April 8, 2003

 

an interview with
Samuel Ligon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sam Ligon is currently on leave from his teaching job in New York, and living in Madison, Wisconsin. His new novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, has just been published by HarperCollins, and his book tour is about to begin. We spoke to him via telephone in early April.

The first story of yours that was published is set in Kyoto. What is it about?

The story is called "Blueboy." When I lived in Japan, the expatriate community was very tight. There was way too much drinking and depravity, and a kind of despondency, too. My wife and I went there about a week after we got married to teach English, and we stayed for about five months. Near the end of our time there, we found a body. Weíd been up all night, as we frequently were, drinking and talking. In the morning, we went for a hike up in the mountains, above a temple. We were on this trail, and we found the body. A guy had hung himself with two neckties. Iíd never seen a dead person before. Also, while I was there, two of my best friendsí fathers died. So, I was getting kind of touched with mortality. The story uses that body, Blueboy, as the central metaphor for coming to terms, or not coming to terms, with mortality.

It came out in The Quarterly. When my mother read the piece, she called me and said that I was psychotically obsessed with death, and needed to seek therapy. That was the beginning of trying to explain to my mother about fiction. My mother-in-law asked my wife if I was really sleeping with all those different girls. It was funny.

That story was published in 1988. Did you intend to become a professional writer at that point in your life?

I wanted to. Iíd been writing as much as I could. I donít think there are that many professional writers, people who can make a living from writing, but I think people who write are going to write. So I wrote and wrote and wrote, and every year and a half, Iíd get a story published. But when that first story came out in The Quarterly, I thought Iíd made it. I was young and naÔve, and thought everything I wrote would be published. That didnít happen at all.

How long after your first story did you publish your second story?

The next piece came out in StoryQuarterly, and that was in 1991. There was a significant gap.

Where did you go after Japan?

We moved to Providence for a year. I knew I wanted to go to one of the writing programs, so I applied to Oregon, Montana, New Hampshire, and a bunch of other ones. Since I was already in New England, I chose UNH. Thatís when I wrote "Blueboy."

Did you want to be a writer when you were a kid?

Yes. I wrote a satirical column for the high school newspaper. I wrote a lot when I was a kid. I took my first writing course at Illinois as an undergraduate, and I loved it. I worked with Mark Costello and Paul Friedman.

Thereís the theory that people who write do it because they have to.

I think thatís true. I think itís a compulsion. I wrote some very bad adolescent poetry, and then I wrote satire. I read a lot. That was the main thing. So when I went into that first workshop when I was a sophomore in college, I knew intuitively what a story was. After that, I knew I was going to do it, and I couldnít stop writing.

Your new novel is entitled Safe in Heaven Dead. Thereís an epigraph printed opposite the title page, attributed to Jack Kerouac. Whatís your connection to Kerouac?

I donít have any connection to him, really. I really liked On the Road, but I donít that heís one of my major influences. The book is about corruption, primarily, and in my thinking, and in the book, I was using the term "meat wheel." I couldnít even remember where that had come from. When my wife, Kim, and I were talking, we started using that as a generic term: we talked about the meat wheel of Long Island politics, or the meat wheel in Washington, or the meat wheel of this or that. The term kept coming up.

I had an original, bad title on the book, that my agent saved me from by claiming that we couldnít use it because she was representing another book by that title. I was about three quarters of the way through an early draft, and had to come up with a new title. I was struggling with the title, and asked a poet friend of mine, Paul Agostino, "Whatís the meat wheel thing from? Isnít it a Kerouac poem?" "Yeah," he said. "Itís the best Kerouac poem." So thatís where I got the title. Then I took all the meat wheel references out of the book, because it seemed heavy handed at that point.

I was torn about using the whole poem or just the last lines. The poem begins, "The wheel of the quivering meat conception turns in the void expelling human beings," and then it goes through this long list of things being expelled, then it meanders around and comes to the powerful ending. In the end, I decided to just use those last three lines. I think whatís lost by doing that is that the meat wheel is the earth, and itís kind of a Buddhist take on suffering. When you donít see the whole poem, youíre not sure what the meat wheel means. Thatís ok, too, and plays into the metaphor that I had been working with early on in the book, as the meat wheel just being this corruption cycle. The meat wheel serves the book better as an abstraction.

How long have you been working on Safe in Heaven Dead?

I started it in the summer of 1999. I wrote the first chapter that summer. Then I took the next nine months to finish a collection of stories. Then I came back to it and finished a reading draft in the summer of 2001.

You switch points of view in the book. Did you always do that?

