By Christina Hayes
Christina Hayes: Many of your short stories circumvent stereotypical perceptions of the South. What do you think about the recent phenomena of reality TV shows that seem to both exploit and exaggerate southern stereotypes (Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, Redneck Millionaire)? How do you, as a writer, navigate these stereotypes in your work?
George Singleton: I was writing a whole novel based off the character Uncle Cush from the story, “Operation,” but then I saw some episodes of that show with the crazy uncle, and I realized he was a lot like Uncle Cush. I thought, damn, people are going to think I copied that dude. So I ditched the novel. (For what it’s worth, I wrote A&E last year and said I would never watch that show, nor buy products advertised in the time slot, because of the anti-everything comments from the one cast member.)
I’ve never seen the Honey Boo Boo show, or Redneck Millionaire. I’ve seen the ones about Louisiana swamps, and ax men, and mountain men. Listen, I would be willing to bet that a lot of writing done down here that never gets published in magazines has grandmas spitting snuff while rocking on the front porch, and so on. The South is diverse and complicated, let me tell you. There’s the Old South (“Wouldn’t it be great if we’d won the Civil War?!”) and the New South (“Hey, I can afford to join Augusta National now, seeing as I made all that money in textiles”). Nowadays, there’s the New New South—“I don’t play golf, but I could join Augusta National if I wanted, seeing as I invented a new way to process grits down at my low-country farm, which made me a billion dollars, that all those old codgers buy before embarking on a Civil War re-enactment.”
I try to have what seem to be stereotypical southern characters act in surprising and good-hearted ways, I suppose. Not so much that it’s beyond willful suspension of disbelief. I couldn’t pull off someone using racist terminology suddenly giving away his estate to the United Negro College Fund, I doubt. But I’ll probably try, sooner or later.
As for stereotypes, too—notice how zero of my characters, in any of my books, have used racist terminology. Goddamn. There are enough problems in the country without having characters spout off hurtful epithets twenty times per page.
CH: In Between Wrecks, most of your narrative voices are outsiders or have outsider perspectives within this rural southern culture. Why choose to have outsiders serve as narrators throughout these short stories?
GS: To be honest, I’ve never even considered it, though I guess in a way I consider myself somewhat of an outsider. Although I’ve lived in the South for 48 of my 55 years, I still feel as though I don’t fit in. I’ve never killed a deer. I read books. I don’t chew tobacco. I do like stock car racing, though. I’ve been known to drink bourbon.
Seriously, I guess most stories can be categorized as “a stranger comes to town” or “this character feels uncomfortable within the setting, for various reasons.” I guess I choose the latter, for better or worse.
CH: Your writing is often noted for its ability to find humor in pain, and Between Wrecks is no exception. Are there any particular writers you’d say influenced your interest in the grotesque?
GS: I believe in Samuel Beckett’s notion that there’s nothing funnier than human misery. And that idea goes all the way back to Aristotle: “My life might suck, but at least I didn’t kill my daddy, sleep with my mom, and finally stab my eyeballs out.” Flannery O’Connor said, “Whenever I’m asked why southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” I think somewhere along the line she added that we not only notice them, but we put them up on pedestals.
CH: Do you think readers gain something from your close look at these “freaks?”
GS: I hate to even use the term "freaks." Not that I'm politically correct whatsoever, but everyone is a freak to a certain degree—it’s just difficult sometimes to comprehend the "inner freak" of obsession, et cetera. I think that's what I most likely hone in on with characters, both protagonists and antagonists—that they suffer from irreversible or irreparable obsessions. I'm hopeful that readers will commiserate with my characters' odd flaws.
CH: There's a lot of hidden bourbon in Between Wrecks. Each story has a character recovering a hidden bottle of bourbon from an obscure hiding spot. What’s the deal with all this bourbon? And why do people keep hiding it?
GS: It’s about one member of a relationship knowing what’s best for another member of a relationship, or about one member of a relationship knowing that his better-half’s killing himself unknowingly. Doesn’t everyone play this game? I’ve found my own bourbon in the washing machine, and I know I didn’t put it there.
Photo credit: wofford.edu