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Wading Through Knee-Deep Oddities With The South’s Most Dangerous Stylist

A conversation with George Singleton by fellow writer Dan Leach.

In the world of Southern literature, few names shine as brightly as George Singleton’s. Known for his razor-sharp wit, Southern charm and penchant for weaving absurdity into everyday life, Singleton’s latest masterpiece, Asides, beckons readers into a world where laughter and insight collide with delightful unpredictability. Singleton’s unique blend of humor and depths in this series of essays promises a journey that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Join Dan Leach as he and Singleton delve into the world of Asides, where laughter reigns supreme and every page turned is a testament to the enduring allure of Southern storytelling at its finest.

Dan Leach: We should probably talk about Asides, your new book of essays, which is easily the funniest thing I’ve read all year. I mean, the 28 short pieces here are wildly entertaining, and I have so many questions about this project, which Abigail Thomas perfectly described as “… the next best thing to George in the flesh.” But just as an aside, let me ask you this—speaking of being “in the flesh”—do you intend to see Bob Dylan when he comes through Carolina this summer on his “Rough and Rowdy Ways” tour? I’ve never seen Dylan and he’s 82, so the sun’s kind of sinking on the whole “in the flesh” opportunity.

George Singleton: I’m not going. I got on Weather Underground and noticed that a hard rain was gonna fall on that date.

DL: Yeah, I might have a night class on that date, so I probably won’t make it. Speaking of teaching, you’ve been out of the classroom for a few years now. Do you miss it?

GS: No. Zero. I’m embarrassed about what I might have said in a classroom. I keep waiting for students to ask for their money back. Also—not to be an ageist—I think there’s a time when people need to leave teaching. For me, I couldn’t quite get over people looking at their cell phones while I spoke or when another student spoke.

DL: Like Dylan said, the times they are a changin’. Enough asides, let’s talk about your incredible new book. It’s hard to pick a favorite essay in Asides. They’re all hilarious in their responsive ways. If pressed, though, I’d say my favorite was “Aristotle and South Carolina.” As a lifelong Carolinian, I connected with your theory on how polarized the region is. You write, “Aristotle could not have written the Nichomachean Ethics in the state of South Carolina because that tome is all about moderation and South Carolina is a big old state of excess only.” You later say, “There’s nothing in-between in these parts.” I find the characterization spot on, and I’m wondering if you’ve ever been accused of dramatizing the South when, in reality, you’re almost being journalist about its objective excess?

GS: Listen, I’ve been nailed for my depiction in South Carolina—by South Carolinians. Oh, my. Really? If I say something about how big peach water tower on I-85 might appear both hideous and vaginal, people are going to kill me about it? For some reason, I think my work is taken better in places other than the southeast. So be it. I bet Oklahomans aren’t all that happy with Steinbeck. I love South Carolina. People can make fun of this state for various reasons. I understand.

DL: I like the idea of some curious Oklahoman sitting down on the porch with your stuff. Maybe non-Southerners appreciate our region’s contradictions better than the locals.

GS: Maybe. Back in college, though, I had this kid who lived across the hall from me. He went to a prep school up North. He said, more than once, “Everyone in South Carolina is so backwards and stupid, man.” Good for him, I said, “Who invited you here? Why are you here?” He flunked out after the first year. I didn’t. Looking back, I figure he just didn’t know how to wade through all of our knee-deep oddities. As anyone who’s ever waded in a knee-deep stream, he or she knows that there’s unsure and invisible footing beneath the flooded waters.

DL: Speaking of knee-deep oddities, I really loved “Moon Pie” from Asides. You write well about music (and musicians); and after reading it, I scavenged YouTube until I tracked down Moon Pie’s “Welcome to Hard Times.” What an album! It’s safe to say that, without your homage, I never would’ve found this gem. But couldn’t this be said of Asides in general—that it’s a book meant to rescue certain artifacts from fading into obscurity?

GS: To be honest, I don’t know enough about music to write about its meaningful, civil way. I’ve never learned an instrument, outside of a Jew’s harp, which I can pretty much kill on. This is no lie: One time I accompanied Jeff Hanna, from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, at the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville, on Jew’s harp. It’s a long story. This had something to do with the Southern Festival of Books, and there in a circle were Hanna, Matraca Berg, Clyde Edgerton and me. Clyde knew that I had a Jew’s harp in my pocket—I was supposed to accompany him for some banjo song he wrote, but then he blurted out, “Singleton’s got a Jew’s harp! Singleton’s got a Jew’s harp!” right before Jeff was going to play one of his old hits.

DL: That’s an aside! Also, I wonder what became of Moon Pie?

GS: Moon Pie evolved into The Accelerators—a tighter, more cow-punk band. And then their record label screwed them, and things pretty much fell apart.

DL: It can be hard to hold together.

GS: Man oh man, think about the gigantic collection one could write about people, bands, et cetera, where things fell apart inexorably. China Achebe might could do it. These days, it seems like obscurity shows up at a much faster pace than before. One minute you’re watching scenes from the war in Ukraine, and then all of a sudden it’s gone in order to watch what’s going on in Gaza. It takes some luck to crawl out of obscurity. Shakespeare wrote, then was forgotten for 200 years, then got “rediscovered” during the Victorian age, right? I might be wrong on that. I read it somewhere. Maybe I wrote it down myself, then read it.

DL: C. Vann Woodward says the same thing about Faulkner in his book The Burden of Southern History. Says American critics were lukewarm on Faulkner’s work until European critics hailed him as genius. Fame is such a weird lottery, isn’t it?

GS: Warhol wrote that thing about how everyone gets 15 minutes of fame. I think it might be down to about one minute, tops. Then being forgotten. Think about all the hotshot writers from just 20 or 50 years ago. Where are they now? Maybe a personal essay writer needs to keep in mind that if she or he writes about something that’s on the verge of being forgotten, at least this will resurrect that thing’s life. I hope I did that with Elmer Fudpucker Sr. and Henry Gibson, the great poet/character actor. And Godfrey’s Market, in Hodges, South Carolina.

DL: There’s so much worth resurrecting. For instance, you mention in your preface that Asides is made up of three decades’ worth of various essays done for various purposes under various constraints. Let’s talk about craft for a minute. With the material in Asides covering so much time, what did you notice as you gathered it all together? Did you detect any significant shifts in your writing style or your content?

GS: Good question. Pretty much, no. First off, I didn’t think about it, Dan. Two: I’m always embarrassed about what I write. Why would anyone want to read my crap? Here’s—I’m being serious—what I think and hope I’m doing as a service for readers. They read my work. They might laugh a time or two. Then they say, “Man, I can do that.” And I say, “Go on with your bad self, writer, go on with your bad self.”

DL: While we’re talking craft, let me go on record as saying that I don’t think people talk enough about your sentences. So often your work is discussed in terms of its humor and its sense of place, and I get that because your books are really damn funny, and they always tell the truth about the South. But sometimes I feel these accolades obscure the fact that you’re actually one of the best sentence writers we’ve got. I’m curious: Do you have a sentence from Asides that you’re most proud of?

GS: I do think the sentence is important. I like to write a long, rambling sentence, followed by a short two or three sentences, and vice-versa. It’s like boxing: Roundhouse right, followed by jab jab jab. From Asides: “Although I thought of myself as a writer only when I ran in the mornings, or while watching Henry Gibson recite those poems on Laugh-In, I guess I began writing fiction in the tenth grade for a woman named Mrs. Jones who might’ve been the worst English teacher of all time.”

DL: I think my favorite sentence from Asides is “I have the church to thank in regard to teaching me how to lie, I guess.” You know who wrote a killer sentence? Brad Watson. Like this one from Last Days of the Dog-Men: “We bought a telescope and spent some nights in the yard tracking the cold lights of the stars and planets, looking for patterns, never suspecting that here were the awful bloody secrets of the ancient human heart and that every generation must flesh them out anew.” Last time I saw you, we were at a literary festival in Dahlonega, and you were telling some great Brad Watson stories. Be honest: Do you ever get tired of guys like me asking you for stories about guys like Brad Watson and Barry Hannah and James Dickey? There’s such an intoxicating mythos around those guys, and there’s not many left who knew them like you did.

