Friends, I had the honor of doing this interview with George Williams, a short story writer and novelist who teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design.
Mr. Williams is a very interesting man who had the great fortune to work with Donald Barthelme, whose writing marginally resembles the stories in The Valley of Happiness. If you don’t know Mr. Barthelme’s work, why not pick up one of the man’s books? Failing that, it looks as though a kind Internet citizen has secured permission to collect some works online. (Cool…look at one of Mr. Barthelme’s syllabi!)
(A slight tangent: one of the things in life for which I’m most grateful is that I can say that I worked with some all-time great writers and teachers: Ira Sukrungruang, Robert O’Connor, Lee K. Abbott, Lee Martin, Erin McGraw, Kathy Fagan, Michelle Herman… Writers and scholars are all part of a line of knowledge seekers that goes all the way back to Socrates and beyond. Mr. Williams is in Mr. Barthelme’s line. I know folks who are in Raymond Carver’s line. We should all take a moment to reflect upon how thankful we are for the teachers we’ve had along the way.)
One of the stories in Valley is titled “Televangelist at the Texas Motel.” The story is a single page; three paragraphs of relentless sentences and exclamation points. When I read the story, I made the note that the piece is “a kind of prayer.” During the course of our conversation, Mr. Williams pointed out that “Televangelist” began life as an exercise assigned by Mr. Barthelme, who told his students to write a rant.
Remember, friends, no word we write is ever a waste. Even when our lines are flabby and our characters flat, we’re building our skills and increasing the likelihood that the next piece will be better. In many cases, including this one, exercises can even be published. This story appeared in Gulf Coast in 1989.
Mr. Williams has published two collections, both with Raw Dog Screaming Press. Both volumes also feature jacket art created by great artists who also happen to work for free, seeing as how they’ve been dead for hundreds of years. The tone of The Valley of Happiness and its stories is set by “The Magpie on the Gallows,” a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Mr. Williams admires the feeling of the painting. At first, you think that one of the men is being led to the gallows for a hanging. Then you realize that there is simply a party happening…in the same place where those folks witness executions.
For this exercise, I’m pretend-assigning you in Barthelme style to compose a rant based upon a classic (public domain) painting. What are some of the qualities of a rant?
- Extreme emotion. Rants are what happen when our reasonable rhetoric has been ignored.
- Brazen language. Subtlety doesn’t quite work for a rant.
- A subject worthy of the above. Did the drive-through worker forget to give you a third napkin? You’ll live. Confront a subject of real importance to the individual or the larger world.
Here are some examples. Feel free to download the images so you can see bigger versions.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance”
Edgar Degas’ “The Dance Class”
Caravaggio’s “Boy With a Basket of Fruit”
There’s plenty to rant about in these paintings. Are you pleased or angry that the all-male space seems to have been turned into a co-ed gathering? Can you believe what the ballerina with the green bow said about the one with the yellow bow? They’re supposed to be friends! And can you believe the lengths to which dieticians will go to try and make you add more fruits to your diet?!?!?
Those paintings don’t do anything for you? That’s fine. There are plenty more paintings where those came from. You can find 44,000 paintings here.
Want an example of an audio rant? Here’s playwright/comedian Lewis Black laying down some truth:
Good luck writing your own rants. You never know; you might produce a publishable piece of work! And keep in mind that you could always paste the result of your labor into a comment on this page. Who knows? Maybe I’ll publish your rant on its own page and write about what we can learn from you!
Donald Barthelme, George Williams, Raw Dog Screaming
Enjoy this interview with George Williams, author of The Valley of Happiness, a collection published by the fine people at Raw Dog Screaming Press.
Take a look at Mr. Williams’s Goodreads page:
Order your copies of his Raw Dog Screaming books from the publisher:
Here is a text interview Mr. Williams granted to D. Harlan Williams:
Mr. Williams refers to a book about the Shakespeare Authorship question. He’s talking about James Shapiro’s excellent book, Contested Will:
Here’s “The Magpie on the Gallows,” the painting that Mr. Williams chose for the cover of his collection:
Like writing exercises? Here is one inspired by the conversation I had with Mr. Williams:
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Music: “BugaBlue,” Live At Blues Alley by U.S. Army Blues is licensed under a Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.
Many thanks to the Library of Congress for their beautiful public domain images:
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2012649048/ (Savannah during the Civil War era!)
http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/fsa1998006340/PP/ (Voters in 1940 North Carolina waiting to cast their ballots!)
Short Story Collection
2014, George Williams, Raw Dog Screaming
Title of Work and its Form: “The Road to Damascus,” short story
Author: George Williams
Date of Work: 1993
Where the Work Can Be Found: The piece first appeared in the Summer/Fall 1993 issue of Gulf Coast, one of the most respected journals around. The story was awarded a Pushcart Prize and was included in the 1994/1995 anthology. Raw Dog Screaming Press published Gardens of Earthly Delight in 2011; the book collected some of Mr. Williams’s work, including “The Road to Damascus.” Why not purchase the book directly from the small press? The RDSP folks and Mr. Williams would also be pretty stoked, I’m sure, if you purchased the book or the reasonably priced Kindle version from Amazon.
