George Singleton is the author of two novels, a book of advice for writers, and eight short story collections, including 2019’s Staff Picks. Singleton teaches at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His story, “I Know About Child Proofing” appears in Issue 49.
EVAN FACKLER: “I Know About Child Proofing” takes place in the South, as do many of your stories. What’s your connection to the region, and why is it so often the setting of your stories?
GEORGE SINGLETON: I’d say for about the first eight years of my writing “career,” I chose locations outside the South. For some reason I had it in my head that a setting needed to be a little more exotic. Understand that I’d not read Flannery O’Connor yet, or Faulkner, Barry Hannah, Lewis Nordan, et al. In a way, Fred Chappell’s The Gaudy Place started my understanding of how small places can provide heavy, heady situations for characters. I lived in Greenwood, SC from ages 7 to 18, Greenville, SC from 18 to 23, back to Greenwood for a short spell, Greensboro from 26-28, Florence, SC from 28-33, Dacusville (Pickens County), SC for the next twenty-two years, and now Spartanburg, SC. Somewhere in between, notice, I lived in Washington, DC for about nine months. More than a few of my friends and professors said to me something along the lines of “Man, you idiot, why are you writing about Nice, France and D.C. when you’re from cotton mill, culture?I guess I’m a slow learner, but I finally got back to my people and place of training.
FACKLER: That’s interesting. I’m reminded of something the writer Michael Parker said once about how he never set a story in Greensboro, even though that’s where he lived most of his life. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, “I never felt I could capture the place.” That said, Michael’s written plenty about the South and North Carolina. But then he also recently wrote a novel set in the prairie states that is incredibly evocative and tonally exactly right… I guess I’m wondering if you find that you need to feel a—oh god—spiritual connection to the settings you write about? Have there been places you’ve wanted to write about but found you couldn’t?
SINGLETON: “Spiritual” is my middle name…not. Michael Parker’s lying. Liar! He might not’ve written about Greensboro, but he’s written stories and novels centered right around his home stomping grounds of Clinton, N.C. As for me, yeah, I guess I just feel more comfortable knowing the country stores, the recycling centers, the gas stations. I make up town names—Forty-Five, Gruel, Starkburg, Calloustown, et cetera—but all of them, in my mind, are a conglomeration of real places like Abbeville, Ninety-Six, Pauline, Buffalo (SC), Greenwood, Hodges, et al. Michael was able to pull off Prairie Fever because he’s such a great writer. I think that pulling off Greensboro correctly would be difficult. Too complex.
FACKLER: The South that you describe is very often white and conservative. A typical antagonist might, for instance, have his own curated white supremacist library, as Carnell Henderson does in “Flag Day.” Someone is usually flying the Stars and Bars. There are a lot of automatic weapons. Your protagonists on the other hand, tend to be liberal every-men and -women at odds with this diffuse Southern white culture. Renfro in “I Know About Child Proofing,” for instance, has a degree in Poverty Studies and speaks colloquially yet learnedly. “Lydia is from the Greek,” he informs us early on. Staff, from the opening story to your recent collection Staff Picks, is an archival librarian as likely to talk about cybernetics as the fact that her mother named her after a dinner plate. Educated but of the people, in other words. Is this a reflection of a larger social struggle you see playing out in the contemporary South? If so, it’s interesting that your characters seem, for the most part, to be isolated actors at war within this sort of hopelessly backward place.
SINGLETON: Daggum it, Evan, you caught me. Ha! I think you’re right, though there’s a lot of black-and-white friendships going on in, especially, The Half-Mammals of Dixie and Why Dogs Chase Cars. Oddly—going back to question number one—I grew up probably more comfortable in some of my black friends’ houses than my white friends’ homes. I was on something called the Bi-racial Committee from seventh through twelfth grades in Greenwood, spawned from a testy integration in 1970. This committee (like all weird high school associations, I guess) was formed so we, the students, could feel like we “made a difference.” I don’t know. I’ve mentioned the black members by name in a few stories—people who made a big difference in the way I viewed the world. Okay, so I got off-track. As to the “educated, but of the people,” notion, yes. I mean, I guess I’m formally educated to a certain extent, but when I think back on it, I probably learned more from my dad’s shadetree mechanic, Mr. Bratcher, than I did from my chemistry teacher. And I may have learned more from the cafeteria women in college than I did from, say—and nothing against the guy—my biology professor. All of this is to say, conflict’s necessary in short stories and novels, and boy oh boy there sure can be some conflict between a character who thinks he knows more than anyone else, and a character who is looked down upon for his lack of education—though he or she knows a lot. Back in the old days there used to be some Old South v. New South conflicts, Agrarians v., perhaps, Cotton Mill Owners and Other Industrialists. Nowadays, I believe, we’re in the Old South v. New South v. New New South era. I still got my farmers here in Spartanburg County, and a shrinking group of cotton mill industrialists, and then an expanding wake of techno-job people, who might hail from Germany/France/Britain/West Coast, and so on. More conflict for me!
