Sheldon Compton QA–The Same Terrible Storm

sheldonShel­don Lee Comp­ton is the author of the col­lec­tion, The Same Ter­ri­ble Storm, recent­ly nom­i­nat­ed for the Thomas and Lil­lie D. Chaf­fin Award. His work has been pub­lished wide­ly and been four times nom­i­nat­ed for the Push­cart Prize, and was a final­ist in 2012 for the Still Fic­tion Award as well as a final­ist for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fic­tion the fol­low­ing year. He is also Edi­tor in Chief of Fox­head Books, and sur­vives in East­ern Ken­tucky.

I know you work in genre fic­tion as well as lit­er­ary. Is it too lim­it­ing to be defined as an Appalachi­an writer?

I’ve writ­ten a lot of short-short sto­ries, flash, prose poet­ry and the like, and a lot of that as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, for sure, but most of my work is set in East Ken­tucky.  In fact, both my col­lec­tion and the nov­el I’m work­ing on now, and I imag­ine any­thing I write most like­ly, will be set in East Ken­tucky.  But I’ve nev­er made the delib­er­ate deci­sion in that direc­tion.  It’s my nat­ur­al posi­tion as a writer.  I think there is a rich­ly deep well of sto­ries here and peo­ple absolute­ly swelled with per­son­al­i­ty and char­ac­ter.  I’m more than lucky to be from and live in a region where that’s the case.  That said, I am occa­sion­al­ly curi­ous why my work is at times referred to as Appalachi­an lit­er­a­ture and then oth­er times South­ern lit­er­a­ture.  Then, more often as not, sim­ply lit­er­a­ture.  But that’s where it ends for me, I think.  The labels, after all, will cre­ate no change in the way I approach the sto­ries I hope to tell.  That said, labels can be lim­it­ing and I wouldn’t wel­come any­thing, label or oth­er­wise, that made any attempt to place blind­ers on my work.

Who are your role mod­els in writ­ing?

2A. I’m a gen­er­a­tion removed, I think, in this respect.  I look to writ­ers in whose work I find hon­esty rather than for­ward momen­tum in respect to form or the­o­ry or oth­er con­cerns.  And I say removed because I don’t spend time study­ing pas­sages from Fitzger­ald, Faulkn­er, Joyce or any­one else many may believe need to be looked at as role mod­els, espe­cial­ly in the begin­ning of one’s own career as a writer.  My gen­er­a­tion, though writ­ing beau­ti­ful­ly and wild and in new voic­es and look­ing to works from the likes of Wal­lace and Eggers for direc­tion after hit­ting the big names first, are doing fine.  But I’m in it for the sto­ry, with a healthy obses­sion for lan­guage.  My role mod­els devel­oped in this way and I land­ed on two writ­ers I will always point to – a per­fect mar­riage for me – in Michael Ondaat­je and Breece Pan­cake.  And I can go so far as to nar­row Ondaat­je to a sin­gle work, Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter, just as, sad­ly, Pan­cake has only the one.  But then Pan­cake gave us more hon­esty in that one and only col­lec­tion than I’ve seen any­where else with­in any­thing I’ve read.  So I have two books as role mod­els.  I like books that way…role mod­els, friends, lovers, teach­ers.  Show me what oth­er thing in the world can be so ver­sa­tile.  Oh, and aside from this, Emi­ly Dick­in­son is my first and fore­most role mod­el, my favorite writer.  The only writer of renown who wrote not for pub­li­ca­tion, but for her­self.  No one can beat that today, and prob­a­bly nev­er will with the result­ing suc­cess and admi­ra­tion.

Your expe­ri­ence with Fox­head must have been good, as you’re now edit­ing for them. Tell me how you end­ed up pub­lish­ing and edit­ing there.

I have a won­der­ful rela­tion­ship with Fox­head, yes.  And, hon­est­ly, how could I not?  Stephen Mar­lowe is a force, and Fox­head had a clear and dis­tinct vision for where they want­ed to be now and in the future.  They did well by me when I was an author in their sta­ble and now that I’ve been made Edi­tor in Chief, I’m eager to do the same for writ­ers com­ing up.  My col­lec­tion, The Same Ter­ri­ble Storm, was pub­lished by Fox­head after a few cor­re­spon­dences between myself and Stephen Mar­lowe, the Fox.  And I can say that from the moment on I knew that Steve was inter­est­ed in tru­ly bring­ing good work to peo­ple.  He’s a giant who hasn’t been spot­ted yet through the trees.  Or maybe he has, now.  I cer­tain­ly hope so.

Since the first of the year I’ve been work­ing as close­ly as I can with authors com­ing in.  It’s great.  There is so much flex­i­bil­i­ty I’m able to give a great amount of atten­tion to my own work while being able to have the chance to see work from oth­ers, talk with them – by phone when pos­si­ble, as my grand­fa­ther instilled in me the sense that true busi­ness in done face to face.  Well, face to face is dif­fi­cult, but a phone call is one step removed from emails back and forth and no sense of the per­son you’re tak­ing to in the mean­time.

stormcoverI like the way the short­er sto­ries were inter­spersed in your book. Did you have a plan in mind for the order of sto­ries, or is it more or less ran­dom?

Oth­er than try­ing to vary the longer sto­ries and the short­er ones in the hope it would be pleas­ing for the read­er, I didn’t put any more thought into it than get­ting the sto­ries in that I thought were best.

In the sto­ry ‘First Timers’, you write of some young folks that maybe aren’t ready to take those first steps into true adult­hood, by way of a hog-killing gone slight­ly awry. The end­ing is true great­ness. How did you come to that image?

