Sheldon Lee Compton's Interview with Jan Bowman was originally published in Trajectory, Fall 2012, Issue 5.
|Sheldon Lee Compton|
Jan: Recently I read your powerful story collection, The Same Terrible Storm, so I thought we could start by talking about those stories.
Sheldon: Thanks for reading the book, and many thanks for saying you consider it powerful. I’d be happy to talk some about the stories.
Jan: How did you go about selecting and organizing the twenty-two stories included in The Same Terrible Storm?
Sheldon: I had more or less been writing regional stories, stories of Eastern Kentucky and the South, for a long period of time, say from 2006 up through the spring of 2008. And by this, I mean exclusively. Then at some point in 2008 I started noticing some solid work online, particularly flash fiction. I had written stories of this length before, but now I wanted to write outside the boundaries of the South or Eastern Kentucky. The shorter form seemed to allow me this in some way. When it was all said and done, I had an assortment of stories that needed separating. When I did this, I had the longer form, regional stories with a mix of flash that was also regional. I combined them and tried to give the reader an up and down of long then short, as best as I could.
Jan: I noticed you have ten first person and ten third person point of view stories. And some stories have characters with the same names. Were these stories intended to be part of a longer work? Is there some significance in this narrative structure?
Sheldon: If I said I had a structure in mind in that sense, I’d be lying. I can say I noticed many of my stories were in first person, and so pushed myself to write in third and other points of view. Some stories were at one time bits and pieces of a novel I had written and shelved some years before, but these were few and greatly altered by the time they were finished.
I may have thrown the same name on some characters here and there with a connective thread in mind, but it’s not a notion I followed up on. Once the idea of a linked collection of stories was set aside, I just left the names. Where I’m from a lot of people do have the same names, common names, and so it seemed natural enough.
Jan: Second person point of view stories require a delicate balancing act, because it’s easy to slip into a tone that accuses and may cause readers to abandon a story. Although two of the stories in The Same Terrible Storm, a flash fiction, “Lesson” and the longer work, “Place of Birth” are written using a second person point of view, I admired your ability to maintain a balance in both stories. Can you talk a bit about your decision to use second person to tell these two stories.
Sheldon: When I was in a workshop with author and editor Kirby Gann in Louisville, he made a comment about a second draft of a couple pages of mine by saying I could well have split personalities. I knew it to be a compliment. And, even if I had been confused, he went on to say I had an ability to move in and out of voices well. Around this same time I came across a collection of stories called Rest Area that were all written in second person. I liked it, liked the idea of that voice and challenge, and wrote “Place of Birth” while working at a hospital.
Jan: Let’s talk about your story, “Intruder” which is a fascinating imagining of the final day of writer Breece D’J Pancake’s life before his suicide. The style is different from other work in this collection. In fact it is much more in Pancake’s style of writing. Given that your work explores the same desolate landscapes, scraped raw by the coal mining industry, it seems a sort of homage to Pancake. What’s the story behind the story of this piece?
Sheldon: A grand writer and grand friend of mine, Jarrid Deaton, turned me on to Pancake at some point and I became increasingly interested in this man’s life. At first it was just Pancake, the writer. But, before long, it was Pancake, the man. The person.
I can’t deny that Ray Carver’s fine story "Errand" wasn’t a large part of my beginning the story. It was a story Carver had written about his favorite writer and Pancake was, and still is, my favorite writer. Ego-mania? Possibly. Not that it was implied, but I wrote the story as tribute to Pancake. The story came to me over the course of two days during a hard time in my life, most of which I was drunk and didn’t care if the world just melted away while I slept. If Chekhov is worthy of a story of tribute, then certainly Pancake is the same, in my mind. I only hope this story reveals enough, seeks enough, to at least bring more interest to this man’s work.
Jan: The young in these stories yearn to escape the ruins of place, and yet their loyalty to the landscape and to family holds them firmly, somewhat like butterflies fixed on a pin. In spite of terrible odds there remains a dignity in your characters, even in the face of extreme violence and poverty. Let’s talk about your experiences, your Kentucky roots. How does that help you make those connections between your characters and your readers?
Sheldon: I’ve lived most of these stories at one time or another. That’s the connection. There’s no obscure tightening of the story itself, only the basic questions of character, narrative, style. Everything else has been laid bare for me. And that’s fine with me, and for whatever stories there are to come.
We all make sacrifices of life, faith, and love, hate. Mine are found in my written word. I’ve never been a fan of confessional writing. Everything is confessional writing, even popular fiction. It all tells a story about the storyteller. I have eaten dinner after waiting for the nerve ticks to die in a chicken’s brain. I have spent an evening in the dark of a living room dying, wondering if my child was safe. I have seen the face of a coal miner, his eyes rolled back, and seen him when sober at the next day’s work. And I found that what I once thought was blind, [was] without insight. I have been down and from that view comes these kinds of stories. There are millions of them, these stories. Listen to anyone who is willing to share one.