What happened is this: I had written the first page of the book, and itís pretty much as it appears now, which is unusual for me. I knew I was interested in corruption. I knew this guy was dead. I knew he had lost his family, had abandoned them, and that he loved his family. I knew he had this money. I knew that his last words were, "Carla, wait. Iím not finished." I didnít know exactly who Carla was, but I thought that this guy had already given up his life long before he died. So who would this woman that he would interact with be, this woman he might think he was in love with? Who is Carla? I started researching escort services, because I thought that the only person he would interact with would be a prostitute. He doesnít feel he has any right to interact with anybody else. I got fantastic information online. The best things were the job applications, because I learned that, from this one place in particular, the requirements were a minimum of a masterís degree and fluency in at least two languages other than English. This was high end, and the money was huge. I spent about a week or so doing that, and I still didnít know that Carla was going to be a primary character, but when I wrote her line, I heard her voice. Thatís why that first person voice came out. Her voice was so compelling to me that she became a central character. I couldnít write it in any other way than first, because it was the voice that drove it. Thatís how I wound up with the third person voice, which is Elgin, and the first person voice, which is Carla.

Youíve taught at Suffolk County Community College for the last decade, and are on leave this year. You were active in the local faculty union.

The name of the union was the Faculty Association. We represented about 435 full-time faculty members, and about 1100 part-time.

What did that add to this book?

It added a lot of things. First of all, it exposed me to the world of power politics, internally, but also local county politics. I learned a lot about how politics work, and got to see some of the ugliness of politics. We worked very closely with the legislature, because they approved our contracts and our budget. Once, I was at a fundraiser, doing my thing, shaking hands, making deals, making promises, breaking promises, the whole nightmare. When I got home, I turned on the television. The show was about the Gambino crime family, and showed some leader at a political fundraiser in the 1960ís, claiming that the Mafia didnít exist, that the whole thing was a plot to defame Italian Americans. That fundraiser was in the very same room Iíd just left. At that point, I realized the book was going to be about corruption.

Through the union, I made contacts that gave me interviews. For example, I came to decide that Elgin would be the Deputy Director of Labor Relations for the county -- in the case of the book, Oakland County, Michigan. In my life, I sat across the table, bargaining with Bob Draffin, the Deputy Director of Labor Relations for Suffolk County. I was able to interview him. Because of my union connections, I was able to interview Robert Hoss, the former head of the sex crimes unit of the Suffolk County police. I talked to the Deputy Director of Personnel for Oakland County, though I called it Labor Relations in the book. His name is Thomas Eaton, and he was very generous with his time. He gave me all kinds of information about how Oakland County politics work.

Many times I did interviews, and became discouraged because it changed the book. For instance, I learned that Oakland County didnít have particularly strong machine politics. I needed strong machine politics for the book, so wrote them in anyway. Norm Pederson was incredibly helpful to me, in working out the plot. I realized that Elgin needed to have this money, but that it had to be a crime of opportunity. It wasnít a long-term crime; he wasnít embezzling. Pederson was the man that I based the character of the printer on, the only character who comes close to anyone in real life, although Pedersonís not a bad guy - in fact, he's a great guy - and the printer is a bad guy. My boss in the union, Ellen Schuler Mauk, helped me figure out how the kickback scheme would work. We had a benefit fund in our union, not a huge one like in the book, but she was also a trustee for a larger fund, and helped me figure out how someone might be able to get this money.

You lived on Long Island, and earned an MFA in Manhattan at The New School. While living there, you were fiction editor of Lit, a literary journal. How do you think your work at Lit influenced your writing?

My favorite thing at Lit was that I got to edit Stacey Richterís story, "Prom Night." I love her work. Her book, My Date with Satan, hadnít come out yet, so this was my first exposure to her. She was great to work with. I cut, not a huge amount, but I made some cuts. She was very generous. When my book was about to come out, I asked her to write a blurb for my book, and she graciously did.

I think working with other writers as an editor helps you become a better editor of your own work. I certainly hope thatís true. I enjoyed reading a lot of fiction. Iíve always had good editors. My editor at HarperCollins, Allison Callahan, is excellent. Itís always been a good experience.

At The New School, I was lucky to work with Amy Hempel. Sheís been called a miniaturist. Sheís a line writer. She taught me a lot of about how to cut a line down to the bone. I really try to get the work to be as lean as it can possibly be, and I learned that from her. I wasnít going for minimalism; I was just trying to get rid of the fat. She taught me how to do that.

What is a line writer?

