Nine questions with Andrew F. Sullivan
All We Want is Everything has been taking CanLit by storm. The debut short fiction collection by Oshawa native Andrew F. Sullivan has earned rave reviews for its gritty realism, toughness, and clear-eyed portrayals of characters living at the margins of society.
Zoe Whittall, writing for The Globe and Mail, calls Sullivan “a writer whose promise is clear and whose future looks bright.” Over at Salty Ink, Chad Pelley applauds Sullivan, who “never shies away from the uneasiness and honesty required to authenticate the dark characters he musters.”
Reading the stories in Sullivan’s collection, what impressed me most was the respect he demonstrates for his characters, a staunchly unsentimental but always compassionate handling of the hard corners and dead ends they find themselves in.
Andrew recently took some time to answer a few questions for Currently Living.
Congrats on the publication of All We Want is Everything. Tell me more about how the collection came together. Did you work with an agent for publication, or is this one you pitched directly to publishers?
I was working in a videogame store, waiting to see what would happen with my novel. I wrote because that’s what you do. I hit up public libraries most days and tried to bang something out. I haven’t been doing that lately and it is definitely taking a toll on my mind a bit. The collection has stuff from all the way back to 2007 in it, but the majority of it was written in 2011-2012. I tried to find stories with the same desperation in them, the same wants. I had an idea of what would fit, but there are a lot of pieces out there I did not even consider.
I have an agent, but I sent John (at ARP) my stuff just to read, maybe get some input. I was not pitching them to pick up my work. I did not imagine the short story collection would get picked up by ARP Books, but I was excited when it did—there would be a book, after all. A real thing I could throw at people, set on fire, leave on a train or hide in a hole. Even after I’m dead.
The book came together pretty quickly after that. Working with ARP was a really great and collaborative process. They really listen to their authors and allow them to participate in the decisions. You are a part of the book being made.
How has the collection been received so far? Is the response what you expected?
The response to the collection has been far more than I imagined. People seem to get what the book is about, or what the stories might be saying. There are a lot of stories in it, but they are all pretty short. I try not to waste words, but we all fail at that anyway. Zoe Whittall at the Globe and Mail and Chad Pelley at Salty Ink were especially generous to my work in their reviews. I am just happy people are reading it, getting whatever they can out of it. It’s pretty easy to complain about the state of books these days, or write a diatribe about the short story, but the fact people are even reading this thing is the best part. It’s the part that’s real.
The collection features a great blurb by Miriam Toews, who I understand was your thesis advisor. What was it like to work with her? Did her feedback have an influence on the stories?
Miriam is an incredibly generous writer, but also just a great human being. Half our time was spent finishing off a beer or moving furniture around. She taught me how to finish what I start, to participate in the stories I tell, to engage with the characters on a daily basis. It is very easy to talk about writing, talk around writing, to give advice in 25 points for everyone to swallow without chewing. Miriam does not do any of that. She is focused on character, on story, on bringing things full circle. She will also tell you when you are wrong. You need that.
I wrote the majority of the stories after I finished working with Miriam on the novel while at U of T. I took a lot of what I learned from her to heart and sent her some drafts when things were workable with the stories. I wanted the quality to be there, the story to be there, and I knew Miriam would notice if it was missing. You want to throw the best stuff you have out there, even if it does come up short. It’s never finished when you think it’s done.
In addition to Miriam, who are some of your other writing mentors? Anyone whose work has had a particular influence on your own writing?
Jeff Parker, who ran my workshop at U of T, was a big influence. He’s basically an all-star mechanic for stories. He can diagnose the problem and point out all the flaws without raising a finger, just slowly laying out all the shit you screwed up along the way to the finish. His work has great control and some powerful voices in it. Parker will also show you how to drink vodka. And he does awesome work with Disquiet every summer. The man’s a wrecking force with a mild manner. He turned me on to a ton of writers and helped punch some stories into shape.
Larry Garber at UWO and Rosemary Sullivan at U of T also kept me in line along the way. I felt like they both kept me on my toes, trimmed away my excesses, exposed the moments when I was just trying to get by. You need someone to wake you up. Stand under the harsh light.
Donald Ray Pollock can write a hell of an opening line. Richard Price’s Clockers should be on all your shelves. I won’t even bother writing personal essays until I figure out how and why Roxane Gay’s stuff is so good. Richard Yates will tear out your heart and feed it to you at a nice quiet dinner. You will enjoy it and puke afterward. Richard Lange writes the kind of crime fiction everyone else will be trying to write ten years from now. I realize I have a trinity of Richards there, but nothing holy about it. Barbara Gowdy will make you uncomfortable, but you’ll stay anyway to hear how it ends. Harry Crews will shove a snake down your throat just to see what will happen. Phillip K. Dick is still blowing shit up from beyond the grave. Katherine Dunn will experiment on you until you break and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye is always going to hurt you even when you think you’re healed.
