The End Kisses the Beginning

One of the South’s greatest living masters of the short story, the relentlessly funny George Singleton, talks to Salvation South about the craft of writing—and his utter disregard for “Gone with the Wind.”

If by some unlucky chance you aren’t familiar with the work of George Singleton, expect the unexpected. He is from South Carolina, but he is not what you think of when you hear the term “Southern writer.”

George defies definition. In college, he majored in philosophy. But he considers the comedian Henry Gibson—the little guy who recited poetry on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in the late 1960s and early ’70s—a key influence.

Back in November, I needed relief from a bleak winter and an even bleaker world. Thus, when George Singleton’s book of essaysAsides: Occasional Essays on Dogs, Food, Restaurants, Bars, Hangovers, Jobs, Music, Family Trees, Robbery, Relationships, Being Brought Up Questionably, Et Ceteraappeared at the bookstore, it felt like a gift from the universe. His writing is funny. But if you fail to add “wise,” “astute,” and “heartbreaking” to your list of descriptors, you’re leaving a lot of George’s on the table.

Foremost, George Singleton is a master of the short story. He has published ten collections of them since 2001. In them, his people get themselves into absurd situations and seem dead set on making fools of themselves while speeding down the road to ruin. But just when you chuckle a little, and feel a bit superior to these unfortunate folks, there comes a little turn. A little revelation. A little truth. And you see that George’s imaginary people are doing the best they can with the hurt they carry.

Just like you.

I had time to talk to George about Asides, and it was by far the most fun Zoom meeting ever. I enjoyed the conversation so much that I had to email him later with actual questions, which he kindly answered.

I learned if you can’t handle the truth, be careful what you ask George Singleton. When I asked how he thought things were going in the South, I got a straight answer.

“I don’t think there’s any salvation on the horizon in the North, South, East, or West. Call me a pessimist, but things appear bleak. That might be a great atmosphere for a writer, though.”


Not long before Asides appeared, George published his tenth short-story collection, The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs. Kirkus Reviews named it one of the top 100 releases of 2023.

“I don’t own a gun, have only ridden a horse a couple times. I don’t really give a damn about Gone with the Wind and don’t own a history book. And romance, well, I think enough people out there know that I know zero about that.”

A writer for the Atlanta-Journal Constitution once declared, “Singleton’s South doesn’t look like anybody else’s.” I asked George why he thought that was.

“I don’t own a gun, have only ridden a horse a couple times,” he said. “I don’t really give a damn about Gone with the Wind and don’t own a history book. And romance, well, I think enough people out there know that I know zero about that.”

The storied Appalachian author Ron Rash says this about his old friend: “One of the many strengths of George Singleton’s work is its singularity. Turn to any page in his fiction, and you immediately know not only that he wrote the words but that no one else could have—not this voice, not these word choices, not this precise measure of wit and wisdom. Singleton is always singular.”

Along with his ten collections of short stories, he’s published two novels and one book of writing advice. His short stories have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, Playboy, Story, One Story, Zoetrope, The Georgia Review, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, New Stories from the South, and elsewhere. His nonfiction has appeared in Garden and Gun, Oxford American, Bark, Best American Food Writing, and elsewhere. He’s received a Guggenheim fellowship and is a member of the Fellowship of Southern Writers.

After I interviewed George, I struggled to fit the pieces together. I finally gave up. George’s pieces aren’t meant to fit together.

Here’s our conversation.

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On Life Choices

Patti Meredith: Tell me about Asides.

George Singleton: An aside is when a narrator is telling a regular story, going from point A to Point B, but somehow veers off into points CDEFZ.

I notice a lot of times in my fiction, I’ll say, “as an aside.” Non-fiction is not what I’m really meant to do. I’m supposed to be just writing short-stories and making up lies. Although there are some tiny lies here to make them interesting because I can’t just write about my life. Actually, when I write fiction it’s usually a little bit autobiographical, and when I write nonfiction, I’m making stuff up.

PM: You write in what you call the Apology/Preface: “The more I think about how little I know, the more I understand how I need to shy away from the world of nonfiction.” I disagree. Your CDEFZ covers some of my favorite subjects. Dogs. Barbecue. Aristotle. You majored in philosophy at Furman University. How did that come about?

GS: I was in high school, and I went to a Sierra Club meeting in Greenville, and I was living in Greenwood. So that's fifty, sixty miles away. The guest speaker was a philosophy professor from Furman, his name was Doug McDonald, and I said to him, “I'm going to Furman next year,” and he said, “Well, look up my class.”

And I liked what he said that night, what he was talking about. No, I didn't understand half of it, but I got into his class my first term, and I loved it. I just really, really loved it. And I was not well read.

