The Sonics, Spoon, James Ingram, Constantines, Ghostface, Metz, Drake… it all swirls together at some point. I like music that can create a mood or a space for me to work within… sometimes I will listen to the same songs over and over while writing a story, or the same album while working on the novel. I also like distinctive voices like Nick Cave or David Berman, voices you can instantly recognize. And the lyrics matter too, on some level. I’m not the biggest fan of Will Sheff’s vocals, but Okkervil River has some of the best lyrics out there. John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is up there too. I think a lot of writers gravitate to those musicians. Sometimes there are certain songs I just want to live inside for a while. Right now that song is probably “Annabelle” by Gillian Welch. And Prince’s Purple Rain is a classic forever. Can you discuss the title? You mentioned that it was a mix of Handsome Furs, Bauhaus and Def Leppard. The title is derived from all three in a way, but the phrase was always stuck in my head. I worked a lot of shitty jobs with a lot of different, possibly unsavoury folks. When you’ve got very little money and the world seems to be shitting on you, you don’t really care to make plans for the future. You stop being selective with your dreams. Fuck it, give me everything is the mentality. I felt it too. When you’re on an 11 hour shift and you get off at 12:30 AM so half the guys can catch the last bus into town, you may as well ask for everything. ‘Cause you know you’ll get none of it in the end. And what you do get will only last so long. All we want is everything because what we do get will never actually be enough – why bother being modest? We will be burdened by desires and dreams we can’t fulfill. We are made to want. Reading through these stories, there are a lot of unloved people, or people not getting enough love. The only character who seems to be loved is Hatchetman, a boy whose dad is a Jugalo and is getting him a tattoo at the end of the story. What made you want to write about such broken people? I think a lot of the time it is our desperation and longing that define us – what we don’t have and what we desire. It’s not written in stone, but I use it as a way to understand my characters. Currently, I am not that interested in writing about contemplation or reflection. The calm parsing of details from the past does not really do much for me right now, but there are other people who do it well. I want to write about people struggling in the moment, attempting to pull their lives together without recognizing the flaws in the blueprint, the mistakes they will make again and again. I don’t consider them totally broken, but just desperate. And not in a quiet way. Not in a polite, lonely, possibly alcoholic way. They are desperate in a loud, volatile manner, the one bashing on your door in the middle of the night. I need the work to grab my reader – physically if needed. I want to be shaken. I want to walk away from a story undone, not satisfied. I try to write what I would like to read. Despite some grimly real stories, some of them, like Towers and Cloud have elements of the fantastical in them. These reminded me a bit of Adam Marek’s work, where the fantastic is just a device to examine the characters further. Who are your writing influences? Marek’s book sounds great – I will have to check him out sooner than later. I really like your point about the fantastic as a device for character development. I think I try to do that with the absurd stuff in my work – present it as just part of that reality, something the characters must cope with, but not as the sole focus of the story. “Mutations”, “Cloud” and “Towers” from the book probably all fall into that category. My influences are all over the place. Film, music, comics – they all play a role alongside books. I am a big Cronenberg fan (shout outs to The Brood and Dead Ringers), and I really enjoy some of Jonathan Hickman’s recent work in creator owned comics (East of West, The Manhattan Projects). Body horror and the failure of our flesh are big themes for me, I guess. As for writers, I really like a lot of Southern gothic stuff and slightly absurd works – Harry Crews provides both of those for me. Dogtooth was another movie that really made me reassess what I was doing with my own work and I always appreciate tackling new, challenging forms of storytelling that can hold my interest. Throw in screwball comedies and Ernst Lubitsch as well – creating characters through dialogue, conflict and interaction instead of just telling the reader/viewer how to feel. Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Dashiell Hammett – I’ve read a lot of their older work to learn how to move a story forward, how to get from Point A to Point B without wasting anyone’s time describing what the clouds looked like that particular afternoon – unless those clouds are some how relevant. Richard Lange is doing a lot of that work right now, I think he’s a great, smart bridge between supposed literary and pulp fiction. Richard Price is also great, for CLOCKERS and everything else. Lush Life would be a good read for anybody really. And Richard Yates and Miriam Toews for the deep, dark, funny sadness that sticks with you after you finish their books. What are your top 5 books? This is not a top five of all time or anything like that, but I’ll give you five books that stick with me. The ones I carry around in my bones: Harry Crews – A Feast of Snakes Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle Jim Thompson – The Killer Inside Me Jim Shepard – Like You’d Understand, Anyway Flannery O’Connor – Wiseblood  What are some of you favourite short stories?  