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An Interview with Andrew F. Sullivan

In the fall of 2013, The Rusty Toque publisher and editor Kathryn Mockler (who had also been my writing professor at The University of Western Ontario) let me do an interview with a Rusty Toque writer of my choosing. My pick was Andrew F. Sullivan, author of 2013’s All We Want Is Everything (ARP), and whose story “Hatchetman” was published in a back issue of The Rusty Toque

I picked his story because it excited me; “Hatchetman” embodies a kid whose parents are Juggalos. In my mind, Sullivan wrote the story with a delicate balance of pathos and embattled dignity. A story about Juggalos, to me, seemed fresh and interesting.

Sullivan follows All We Want Is Everything with his debut novel Waste (DZANC), another delightfully nightmarish and lively tour of broken people and landscapes. Lauded by writers like Miriam Toews, Craig Davidson, and Michael Christie (and many more), Andrew F. Sullivan is surely a name to remember. The following interview was conducted by email in February 2016.

Alex Carey
Fiddlehead Editorial Assistant

 

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Alex Carey: Miriam Toews supervised early versions of Waste. Were there any particular writers or books that influenced your work on this novel?

Andrew F. Sullivan: What I got from Miriam was the black humour, I think. She has an amazing ability to write about really horrible events and impart a great deal of empathy while also making you laugh. It’s a tough line to walk and it’s a testament to her skill that her books are so heavy and yet really funny at the same time. I think Waste is funny, but that might make me sound like a psycho. That’s definitely where I think my work connects with hers though, despite all the blood on my end.

Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye was also a really big influence on this book. I looked at it as a great first novel, a novel about a community failing a child and just filled with these amazing, empathetic stories behind all the other characters, especially the mother Polly Breedlove. The structure is a lot of fun and you can really see Morrison pulling it all together, and I think it connects with a lot of the themes in Waste, how we isolate and ostracize. So that was a big influence. And Beloved too, which is basically a horror novel with beautiful prose and a story that refuses to die.

Richard Yates and Richard Price are also really big for me. Yates’ The Easter Parade is a fucking harrowing journey with one of my favourite endings and his refusal to spare any of his characters pain while still retaining a lot of empathy for them always stuck with me. You don’t pity them; you see how awful and brutal they can be, but you find yourself feeling sympathy despite it all. Yates could dismantle anyone on the page, but it’s the small pieces he leaves untouched that stick with you. He has no mercy, but a lot of compassion for his characters and I hope that attitude informs Waste to some degree.

Price is one of those guys walking that genre line and I still think Clockers is his best book. He’s done a lot of great things including episodes of The Wire and film scripts for stuff like The Color of Money and he’s got an ear for dialogue, not true to life, which is terrible, but true to how it feels, how it sounds. Record yourself doing an interview and you’ll want to hang yourself with the phone cord with all the uhms and ahhhs and errrrs. Price strips all that out, but gives us the essence of the conversation. His realism is wise and full of the unexpected; it exceeds the term. And I hope he keeps giving us books on the regular. I wanted to draw from that tradition, walking that line, telling a story about crimes gone wrong that could be something more than just solving a mystery of who killed who and why. I want to know how we got there — the meat of it is all in the process, not the end result.

AC: Your 2013 short story collection All We Want Is Everything includes a story called “Simcoe Furriers,” a story that inhabits a similar world to the one you depict in Waste. What is the process like fleshing out a novel from a story, or vice-versa?

AFS: “Simcoe Furriers” (up at Little Fiction now, go read it) was something I wrote after the first draft of the novel was finished, maybe even the second. It’s sort of a deleted scene with some extra characters. A lot of back story ended up chopped from the first draft of Waste, but this was something new, something with different stakes. A world inside a world.

What happens to the body of the lion after Jamie and Moses, the protagonists in Waste, run it over? Whose responsibility is it? Where do the leftovers end up? Waste is a book about neglect and fallout, abandoned responsibilities and attempts at restitution, and the story fits into that world. I was feeling really burned out working a couple different jobs at that time and writing a lot of short fiction because that is what I could fill in between freelance gigs and working 40 hours a week in a store.

I wanted the story to exist on its own, so not all the details are perfect. I did want to create a link between my story collection and this vicious little novel. The fact that the story came out first just makes it stranger. It was also the only story in the collection that was previously unpublished at the time. The city of Larkhill is every bad neighbourhood I ever woke up in and I suppose I still wanted to go back there. It’s a place where all the bathroom floors are carpeted and the tiled walls are weeping mold. It often still feels like home.

AC: Where do the Gothic, fairytales, and realism intersect when you start writing?

AFS: When I start anything, I’m usually starting with a character and a premise that excite me. Realism isn’t going to excite me; it’s not going to unnerve me, it’s rarely going to push me. I pull on things like old myths, urban legends and gothic traditions because that’s where my fuel is. If I’m going to write about three generations of a family in Canada, I hope it’s a story about the bog where they keep their ancestors to consult them on the matters of the day. If I’m writing about grief, maybe the ghost is real. I’m interested in crafting a history in rust — where only half of the truth is readily available. We have to fill in the blanks.

I don’t think “realism” is truly attainable, but I do want a world where there is a system of cause and effect that I can understand, even if it only gives me chaos in the end. Realism can become a crutch for boring writing — not bad writing, necessarily, but boring. Nothing I would care about, nothing I would want to digest on a regular basis. But it provides you with an anchor in the real world, if only to make the distance, the divergence that much sharper. Realism works when it teeters on the edge — when it says “maybe.”

