Scott Gould’s first collection of stories, Strangers to Temptation (Hub City Press, 2016), rapturously captures the confusing swirl of adolescence in the early 1970s. Set in lowcountry South Carolina, where the Black River offers both sanctuary and menace, these linked stories explore the curious topographies and shifting terrains of the end of boyhood. From a coconut-flavored first kiss with an older girl to a first job turning off the pumps at the local Esso station, the narrator recalls uncomfortably passing through some of the rites attending the entry to adulthood. He pushes the boundaries, both of a town bisected by train tracks which serve as a barrier between the white and black neighborhoods, and of a culture that’s struggling to make sense of desegregation and a changing America. And he recalls, without rose-tinted nostalgia, a time when he was “still young enough or stupid enough to get out of this place, or to think that something big might happen nearby to make staying here a little more worthwhile.”
ROSS WHITE: I’ve seen Strangers to Temptation described as a “collection of coming of age stories.” But one thing about coming of age stories is that they so often have a tentative acceptance and ultimately embrace of adulthood, while the speaker in Strangers to Temptation seems to emerge from the book without having made that embrace. What’s your take on the role of innocence in the book, and what role does innocence play in the writing process?
SCOTT GOULD: Well, one thing that innocence does is that it gives you a place to create a conflict. If somebody’s innocent, that automatically gives you an open door to have something happen to that character. Charles Baxter says that to create conflict, you just put somebody in a place where he or she doesn’t belong.
And if you put an innocent character inside a situation where people aren’t innocent, that creates a story. So I think that’s one thing that happens, you get a character who’s in a place where he or she doesn’t belong. Not geographically, necessarily, but emotionally. When you’re at that age where you’re coming of age, you’re in a place where you don’t know what’s going on. It’s probably innocence mixed with a great big dose of confusion.
RW: It’s interesting that you mention Baxter because one of the things I thought about a lot was rhyming action or an event or situation that reflects something the reader has seen previously. There are beautiful echoes both within and across stories, and the first and final stories create a bracket for the book. How conscious were you of rhyming action within the individual stories, and how conscious were you as the stories were coming together as a book?
SG: The bracket, the bridge scenes within the first and last stories, that was very conscious. I was thinking, and I’m stealing this from somebody, I think it was George Singleton, “When you end something, kiss the beginning.” When you want to bring something to a close, you go back and kiss the beginning. So you could call it bracketing, but it’s an echo of the beginning. That gives it a nice sense that things have ended, a nice sense of… I guess you could throw gestalt in there. A sense that all the pieces fit together to make a whole.
For the stories inside, I wanted to constantly remind the reader of where we were in time and where we were in place and where these characters were in their own lives. I kept wanting the river to be an echo in there, and I kept wanting some of the more thematic things to be an echo—race, discovering sexuality, things like that. It’s not anything more complicated than constantly reminding the reader where you are, that you’re still in this place, with these characters, and these characters are still going through this part of their lives.
So I was kind of conscious of echo, but some of these stories were written quite a few years apart. In some cases, I had to go in and tweak a little bit of the voice and a little bit of those echoes to fit. I got a review— and I know that you shouldn’t go read your reviews on Amazon, but people who say they don’t are lying— anyway, I had somebody kinda slamming me, saying, “There’s too much repetition. It feels like an editor should have gone in and taken out all this repetition in the book.” But I wanted the repetition. So, what are you gonna do?
RW: Though it’s a linked collection of stories, each of these stories holds up individually. There are times when a bit of information may be repeated across stories, but one of the things I most respected about these stories is that each creates the whole of the world that the reader needs to feel satisfied and be deeply located in a sense of place. In some ways, it’s not just the common narrator that links these stories, but the geography, which almost becomes a character unto itself.
SG: Setting should be as much of a character in the story as the living, breathing characters. It should act upon the characters, it should be a tool by which the characters come to know things. And by setting, I mean the weather, and the river, and the smells— engaging all of the senses that setting can bring about.