FACKLER: I relate to this absolutely, although I think I’m from that over-educated-under-paid subset of the population Trader Joe’s caters to (well, maybe not “under-paid,” since all I do is try to write stories, and that’s almost as obscene as whatever Jeff Bezos does.) In any case, my grandpa has taken to reminding me of the ingenuity and brilliance of folks who don’t lug around multiple degrees and a wheelbarrow of college debt whenever I visit. But I grew up working the family farms and meeting the old guys in the sheep business in Ohio (none of who had degrees, often not even high school diplomas, or even all their fingers). And yeah, from them I learned as much if not more than I ever managed to glean from Derrida.
SINGLETON: There’s a joke in there somewhere about “what I learned from a sheep farmer.” I’ll hold back. Listen, I tell all of my students that they’ll become better writers—or writers, for that matter—if and only if they go out and get blue collar jobs, or at least take public transportation and listen to what goes on around them. When I was at UNC-G there was this really nice, young man who wrote poetry. He might’ve been too young to be in grad school. His only job happened to be working the library desk at his undergrad institution. Halfway through the second semester he said, “Well, I’m out of ideas.” My buddy Tim Sandlin, said to the guy, “You need to go to Alaska and get a job, or something.” The poet did as advised. He got a summer job, working a man camp, or something. He returned to Greensboro about a month earlier than planned, with a huge shiner for a left eye. He said, “I got something to write about now.”
FACKLER: The dialogue and comic pacing in “I Know About Child Proofing” is impeccable, but there’s also a lot of warmth for the characters even as they encounter or sort of half-acknowledge their own personal limitations. How do you manage this effect? Did you ever find yourself wanting to take the narrative too far? Either allow Renfro too much leniency for his views, or too little—to kind of crucify him? Where do you find that balance?
SINGLETON: Although I might not practice this so well in real-life, “self-deprecation” might be one of the major ingredients in the Tragi-Comic Pie that I usually try to bake. And I’m forever going too far. Way way way way way too far. Re-writes quell some of that problem. Editors help with the rest. It’s that old Faulkner dictum about killing all your darlings. It’s taken a bunch of decades, but I’m getting better at it, I think. I kill about 80 or 90%…
FACKLER: But I think something that is on display in “I Know About Child Proofing” is an awareness that the absurd works best when it opens into spaces that are startlingly human. There’s this moment when the narrator notices how “Di” (as in Princess Di) is contained within Lydia’s name, for instance, that struck me as the sort of realization that comes with searching for meaning in places where it doesn’t necessarily reside—which I think we do when things matter a great deal to us, but in ways we don’t fully understand or can’t fully express.
SINGLETON: That’s when pure luck shows up. One time I wrote a story about a guy with the last name Noyes—like the weird utopian, John Humphrey Noyes. His teacher keeps pronouncing the kids name “No-Yes.” Then, out of nowhere, I had the kid’s mother give him one of those Magic 8 balls for Christmas. He kept asking it questions, shaking the ball (I don’t know if these little toy/novelty gifts still exist, so I might be dating myself here), and having it answer either “No” or “Yes.” And that’s when this character—as a kid—understood, rightly or not, that his life had meaning on this planet. It happens to Renfro more than a few times—and sometimes, I imagine, in a way that makes him wonder if he shouldn’t be on this planet.
FACKLER: Speaking of Renfro: Renfro is a sort of recurring name in some of your recent stories. There’s at least one Renfro in your latest collection, Staff Picks. Are these Renfros of a type or grown in the same Petri dish? Is the Renfro archetype based on a particular person?
