Tag Archives: The Great American Songbook

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.

How to Not Over-Explain a Character’s Behavior

20 Dec
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.

When you sit through enough writing workshops, you begin to recognize certain patterns to how students respond to stories. For example, in almost every workshop, someone will say about a story, “I want more.” A good instructor will push back: “More what?” And that’s usually where the critique begins to break down. “I don’t know, just more,” the student might say. For the person whose story it is, this can be incredibly frustrating. But it’s also a necessary part of learning to diagnose what isn’t working in a piece of fiction. The person saying, “I want more,” senses that there’s a problem but doesn’t know what it is. The problem could be almost anything, but the solution is almost never simply writing more. In fact, more can often ruin whatever is most compelling about the story.

A good example of how less-is-more can drive a story forward can be found in Sam Allingham’s story, “Stockholm Syndrome.” It was originally published in Epoch and is included in his debut collection The Great American Songbook.

How the Story Works

The story is about a woman, Betty, who has come out of an abusive relationship with a man named Will. Most of the story takes place after the relationship has ended, when she works in a coffee shop with a magnetic, mysterious barista, Thomas, that she has a crush on. The foundation for how she interacts with this new guy and what happens next is that early relationship. Here’s one scene from that backstory:

But then there was the rest stop, just after they crossed into Idaho. When they passed through the double doors and passed the crane machine to Roy Rogers, he grabbed her arm and held her close, as if he was afraid of losing her—as if she might disappear into the crowd and leave him behind. She remembers wanting to whisper, You don’t need to hold so tight. He looked so sad in those days, pale and skinny in his Smiths T-shirt. You could see in his eyes this overwhelming need for love.

When she went to pay, she found that her wallet was missing.

“You dropped it on the floor of the car,” he spoke from behind her shoulder. “Lucky I picked it up.”

He took out her money and paid for them both.

It’s good I have Will around to remember things, she often told people. I’m so absent-minded.

The end of this scene packs a punch because we, the readers, understand the flaw in her thinking. We know she’s being manipulated. We’re worried about his “overwhelming need for love” and pick up on the gross detail about him paying for them both with her money. Naturally, we wonder why she doesn’t pick up on these things, too. After all, it’s her story. We get inside her head. We trust her perspective. If this story was being workshopped, someone might ask, “Why doesn’t she see what he’s doing?” and then trot out that dreaded statement: “I want to see more of this relationship.”

The problem is that showing more of the relationship won’t explain why Betty didn’t recognize what Will was doing (or didn’t admit to herself that she recognized it). It’s like when I’m searching the refrigerator for something and can’t find it. Then, my wife comes over and finds it immediately. “How did you not see it?” she’ll ask. I don’t know. I just didn’t. There’s no explaining it.

In “Stockholm Syndrome,” explaining why Betty doesn’t see through Will would ruin the story. So, Allingham doesn’t try. Instead, he does something much more interesting. Here’s the beginning of the next scene (after a space break):

Betty doesn’t really know Thomas’ girlfriend, Leigh Anne. Nobody at the shop does. She never comes in; when she does come to meet Thomas, she calls in advance and has him meet her in a health food store a few blocks away, where Thomas says she buys her tinctures and herbal supplements. Leigh Anne has a number of health problems that Thomas can never quite explain, problems that make it difficult for her to get out of bed in the morning.

Taken on its own, without context, this description of Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship might sound a little off, but coming as it does after Will’s manipulation of Betty, this passage rings some pretty clear warning bells. Allingham drives this home with a bit of dialogue from another coffee shop worker:

It’s sweet of Thomas to take care of Leigh Anne like that,” Valerie says. “A lot of people would have let somebody like that drop.”

Instead of explaining Betty’s own relationship, Allingham drops her into a situation where something similar seems to be happening. The question becomes, “What will she do?” In short, the important question to answer is not “Why did she do that?” but “What will she do next?”

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make the reader ask “What will she do next?” using “Stockholm Syndrome” by Sam Allingham as a model:

  1.  Give your character a blind spot. What does the character not see that others recognize? Betty doesn’t see (or doesn’t admit) that she’s being manipulated by Will. Shakespeare did this constantly: Othello and Macbeth don’t see some pretty significant things. For them, this blindness is a so-called fatal flaw, but the blind spot doesn’t necessarily need to lead to a bad ending. Most romantic comedies are also built around blind spots: everyone knows the two characters are meant to be—except the two characters. What does your character not recognize?
  2. Juxtapose the thing and the blindness. Allingham does this with the wallet scene, following Will’s manipulative actions immediately with Betty’s thoughts: It’s good I have Will around to remember things…I’m so absent-minded. Putting these so closely together highlights the blind spot. So, find a clear scene that contains both the thing that is not seen and the character not seeing it.
  3. Don’t belabor this juxtaposition. Drop it on the reader and then get out. Allingham literally gets out of the scene with a space break.
  4. Put the blind character in a situation with someone else who is blind in the same way. Betty sees a similar situation in Thomas and Leigh Anne’s relationship, but she’s not blind to it because it’s not happening to her. The trick to making this work is laying out the situation clearly so that everyone understands the connections. Don’t be subtle or sly. In fact, don’t be afraid to drive home the connection, as Allingham does with Valerie’s dialogue. He makes Valerie blind in the same way that Betty was blind in the earlier scene—or so it seems.

The goal is to create an opportunity for a character to act. It’s like the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If a character has been fooled or blinded in the past, he or she will naturally want to get it right the next time around. The question becomes, what will the character do this time—and is the character actually seeing things more clearly now?

Good luck.

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