On May 12th, at the 8th annual One Story Literary Debutante Ball, we will be celebrating nine of our authors who have published their debut books over the past year. In the weeks leading up to the Ball, we’ll be introducing our Debs through a series of interviews.
This week we’re talking to Sam Allingham, author of One Story issue #97 “Bar Joke, Arizona” and the short story collection The Great American Songbook. Allingham’s debut showcases narrative versatility and range of emotion over the course of its nine stories. The opening two, respectively, introduce us to vivid fictionalizations of American jazz greats Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, and a city barista who moves to bohemian western Massachusetts to practice polygamy. Allingham’s structural inventiveness is unyielding; one story builds off of a bar joke while another manages to sketch a negative of a character’s life by describing all of the other people in it. Love, mania, dangerous obsession, and devotion to one’s craft often blur uncomfortably, but there are otherwise few summary statements that could be made fairly about this heterogeneous collection.
Tyler Baldwin: Where were you when you found out that The Great American Songbook was going to be published? How did you celebrate?
Sam Allingham: I found out at work, and my wife and I celebrated that night by going to the local bar in our neighborhood, where we’d met, and where I did a lot of the joke-collection (i.e., fieldwork) for “Bar Joke, Arizona.” Since I wrote that story almost ten years ago—it’s the oldest in the collection—it felt like things had travelled more or less full circle. That felt very satisfying.
TB: Several of the long stories in your collection start off innocuously enough, only to take a dark turn when a central character develops a mania or reveals some wholly unanticipated, grotesque aspect. I’m thinking especially of “Husbandry,” but also of “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes.” The obsessions you invent in these stories are fascinating—for example, shooting small animals for food, and unsettlingly accurate model-building. I’m curious about how you came up with them, and if, when you began writing these stories, you were aware that they would surface.
SA: I usually start a story with some sense of the central conflict. I think of this as the initial thrust required to get the story into orbit, whether that’s the initial glimpse of the model city in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” or the mother dressing up in hunting clothes in “Husbandry.” So those two manias were present as soon as I started writing; the story’s inciting incidents wouldn’t exist without them, and they represent the central desire that drives the narrative. But as for how these ideas appeared, I’m afraid I don’t really know! I suppose the desire to build scale models of the place in which you live is really just a reflection of the writing process. I can tell you, though, that you can get a lot of narrative torque out of the tension between a monomaniacal character and a so-called “normal” one; the monomaniac forces their foil to reflect on their own desires, and to react in ways the reader might not expect.
TB: This collection is bookended by stories about several famous American Jazz musicians of yesteryear. The way you write their characters, it seems almost as if you’re a historical biographer, like you have intimate knowledge of their habits, foibles, and dispositions. What sparked your interest in fictionalizing this particular group of people, and how fictional are they?
SA: Almost entirely fictional! I did read a biography of Artie Shaw, and I listened to some interviews, but my Artie is in no way an accurate depiction of the man himself. He’s much more an homage to certain books by Thomas Bernhard than he is a real person—or, I guess, an attempt to turn a first-person rant into its own kind of music. I was interested in Shaw because of his intense hatred towards popular music, his great talent and also his sense of the insufficiency of that talent. All the other biographical stuff struck me as mostly incidental.
As for Rodgers and Hart, I did essentially no research, other than listening to their songs. I still know next to nothing about them, but the piece isn’t really about the context of their lives as much as it’s about the collaborative relationship between artists of two particular kinds: the one who finds his work fluid and easy (perhaps too easy), and the one who finds himself tortured by it. Also the relationship between music and language, composer and lyricist, fluency and neurosis.
TB: In your jazz stories, Artie Shaw and Lorenz Hart are so embittered. They end up hating not only the music industry—with the way commerce, friendship, and art strain against each other—but music itself. I’m used to authors waxing poetic and celebrating music as this higher sublimated language, but Artie longs for silence. A former music teacher and Oberlin student yourself, how do music and musicianship inform your writing?
SA: In my experience, writing that waxes poetic about music is usually extremely unsuccessful, and people who celebrate music for its communicative powers are often non-musicians! The musicians I know get intensely frustrated by the structure of music: its limitations, its repetitions and clichés. Like all artists, they’re leery of repeating themselves, trying to push through the limitations of the form and into some unexplored realm. That’s Shaw’s trouble, in the title story of my collection. He can feel the limits of his own playing, even if nobody else seems to notice, and it drives him half-crazy.
I think it’s easy to overstate the relationship between music and language. No worse critical cliché than calling someone’s prose “musical!” Of course, I pay attention to rhythm in my prose, maybe more than the average writer; I did start my musical life as a drummer—but I think a lot of the stories in the collection that are about musicians dramatize the unbridgeable differences between the two forms. Music occurs in time and space, it’s outward facing, and at its best (during certain improvisatory moments) it can feel almost unconscious. Language, on the other hand—by this I mean written language—sits outside time, in the exchange between writer and reader; it’s inward, ruminative; it has a tendency towards obsessive neurosis, extreme self-consciousness.
That being said, what unifies a song and a story is that both forms are highly structural. There’s an architecture to each, whether the audience recognizes it or not. I think being a musician taught me respect and also a certain frustration with form: chord changes, rising and falling action. It taught me that the best way to treat such a structure is to stretch it to the breaking point.
TB: While reading The Great American Songbook, I found myself unable to pin down your style or classify your stories. The collection contains one or two traditional, realist short stories, but also the likes of “Bar Joke, Arizona,” which is quite literally a bar joke that, with some narrative propulsion, becomes something entirely new and different. Is there a particular style that you’re most comfortable writing in? Which of the stories in this collection was most challenging to write, and why?
SA: For me, the joy in writing a story is figuring out the particular way it wants to work. A good story builds its own form, sort of mollusk-like; ideally, the thematic core builds outward, either from a scene or a premise or a character. I often stop after the first few pages of a story and think: what does this one need? It’s like you’re confronted with a marvelous new animal and you have to figure out how to feed it, keep it alive. So I would say that there’s no particular style I feel comfortable writing in because each animal has its own particular needs. That being said, the hardest story in the collection to write was “Stockholm Syndrome,” simply because it’s by far the longest, and because it was very difficult, emotionally, to live in Valerie’s head. She reminded me of unpleasant aspects of my own world vision.
TB: Lastly, what are you looking forward to at the One Story Debutante Ball?
SA: I’m looking forward to reading the books by the other debutantes, and re-reading the ones I’ve already read. I don’t get out into the NYC literary world much, so I’m excited to wear a nice suit and drink cocktails and have lively conversations about literature!