An Interview with Sam Allingham

22 Dec
Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham is the author of the story collection, The Great American Songbook.

Sam Allingham grew up in rural New Jersey and Philadelphia. After graduating from Oberlin College, he worked for many years as a music teacher for adults and small(ish) children, before receiving an MFA from Temple University in 2013. His work has appeared in One Story, American Short Fiction, Epoch, n+1, The Millions, and Full Stop, among other publications. He currently lives in West Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University.

To read an exercise on not over-explaining characters’ behavior based on Allingham’s story “Stockholm Syndrome,” click here.

In this interview, Allingham discusses his story “Stockholm Syndrome” and openings that don’t focus on main characters, explaining only what is necessary, and writing characters with desire in cold worlds.

Michael Noll

There is so much misdirection in this story, though it doesn’t feel that way at the time. For example, the story begins with the blind man and his wife, but they’re not really central characters. They exist in large extent as something for other characters to comment on. There’s also Valerie’s old boyfriend, a character who is entirely off page but who plays a significant role in how we understand the action and world of the story. Because (I think) of both of these sets of characters, I was absolutely bowled over by the ending—stunned. I did not see it coming. Did you? How early into the draft did you know where the story as headed?

Sam Allingham

The opening scene, like so many of my openings, was written as a set piece: I had no idea who the characters were, or whether any of them were going to be central to the story. I don’t subscribe to the concept that an opening ought to focus entirely on the principal characters; to me, it’s more about establishing mood and perspective—in this case, Valerie’s tentative, somewhat apologetic attitude toward the world. She wants to know people intimately, and yet her past experiences have made this difficult. In a sense, every character within the story—whether metadiegetic, like the characters from Valerie’s research, or biographical, like Thomas—are ultimately about trying to understand Valerie’s relationship to trauma. The opening was about me learning about her: what will her observation of this couple come to represent for her?

By the time of her initial dinner with Thomas, I knew Valerie pretty well—I knew that if Thomas invited her to visit, she would come. And I’d already decided that Thomas was a master manipulator, so the ending didn’t come as much of a surprise to me. Really, Valerie already knows, too—she’s already seen the way that Thomas’ charm is actually about hiding his true face from the world. But by this point she’s too emotionally invested in him to let herself see.

What did come as a surprise was the use of the Fritzl case, which was coming out more or less as I wrote the piece. So, being a magpie, I slotted it in.

Michael Noll

This is a story that begs explanation: What’s going on with Leigh Anne? What does she think is going on? Why does Thomas act the way he does? What do all those women at the end think? By the end of the story, I’m able to answer these questions part way—but not completely. How did you know how much to reveal or suggest and how much you could get away with keeping inaccessible and mysterious?

Sam Allingham

My basic rule is that you only have to explain the things that aren’t a mystery to your ordering perspective: in this case, Valerie. She doesn’t know Leigh Anne, and so Leigh Anne remains unexplained. Ditto Thomas: the reader is forced to judge him through Valerie’s (admittedly) unreliable eyes. I guess I trust my readers to fill in the blanks. As I said before, the story is really about Valerie: the way her perspective tricks her into mis-seeing the world, by overlaying her own trauma onto Thomas.

Michael Noll

When was “Stockholm Syndrome” written relative to the other stories in the collection? It feels of a piece in terms of the characters and their preoccupations, but it’s formally quite different from, say, “Rodgers and Hart” and “One Hundred Characters.” Were those stories (or “Stockholm Syndrome”) written to try out a different style, or did the style reveal itself as you wrote?

Sam Allingham

Sam Allingham's collection The Great American Songbook has been called "hilarious and deeply unnerving" by Dan Chaon.

Sam Allingham’s collection The Great American Songbook has been called “hilarious and deeply unnerving” by Dan Chaon.

Funnily enough, those three stories were more or less contemporaneous. I write in two modes: shorter, lighter, and more linguistically experimental stories, and longer, darker, more narrative pieces. The shorter ones are usually constrained, stylistic experiments. With a piece like “One Hundred Characters,” for example, I was primarily interested in seeing if it was possible to maintain a reader’s interest without offering any narrative beyond a list of one hundred characters; with “Rodgers and Hart” I was interested in seeing if a series of comparisons could be a story. With the longer stories, I’m generally interested in investigating one character’s psychology, or sometimes two: the monomaniacal builder in “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes,” for example, and the narrator who serves as his recorder.

Michael Noll

The book is blurbed by Dan Chaon, a writer whose work exudes the Lovecraftian belief that the world cannot be understood except that it a) doesn’t care about you and b) might be actively hostile to you. So many of the stories in this book resist closure and conclusion. By the end of “Stockholm Syndrome,” I felt as though I were hurtling into the abyss. “Rodgers and Hart” is about a relationship that will never be fully realized. “One Hundred Characters” takes a very long-distance view of its world, and “Tiny Cities Made of Ash” has a character whose motivations remain utterly shrouded even at the end. For this, I love these stories, the same as I love Dan Chaon’s work. But these stories also have a kind of warmth, a promise of hope and connection, that I’m not sure always exists in Chaon’s work. In stories, the world is cold, but the characters are hot, filled with desire. I’m curious how you navigate your way through your work. Do you start with the characters and their desire and then frustrate it with the disregard (or hostility) of the world? Or do you start with the cold world and drop into it characters full of desire?

Sam Allingham

Dan was my advisor as an undergrad, and a wonderful teacher. It’s funny, his novels (and later stories) can be extremely Lovecraftian, but I tend to think there’s human connection in his world, too. His second collection, Among the Missing, was a big influence on me, because it contains so many stories of people who are actively enduring tragedy and suffering, even in the face of a nearly supernatural sense of doom. I mean, my general sense is that most people, at some point in their lives, press up against the limits of what life offers them, or have life press forcibly against them in some traumatic way. For the narrator in “Tiny Cities,” his friend’s construction of a model version of their town comes to stand in for the way his own family has become somewhat trapped in the real town of Elverton; for Cheryl, this comes when her mother takes her father’s place (and clothes) after his death. I suppose I always try to put people in conflict with the limits of their world – which is probably why I tend to write female characters as much (or more) than men; women, in my experience, tend to be much, much more aware of the ways in which the world is out to restrict their free thought and action.
This is all probably a long-winded way of saying that for me, desire is always delimited by the coldness of the world, and the way it restricts our actions. That’s what makes it desire!

December 2016

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: