Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Interview with Sam Ligon, author of SAFE IN HEAVEN DEAD and DRIFT AND SWERVE

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.

Diana Joseph: You've published a novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and a collection of short stories, Drift and Swerve. How do you decide when material should be one form over the other? What do you see as the challenges of each?

Sam Ligon
: Stories, of course, are more compressed than novels, and in Drift and Swerve, there’s a kind of urgency to the stories, though I don’t think that’s in any way necessary to the form. There are plenty of stories that are much more patient than the kind I included in Drift and Swerve. I think of the work of Alice Munroe or William Trevor. I’m almost done with my second novel now, and one thing I’m aware of is allowing for a kind of sideways movement in the narrative that I would tend not to allow in a story, creating greater breadth or context. So maybe I’m more patient with the novel, wanting to explore the stories and characters with those sideways movements, though there still has to be narrative drive. But in Drift and Swerve, all of the stories had something pushing hard behind them, and because the form is short, I was much more conscious of absence or negative space in the stories—what isn’t said or revealed that becomes apparent by its absence as a kind of shadow. Most of them also have a narrow scope of time—ten hours in a character’s life, three hours, twenty hours, five minutes. One of the difficulties of a novel for me is that the story has to open and then close somehow. Stories seem to move to a kind of opening, and can often end with that opening. But novels seem to need to close too. With a story, I’m concerned with eliminating everything that doesn’t belong to the particular movement I’m examining. And while that’s true of a novel too, while concision always matters, I’m not as obsessive in the longer form about stripping the piece down to its crucial elements. I allow myself more room to move sideways.

Joseph: What do you see as the important themes in Drift and Swerve? How did you decide these stories work together as a collection?

Ligon: The main themes probably have to do with alienation and connection, people trying and failing and sometimes succeeding in meeting each other somehow, recognizing each other, connecting a little bit or failing to connect. And as I said above, all the stories have a kind of urgency behind them, the characters moving away or toward something or each other. And, as is true of all fiction, I think, and life, all the characters are damaged, some more than others. So one question for me becomes what they’re going to do with their damage, how they’re going to use it and be limited by it, and how much of it they’ll even be aware of, which probably won’t be much. I think of a bunch of blind people bumping around trying to find each other, sometimes succeeding, sometimes not, usually misreading each other. Most of the stories are also interested in relationships between men and women. I have a thirteen year old daughter and a ten year old son, both of whom now expect my pat response when they ask what a movie or a book is about: “It’s about people,” I tell them. Unless, of course it’s about car crashes or explosions, or chases, in which case I say that. But all stories that aren’t about explosions or crashes seem to be examining what it means to be human, and the stories in Drift and Swerve tend to attempt that through highlighting the cracks between people, the movements toward fracture and connection.

Joseph: Four of stories in the collection--"Providence"; "Dirty Boots"; "Austin"; and "Orlando"--focus on Nikki, a teenage girl who's tough and wild but also vulnerable. Where did she come from?

Ligon: I was working on a story for an anthology called Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, the assignment for which was to use a Sonic Youth song title as the title for a story. I chose “Dirty Boots,” from Goo, and tried to write a story that somehow reflected something of Sonic Youth’s sound or feeling. The first story I wrote became “Providence,” but it was too long for the collection, so I wrote another one with the same character, Nikki, because she had come alive for me on the page and I was interested to see where she might take me. The second one became “Orlando,” and it was again too long. I wrote a third one, which was the right length for the anthology, and at that point, I thought I might write a whole collection of linked “Nikki” stories. But when I wrote the next one, “Austin,” the movement seemed complete. Those four stories were the last stories I wrote, and when I finished them I started to see how they fit with other stories I’d been working on, suggesting the shape for the collection. I don’t really know where Nikki came from—some feeling from Sonic Youth—but once I finished Drift and Swerve, I went back to a novel I’d put away, cut almost all of it, and reanimated it with Nikki, though she’s twelve years older in the novel than in the stories. I’m almost done with that book now. Writing the Nikki stories allowed me to rethink and rewrite it.