Bonuses: Here is an interview Mr. Williams did with D. Harlan Wilson for Issue 35 of The Dream People. Here is an interesting review of Garden by I Read Odd Books. Here is an interview in which Mr. Williams discusses his writing process with Heidi Ruby Miller.
Element of Craft We’re Stealing: The Writer/Reader Relationship
This fairly short short story is an intense second-person examination of a man who is losing control. It begins in relative calm; he/you “are carving a roasting chicken” and you are convincing yourself that “the knife will not–I repeat–not of its own free will stab your lovely wife clean through the back.” You’re an insurance salesman and you fantasize about shouting racially provocative statements in the office. By the end of the story, of course, the “you will not’s” increase in magnitude, climaxing as “God in his thunder is readying to avenge right now, for the summer thunderhead swept in off the Gulf, it says, and you can hear it say, BLOWOUT SALE ENDS SATURDAY. PREPARE TO DIE.”
None of us should be surprised that this piece is as short as it is. The language and ideas are pretty hardcore; that kind of intensity can wear a reader down if it goes on for hundreds of pages. But a handful of pages? It’s not a problem at all. The writer’s responsibility, therefore, is to make the language in the piece as potent as possible. Here’s one way in which Mr. Williams turns up the heat: by structuring his sentences in an unanticipated manner. Look at the first sentence of the second paragraph:
You will not at your boss’s annual summer evening Hawaiian pool party walk up to your associate’s wife and pluck the nursing newborn from her disbelieving arms and dash it on the mossy stones of the Japanese rock garden.
Most of the time, the location of the hypothetical events would go AFTER “you” and “the wife” like so:
You will not walk up to your associate’s wife at your boss’s annual summer evening Hawaiian pool party and pluck the nursing newborn…
What’s the effect of casting the sentence in the way Mr. Williams did? The reader is slightly disoriented. This kind of feeling is appropriate and even welcome in a very short piece in which “you” are being asked to address “your” desire to do some very bad things. “Normal” stories should run by the rules of the “normal” world. Mr. Williams’s story takes place in the mind of someone who is a little bit “abnormal,” so it stands to reason that the way he puts his thoughts together would also be a little “abnormal.”
A writer has a very special relationship with his or her readers. No matter the kind of story, the first sentences are a kind of introduction between two people. In the “real” world, a relationship is established very quickly with verbal and non-verbal cues. Say you go to the DMV. You smile a little bit at the person behind the counter and they smile back. You hold out a handful of documents, greet the employee and tell him or her what you want. In the space of only a few seconds, you and the DMV employee tell each other that you’re both pleasant and cool people and that you both are happy to address your mutual goals. (You want to get your licensed renewed and the employee wants to get you out the door so they can help the next person.)
Here’s the beginning of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:
Phase the First: The Maiden, I-XI
On an evening in the latter part of May a middle-aged man was walking homeward from Shaston to the village of Marlott, in the adjoining Vale of Blakemore, or Blackmoor. The pair of legs that carried him were rickety, and there was a bias in his gait which inclined him somewhat to the left of a straight line. He occasionally gave a smart nod, as if in confirmation of some opinion, though he was not thinking of anything in particular. An empty egg-basket was slung upon his arm, the nap of his hat was ruffled, a patch being quite worn away at its brim where his thumb came in taking it off. Presently he was met by an elderly parson astride on a gray mare, who, as he rode, hummed a wandering tune.
How is Hardy greeting you? Well, I would say that he is checking to make sure you have a cup of tea before telling you a long, but interesting story. He doesn’t begin with Tess. No, he orients you in the world of his story and begins establishing the big-hearted, but run-down and imperfect world that Tess calls home. You are a traveler walking along Hardy.
Compare that to the opening of “The Road to Damascus:”
You are carving a roasting chicken. The knife will not–I repeat–not of its own free will stab your lovely wife clean through the back. The chicken is food: it is not a dead bird, a derelict descendant of vanished dinosaurs spilling ammoniac rot and kidney slick onto the carving platter your in-laws from St. Petersburg mailed you two weeks before your wife five years ago was delivered prematurely of a stillborn girl while you were in a topless bar in Fort Lauderdale drunk out of your mind with colleagues.
Mr. Williams is pointing his finger at you (in a friendly way, of course) and slamming you into the mindset of a person who doesn’t resemble you in the least. Writers should like to play around and relate to readers in different ways from time to time.
What Should We Steal?
- Build intensity by employing oddly structured sentences. Calm, Strunk & White-approved sentences are great in some pieces, but inappropriate for others.
- Get in your reader’s face from time to time. A relationship involves all kinds of different interactions, and that includes the relationship between writer and reader.
1993, Garden of Earthly Delights, George Williams, Gulf Coast, Raw Dog Screaming, The Writer/Reader Relationship