SINGLETON: Damn. Really? I’m serious. I hadn’t thought about it. I think what happens is this: I get stuck on a name, and I write a ton, and I forget. I like the name Renfro. No archetype that I can think about. Sometimes I’ll have a failed novel and chisel out some stories, some of which show up in one collection, some the next. But this ain’t the case here—I sat down to write a regular old longish epistolary. Basically, once I finish a story, it’s dead meat to me. I go on to the next story. Unfortunately, I forget about the characters’ names. One time I did a reading in Oxford, MS that was before a live audience, but also aired on, I guess, Mississippi Public Radio or whatever it’s called. I signed books afterwards. A man came through the door and said, “Hey, I’m late. I was listening to you on the radio. Where are you from?” I told him. He said, “I thought so—I’m from Clinton, South Carolina, and all those names sounded familiar.” It’s not like I was using, intentionally, real names of real people. But a story set in the Piedmont of South Carolina in, say, the 1970s, ain’t going to sound correct if I have a bunch of other-names. Hell, there might’ve been only about two-dozen last names in the Greenwood, South Carolina telephone directory when I grew up. I bet Renfro was one of them, first or last name. Or Renfro Renfro.
FACKLER: As you said above, “I Know About Child Proofing” is written in epistolary form. It’s also sort of confessional. What about this form appealed to you in telling this story? And can I ask, is Renfro writing this letter pen on paper, or is it an email?
SINGLETON: I wrote the epistolary because I’d not written a slew of them, and I wanted to give myself a project. This happens once or twice a year for me—I’ll do an epistolary, or a second-person story. I imagine that I’m just bored with myself. As for “I Know About Child Proofing,” what appealed to me was the slightly stream-of-consciousness chunks I could write, the flashbacks, and so on. In my mind, Renfro’s typing it all out, then sending it via snail mail. Hell, I’m so old, it never even occurred to me about email.
FACKLER: The line, “I know about child proofing,” is such a resonant line in the story—it speaks both to how the narrator, Renfro, is packaging (or failing to package) his story, as well as to Renfro and Lydia’s situation vis-a-vis her parents. Did you know ahead of time that this would be the title of the story? Were there other titles you tried or used during the drafting?
SINGLETON: “I Would’ve Named You Lydia, Jr.” That was the title for the longest time. Something about that comma and end-period bugged me, though. It sounded like someone talking to a person named Junior. “I would’ve named you Lydia, Junior…”
FACKLER: A few weeks ago, Terry Kennedy asked poet Matt Valades and me to carry several boxes of your manuscripts to the UNCG archives. I think they contained some unpublished novels. It’s right around thesis time here and it did cross my mind that I was carrying five or six ready-to-go theses I might be able to hawk on the street. It represented a lot of work, those two boxes. From what I understand, you’re a pretty disciplined writer. What’s your routine?
SINGLETON: If you want to fail miserably, Evan, yes, hand in one of those handwritten novels. (Actually, I think one of them was published.) But that’s a funny sight: A person with instructions to take some boxes to the library, veering toward his or her car, opening the trunk…What if they’d been unpublished manuscripts by John Cheever, or Thomas Pynchon, or Eudora Welty? “Hey, has anyone seen Evan in the last few days?” “Last I heard, he said something about eBay, or Christie’s Auction House…” Twenty years later: “Man, how did Evan afford to live here in this great beach house on the Outer Banks? He never even finished the MFA, right?”
I used to be more disciplined, probably. I don’t feel it as much anymore. There for a long, long time I got up way before dawn and cranked. That’s what I learned best from Fred Chappell. No matter how I felt, I got up and worked. I still get up too early and write, most days. Not every day. I mean, I write something every day, but often it’s just an idea, a letter of rec, a screed to my idiot senator. I re-write more, which, I guess, is still writing. I’ve gotten to where I read a lot more than I ever did, year by year. That’s something I did wrong early on—I wasn’t reading enough contemporary fiction. Oh, I read some philosophy, sports magazines, cookbooks, bios and autobiographies, et cetera. Maybe I’m reading more because, every freaking book tour or reading, someone says, “What are you reading lately?” and I feel like an idiot staring at them.
FACKLER: Last question, then. What are you reading lately?
SINGLETON: Ha ha ha. I am ready for this one, Evan. I just finished The Last Taxi Driver, by Lee Durkee. I am so taken by that novel that I even lauded it on social media, something I’m not prone to do. Here’s a fun family tree: Dale Ray Phillips is one of my best buddies. He went to UNC-G for a while, but then decided to attend Hollins, then the program at Arkansas. Dale left Greensboro about two weeks after I arrived, in August of 1984. He came back to visit summers and winter breaks, and we had big old times together. (Later, he and I lived 25 miles from each other when he taught at Clemson for three or four years.) Anyway, when Dale was at Arkansas, he took Lee Durkee under his wing, according to Lee. Lee was an undergraduate. He later went to Syracuse. Meanwhile, another man that Dale took under wing was Lee’s friend Michael Gills, who came to UNC Greensboro right after I left. I’m also reading a couple books of poetry by the great G.C. Waldrep. I especially like his collection Feast Gently.