An Interview with Chad Simpson

Earlier this month we reviewed Chad Simpson’s story collection Tell Everyone I Said Hi. Over the last few months, we’ve had an email volley going about the book, his writing, and how the Midwest might be maligned. Here it is, in its basically (but not totally!) unabridged form.

MORRIS:  So how did it feel to win the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award? To my recollection, your name has come up a lot in the various near-miss categories for a number of awards. Was this something that felt more possible because you were so much on the cusp, or was it difficult to maintain a positive attitude with so many variations on the “you almost got there, slugger” rejection?

SIMPSON:  Because I was a finalist for two book contests in 2011, I don’t think I was quite as shocked as I might otherwise have been when I received the phone call from the University of Iowa Press. I was surprised, no doubt, but the call didn’t floor me. Over the course of the past several months, as the news has both spread and had time to sink in, I’ve begun to realize just how much luck is involved in winning a contest like this. You have to submit a decent manuscript to win, of course, but it takes a lot more than that. So, I feel lucky. And humbled. And very excited that this book of mine is going to be released into the world.

MORRIS:  Is it any more enjoyable winning an award presented by a Midwestern institution? Certainly the University of Iowa’s writing program is internationally recognized and very diverse. That said, the press release made mention of not only the location of your stories, but also the Midwestern-ness of them: blue-collar subjects, small towns, etc. Do you feel like Midwestern readers might connect better with the characters in your stories? 

SIMPSON:  I do like the fact that the University of Iowa is just a ninety-minute drive from my house. So far, I’ve liked all of the people at the press I’ve talked and emailed and worked with. It feels right that a Midwestern institution is handling the collection. I hadn’t thought much about that until answering this question, but I guess what I typed there is as true as anything.

That second question of yours is a tough one. I come from what I would call a pretty working-class family. When I left my job as a juvenile probation officer to attend graduate school, I was very happy to get the chance to study fiction writing, as I’d spent the previous four years working various jobs and doing a lot of reading and writing on my own. Still, I felt a little guilty, too. I mean, what person in their right mind would take such a huge pay-cut just so they can make some art?

I combated this for a while by attempting to tell stories that I thought were fairly accessible. I wanted people like my parents and grandparents, and the guys I’d worked with in the pallet shop out at the slaughterhouse, to be able to take something away from my stories. No art for art’s sake bullshit. Just storytelling with maybe a little bit of heart.

Over time, though, I’ve stopped caring as much about the accessibility I used to strive for. I’ve stopped worrying about whether the people I love in this world are going to “get” my stories. I suppose I still want people to “get” them, and to be moved by them, but I don’t make any conscious decisions while writing that affect a story’s accessibility.

I suppose, too: Maybe what I’ve done over time on some subconscious level is broaden my conception of what might be accessible to both the people I know and love and the other people I’d always imagined might one day be reading my work.

MORRIS:  So is it a maturation thing? Did you carry around a chip on your shoulder about it—that sort of Midwestern we-take-pride-in-the-fact-that-we’re-not-proud thing? (If that makes no sense to you, I understand—I can’t really articulate it well myself.)

Wouldn’t you say that your stories reflect your own life experience? You were consciously writing stories set in the Midwest—as the press release for Tell Everyone I Said Hi raves—seemingly crafted from real-life experience. It may have felt conscious, but it may have been you sticking to your own level of comfort.

So maybe I’m conflating three things here: your feelings about your own work’s accessibility + your own life experience in the Midwest + the fact that the rejections were piling up for you. And I might be wrong to do that.

I keep thinking back to your story “Estate Sales,” a story I quite like. And maybe I’d like it less if I weren’t from the Midwest, if I hadn’t been surrounded by the sort of small-town people in that story.

Am I even asking a question at this point? I’m not sure. Here’s one: do you think it’s dangerous to think about your reader – and not in the crafting of a story, necessarily, like am I giving them enough information here to blah-blah-blah – more like in a broader context, like what kind of person is going to read my book? It sounds like you think it may have held you back, somehow.

SIMPSON:  I’m not sure if it’s a maturation thing. Maybe it is, in that I think what’s happened over time is I’ve gotten better at figuring out what any given story needs or wants in order to work. My focus then isn’t on whether people are going to understand what I’m doing but instead on image and syntax and scene, what’s there and what’s being left out and inferred, all that.