If you’re writing a novel, and let’s say, you want the father in the story to have a bad stomach, you set that early, and you don’t need to remind the reader about that. But you don’t know how readers will proceed through a collection of stories. I don’t necessarily think that everybody’s going to read from beginning to end. I wish they would, but I felt like, if someone just flips through— you know how humans are, “I’ll just read the shortest one first to see if I like it”— if they’re reading the short one and I mention the father, I have to have some reference to the stomach issue that he’s having because that’s important to that particular story. I went back and forth about whether to operate on the assumption that people would read directly through from story one to story thirteen. What do you think? Do you think people read straight through, or skip around?
RW: The editor part of my brain has trained me to always read straight through, even though I know others skip around. I always assume that with collections of stories or poems that there’s an intentionality to each individual piece, but then there’s a second intentionality to the order in which they’re presented. Otherwise, they would have just been published in journals and the author would have said, “All right, goodbye, I’ve done everything I ever needed to do with that story.” But I don’t think that’s the typical approach.
SG: If anything, I wanted a Chinese water torture effect, a drip-drip-drip, a constant reminder of the river and the town in the way these people talk to each other, so that whether you read the collection front to back or skip around, you’ll still have an overwhelming sense of that place and time.
RW: Let’s talk about that place and time. It’s clearly not a place that bewilders the narrator of these stories, or at least, he doesn’t think he’s bewildered by where he is, but he is bewildered by the time. The 1970’s definitely have him on the defensive. But while I don’t think that’s always clear to the narrator, it’s definitely clear to us as readers that this is a highly organized place. There are very clear divisions in the geography and in the social strata.
SG: That’s the way I remember it, quite honestly, and like the narrator, I didn’t know it at the time. One of the oldest stories in the book is called “Bases,” which has a very visible division between the white part of town and the black part of town with the railroad tracks, and it’s got that one black character that keeps stepping over that track. The narrator has a dream where he’s come even further. When we were growing up, the tracks were just this place where you could throw dirt into a caboose every once in a while. We didn’t feel that sense of encroachment. It was only later that I saw how that was the borderline, and most people weren’t crossing that borderline.
There’s a story where the narrator and a black friend sneak to a football game, and the black character has to stay back. He escapes to the shadows when the boys are confronted by some other characters, so there’s even a little division there. He’s not going to come out of those shadows. He’s not ready for that quite yet.
It wasn’t fun for the people who lived through it, but it was fun to look back on that period and say, “God, that’s what was going on back then?” I think that’s important for good nostalgic storytelling. This is a time, 40-something years ago, and it’s interesting to me that I’ve had a lot of younger readers tell me that they like the collection. Like seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty-year-old people. I would never have thought they they would say, “This is pretty cool to look back on.” But they’ve said that, so maybe there’s something that inherently goes beyond time when you start thinking about divisions among people and classes. Maybe that’s not such a nostalgic idea after all.
RW: Along with divisions and class, this book looks quite a bit at race. “Bases” is one of my favorite stories in the collection, because so much is happening when that young man steps across the tracks defiantly. That defiance is really imprinted on the narrator who carries that defiance around and isn’t quite sure why he continues to think about it so much. As somebody who grew up in the South not long after desegregation, I was really struck by the deftness with which you handled race. There was so much that we could pick up on as kids that the adults in our lives were never going to say to us. It was never going to be openly discussed, it was never going to be openly transmitted to us, but there were all these messages about race just flying at us, and we were left to figure it out on our own how we felt.