GS: I’ve been lucky to know a slew of writers who talk about things other than writing. I don’t mind telling these stories at all—or at least some of them. My favorite story about Brad is how he’d call me up late at night, we’d talk for an hour, then he’d call the next day and say, “I’m so sorry I called you up drunk last night.” And I’d say, “Wait, we talked last night? … ” I didn’t know Mr. Hannah very well, but I know that, out of kindness, he wrote a blurb for one of my books without even being asked to do so. My favorite story about him, though, is how I did a reading/signing at Square Books one time. I guess he knew that people would gather upstairs at City Grocery afterwards. He then circled the square on his motorcycle, revving the engine, oh about 20 times.

DL: What about Dickey? I’ve heard some wild ones about him.

GS: Never met Dickey. I knew Larry Brown, though. Larry and I were at Jekyll Island one time, talking about how we feared the agent we shared. He and I were to read at midnight, for some reason. That might not have been the best idea. Anyway, Larry said, “I don’t drink anymore, unless I’m out of town. I try to get out of town five or six times a week.”

DL: Speaking of Barry Hannah, Barry was once asked to identify the most despicable trait in literary writing. He said, “Unearned wisdom.” I mention this because, in telling folks to drop what they’re reading and pick up Asides, I find myself referring to Barry’s theory. That is, I find myself telling folks, “If George writes it, he’s lived it.” Asides, for me, was brimming with the kind of “earned wisdom” that can’t really be faked, which I think accounts for a lot of your popularity in the South. People who’ve survived life down here feel a kind of solidarity with you. Has this been the reaction to the book so far? Are people “seeing themselves” in the work?

GS: I don’t know about “wisdom,” per se. Earned idiocy, maybe. That’s a great quote from Barry, though. Good lord, when I read Airships, Yonder Comes Your Orphan, Ray, Bats Out of Hell, et al.—he’s got some wisdom. The only unwisdom-like thing I’ve ever seen from Mr. Hannah was when he offered a blurb for me—unsolicited, out of nowhere—for one of my books. Sometimes when I’m really stuck I’ll just open up any of his books, turn to a random page, and read it. What language. No one’s better.

DL: Couldn’t agree more. You mentioned Barry’s motorcycle. I’m told he was a serious collector. Bikes and guns mainly. What about you? Do you collect anything?

GS: I might own 1,000 advertising ashtrays and about 350 advertising yard sticks. I have about 20 pieces by the outsider artist R.A. Miller.

DL: That quite a list. I had a professor at Warren Wilson tell me, “All lists are arrangements of desire.” It was 8 a.m. and we were eating scrambled eggs, and the quasi-lecture that followed led me to believe that breakfast at a place like Warren Wilson meant lots of coffee and lots of writerly aphorisms. Do you have any writerly aphorisms you love? Or any you hate?

GS: “Write what you know” bugs me quite a bit. Does this mean anyone writing science fiction has been to outer space? “Sit your butt in the chair” might be the one aphorism that works.

DL: Getting the butt in the chair is crucial. I caught Covid this past Christmas and, for about two months, my butt was not in the chair. The first month was on account of the brain fog. The second, a lack of discipline. I returned to the chair in March and realized something—when I’m not writing, I’m not happy. I’ve never asked another writer this before, and forgive me if it’s too personal, but how is your mental health tied to your creative output?

GS: Oh, I get really depressed when I’m not producing. It’s bad.

DL: Thanks for being honest about mental health. There’s a temptation to assume that prolific writers (especially the kind brilliant enough to win a Guggenheim) don’t have to struggle for their craft. That the language just effortlessly spills out their Shakespeare gene. But at the end of the day, we all have to work for it, and work is tough. Speaking of your Guggenheim, though, that must have been the most exciting thing in your career, yeah?

GS: Nope. The most exciting thing in my career was the time I got a call from Jamie Kornegay, when he worked at Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. He kind of whispered. He said, “Elvis Costello is walking around the store holding The Half-Mammals of Dixie.”

