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Psychotically Obsessed with Death: Samuel Ligon

Psychotically Obsessed with Death: Samuel LigonSamuel Ligon is the author of a collection of stories, Drift and Swerve (Autumn House, 2009), and a novel, Safe in Heaven Dead (HarperCollins, 2003). His stories have appeared in The Quarterly, Alaska Quarterly Review, StoryQuarterly, Noise: Fiction Inspired by Sonic Youth, Post Road, Keyhole, Gulf Coast, New England Review, and elsewhere. He teaches at Eastern Washington University and is the editor of Willow Springs. Here’s how Sam Coale has described Sam Ligon’s fiction: “It’s a brutal unmasking of any social pretensions whatsoever, a down-and-dirty language that describes sex and violence at its most primal and primitive level. His characters, imprisoned in marginal marriages and marginal lives, eat lots of doughnuts, smoke dope, get drunk, bicker and whine and reveal their self-destructive, self-doubt-ridden selves that always seem on the verge of total collapse.”

Michael Kimball: I read a story of yours called “Blueboy” back in 1988 that has always stuck with me and it was the first thing that I looked for when I opened Drift and Swerve, but you didn’t include it in the collection. So tell me: Why didn’t you include that story and/or what was the selection process for the stories that you chose to include?

Samuel Ligon: I’m shocked that you read that story, but it’s certainly nice to hear. That was my first published story, and I did look at it when considering the stories that would make up Drift and Swerve, but it was hard for me to recognize it as my own. The syntax felt off, or the rhythm felt wrong, when up against the other stories. And I’d written it so long ago that even the language felt like someone else’s. I still feel an attachment to that story because it was my first publication, and because, when it came out, my mother called on the phone and told me she thought I should seek counseling, because the story suggested that I was probably “psychotically obsessed with death,” a phrase I still like to repeat. And while I think the story could have fit thematically, with this sort of alienated protagonist on the move, embroiled in relationship problems, it didn’t seem to mesh with the other work. With the exception of explicitly linked collections, like Jesus’ Son or The Things They Carried, it can be hard to pinpoint unifying elements in a collection. Too many collections, it seems to me, just feel like assembled stories. And I didn’t want that. So it was a matter of feeling or intuiting which stories belonged together, based, I think, on tone and sound and gravity and “thematic” elements, too, which, in the case of Drift and Swerve, had to do with a kind of actual movement. Not all the stories in the collection have characters moving, but most of them do, and they also tend to examine characters in places where they don’t quite belong.

Kimball: So tell me, what has changed about your syntax and your language over the years?

Ligon: I hope my prose today is leaner, harder, with less fat in it. That story “Blueboy” starts with a list and continues to use lists throughout its first section, and while I like lists, the rhythm of these particular lists just feels off to my ear now. The first line reads, “The custodians, the collectors, the caretakers of the dead, they wore gray cotton jumpsuits and hard plastic helmets on their heads.” Okay, that’s all right. I don’t mind the unnecessary pronoun “they,” or the rhyme of “dead” and “heads.” But the second line can’t let go of that “they,” and, worse, is overwritten, a problem that plagues the entire story: “They carried shears and burlap sacks, and they carefully clipped the drying leaves from the trees, one by one, denying the wind its right to blow them away where they would clutter up the sidewalk, only to be swept up by some hunched up old woman who would inevitably elbow you on the bus later.” I cringe at the phrase regarding the wind being denied its rights. I use two adverbs in that sentence, “carefully,” and “inevitably,” which are probably only there for a rhythm that no longer sounds right to my ear. And that’s only the first two sentences. Language is inflated throughout the story, and there’s a kind of snottiness to the voice, too, in places, which would be fine if I were trying to show the snottiness of the narrator, but I don’t think I was aware of that smug tone. Not only do I use another adverb when my narrator describes his boss as an “insufficiently mustached Midwesterner,” but I follow it with a sort of winking pair of clichéd idioms—“who said I’d get my fair shake if I played ball with him”—as if attempting to bring the reader into a superior, smart person’s club in which we would never dare use such hackneyed descriptions. That feels cheap and flat and lazy to me now. There are still elements of that early story that I like, but it just doesn’t feel that closely related to what I’m doing now.

Kimball: I’m going to leave that alone then and go back to something else you mentioned, the thematic of characters moving. Where did that notion come from?

Psychotically Obsessed with Death: Samuel LigonLigon: I had not been aware that so many of my stories contained that blatantly obvious element. Four of the stories are linked by a character named Nikki, and she’s in a different town in every story, moving through a bunch of states on a bus in one. Each of those stories seems to be about her trying to escape. That’s the urgency that drives them. She’s always about to run, or is running. And she’s always fighting something, kicking and stealing and fucking and fighting. She’s got some deep hunger, some deep deficiency in her life. I remember talking with Robert Lopez about those stories, before I showed them to him, and he said, “What does she want?” And I thought, what does she want? She wants money or she wants revenge. She wants to get away from her mother. She wants to get away, period. She wants to escape and she wants to survive. But what does she really want? She wants to be loved, I thought, which seemed like such a trite, idiotic way to think of her. But the more I thought about it, the more true it seemed, even if it felt so bland and huge and obvious and applicable to nearly every lonely character in the world. I’m not sure that made much difference in the end, but what did matter to the stories was her urgency. Her need to move. Her lack of peace, maybe. I don’t know. I started looking at other stories I’d been working on, and noticed how many of them had a similar restlessness, or had actual movement in them. I can’t believe how many cars are in this collection, the characters sort of static or trapped in moving vehicles, in stories like “Orlando,” “Drift and Swerve,” and “Arson,” or trapped in places they don’t quite belong, in stories like “Vandals,” “Germans,” “Dirty Boots,” “Austin,” and “American League.” In other stories, like “Animal Hater” and “Cleavage,” hard transitions drop the characters from place to place to place, creating another kind of urgency. So I finally recognized that movement in all these stories. It seemed to suggest a kind of isolation. And hunger, too—to have some kind of human connection maybe? To find a place to belong? I don’t know. And though it didn’t occur to me until I thought about your question, it probably has to do with my own experience, moving from place to place to place all my life, never being from anywhere.