Donald Barthelme – The School Jim Shepard – Trample the Dead, Hurdle the Weak Flannery O’Connor – The Life You Save May Be Your Own Mike Meginnis – Navigators Tobias Wolff – Bullet in the Brain George Saunders – The 400 Pound CEO Lindsay Hunter – Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula Do you have a favourite story in your collection? “Towers”, which is about government housing, teen girls and a sinkhole, is probably my favourite, just because I felt like I was stepping outside my comfort zone to write it. I was trying to do something new, something frightening, and I wanted to ground it in the real (like you mentioned earlier). There’s a lot of ambivalence in this piece, a lot of unspoken things I tried to hint at or suggest. I often overplay my hand. “Towers” also just felt good to write. Even though I’m writing about terrible things sometimes, the process feels right. It brings me some peace. It makes me hungry to write more. The sinkhole is not going anywhere. It remains until that’s all there is anymore. My favourite story in the book was Pumpkinheads. Can you tell us what inspired that story? I read about families in Texas who often received massive medical bills after their loved ones were injured on the job and the company refused to pay. It happens all over the place actually. So the story sprang from there and I built it around a bill for the ambulance that takes the protagonist’s dying husband to the hospital. My stories usually starts that way, blooming from one incident or image into a greater conflict. I don’t really plan the stories out, but I do keep track of where they are going. This one was always going to end violently – I just didn’t know how until it happened. And then you cannot take it back, not if you’re being honest with yourself. Some of the stories are set in the U.S. Were American settings picked when you submitted to American journals? Do you think Oshawa is comparable to some small American towns? No, not really. I write about America because I enjoy being there and I think that there is a lot at stake there for people – a lot of power in flux. I have relatives and friends who live in the States and I consume American media on a daily basis along with most Canadians. I’ve sent stories based in America to Canadian journals and vice versa. Oshawa is definitely comparable to some places in the States, at least the version of it I grew up in during the early 90s. Southern Ontario and the American Midwest have a lot in common, a lot of the same industrial wastelands, forgotten places, leftover people. Canada has a stronger safety net to catch people and the health care up here makes a huge difference, but we are not so different from Americans. That’s an illusion we like to keep north of the border. It only harms us. It does not help. Was much editing done to the stories from their original published versions? It varies depending on the story. Most of them were already fairly trimmed by the time we got to the manuscript stage. Only one story “Simcoe Furriers” was not previously published, but the work is all scattered across the internet and in little magazines in the States  and Canada. It is good to have it all in one place. A lot of the editing process mainly involved removing stories and re-sequencing the ones that remained. We definitely went through three or four rounds of editing, but there were no major cuts to the actual stories. If they hadn’t been published through so many magazines though, it would have obviously been a different story. You can still find differences if you look real close though. If you want to, that is. Your bio mentions you worked in a video game store, are you a gamer? What do you see as the medium’s potential for narrative and do you have any favourite stories from video games? I don’t actually play a lot of games, but I am fascinated by their potential. I took the job because I needed a job that would allow me to write in my free time while I tried to complete a manuscript. Managing a video game store is not the greatest gig in the world, but when I was home, I was totally off the clock. I had time to thrash my imagination and pick up whatever it left behind. These days I mainly play old Nintendo games and Pokemon. Yeah, the little monsters – SundogLit published an essay I wrote about death, memory and loss in the earliest Pokemon games, which were a lot darker than the newer iterations. I was a big fan of strategy games when I was younger and I’ve always liked the Thief series, Fire Emblem, Smash Brothers and playing with people in the same room. Video games have a great potential for narrative – for me, my favourite part about a new game is a sense of exploration, of uncovering a world, how it works and what it hides from you. However, once I figure out the mechanics of the game, the limits of the world, that’s when I disconnect from it. Once I know how to grind through it all or how long a certain level will take, the magic is gone for me. It just becomes another machine. I need to be surprised, not consigned to killing another 100 wolves to unlock an achievement I do not care about to get enough gold to buy a helmet that will protect me from the progressively stronger creatures in the next limited area I am supposed to enter so I can then progress to the next incrementally more difficult area after that. What’s projects are you working on now? Everything and nothing. Two novels about organs and bodies and corrupt institutions. Hopefully some other messy things about orphans and adoption in Eastern Europe. I also want to write an elaborate witch hunting epic or YA series at some point, really just plunge into it and embrace all the awful things I could do to my characters. And a comic series about a nightmare hotline, and a graphic novel about living in an endless well that has no bottom… too many things, man, too many things I want to do in this world. I will die before they are all done and that’s a good thing, probably.

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