I had read two books that were kind of in the philosophy realm. My father, who had a tenth-grade education, was a big union supporter. He gave me a book called Socialism by Emile Durkheim, and he gave me The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx when I was like in the tenth or eleventh grade. So, I read them, and I’d read what they made me read in high school, which made me almost want to commit suicide.

And then, maybe my sophomore or junior year, my father said, “What are you going to do?” And I said, “I guess I’m going to go to law school.” And he said, “Is that what you want to do?” And I said, “Well, to be honest, I don’t like any of these people in my classes who are going to law school. I kind of hate them. They’re idiots, and they’re like driven and kind of mean-spirited.”

“To be honest, I don't like any of these people in my classes who are going to law school. I kind of hate them. They're idiots, and they’re, like, driven and kind of mean-spirited.”

My father said, “Why would you go do something for forty-five years out of your life that you don’t like? Why would you go do that? You need to study what you want.”

I said, “I want to study philosophy, and I kind of want to be a writer.”

And he said, “Then, go do it.”

My first job out of college was working at a Budweiser warehouse, which was a mistake on Budweiser’s part, because I was stealing a lot of beer. I was real popular at parties. I painted houses. I worked as a dishwasher at Steak and Ale.

Before my father died, he spent a lot of time going, “Gee, you’re doing exactly what I did with just a tenth-grade education.” He also had a tendency, when I went up to George Mason for that one semester, he would call me about 5 o’clock in the morning, and sometimes I was just getting in, you know. He would call me up and say, “I just got the newspaper out, and I’m looking at the want ads. I don’t see any philosophers for hire.” And then he’d hang up on me.

Philosophy gave me a way to look at the world, but I try to stray from overly blunt, philosophically based stories. It’s like a hammer to the head. I do think, though, that Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein whisper in my ear at times.

PM: You knew you wanted to write and went on to George Mason and then the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. What was graduate school like?

GS: I was writing crazy stuff from ‘84 to ‘86 when I was at Greensboro. My first professor, whom I loved, Bob Watson, said, “This makes me nervous. This makes me too nervous.” Then Fred Chappell said, “Go on with your bad self.” But his whole thing, what I learned from him, is, get your butt in the chair. I knew to get up early and work, you know? I had two years paid for. When was I going to get those years back? And that’s the one thing I did right there. I was writing shitty stuff, but I got it out of my system.

Everybody said you’re not going to be ready to write until you’ve written 1,000 pages. So, I wrote a 250-page novel, and a 300-page novel and most of a what ended up being a 450-page manuscript of a terrible, terrible novel. It was so terrible that I knew at about page 200, “This is bad,” but I went ahead and wrote it.

And then I got a job teaching English 101 with twenty-five students in a class. They had to do ten papers. I went, “I can’t concentrate on writing a novel.” So, I started writing short stories.

PM: In Asides, you give credit to your summer job driving a garbage truck as an essential part of your writing journey. Your cohorts, Esby and Honey-Pie, made an impression that stuck with you.

GS: Hanging out and working with them taught me to care for people less healthy, educated, and committed as I, and they showed me I better get off my butt and try, so I wouldn’t end up driving a garbage truck for the rest of my life—though at times that seems like a better living than writing, to be honest.

Most of the essays are a little bit funny. A lot of times, when I’m writing, I’m hoping people will go, “My life sucks, but at least I’m not Singleton.”

PM: Your father made you think about what you wanted to do with your life. You write about him in several of your essays and he comes across as a tenacious man, determined to pass on his convictions. The scene where he marches you and your mother out of church after someone makes a racist remark is powerful. It’s even more powerful because his injury made that a slow, hard walk while the congregation sat and stared.

GS: He was real gruff. In 1963, my father fell forty-five feet into the hold of a ship. Broke fifty-seven bones! And they just nailed his hips together, you know. I can’t imagine how much pain he must have been in.

He was mercurial. He could be either the most loving person in the world, or really irrational and kind of mean. So, I was kind of dodging him a lot of times. I was never quite sure how he was going to be. Seeing that made me I think, “I’ve got to find some comedic parts of life.”

PM: And you found comedy watching the Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, specifically Henry Gibson, the guy who recited poetry holding a big daisy. You call him your mentor.

GS: I can’t believe it was on the air back then. I didn’t know anything could be that funny.

PM: You’re known for your humor, but you aren’t afraid to go to the dark side. I’ve seen you quoting Samuel Beckett more than once, about there being nothing funnier than human misery.

GS: It’s okay to laugh because the reader knows that he or she could easily be in that situation at some point (or has been). I guess I want people to laugh. Most of the essays are a little bit funny. A lot of times, when I’m writing, I’m hoping people will go, “My life sucks, but at least I’m not Singleton.”