First off, thanks very much.  I had this final scene in my head before I start­ed writ­ing the sto­ry.  I knew those guys were going to be under the tree sort of laugh­ing at these boys, but I didn’t know until I got there that there would be the “pound for pound” moment that draws the com­par­i­son between the boys and the hog.  It was one of those instances for me as a sto­ry­teller where it seemed to come nat­u­ral­ly, and I sim­ply wrote it down before I lost it.  I sup­pose some­where in the back of my mind I had the boys and the hog all tied up togeth­er and that last scene was my brain’s way of let­ting me know that.  It was a cool moment.  I like those times when the sto­ry takes over, and I espe­cial­ly like it when it takes over for the end­ing or begin­ning.

Pur­pose’ is an excel­lent lead­off sto­ry. I noticed Brown Bot­tle, from your nov­el, makes an appear­ance here. Do you pub­lish many out­takes from it, or is this kind of anom­aly?

Since begin­ning Brown Bot­tle I have pub­lished a cou­ple chap­ters here and there, your­self being one who was kind enough to include a chap­ter at Fried Chick­en and Cof­fee.  Many chap­ters can stand alone as sto­ries.  That said, “Pur­pose” was the only chap­ter pub­lished before I start­ed the nov­el.  That sounds weird as I answer, but I sup­pose it makes more sense when I explain that “Pur­pose” was the sto­ry I knew I would revis­it and want to explore in a longer work.  Brown is a char­ac­ter close to my heart, my favorite cre­ation.  The sto­ry works as the first chap­ter to the nov­el.

Where did the cov­er image come from?

What a great ques­tion!  So glad you asked, Rusty.  In the town where I grew up – Vir­gie, Ken­tucky – there’s a train tun­nel very sim­i­lar to the one on the cov­er.  It was like a car­ni­val attrac­tion for myself and oth­ers grow­ing up in Vir­gie.  It is one of the emo­tion­al hubs of my child­hood in terms of mem­o­ries and a ground­ing of place.  I knew I want­ed that tun­nel on the cov­er.  The boy, graph­ic artist’s Logan Rogers’ son, was includ­ed to fore­shad­ow the sto­ry “Go Get Your Hon­or”.  This sto­ry con­cludes with Man Dodge sit­ting on the tracks and wait­ing for a train to come.  The image was a pow­er­ful one for me, this young boy try­ing to become tougher, more coura­geous, by wait­ing as long as pos­si­ble before get­ting up from the tracks.  I was great­ly appre­cia­tive that Steve and com­pa­ny at Fox­head gave me so much cre­ative input on the cov­er.

How does the gui­tar func­tion in your cre­ative life?

Ah, yes.  The gui­tar plays a huge role, actu­al­ly.  I’ve played since I was five so it’s some­thing that enters into many aspects of my life.  In gen­er­al, it’s most often a sound­ing board for me when I find myself stuck on a sto­ry, some­thing cre­ative I can pick up and con­tin­ue to keep the wheels mov­ing.  How­ev­er, I’ve also promi­nent­ly placed the gui­tar with­in my work, as well.  Music in gen­er­al, real­ly.  There’s some­thing about music that offers a reflec­tion of sto­ry­telling for me.  I first saw this done per­fect­ly in Com­ing Through Slaugh­ter, and, lit­tle by lit­tle, allowed myself to incor­po­rate music into my own work.  And there’s the prac­ti­cal part of it all, too.  If I couldn’t pick up the gui­tar and play when stuck, I might have to change my answer about writer’s block.  I like being able to say it doesn’t exist.

Can you give us advance info on any of Foxhead’s upcom­ing titles?

We have sev­er­al books in the works right now.  We recent­ly accept­ed a book from Michael Wayne Hamp­ton that I’m excit­ed about called The Geog­ra­phy of Love.  It’s Mike’s sto­ry col­lec­tion, and it’s sol­id.  He sub­mit­ted it to Fox­head before I was named edi­tor and I was hap­py to see it when I arrived.  I like Mike’s work and have since grad school.  It’s strange how things work out. One minute you’re sit­ting in the lob­by of the Brown Hotel in Louisville talk­ing about craft and the next you’re embark­ing on the editor/writer rela­tion­ship.  As for oth­er projects, there’s plen­ty brew­ing.  But the thing I’m most excit­ed about now is the pos­si­bil­i­ty that we will be adding poet­ry to the imprint, and bring­ing in a poet­ry edi­tor to head that up.  Good things ahead and full of steam.  It’s all pret­ty excit­ing, to be hon­est.

What new projects do you have in mind? What’s your cur­rent obses­sion?

 After work­ing for near­ly the past two years on my nov­el, I’ve final­ly decid­ed to set it aside for a time.  I’m teach­ing more this semes­ter than before so that requires more of my atten­tion, and there’s the added ben­e­fit of giv­ing those pages time to sim­mer for a bit.  I hope when I approach it again, I’ll see things to work on I might have over­looked before tak­ing the break.  I’ve also been enjoy­ing a renewed love of read­ing late­ly.  For too long I had read only as a sto­ry­teller, pick­ing apart sen­tences, para­graphs, look­ing for sto­ry arcs, study­ing craft in gen­er­al.  About a month back, I picked up a Cor­mac McCarthy nov­el I’d been want­i­ng to read and just decid­ed I was going to read for enjoy­ment.  And then there it was, the love of read­ing I hadn’t even real­ized was sup­pressed until then.  Don’t get me wrong, I love to study the craft of writ­ing, but the two things are dif­fer­ent.  My cur­rent obses­sion is my old obses­sion reborn – the enjoy­ment of the writ­ten word.

 

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