Joseph: Is there a story in Drift and Swerve that was particularly difficult to write--either because of its form or its content?

Ligon: One of the Nikki stories, “Austin,” seemed particularly difficult for me, I think because it has so much and varied violence in it. I was worried about overwriting it. I did overwrite it. And then I just kept adding to it, couldn’t see the shape it needed to be. I finally cut it nearly in half and found what felt like the right ending. The violence was a problem because I didn’t want it to be cheap or titillating. The story was also hard because it ended that four-story movement of Nikki pieces, so, in a way, I felt like it had to be bigger. But then I ended up really closing that movement with “Orlando,” which is earlier in time, and that discovery helped me cut and shape “Austin.”

Joseph: Which story is your favorite and why?

Ligon: The Nikki stories are my favorites, and if I had to pick one it would probably be the first one I wrote and the first one in the book, “Providence.” It was a fun story to write, with all the sex and drugs and music, and I was just discovering Nikki, maybe sort of fascinated by her toughness, her resilience, and what she would do to get what she wanted. And I like the way the prose works in that story—in all the Nikki stories—the long lines and paragraphs threatening to implode.

Joseph: Describe your revision process.

Ligon: I never finish a story when I first think it’s finished. It usually takes me about six months after I first thought I’d finished it to be able to see it again, and then to reanimate it and really revise it. So much of the revision I do before that point is on the line level, working the surface, and if I keep doing that, the story is pretty much dead because I’m not seeing it or feeling it beyond the lines. Sometimes I can’t finish a story for five years. I’ll think it’s done, or think I can’t do anything else with it. Usually, if something in it continues to hold my interest, if I keep rewriting it, there’s probably something there worth finishing. But sometimes I just can’t find it for a couple years. Like most writers I know, I spend a lot of time on revision.

Joseph: What literary tradition do you see your work fitting into?

Ligon: Realism seems to be a bad word today, but that’s probably closest to what I write—whatever the term even means. I guess what it means to me is that the stories usually follow the same physical laws as the “actual” world. Like most writers, I’m interested in trying to reveal something essential in characters, trying to use dramatic action as a means to reveal them in depth and complexity.

Joseph: In addition to writing, you teach in the MFA program at Eastern Washington University. How do you balance teaching and writing?

Ligon: I love teaching, and while it certainly takes time and energy, it compliments my writing life well. I feel lucky to have a job that’s concerned entirely with reading and writing, and that gives me time off every year to do nothing but write. Sometimes I get too busy during a term to write, but I can usually balance my writing and teaching life by working early in the morning. And my students are great, so often surprising me with their work and their observations.

Joseph: You also edit the literary magazine Willow Springs. What advice you do have for writers who are just beginning to send out their work?

Ligon: The most important thing to remember about the acquisition process is that it’s entirely subjective. What I don’t like, someone else might. We often pass on stories that are strong but just don’t quite do it for us, and we’ll later see them published in another journal, which is great. It’s always good to get a feeling for a magazine’s aesthetic before sending them work, but I also try to keep the aesthetic at Willow Springs as open as I can. I want to publish a variety of voices and approaches to story. So just because we haven’t published a story like story x before, doesn’t mean we won’t. I also think it’s important to try to keep the business side of writing separate from the artistic side. The rejections pile up and you get sick of them and that never seems to improve. The rejections are just a fact of the writing life. Willow Springs publishes about one story per thousand submissions. The odds are better for nonfiction and worse for poetry. Tin House and McSweeney’s are even longer shots, I’m sure. I think you just have to keep plugging away, submitting to a variety of journals, and writing and writing and writing.

Joseph: What are you working on next?

Ligon: I’m just about done with the novel I mentioned above. Nikki’s one of the protagonists, and then I think I’ll be done with her. That will be a weird feeling, since I’ve been living with her for three years. Then I’ll have to start all over again. That’s the other thing I like about working on a novel—knowing what you’re going to be working on every morning for all those mornings, living in that world with the characters for years.

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