Well damn, I forgot to ask what the "F" stands for. But I can tell you that Andrew F. Sullivan is an effing outstanding short-story writer (hush now, I'm still labouring at the swearing). He's a finder of right words, a turner of phrases, and thoughtful, as his answers and his work show. Not all writers can articulate what they're trying to do, but Andrew has that under control, to his stories' great benefit. They've appeared in The New Quarterly and Grain, among other places. His terrific collection, All We Want is Everything (ARP 2013), frequently takes on people in pain, but with a sharp twist, and was named a Globe and Mail Best Book. His Twitter profile bills him as "Canada's favourite brutalist," but it's a smart, purposeful, even quiet brutalism. And it's often gruesome and funny in the best, blackest way. I'll be lining up for his forthcoming novel Waste (Dzanc, March 2016).
Andrew is happy no longer to be working in a warehouse, and I hope he is cranking out more of his interesting reviews, like his last one for the National Post on Garth Risk Hallberg's big fat City on Fire, and more stories. His newest, "Griever," is out in Hazlitt this week, and that's what we talked about.
1. Did you have any alternate titles for the story? What made you pick "Griever"? Did that come to you fully formed at the start, or later?
“Griever” came out fully formed. I wanted something more sinister than “mourner,” something close to a ghost, like a banshee but in the flesh. The idea for the story was kicking around in my head for years before I wrote anything down, so there weren’t really too many alternate titles. My titles usually pop up within the first four or three pages of writing and I rarely change them.
The great, creeping dread of David Robert Mitchell’s horror film It Follows informed a lot of how the story worked, but with a more mellow, patient pace. I am fascinated with how humans adjust to new circumstances, how the strange becomes the new normal—I wanted the “griever” to become a modern, living ghost. We are never in short supply of bodies.
2. How did you start this story--an image, a word, a general idea?
I’d noticed a friend of a friend who was continually posing with distant relatives on Facebook and appearing to collect them like good luck charms in a photo album. Then she began to add friends and friends of friends who were in the hospital… and I am sure she is a great person, but it was unsettling to see it all those photos collected in one place. And even more unsettling when some of these people began to die. Facebook memorial pages should really be their own genre.
I have a strained relationship with grief and how it’s expressed publicly. Some people like to feed off the pain of others, I do believe that, they need to feel something, and fresh pain qualifies. Everyone wants a piece. I was watching some ancient Nick Cave videos on Youtube the other day, and people are still littering the comment sections with prayers for his recently deceased son, as if he’ll read them, as if they can fit into themselves into someone else’s private, ageing pain.
We don’t want to talk a lot about death in real, physical terms in North America, but we do love to pillage the bereaved for whatever we can get. There is a hunger for it.
3. Could you choose a piece of music to go with it?
Oh, I can always do that. Ellie Greenwich with “You Don’t Know” spittin’ truth and heartbreak from 1965, still relevant today. Unrequited love, a little bit of dread and a lot of strings.
4. The story is a little bit Flannery O'Connor--dark, weird, pushing the everyday right to the edge. Can you talk about that, and what you see as your influences?
I like to linger along that line, I suppose. I want the “real” world to bump up against the things we can’t explain or are afraid to examine too closely. I think O’Connor is great for young writers to bump into because her work sort of says, “Yes, you’re allowed to get weird. People have been writing strange, brutal stories for a long, long time.”
Influence-wise, Harry Crews had a big effect on me when I was 21 or 22 and attempting to take writing seriously. Not so much the quality of his writing as the willingness to get vile and brutal, hyper real, but also still burdened with a lot of tenderness as well. He wrote the books he wanted to write and it definitely shows. Stuff like Car, Body, and especially A Feast of Snakes are singular, vicious little books that rarely pause to reflect.
If anything, I think Canadian literature could use a whole lot less reflection.
To list off some other influences, I think Toni Morrison does an amazing job with the unreal, David Cronenberg has carried the flag for strange Canadians for decades (The Brood forever!) and then there’s Richard Yates, Barbara Gowdy, Vladimir Sorokin, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Allison, Jeff Vandermeer… the list can get long.
5. In many of your other stories (in All We Want is Everything, for instance), you often write about ruin, despair, crisis. That subject remains here, but it has turned somewhat. Do you think your focus is changing?
No, I think I will continue to barrel directly down the maw of all that’s awful and unmade. I’m looking for characters that do the best to make their own light with limited tools and resources at their disposal. I think things will get weirder if anything. More surreal, more uncomfortable, but hopefully grounded in vivid characters engaged in real, volatile relationships.
I don’t actually have a negative view of the world and I would like to say I am an optimist. If someone tells me they’re a realist, it’s depressing. You end up missing out on a lot of the fun of being alive—the unknowns. Imagine believing you know how everything works. To be a realist, to write “realism” isn’t something I am interested in pursuing. My novel Waste is coming out in March 2016 and it’s a nasty, brutal hash of Southern Ontario urban legends, 80s skinhead failures, ZZ-Top killers, and an escaped zoo lion. All true elements, but splintered and then bound back together with duct tape. Waste isn’t “realism” but I don’t think many of my stories are either.
The next story collection is already complete and packed with love affairs consummated in alien tractor beams, Mennonite runaways who walk on water, nightmare hotlines and one hundred clones of Michael Jordan. No one is really happy, everyone is crumbling, but no one has surrendered.
6. The underpinning here is love, mainly of the unrequited sort. The narrator latches on to the lively, beautiful, funeral-hopping Candace. I'm interested in your ideas about how your characters try to save themselves.
I suppose I can blame latent Catholicism for that. I’m interested in the past and how it pursues you; how it must find a way to coexist with the present to find any peace. There’s the idea that we are all damned in the first place, so any story is going to have some redemption either denied or attained by the end. I think my characters often do try to save themselves through action, through kindness toward others, through righting old wrongs, but I also believe a lot of that cannot be done. Mistakes are writ large and difficult to erase. The past is heavier than we imagined.
To save themselves, my characters often risk pulling someone else down with them.
7. I love any story that shows preoccupation with teeth, as this one does. Where did that image come from here?
I think perfect teeth are a relatively new phenomenon we’ve only become acclimatized to recently. Watch enough old news footage on Youtube and you’ll be greeted by a wide variety of dental arrangements. To me, perfect teeth still remain unsettling—professionally whitened until almost blue, straightened and re-straightened again—truly surreal. Candace almost operates as a low-level vampire in this story, a quiet fabled creature. The clues are in the pieces like her teeth—she is just too polished, too kind, too prepared. And she always needs to feed.
I'm the author of My Name is a Knife, All True Not a Lie In It, and The Old Familiar.