Realism for me collides with how we protect ourselves with stories, how we use myths to build up our fears, our enemies, our horrors — and then bring them down. Realism works in tandem with fairytales and the gothic because it offers us a chance that this could happen; it’s not fantasy. I want to avoid saying magical realism unless I’m in that specific tradition because I think otherwise, outside its context, magical realism is often used to explain away the uncanny or the strange in fiction—it’s a safe place to dump your fears.

AC: Where does a depiction of fictional Larkhill, Ontario and your own experiences in Oshawa, Ontario start and end? What is your process for fictionalizing a city and what do you think are the advantages of that decision?

AFS: Larkhill is a lot like Lumberton, North Carolina in Lynch’s Blue Velvet, I think. It’s a place that is festering beneath the surface and beginning to rot along the edges. Its veneer of civility is slipping. It’s a myth and a legend, but the wrong kind, the kind that gets you hurt.

Oshawa these days does not really resemble Larkhill, but in the middle of winter in the late 80s and early 90s, it did feel that way. We don’t get a lot of Canadian fiction about these larger urban outposts, cities over 100,000 or so, cities just big enough to get lost in, cities just big enough to have problems they can’t really get a handle on anymore. Drug abuse, homelessness, destitution—the fallout of industrial cities. We get a lot of those stories coming out of the Rust Belt in the States, but Ontario has had some of its own fallout here too. Unfortunately, a lot of our narratives vacillate between the small town and the metropolis without a lot of space in between. We spend a lot of time reminiscing, reflecting, remembering, reorganizing our pasts. You’ll get a lot of statements about fiction exploring themes of memory and loss — well, no shit. It’s like saying a book has words.

I wanted to create a new city like Larkhill to give myself the space to explore how a community can fail itself. I wanted to pull in pieces of places I’ve been in Ontario that fit parts of the mold — Peterborough, Windsor, London, Sarnia, Hamilton, Kitchener, etc. Oshawa is just another of these cities. Places where you won’t get a lot of murders, but places where you will find a lot of stolen car radios. Places where you can see the edge, the spot where someone slips and no one moves to help them. All these places have those streets.

Larkhill in Waste is a vicious nasty place where I dumped 10+ years of police blotter info over a three-day period. It’s the ugly side of your city after dark; it’s got one foot forever stuck in the gutter. It’s not patient. It’s not waiting for you to come home from the bar. Larkhill is a surreal place, but I think that brings it closer to something true, something beyond a sober recounting of where one street intersects with another. Larkhill carries parts of me in it, the liquor warehouse, the waste buckets, the abandoned factories, the dead lawns, the edge of urban sprawl, and those are parts of the old Oshawa too. But in the end it is my world, my bizarre little canvas where I’m trying to work through what makes a place toxic, what can make a community fail itself. Fragile communities and fragile families is what Waste is really about in the end, I guess. Stand back and watch them fall.

AC: When I read Waste, the word ‘cinematic’ came to mind; I thought the novel tread territory similar to a movie like American History X and a few of the acclaimed crime shows on HBO. What, in your mind, does a ‘cinematic’ label mean to a story?

AFS: Cinematic is definitely the right term, I suppose. I am heavily influenced by film, from Cronenberg to Lubitsch, Żuławski to Scorsese. It’s probably an even split between film and prose for me, to be honest. Cinematic when it comes to Waste, I think is a comment on how the book is structured, the editing and my own stylistic ticks. I think in terms of zooms, cuts and dialogue. I spread detail through conversations and deliver back story within action.

I try to tell stories through the actions of my characters. Action and consequence drive my work, rather than reflection and contemplation, and I think that’s where it connects with a lot of modern cinema. Violence is traded back and forth in a lot of my work, but in fairly petty, brief instants that require a lot of punch to deliver. Violence is everyday and endemic, but you still need to feel it. There is definitely a bit of Coen brothers in there. A little bit of Fargo even if I didn’t realize it until today. People do awful things, and yet it’s a beautiful day. With my novel, it’s a machine that is always moving, until it’s not.

When I am making line edits, it is like I am deciding where I want my camera to go, where the focus will be, how I will shift into the foreground or cut to a new character. The beautiful thing about fiction is I can do it all on my own. Film is an amazing form, but it requires capital. It requires collaboration. It requires more than one man can offer, and so it’s a lot harder to achieve that on your own. And I don’t think film offers the same access to the inner life of the characters, the psychological realism — I think prose still offers the best experience in that respect. But to me, these are stories told with whip pans and fade-outs and overlapping dialogue. Or maybe Robert Altman meets David Cronenberg in a back alley somewhere and out crawls a creature like Waste, wet and dripping and asking you to take it home.

AC: What’s next for you?

AFS: I want to get weirder, or to embrace my tendency for the uncomfortable and unsettling a bit more. More explicit, more visceral, more and more of whatever I can throw out there, while keeping a tight hold on the edits. I still want to have some anchor in the real world, but I want to see how far out I can drift out into the slipstream. I’ve got a collection of stories about nightmare hotlines, car accidents, grief vampires and blind children bouncing around right now and a couple novels about human trafficking and a father who can’t die on the backburner. Always something new. If I offer any more details than that and I will probably lose all momentum on the projects, but that’s the way it goes. The other day I saw a strange ugly painting of an opossum and it sent me down a weird path. I almost started sketching out a whole new novel right there just based on that painting. So hopefully that keeps happening.

I know I’m never really done. And that’s okay.

 

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