Kimball: Another element that runs through the collection is violence. One story that stands out for me in terms of violence is “Germans” and it seems as if it is Henry’s lack of understanding that drives the violence. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Ligon: That’s interesting—as if the violence is coming out of some hole or absence. In “Germans,” Henry seems to become aware of the horror of the Nazis’ violence, or seems to identify with it somehow, almost to embrace it, or maybe just to hold onto it as he recognizes it, because of that isolation I was talking about earlier. When I was growing up in the late 60s and early 70s, Vietnam was going on, and we were bombarded by images of that war. But the war we were obsessed with, as boys, was World War II—the Germans against the Americans, which was how we divided ourselves when we played at war. It’s stunning to me now, that though that war in Europe, with all its atrocities, seemed incredibly distant to us, we were only twenty to twenty-five years removed from it. There was a weekly documentary show on TV called The World at War, that was a sort of war porn show, like the Nazi networks on cable now. Every boy I knew watched it, all these eight year olds greedily acquiring the vocabulary—Stalingrad and Auschwitz and Rommel and Goering and Blitzkrieg and Battle of the Bulge and Battle of Britain. Like these weird touchstones. When I was a freshman in college, in spring of 1982, I got pneumonia, was sicker than I’ve ever been in my life, and right before I knew I was sick, before the fever spiked, I was watching a documentary about Vietnam at my parent’s house on the last day of spring break. For the first time in my life, I was struck by the horror of that war, or any war. The maiming, killing brutality of it felt real for a second. Like it wasn’t just TV. Like I’d gotten the slightest glimpse of it as a real phenomenon. I was eighteen years old and started crying—just bawling. Out of control. My mother came into the room and asked me what was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate it. Somehow, for a brief moment, all the desensitization of my childhood consumption of war images and information fell away. Looking back on that, I think I felt complicit somehow in all that brutality. That was the feeling I wanted to give that little boy, Henry at the end of “Germans.” He’s just a kid, new in town, and he’s trying to find a way to belong in this new place. But he always has to be the Germans. His father won’t brag to Henry’s friends about his experiences in World War II, which seems like a betrayal. So, yeah, you’re right, he identifies with the Nazis out of a lack of understanding of the real horror of what they did, but also from another absence, I think—this hunger to belong. If they’re going to make him be the Germans, he’ll be the Germans. He’ll be the Nazis. But I think something happens to him at the end, some kind of realization of the horror of what the Nazis did and his sense of complicity in it, but also a feeling of the real isolation of being alive and sort of forever alone.

Kimball: That’s an amazing answer, so let’s try another violent story. I’m thinking of the lack of Hugh’s awareness in “Vandals” and how that makes the violence all the more menacing. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Ligon: Maybe Hugh in “Vandals” feels something similar to Henry, in terms of his isolation and hunger to belong. Hugh and his wife have left the suburbs and moved out beyond the exurbs to a house in the country. Kids vandalize his mailbox, egg his door, and for some reason he can’t leave it alone. He’s kind of like a kid in that way, playing war, building a kind of fort, acquiring weapons. What he wants most of all, probably, is to be left alone, as if he belongs in that place. But he makes the problem so much worse by not ignoring it, by sort of desperately trying to engage the “vandals” on their own terms. So he gets lost in that game and ends up killing them. He doesn’t necessarily mean to, but there seems to be an inertia at work—as if, once he’s decided to engage them on their terms, the only way it can play out is through violence. That’s the only language or means of engagement available to him. So he’s unaware of what he’s unleashing, of the likely consequences, but also just incompetent as a human, unable to transcend his idiotic need for retribution or his need to feel like he belongs.

Kimball: I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring this interview around, make it feel like a complete thing, so here’s what I have: We started with your first published story, “Blueboy,” and how your writing has changed since then. What I’m wondering about is how your writing will change after Drift and Swerve. What will change next in terms of your syntax and language?

Ligon: I’m in the middle of a multiple first-person novel right now, working with twenty or so characters, so the next thing will definitely not involve trying to weave that many different voices. I’m too close to that project to think much about how it’s working, but I’d like to try to get out of the way of the next thing I write. I reread Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life a couple years ago and was struck by how clean the prose was. I kept forgetting Wolff the writer was there at all, which was fascinating to me since the book is a memoir, about Wolff the boy. But that prose felt so clean and transparent. And maybe it’s because I’m working in the first person now that makes me want to write something with less emphasis on voice. Or maybe that’s the wrong way to think of it. I can’t remember who made the comment about prose being like a window, or exactly what was said, but I like that idea of making it invisible or unnoticeable, not smearing it up with anything that calls attention to itself. The reader needs to slip into a dream-like state through the writing, and it seems like clean, transparent prose can help facilitate that. I’m not sure how my use of syntax and language will change in the future, but I do know that I’d like to get out of the way of the writing as much as I can; I want to get rid of all my grubby fingerprints.

Michael Kimball’s novel, DEAR EVERYBODY, is out in the US, UK, and Canada ( The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are THE WAY THE FAMILY GOT AWAY (2000) and HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS (2005). His three novels have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Prairie Schooner, Post Road, Open City, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and two documentary films, I WILL SMASH YOU (2009) and 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES (2010).

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