Interview by Troy Palmer, 2012.

LF: Your bio says that you worked in a warehouse. How much did that experience inspire Bright Outside?

AS: The warehouse provided a loose framework, but the story sprang more from the urban legends in the place. Guys who’d lost fingers or fallen to their death in the stacks. Stuff like driving home through the roadkill every night and the bathrooms reeking of smoke, those facts definitely came from personal experience, but a lot of it was just barroom bullshit. Even so, there are kernels of truth buried in all the crap that you can dig for if you really feel like it.

LF: Bright Outside is full of great character names (Lunchbox, Donkey Kong, Jackson Pollock Allentown). Where do the names come from and how early in the process do they come about?

AS: Some of the names came from my experiences working in the warehouse. In a lot of all male environments, that seems to be what happens—defaulting back into childhood patterns. For a couple years, I was tagged with the name Baby Face. We had names like T-Bone, Mexican Segal, Slingblade, Bag-O-Pasta, the Greasy Penguin and the Magician. For the names in this story, they weren’t meant to invoke any specific people, but they were names we used at one point or another. When you’re building a new world, names are a great way to start, they provide texture for relationships and imply a history we might only get a peek at otherwise.

As for Jackson Pollock Allentown, I think I’ve just met too many people named after things their parents heard on television all mashed together. My old building superintendent named his son Atreyu because his wife went into labour while they were watching The Neverending Story. It’s right there on the birth certificate.

LF: In many ways, Bright Outside feels like two stories in one — Lunchbox’s never-ending bathroom break and Jackson’s life on death row — which part originated (or developed) first?

AS: They sort of meshed together before coming out on the page. I was reading a lot of first person accounts about death row, including some work by Steve Earle, but I also had some of the warehouse stories popping up in daily conversation. There were a lot of characters working there at the time. However, I guess it goes back to the death row stuff. I have never been in an American prison. I wanted to frame it with a device I could relate to, a narrative structure that wasn’t following the same old beats. I’d also accidentally read some new terrorism legislation for one of my classes. I like to do my research and then forget it. Sort of let the relevant facts bubble back up to the surface when and if I need them. 

LF: What is your writing process like? Do you usually have the beginning, middle and ending when you start out?

AS: I have an idea of the characters and their relationships. I don’t know where the plot is going, and I don’t really like planning it out to the final line. Everyone has their own system, but I always worry if I planned everything out, the reader would be able to see it all coming a mile away and that isn’t much fun for anyone. I do realize “fun” isn’t the best way to describe Bright Outside, but I do want to create an engaging and compelling narrative, even if it primarily involves a bowel movement.

Honestly, I just don’t want to get bogged down trying to get from Point A to Point B. I will say when I am about halfway through a piece, I start angling towards an ending. Outlining the characters’ relationships with one another beforehand makes it easier. If the characters are vibrant and believable, if the reader can understand and follow their motivations, working through the storyline itself becomes second nature. Connecting the dots always comes after creating the character.

LF: Do you have any writing rituals?

AS: I do have rituals, but I’m not a stickler. I’ve written short pieces on the train or the subway. I’ll write by hand or on my phone or scrap paper if I have to do so. However, if I really want to get work done—and it is work—I go to the library for a few hours. I bring my laptop, a bottle of water and headphones. I also make sure I don’t have the Internet password. The Internet is great, but it’s also my greatest distraction. Busting out a short piece at home or editing, I don’t worry too much about it. However, if I’m working on a longer piece, I need to cut it out. The library allows me to do that, surrounded by sleepy old men and toddlers fleeing from their mothers. Just enough chaos in the quiet place.

Music is a big part of it too. I listen to full albums or playlists I’ve made up. Music and film have a pretty big influence on my writing. I pretty much always have something playing in the background. Sometimes it will be the same song for three hours. I usually need to get into a mood or mental space for the story, and I find music is the best way to keep me there, locked in position until I sort out where I’m going.

LF: What was some of the music that inspired Bright Outside?

AS: I actually wrote the original draft almost two years ago while I was attending the University of Toronto, so my memory is a little foggy. I suspect I was listening to a lot of Constantines, Deadly Snakes, Nick Cave, Elliott Brood and the Felice Brothers at the time. Probably Constantines most of all though. If there is a song I would sync up with Bright Outside, it would probably be “Tank Commander (Hung Up in a Warehouse Town)” by the Constantines. Really, the whole album Shine a Light would work. I guess it speaks to a lot of the desperation in the story, the grind, the night shift, the sense of loss underlining all the characters. I used to blast it while driving an old, bright teal Le Baron home from work in the middle of the night. It’s brittle and jagged and messy. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

LF: What do you like most about writing (or reading) short stories?

AS: Short fiction can really pinpoint a specific moment or relationship that might get lost in a larger narrative. Writing it works like a release for me. Committing to more than one larger work at a time can be exhausting. I find short stories provide a nice way to step outside the other stories I’m trying to tell and explore other perspectives. I have a tendency toward writing fifteen pages about every single character I create, and that isn’t always the best policy when you’re writing a novel or novella. The short story lets you do that. You can get in and out quickly without bogging down the reader.

Reading short fiction, I like authors who can create an entire world for me in just a few pages. A good example would be George Saunders’ Sea Oak. On the other hand, if I have to hear about another “series of linked short stories,” I might just pick up a novel instead.



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