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“George casts an honest and compassionate eye on the imaginary people in his stories, as well as the ones he observes in the flesh. He doesn’t look away from their flaws, but also sees their grace and understands their complexity. As Southerners, we appreciate being seen with such an honest and compassionate eye. Too many times, people outside our region want to reduce us to flat stereotypes. George sees us.”

—Virginia-born poet and novelist Darnell Arnoult

On Writing

When I asked George how he stayed true to himself as a writer, he didn’t even understand my question. Not because he is the least bit thick, but because not a single Singleton cell would stray or be enticed to shift. It’s rare to find an individual who so purely knows and trusts himself. It’s downright inspirational. I doubt seriously that George has ever written anything, and then thought, “Well, maybe I shouldn’t write that.”

His genius is that his work, fiction and nonfiction, reflects life’s balance of light and dark, and sometimes absurdity tells the hard truths in ways that make it possible to see before we choose not to, before we look away.

George’s book on writing, Pep Talks, Warnings & Screeds, illustrated by Daniel Wallace, is a favorite of mine, so I couldn’t help but risk sounding like a desperate wannabe writer looking for the secret and sneaking in a few more questions about craft.

PM: What usually comes first for you when you start a new story? How do you shape a character that’s totally fictional if there is such a thing?

GS: Voice, always. I “hear” that first sentence and go from there, never knowing where it’ll end up. I don’t think about shaping a character. Maybe I have shapeless characters.

PM: How did you find your “voice”?

GS: I didn’t think about finding my voice. But I think I did so, some fifteen or twenty years in, when I wrote “Show and Tell“ (a short story published in The Atlantic in 2001). I’m not sure what happened, but even to myself, I thought, “Oh, here we are.”

PM: Where do the peculiar circumstances in your stories come from?

GS: Just the other day at some kind of panel I said, “My fiction is mostly autobiographical, but my essays are fiction.” That’s certainly not true on the whole, but I know for a fact I’ve overheard someone—not a writer—tell some kind of story, and I’ve used it, embellishing it, and so on. Or I’ve had something happen in my life—a little person who came to work in my crawl space—and written about a character and a duct worker drinking together after the job got completed, then a wife character showing up and admonishing them both.

“My editor, Shannon Ravenel, said, and I love this, it’s my best piece of writing advice. She said, ‘George, a good short story’s ending kisses the beginning. Too many of your short stories are groping the beginning.’”

PM: What about plot?

GS: “Plot” is a word in the dictionary with several meanings. One involves the interrelated scenes in a piece of fiction that all point to an obvious, or surprising, end. The other’s a piece of ground wherein a deceased person spends a long time. I’m probably, on a daily basis, thinking about the latter more often than not.

PM: I heard you and Ron Rash have a thing where you drop each other into your stories?

GS: Ron started it. He had a minor character named Georgina Singleton, who suffered from a case of whipworms that needed to be voided. I retaliated with someone named Rembrandt Rash (the name Ron’s father wanted to give him) doing something ludicrous. We went back and forth, over a number of books.

PM: Writing is a solitary business. When do you know it’s time to “phone a friend”? Who are your first readers?

GS: I don’t have first readers. My first reader would be the editor of a magazine or journal. Why would I want to bug one of my writer friends? They don’t bug me. They have things to do. Also, I’m usually still unsure of a story when I think it’s “finished.” I don’t like being embarrassed.

PM: Your short stories have the best endings. And that’s hard. How do you do it?

GS: Not until the year 2002 or 2003 did I know where a short story was going. My editor, Shannon Ravenel, said, and I love this, it’s my best piece of writing advice. She said, “George, a good short story’s ending kisses the beginning. Too many of your short stories are groping the beginning.” I said, “Thanks for that, Cheerleader.” But then I started reading and seeing what she meant.

PM: You are an original in a world where imitation is pretty rampant. But you’re fearless. You write what you want to write the way you want to write it and navigate the publishing business with a hardheaded resolve that’s really refreshing. How do you stay true to yourself?

GS: I cannot verge into other genres—like detective, western, southern gothic, historical, romance—because I don’t know about that stuff and I’m too lazy to do research.

“I do have a lot of superstitions: If I handwrite a story, then type it up, and it gets taken by a journal, by golly I’m going to handwrite the next story, and so on. And when I start getting a slew of rejections from that method, I’ll just write stories on this computer.”

PM: Do you ever get stuck? Do you have any superstitions?

GS: Sometimes I think I’m stuck, I trudge on, and it ends up I wasn’t stuck at all. Sometimes I flow right on, not realizing that I should be stuck, maybe put it in Reverse, turn around, and find another direction. I do have a lot of superstitions: If I handwrite a story, then type it up, and it gets taken by a journal, by golly I’m going to handwrite the next story, and so on. And when I start getting a slew of rejections from that method, I’ll just write stories on this computer. No real rituals, unless “sitting in a chair while writing” is a ritual.