SG: To me, that confusion is part of what this older narrator, looking back, is trying to sift through. I didn’t want to get into deep examination of race by that older narrator, I just wanted him to say, “Wow, that was confusing. What was going on?” We didn’t know. For better or for worse, that’s how it was. That’s how I remember it. I remember being told, “School is going to change. You’re going to have black people and white people going to the same school. Have a good day when you get there.” Maybe it should’ve been handled better, but I’m not sure anybody knew how to handle it correctly. It was an interesting time, and for a storyteller, it’s a great time to look back at. If I ever go back to that creative well called Kingstree, I’ll examine it in a contemporary setting, because that place still has problems with divisions. It’d be interesting to look at it now with a narrator saying, “I don’t know if we’ve come that far, to be honest.”
RW: I think, in many areas of the South, for the first time in decades, we’ve begun talking again, explicitly, about race. We didn’t for a long time.
SG: That’s the only way anything will get better; we’ve got to talk about it in realistic terms. I don’t know what that vocabulary will entail but we have to develop it somehow. This book wasn’t saying, “I’m going to examine race right at the point of desegregation.” I’m not that smart. I’m just telling a story about a kid who’s trying to make his way through one of the last hurdles of adolescence. There are lot of tracers coming at you from the woods when you’re that age, for males and females. The things you learn in school, the things you learn behind school, the things you learn from older people. I think that happens to everyone, so there’s something relatable there.
RW: The stories are told from an adult perspective, looking back on adolescence. And when I’ve heard you talk about these stories, you really stress that adult perspective, but my experience of these stories was so much closer to the adolescent than to the adult. Occasionally, there would be very brief flashes of adult insight, but for the most part, the adult intellect stays out of the story. How did you strike that balance?
SG: I didn’t want that retrospective narrator commenting too much on the action of the stories, but I wanted that vocabulary. Look at who’s narrating those expository parts— it’s too high-level for a kid. I meant to do that in the first story, in the first line of the first story. There’s a vocabulary level there so that you know the narrator is mature. You find out soon enough that you’re not dealing with a precocious child narrator, as in Padgett Powell’s Edisto. This is your basic, normal, everyday kid. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to comment too much on the action that was going on, just let the story carry it. I don’t know that there’s any trick to it. I remember taking out some paragraphs where the guy would go, “Thinking back on it, I see that….” I thought that would upset the flow of things.
RW: The book’s been out for a couple of weeks. What’s been the most surprising thing that somebody has seen in these stories that you maybe didn’t expect to be seen?
SG: There’s one thing I never thought of… in an interview, someone said to me, “There’s so much loss in these stories. There’s emotional loss, physical loss. Someone loses an eye or their hearing. Someone loses a part of a stomach. There’s a theme of loss.” I’d never seen that before. I’d never connected those dots. I tell my students all the time, “People are going to see things that you never imagined. It’s OK to say, ‘You’re making me smarter than I am.’” But I hadn’t seen that there was so much loss in these stories. To me, that just added another wrinkle of complexity. I had never thought about it, then he said it, and and suddenly, it was like, “There it is. It’s freakin’ everywhere.” Almost too much. It’s almost like too much southern gothic— people losing body parts and stuff. But it’s there. Of course that makes me think, in some sort of Freudian or Jungian sense, was I really writing about loss and didn’t know it? What have I lost? What am I trying to regain by writing about all this loss? That usually makes me go drink.
RW: One recurrent theme I noticed is how often this narrator is caught looking. Any time he’s watching, someone sees him. Every time he becomes aware that he is seeing, somebody looks at him, and he usually has to run away— either physically or metaphorically, he has to beat a hasty retreat. As soon as he has a revelation, someone calls him out on it. Can you talk about his role as an observer?
SG: Spying is something that everyone loves to do, even if they won’t admit it. When you’re walking the dog down the street just after dark, and there are lights on in a house, you’re going to look in the house, you’re going to see if you can spot somebody. Or when you were a kid, did you have a hiding place where you could watch people in the living room? What is it about spying?
I don’t know why I clicked with that time period, but I know why I clicked with that place. Every writer has that one place where he or she constantly returns. That’s the comfort zone. That’s the place you know well enough to lie about. Kingstree’s that place for me.