DL: I love Half-Mammals of Dixie. That was my introduction to your work. But back to the new book. Most of the essays in Asides rely on narrative vignettes and character sketches, and in that sense, they’re wonderfully reminiscent of your short fiction. Others feel more experimental, formally speaking. I’m thinking of the hilarious instructional “An Ode to Hangover Cures” and also the satirical (but also entirely pragmatic) craft essay “How to Write Stories, Lose Weight, Clean Up the Environment, and Make $1,000,000.” For my money, this was the most evident strength of Asides—it featured the constancy of your voice and your humor, but it felt diverse and miscellaneous in terms of form. I know you’re viciously strategic in terms of arranging content, so could you say a bit about how you went about arranging these essays?

GS: I’m not being coy about this, but sometimes when I can’t think of anything, I’ll just plain try to write a different form. Blip blip blip, you know, little spasms of occurrence. I’ve done this in fiction, of course. The story about how to make a million dollars in writing is so passé now: Buying stamps to send out stories! I miss those days. I think you’re right about vignettes and character sketches. In fiction, I don’t think these are good things. Like, what’s the freaking plot? What’s the conflict/resolution? In fiction, I try to write, here’s what is going on, and here’s how things changed. In my personal essays, I might be stuck too many times with here’s and what’s going on, and what do you think about that?

DL: Spasms of occurrence are key, especially for the Southern writer, who will always be uniquely tempted by the regional trope, the folksy idiom, the dropped g, etc. The fodder of bad country songs and hack novels. The “pickled myths” of the South, as Barry Hannah called them. What’s one iconically Southern image you refuse to put in your work? For me, it’s grits. Grits want in my stories, but I keep them out. Which is weird because I love grits, and many writers I love employ the grit (both concretely and symbolically). What about you? Any weird hang ups with iconic and/or regional objects?

GS: People riding rocking chairs on their front porches, first off. And, for the most part, guns. I don’t think I have any kind of hunting story from my past.

DL: So Asides came out late 2023. The folks I know who’ve read it can’t stop raving about it. Everyone’s got a favorite essay, and after telling you about it, everyone’s got a story about a time they saw you at a reading or a bar or a reading held in a bar. Seems your foray into nonfiction has been a success is what I’m saying. What kind of feedback are you getting on the book?

GS: I ain’t heard much from anyone who’s read Asides. I’m also not one to read reviews anymore, so I don’t know if there are any out there. Amazon reviews? OK. Goodreads?—that seems to be a slasher program.

DL: I thought our mutual friend Stephen Huntley wrote a nice review of it over at The Tupelo Quarterly. He said, “With casual grace, Asides mediates large questions quietly across a fractured narrative of the past.” I think Huntley’s right about that. I think your work in general takes on the “large questions,” a fact I’ve always traced back to your being a Philosophy major. I was just a garden variety English major, but I do have a Kierkegaard quote hanging on my office door. It reads, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” This seems (in part) the project in Asides—that, having “lived forwards” in the South for many years, you’re now going “backwards” to understand (or at least explore) some of the absurdities in your past, yeah?

GS: A Kierkegaard quote above the door is perfect for a writer, if you ask me. It’s all about a leap of faith. Schopenhauer works for me too: “The world is my idea.” Anyone writing fiction is making up his or her own world, I guess. As for Asides, I think you’re correct. For a long time, I never cared about looking back and seeing what happened in my life. After doing so, it’s as if a weight flew off. But more weight will hunker down, more than likely.

DL: Well thanks for making up the world in Asides. It was a great one to occupy, full of joy and truth in a time when both seemed hard to find. And thanks for talking to me. Always a pleasure.

GS: Thanks for putting up with me, Dan.

Asides is out now and available here.

Dan Leach has published work in The Sun, Copper Nickel and The Massachusetts Review. He is the recipient of Texas Review Press’s Southern Poetry Breakthrough Award, and his collection Stray Latitudes was released in February 2024. He lives in the lowcountry of South Carolina where he teaches creative writing at Charleston Southern University. Read an interview with him here.

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