She writes perfect lines. If you look at a story like "Today Will Be a Quiet Day" - and this is the Hemingway principal, too - most of the story is left out. The way that painters talk about negative space - Hemingwayís term was "the iceberg." Most of the story is under the surface. The reader shouldnít see it. She taught me that you never have a character sit down. The character sits. She taught me to look at every line. Iíd been playing with that in the short stories, and when I started to work on the novel, I knew that I could spread out, have some sideways movement. Thatís the fun of a novel. The form allows for sideways movement; it may even demand it. In a short story, there canít be anything extraneous, but in a novel you have more room.

Safe in Heaven Deadís protagonist, Robert Elgin, moves from a somewhat ordinary and predictable life to one thatís full of possibility. What keeps him from being excited about his new life?

Heís made a horrible choice. Heís in a current. When he leaves his home, and stays in a hotel twenty-five minutes from home, I think he feels heís lost his family. Heís also surrendered to his wifeís view of his daughterís molestation. He has become irrelevant to his family. When the crime of opportunity presents itself, and he steals the money and really walks out of his life, it almost doesnít matter to him. He hopes for some satisfaction, some sense of getting revenge, because heís been played, but he doesnít feel it. Thatís what seals his fate. When he walks out of his life, heís metaphorically already dead.

Carla, Elginís companion, is disaffected. Itís interesting that sheís an English major. Did that come to you early in the writing process?

It came right away. When I was doing that escort service research, I decided to make her a doctoral candidate at Columbia. I wanted her to be really smart, and English was what I knew. I probably also wanted to get a dig in at literary criticism.

Actors often come up with a back story for the character when they prepare for a role, imagining all sorts of history and details that are never talked about. How much of that do you, as a writer, do?

With Carla, I was concerned that there not be something obvious in her background that made her a prostitute. I was careful to make her family utterly normal. The clichť would be that sheíd been sexually abused by her uncle. Iím not a sociologist, and I donít know what makes a prostitute a prostitute, but I really resisted having a direct cause to explain why Carla is the way she is. You used the word "disaffected," and I think thatís right. Sheís nearly as damaged as Elgin is, and sheís also dealing with a loss of identity. Sheís taken on a new identity that leads to self-loathing, but I think, for her, thereís hope. Sheís very strong. She is aware of the power she has because of her sexuality and she exploits that for a kind of rush.

Your characters, both in your novel & in the stories weíve read, tend to be anti-heroic. What makes you choose that sort of person to flesh out?

I guess I donít believe in heroes, and I guess Iím interested in damaged people. These people are certainly damaged, and are struggling to overcome the damage. Carla is, throughout the book, and to some degree she succeeds. Elgin isnít as successful, but heís more an idealist. He thinks the world should not be as sick and corrupt as it is, even though heís a part of the corruption. In the beginning, heís looking for a way out, but mostly he feels trapped

You reveal the outcome in the very beginning. Why did you do that?

I had to kill him immediately, because his death is so pointless. I donít think you could have him killed by a bus at the end of the story. It would be a cheap ending. Also, his death keeps me honest as a writer. There canít be any cheap tension in the story - is he going to live or not live? It sets up a problem for me as a writer. The guyís dead. So whatís the story? How do I have a forward-moving narrative when the ending is already known, and the ending is death? I was also interested in killing him and then finding out what happened, what led up to this.

You have a great talent for dialogue. Have you ever done any play or screen writing?

No, I donít know how to do that stuff. The thing with dialogue is that itís very much about rhythm and sound. Also, dialogue - and this is something else Amy Hempel taught me - needs to cut at least two ways, so that, for example, the character answers a question but also says, "I hate your guts" with the way he answers the question, or answers it with a non sequitur, which reveals something else.

Youíve recently moved. What prompted you to choose Madison? How is life there?

We love Madison. I have a sister here and we have good friends here. I took this leave to write the next book, and we were looking around the country for a town that had good book stores, coffee shops, music, and this town has all of that. Itís a cool community. Itís very progressive, which is refreshing to us. The schools are good. Weíre going to enjoy our two years here.

Tell us about your upcoming book tour.

Iím leaving next week, reading a few places in New York, then in Providence, then Cleveland. Iíll be back here and read in Madison, then go back to New England for a few more readings. After that, Iíll take day trips to Detroit, Ann Arbor, Chicago, and Minneapolis, so I wonít lose as much work time. I wonít really start the new book until after the first part of the tour.

Weíll look forward to talking to you about the next book soon, and wish you the best of luck with this one. Thanks for talking with us.

~ Lydia Arnold
April 7, 2003

for more about Sam Ligon, please see his feature page here on ArtSavant

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