Jan: If you were to describe your idea of the perfect story, what elements would it have? And which story in your collections comes closest to realizing the image that you had in your mind when you began to write it?
Sheldon: A perfect story takes you out of this world and into another. That has most very likely been said before, and should be said another time and another. The means by which each writer gets there may differ, of course. I have never set out to accomplish this, but I do write for myself first, and others after that. I take myself back to those times, or forward, depending on my mood. If there’s a story that takes me away into the past, I allow it, and if there’s a story that boldly takes [me] into the future, I follow. The story in the collection that most did that for me was “Purpose.” I allowed myself to step aside for this story, to allow the characters I had chosen to act it out, to speak freely and openly, and take whatever direction they wanted. I followed. I rarely elevate these kinds of feelings and resulting actions, but this is not the case for me in this story. I allowed Brown Bottle, the main narrator, to take this story from my hands. He did well, and I thank him, and trust him.
Jan: How did you connect to your publisher, Foxhead Books, for your story collection, The Same Terrible Storm?
Sheldon: I’m not sure how many writers can say it, but it I was contacted by Foxhead Books for a manuscript. I suppose many writers can say that, but count me among them. Stephen “The Rock” Marlowe sent me a note asking if I had a manuscript. Of course I did. Sometime later I had an okay to move forward with the pages, which became The Same Terrible Storm. I was blessed that Stephen had seen my work and sought me out to provide something to Foxhead, where I’m as comfortable as a writer can be.
Jan: What are you working on now? And what do you see yourself working on a year from now?
Sheldon: A year from now, who knows? That’s the Buddhist in me, I guess. But I have submitted a second collection of stories, titled at this time as When Alligators Sleep. Day-to-day, I work on a novel titled forever and nevermore, as Brown Bottle. I love Brown, but he keeps going places I never thought to give. There are briars and tanglevines. He wants to go the hard way, and so I follow.
Jan: What were your favorite childhood books? Do you still have them? Ever reread them?
Sheldon: My favorite books as a child were the Childhood of Famous Americans series at my local library. My dad, good Lord rest his soul, took me there when I was six or seven and I started checking out the whole series. I wanted to be a football player, a botanist, a naval captain, all in the same summer, depending on what book I was reading at the time. Pretty soon I settled on being a writer. I wrote a couple stories, showing them to my dad, who said I had potential. I was inspired.
I started buying books by Stephen King and writing stories in the horror genre. My dad was happy. When I was twelve, he made me throw all my collected books into a creek near the house. But he gave me my start and for that I’m grateful.
Jan: What are you reading now and what are you planning to read next?
Sheldon: I’m reading In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor now and have Knockemstiff by Donald Pollack on my shelf up next. I hope they both knock me out.
Jan: What book had the greatest impact on your thinking and writing life?
Sheldon: Two books: The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake by Breece D’J Pancake and Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje. The first showed me I could write about my region without falling into sentiment, and the second showed me the wonders of lyrical writing. I had a thought after reading these two books, the thought being that perhaps I could write about where I’m from in a lyrical style without falling short. We’re not all Mark Twain, I suppose. Some of us are part Twain and part Dickens, and that’s all right by me.
Jan: Is there a book on writing that you’d recommend to any aspiring writer?
Sheldon: Stephen King: On Writing. King places storytelling in the foreground with this book, the first time I’ve seen that done really well in a book about writing.
Jan: What is the most useful advice you’ve ever received and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Sheldon: The best writing advice I’ve received was after I let my uncle read a short story I had written when I was twelve. An accomplished Appalachian poet, my uncle took the mini-workshop seriously and told me that a town the size of the town in my book (based on my hometown of Virgie, Kentucky) may not be a town big enough to place an airport in. He taught me, in that one comment, about the suspension of disbelief, and how you can’t get by with certain things in fiction. Maybe in truth, but not in fiction. I’ve rarely outright ignored advice, unless it was calculated. For instance, if a fellow writer ever told me my subject matter was too this or that. Fitzgerald said we all have one or two great themes, and mine has been set in stone. If anyone or anything compromises my advancement of that theme, I’ll set it aside.
Jan: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. I look forward to reading more of your work.
Chris Helvey, Editor/Publisher of Trajectory said this about Sheldon Lee Compton. www.trajectoryjournal.com
About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award. Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others. She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories. She has nonfiction publications in Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers. Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com or visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com Facebook: firstname.lastname@example.org