I was totally thrilled a few weeks ago when I discovered Andrew F. Sullivan collection of short stories All We Want Is Everything. (Link to my review) The book seemed to cover a certain reality that I am aware of yet is very rarely discussed. But then the book seemed to do something for me what any good cultural artifact is suppose to do but rarely does these days: become a topic of conversation. Online, offline, in emails and over coffees, the book kept creeping into my conversations and people seemed eager to hear about it. So I was thrilled this week when Sullivan agreed to answer a few questions. No doubt his thoughts will pique an further interest in his works for us readers.
1) Your latest novel is entitled WASTE. Could you give an outline of it?
WASTE is about bad people making bad decisions because they believe it is the fastest way to deal with a problem. It’s about the collapse of a small Ontario city during the post-industrial decline that swept a lot of blue collar communities in the province. It is a surreal, nightmare version of these cities over the course of one December weekend. The plot kicks off with a wannabe skinhead and a part-time butcher accidentally running over the local drug kingpin’s pet lion and everything that follows circles back to this event. It’s a bit madcap and vicious. It’s a book about dread, about failing to measure up, and about trying to do the right thing when everyone else has already surrendered to their demons. And I hope it’s funny too, but that’s not up to me.
2) What inspired you to write WASTE (if anything?) How long did it take to write?
A lot of things, but primarily all the bullshit lies guys on the afternoon shift would tell each other when I worked in a liquor warehouse. I wanted to create a world where the things they said were actually true (and a lot of them were, in one way or another). I wanted to write a Canadian book that dealt with violence, small scale, but very real violence we often ignore or don’t read about. It’s a currency we trade with each other. It behooves the people who ignore it to continue ignoring it, to claim it isn’t there. But it is and it’s real and it’s coming.
Ontario’s fairly loose zoo laws also played a factor.
3) It has been a few years now since ‘All We Want is Everything.’ It has been noted on a few fronts as being a great book, but how are you finding the public’s reaction to it?
It’s a short story collection, so no matter what, the audience will be small. However, they are great readers and I am incredibly lucky to have this book end up in so many wise readers’ hands, readers who really interrogate the work they consume and respond to the stories I try to tell. I think the short story is a great form, but it does have limited appeal. To see this book still going three years later with new readers really does bring me a lot of happiness. It’s good to find stories that can last.
There is an assumption that everything in AWWIE is true or real, but a lot of the stories are very surreal and strange, including “Mutations“, “Towers“, and “Cloud.” I try to approach the surreal with a very upfront approach, so that may be why readers are willing to go along with the uncomfortable, unreal parts of my work. And I truly appreciate that. I think sometimes the uncanny gives us an opportunity to reexamine our assumptions and approach narrative with fresh eyes.
4) There has been a few discussions in my circles about the cover photo of “All We Want Is Everything?” Did you choose the image for the cover of the book. Do the two dogs in that image symbolize anything for you?
I did choose the photo. I was incredibly lucky to work with a small publisher that valued my input. John K. Samson (of The Weakerthans
) was my editor and he really put in the effort to track down the photographer, Leigh Ledare. Leigh was extremely generous and kind to allow us to use the photo, which I had found five years earlier in an issue of VICE
when it was still primarily a print magazine. I actually had a print out of it attached to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ place, which is still hanging there.
Yes, I do believe the dogs are symbolic for this book. They are circling one another, on the cusp of the fight, and that tension is something I try to work into my own fiction. I am interested in the build-up and the aftermath, the moment before the release and everything that follows. I think it captures a moment of intention. I think it captures a moment of dread, and I think dread might be my biggest obsession.
5) Who are your favourite writers? What are you reading right now?
That’s always a big question and it is always changing. I will say I am a big fan of Richard Price and Richard Yates, I think they both tap into unique strains of desperate and angry America. With Price, its good to start with CLOCKERS and with Yates, I will have to say THE EASTER PARADE.
Toni Morrison’s THE BLUEST EYE was also a huge, huge influence on WASTE and I think about that book often. She has an incredible ability to plant a seed of dread in you and watch it grow. I’m also a fan of Harry Crews, if only for the audacity of his work and his drive to continue writing his own madcap tales. A FEAST OF SNAKES is a favourite from him.
Recently, I’ve been enjoying the works of Yuri Herrera, a Mexican author, whose short novels SIGNS PRECEDING THE END OF THE WORLD and THE TRANSMIGRATION OF BODIES offer up allegories for the unsettling, uncanny world of the border and the complications of violence and blood in modern Mexico. I’m also enjoying the strange, beautiful short stories of Amelia Gray’s GUTSHOT this week.
6) You will be speaking at Toronto’s Word on the Street festival on Sept. 25. Are you looking forward to it? Are public-speaking events something you enjoy doing?
Yes, I look forward to almost all my readings or chances to do public events because it offers a chance to actually meet readers and engage with people who may otherwise never here of your book. Thousands upon thousands of books are published every year and so few of them are read by a wide audience, so these opportunities are very important for any writer. And what self-involved person doesn’t love to be the centre of attention for 7 brief minutes during a reading. No, a lot of writers occasionally abhor readings and I’ve been to plenty of bad ones myself, but a good reading or a good public speaker can really make a story sing. It’s up to the author to make it a performance and to choose a piece that reads well aloud, not just on the page.
7) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, are there details you care to share?
I’ve got another novel that’s just come to a close about a man who believes he’s immortal and human trafficking in Canada, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve also got a collection of stranger, creepier short stories that I’ve been sitting on for a bit. We’ll see where they end up.
8) You seem to be active on the social-media app Twitter. How do you like using social media in relation to promoting your work? Are you on any other social media sites?
I don’t think social media is a great place to seriously promote your work, but it is a really great place to find other writers, publishers and artists who you enjoy and to express your enjoyment. If those people enjoy the work you post or your online presence, then maybe they’ll buy your book, but I think a lot of online social media promotion ends up causing more cringing than sales. It is useful to announce your publications and readings, but a daily push of your book might turn off more people than it brings into the fold. I use other social media like most people in my generation, but I’m not too invested in it beyond making jokes on Twitter.
9) You biography states how you grew up in Oshawa and now live in Toronto. How do you like living in Toronto right now? Are there any cultural institutions in T.O. that you truly enjoy and gain enlightenment from?
I like Toronto a lot, it’s a great cultural hub and it allows me to meet and support a lot of other young writers. Ontario itself has a lot of small towns where you can end up isolated. For now, this is where I want to be. I still have a lot of love for my hometown, but Toronto is where the jobs are for me currently.
If we’re talking cultural institutions, I am forever thankful that we have the TIFF Lightbox
here. The programming they run year round is incredible, the audiences are usually great and some of the guests they bring in for Q+A or lecture series often lead to some incredibly unique and treasured experiences. I will never forget Guillermo Del Toro breaking down the history of the Gothic romance before we all watched Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
No movies outside your regular blockbusters ever came to my hometown, so it’s pretty great to live in a city that will run a Brian De Palma retrospective and an Andrzej Żuławski retrospective at the same time.