I should say, too: I don’t really carry around a chip on my shoulder about any of this. It’s a privilege to be able to write stories and have there be people in the world who are willing to read them. I take the art of it all pretty seriously, but not so seriously I forget how lucky I’ve gotten over the years.

Well, maybe I do carry a chip on my shoulder about one thing: A few editors at those big, slick magazines have rejected my stories in the past for being “small.” These editors have given the stories good reads, and had smart things to say about them, but I’m still not sure about that “small” business. Maybe some of the stories are, in fact, “small,” but a few that have been called such really aren’t. And I still wonder a little if “small” in these editors’ rejections isn’t code for “Midwestern.” Again, I don’t lose sleep over any of this, but it’s something I think about every now and then, less with regards to my own work and more because I wonder why certain Midwestern writers I love aren’t publishing stories in some of the magazines I’m referencing.

As for the stories reflecting my life experiences: I’d say that’s certainly the case. The way I see things, I don’t necessarily write what’s comfortable to me; instead, I write the things that I’m drawn to write about. My life experiences—whether I’m talking about growing up in small towns, or working at a homeless shelter in Champaign, Illinois, or in a steel factory in Logansport, Indiana, or repairing those broken pallets out at the slaughterhouse I can smell most days from my house—more than anything have shaped my sensibility: how I see the world and what makes me yearn, ache.

And this is all related, I think, to whether it’s dangerous to think about the reader. I’d say, yes, it’s dangerous to think too much about who’s going to come into contact with your stories, especially if those stories aren’t yet written. If I’m going to be true to the stories I’m writing, I think it’s more important for me to know something about that sensibility I was talking about above, and to be true to the image that has compelled me to the page, and to the sentences themselves than to the reader.  Somewhere down the road, if you’re lucky, you get to work with a good editor or two who might help you to more fully sate that imaginary reader, but early on, I don’t think she’s really worth thinking about, unless, I suppose, that reader you have in mind is your ideal reader, the one who is going to get what you’re writing no matter what.

MORRIS:  Given that you submitted Tell Everyone I Said Hi to a lot of different contests, coming close in many, did you ever feel compelled to pull back and revise them more? Certainly lauded, published pieces like “Let X,” I’d imagine, are off limits—but did it ever cross your mind to do a lot of changing, or has the whole of Tell Everyone I Said Hi been a finished product for some time?

SIMPSON:  In late 2008 and for much of 2009, I had an agent who was submitting the collection to several big publishing houses. The collection then had what I think of as a more traditional structure. There were twelve or thirteen stories, around 200 pages, and the pieces were linked thematically and geographically.

That was kind of a rough time to try to sell a book of short stories, especially as a one-book deal, without a novel attached to it. Most of the editors seemed to like the collection, and a few of them loved it, but it didn’t get through anywhere, though it came close.

In late 2009, I began submitting the same collection to a few indie presses, and one editor, Gina Frangello at Other Voices Books, took the time to write me a personal rejection in which she addressed the collection as a whole. While most of the previous editors merely praised the writing, the subject matter, etc., Gina pointed out what I realized was a pretty big flaw: The stories were too similar structurally from one to the next.

When assembling the collection, I hadn’t thought much about this aspect of it—how the structure or architecture of one story leads into the structure of the next, and then the one after it. I think I got rid of about half of the stories in that collection and added maybe a dozen more, and I spent a lot of time arranging them, looking specifically at how the individual stories were structured.

This is the book I was sending out in 2010, the one that came close at a couple of national book contests. It was more like sixteen stories, 150 pages. I’d also sent this collection to Victoria Barrett at Engine Books, and she, too, offered a pointed criticism that I took to heart. She thought two of the stories didn’t belong with the rest, and so I cut those two stories and added four more. The book was eighteen stories now, still around 150 pages, and the first place I sent it to in 2011 was the Iowa Short Fiction Award.

Suffice it to say: This collection has gone through a number of iterations. There was a handful of stories that remained in each, but the thing as a whole was always changing. Early on, I think I was pretty lazy when it came to putting together the book. I wasn’t thinking too much about the role each piece played as a single unit and as a contribution to the whole. Over time, I think—I hope—I got a little better at that, at figuring out how collections really work.

MORRIS:  Now that it’s finally happening, in a way, with this collection and these eighteen stories: where to go from here? Do you feel exhausted or do you feel invigorated?