PM: William Gay said he thought “Blackberry Winter” by William Penn Warren was the perfect short story. If you had to choose a perfect short story, what would it be?

GS: Cathedral“ by Raymond Carver. It involves a terribly uncomfortable situation for the narrator. The narrator learns that perhaps the blind man’s a lot smarter than the narrator, et cetera. I could name a good dozen, though: “Good Country People,” by Flannery O’Connor, “Cats and Bubbles, Students and Abysses,” by Rick Bass, “Why I’m Talking” by Dale Ray Phillips, “The Swim Team” by Miranda July, on and on.

PM: Do you wish readers would quit talking about your humor?

GS: The Curious Lives of Nonprofit Martyrs has the saddest last story in it and I’ve been reading it at book signings because everybody thinks, “Comedic writer, funny Southern guy,” and a lot of these stories start off funny, but they end up being not that funny or the main character kind of gets one-upped a little bit, like, you know, life is a little bit more serious than that. I wanted to write a story in second person that could encapsulate the preceding stories. How did all of these main characters get into their line of work?

PM: What do you think of the term, “Southern writer”?

GS: I don’t know what that means. My Southern writing is a little bit different. I love Lewis Norden. He’s a Southern writer who lived in Pittsburgh probably longer than Mississippi, but his Southern writing is way different than Flannery O’Connor’s or Faulkner. I’ve never used a racist term. I might have alluded to it, but it makes me blush when I read it.

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“The first book of his that I ever read was The Half-Mammals of Dixie, and that will always be the book by which everything else is measured. I think the stories in that collection are where you really see what he’s known for and what he’s best at…in the rawest form. Everything since is more honed and more subtle. He’s just absolutely mastered that form. The first thing people always want to talk about with George, though, is the humor, and, yes, that’s absolutely a huge part of it. But sometimes simply focusing on the absurdity and the hilarity of his work seems almost dismissive. The stories are just so layered. For me, it was always the invoking of that old saying that comedy is tragedy plus time. That’s what he’s good at. I think he’s flat-out one of the finest storytellers the South has ever produced.”

—North Carolina novelist David Joy

On Teaching

PM: Do your writing students give you hope for Southern literature? Is there still a Southern sensibility?

GS: That’s a good question and observation. If by “Southern sensibility” you mean “stories centered around plantation life,” I hope to goodness it’s evaporated. I do think that student writers, in general, might be too focused on gaming, text messaging, social media, not hurting anyone’s feelings, and so on, and that it gets in the way of a story with traditional rising action and conflict. In general. There are still student writers out there wanting to be the next Flannery O’Connor or Raymond Carver. I pray for those students to succeed.

PM: What do you wish you’d known back in the day when you first started writing?

GS: How to weld. How to work with electricity. I wish I’d’ve had more people say, “Read this contemporary writer” (and that I’d’ve taken the advice), instead of “Read Faulkner. Read Shakespeare.”

PM: Do you have a reader in mind when you write?

GS: As far as I can see, I’m just trying to tell stories in the same manner as if I ran into a stranger on the street and wanted to tell a story. Here’s a bit of advice. If you ever see George Singleton on the street, stop him for a story. He’ll make you laugh. But remember, the best humor is fueled by heartbreak.

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In one of my favorite essays, “Aristotle and South Carolina,” George claims there’s no such thing as moderation in his home state. “South Carolina is a big old state of excess only,” he writes, then gives a litany of wonderful examples. “We have the classic row houses of Charleston, plus more people living in trailers per capita than anywhere else in the United States. We have produced Strom Thurman of the Dixiecrat era, and the forward-thinking Reverend Jesse Jackson.”

He continues:

“It is this notion of excess that gives all of our writers the daily conflicts that may arise when two or more excessive people, places, or ideas clash. You do not have to be the smartest person in the world as long as you are blessed to be plopped down between North Carolina and Georgia. You do not even have to sit down and invent stories of your own when you live in a place where strangers possessed with all kinds of odd notions are willing to tell their most personal secrets, quirks, habits, and scams.”

George gives South Carolina credit for contributing not just to his writing, but to the work of other South Carolina writers. James Dickey. Pat Conroy. Dorothy Allison.

How lucky we are to have George Singleton among them.

Author Profile

Patti Meredith writes fiction and holds out hope for the world. Since the publication of her novel, South of Heaven, she’s turned to stories, channeling the voices of imaginary people who, as her daddy used to say, tell it like it is. Patti grew up in Galax, Virginia, and has lived in South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, and Louisiana. She is now settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and springer spaniel.


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