That’s just a start, but I think it’s a good one for influences.
The stories in All We Want is Everything are dark and tight, featuring narrators and characters often at the end of their rope, who have had little in the way of luck or good fortune in their lives. What’s the typical inspiration or germ for your stories. Plot or character?
Incident probably provides the most fuel for me. Moments and decisions which create a character, define a person for better or worse. I’m not sketching out anything in advance—even with novels, longer pieces, does not matter. The germ is whatever makes the character compelling, whatever pushes the person into a place where they need to react. I am not great at contemplation, but I am working on it. I want there to be a story in the story, but I’m not going to hold my own hand from start to finish. I want to be surprised as I go along. I don’t believe the character is actually guiding you or any of that shit, but I do believe there are certain paths a character might take once it’s sprouted. And it’s your responsibility to push or pull whoever you’ve created into something worth the reader’s time. Or better yet, something the reader won’t agree with, won’t want to see—you’ve got a duty to keep their eyes yanked open. Make them remember.
Many of the stories have been published previously. Did you have a sense, writing each story, of how they might to fit together as a collection? What was the process of putting the collection together?
Not at the outset. I write a wide variety of material. I’ve got short stories about Twin Peaks, Lego, scarecrows and abandoned mattresses out there. I’ve written about 18th century witch hunters in Pennsylvania and horses made of dead flesh and fire. I enjoy writing realist stuff, but it does not contain me. Even in the collection, there are seeds of absurd shit starting to sprout.
The stories came together in their desperation, their failure and want. It all comes back to desire, I guess. That’s what I found in the stories I gathered up for the collection. The voices are all over the place, but they definitely come back to roots in semi-abandoned places, almost wastelands. Not so much a division between rural and urban out there, but a place left behind by everyone else, by the belief in progress as a positive, as a one-way. The world is not waiting for any of the characters. Almost all of them are trying to cope, trying to catch up. And I guess they are anchored in the past too, holding them down, reminding them of what they were. It does not matter how they try to change or improve themselves, most of these characters refuse to confront the past, to hold themselves accountable for who they are, what they’ve done.
The process to put together the collection involved a lot of pulling and pushing stories around. I worked with John K. Samson and Kathleen Olmstead on the edits for the book. We really wanted to get the sequence of the stories right, the flow of it. Some stories got pulled and put back in later. There were five or six that just did not make it into the book, which is good. You need a killing floor. You need to prune, to clean out the deadfall. I could not be happier with how it turned out in the end. It’s the book I wanted to make, and that’s what I am left with at this point. ARP was great about the whole process
One of my favourite stories is “God is a Place”, a short piece about a man named Caleb and a young infant. For me it’s typical Sullivan territory—a guy with a lot of struggles trying, deep down, to do what he thinks is the right thing. Despite the story’s dark conclusion, you handle Caleb with compassion. Can you tell me more about this story?
I need to make a flag for this territory—a baby in a snowbank. It’s definitely one of the briefest stories in the collection, but I wanted it to be in there. “God is a Place” was spat out one night in the dark, collecting details from shitty apartments I’d lived in at one point or another, guys I worked with, churches I’d stumbled into and out of after a few minutes. It’s a story about compulsion. I did not know where it would go when I started and the title was jacked from a Neutral Milk Hotel song, a line that always filled with me with dread—“God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life.” I think we underestimate emotions like dread and anticipation—we use the default of tension to describe these things. I also think this story is a good example of letting the character dictate the story, the character and incident colliding with one another until the whole thing becomes unavoidable. It’s also a good example of insomnia.
And I am sorry about the baby.
Say you could only read one book over and over for the rest of your life. What would it be?
Not sure what level of hell that would be—somewhere deep down I’m sure. Default would be the Bible for all the murder, plagues and demons, but that’s an easy out so I decline. It would probably burst into flames in this realm of yours anyway. One book to read until the end of time—The Neverending Story. Not for the joke either—it’s a great work of imagination, it’s about storytelling without being smug about it, it’s got the greatest villain of all time (THE NOTHING) and there’s a goddamn lion made of fire in it, a lion you can ride. The kid is inventing worlds, coming of age, confronting the monsters he has made and repairing what was once broken. That book is a life all on its own, a fall and a revival.
I am committed to that choice.
What’s next for you? What projects are you working on currently and what can we expect from Andrew Sullivan over the next few years?
No idea. Keep writing. Keep working. It’s a job even when you don’t get paid. Making plans out loud on the internet forever is a good way to look foolish. I’ve got a skinhead novel finished off, another about human trafficking still bucking and kicking on my hard drive, and bunch of strange short stories starting to fester into something whole about community, abandonment and resurrection. There are a couple ideas I want to chase down too. Just ghosts currently. Organ farming, alternate histories of the Wild West, English witches, ancient zoos, bush pilots, children growing up in Romanian orphanages in the ’80s—I am just playing catch up at this point.
Let’s just say books for now.