SIMPSON:  I feel both exhausted and invigorated, in the best way. This collection of stories was written over a span of about nine years. I probably wrote more like 100 stories over that time, and published maybe 40 of them. I also wrote the draft of a YA novel, and much of a novel I deemed a failure around page 150, and several other things.

Lately, I’ve been working on several stories all told via the same narrator that I’m hoping eventually becomes an impressionistic/collagist novel.

And I do want to get back to that YA novel and give it the attention I think it deserves.

MORRIS:  It sounds like this entire process of revision—the broad, building-a-collection sort—is a bear. Do you think this will free your mind to go new places with your writing? Take on bigger projects?

SIMPSON:  It was a bit of a bear, but it was fun, too. One of the good things about having a steady job is that I don’t rely on my writing to pay the mortgage or put food on the table. Some people might say this is a crutch, that it hurts American letters, but I kind of like that I have the freedom to spend a month or two trying to get a 4-page story right, or to experiment with stories that I have no intention of ever submitting anywhere.

I’d say my mind feels fairly free. To be honest, I can never keep up, can never get written everything I’d like to try to get written.

MORRIS:  Along these lines: do you view yourself strictly as a short-story writer, or is that sort of lineation unnecessary? I’m bringing this up because the whole collection + novel thing got me thinking: what’s the longest piece you’ve had published? You’re not strictly a flash-fiction guy by any means; so what are you? Or is that sort of identifier unnecessary.

SIMPSON:  I don’t know that it’s necessary to identify as anything so specific. I’d say I’m a writer, a maker of texts, of fictions.

There’s a story that was in the collection for a while but ended up getting cut that’s about 7000 words, 25 pages or so. It’s going to be published soon in Five Chapters. (Ed: And since has!) I think that’s the longest thing I’ve published. I had two or three stories that clocked in around 35 pages each, but they were all pretty bad. One of them ended up a failed attempt at a novel.

Lately I’ve been taking notes on a crime novel. I’m not letting myself start writing it for now because I’m trying to focus more on the projects I mentioned above, but I love reading crime novels—Elmore Leonard, Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, etc.—and I think I have a pretty decent scenario and a sweet set of characters for one. It’s probably the text I’m most looking forward to making.

MORRIS:  Who do you consider to be your influences?

SIMPSON:  I didn’t really think very much about reading and writing until I was eighteen and about to make a spring break trip with my college baseball team. Prior to the trip, I randomly checked out from the library Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. I didn’t know anything at all about either writer, but by the time our bus pulled back in to Garden City, Kansas, I’d read both books and decided I was done with baseball and wanted to be a writer. I have no idea how or why this happened, but I’m glad it did.

Since then, a number of writers have been very important to me: Anne Carson, Joy Williams, William H. Gass, Rodney Jones, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Junot Diaz, Denis Johnson, Kevin Young, Lydia Davis, Mark Richard, Philip Levine, Dan Chaon, Mary Robison, Peter Orner. I’ve also been influenced and/or inspired by a lot of rap music/hip-hop, and by Radiohead, and Miles Davis and, very recently, Richard Buckner. Every day I try to spend some time looking at visual art, either in person or online. Then there are movies, and all those great TV series. I am pretty much always being influenced and/or inspired by something. It’s not a bad way to move through life.

MORRIS: Who/what are you reading right now?

SIMPSON: Right now I’m actually reading the other winner of this year’s Iowa Short Fiction Award, Marie-Helene Bertino’s Safe As Houses. I’ve read about half of the stories and am finding a lot to love. It’s also kind of amazing to me just how different her book is from mine, amazing to me that Jim Shepard chose two such disparate books to win the award. I also recently began reading Karolina Waclawiak’s How To Get Into The Twin Palms, and Ted Sanders’ No Animals We Could Name, and Big Ray by Michael Kimball. I’m excited about all of them.

Chad Simpson was raised in Monmouth, Illinois, and Logansport, Indiana. His stories and essays have appeared in “McSweeney’s,” “The Sun,” “Esquire,” “Barrelhouse,” “American Short Fiction,” and many other print and online publications. He also is the author of a chapbook of short fiction, “Phantoms,” published by Origami Zoo Press in 2010. A recipient of an Illinois Arts Council fellowship in prose, he teaches at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, where he received the Philip Green Wright/Lombard College Prize for Distinguished Teaching in 2010. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, with his wife, Jane. 

 

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