An Interview with Peyton Burgess

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Instructor Tom Andes reviewed The Fry Pans Aren’t Sufficing, a story collection by Peyton Burgess, which was published last year by Lavender Ink, for The Collagist. You can read the review here, and a brief interview with Peyton below.

An Interview with Peyton Burgess

Tom Andes

I love the voices of your characters, the way they could be sitting on barstools next to me, telling me their stories. Do you start with voice, or does that come as you write? How do you hear your characters as a story evolves?

When I’m lucky my voices are entangled with their scenarios when I sit down. For me that has always been the best circumstance that makes me write. I have some idea of where a character is going and a good idea of how they communicate. If I’m really lucky that voice sticks around as the story evolves and the characters go where they go. The times I’ve lost my grip on a voice and I’ve had a hard time dialing into it again often lead to me abandoning the story or whatever I’m working on. This has happened with a lot of stories and two novels. If I lose the voice I give up because voice is a really important part of a story being real for me. Some would say I’m not supposed to do that or that I’m doing that because I’m unwilling to write unless it feels just perfect, but the primary reason I got into writing was because of the feeling I get when I’m dialed in. I’m not under deadline for some prize—although prizes are great. I will say, though, since my collection, I’ve been making myself write more when it feels crappy. It’s a math thing—your odds of producing good work are better that way—which is lame and true. But with my collection most of those stories came out in one sitting, so I was dialed into the voice and got it out, and then I spent a lot of time trying to make the stories better. With the novel I’m working on now, I’ve been forcing myself to write even when it doesn’t feel like I’m totally getting it, and it’s going surprisingly well, production-wise anyway. I’ve changed in a lot of ways, though, so it makes sense.

Can you talk about your strategies for titles?

Titles are where I get to indulge, try to show off; I think it’s okay to be a little clever with them, have fun, try too hard to be interesting, consciously so. I like my titles to give a lead to the story but also be strange sentences or remnants of strange sentences that could be in the story if they weren’t the titles.

Many of your characters seem to have survived catastrophe, even the (relatively) minor catastrophe of being a Southerner dislocated to the North. How did you choose the stories for the collection? Did you consider their potential as a book as you wrote them individually, or did you only find them coalescing around themes as you put them together? 

I think what ties them together most is that they’re all urban hick lit, which is just how I write. But story-wise, there are coalescing narratives, the first section being an overt one, the other two sections being more about common ideas; some are obvious, and many more are up to the reader to define and explore. I knew I had to do what I could during revisions to make them be a book.

I like that: “urban hick lit.” It puts its finger on something I like about your book. I wonder if you could qualify that idea or expand on it. What does that mean to you?

Man, I don’t know. That’s just what the voices and scenarios sound like to me. I don’t think I can explain it without feeling too self-conscious or calculated. I guess to me it’s about getting at a world that is a little surreal but based very much in a day-to-day reality that shows exceptions to clichés about southern style and life. The south isn’t really a Faulkner novel anymore or Gone With The Wind; it’s way more complex and diverse than that, but at the same time, we’re weighed down and still infected with that Old South world in new and old ways, so I hope my work contributes to moving away from those stereotypes while at the same time acknowledging that they linger in some very sad ways.

Were writers with a strong regional Southern voice important to you growing up? Did you find yourself embracing that kind of identity, or rejecting it?

I was into it but not for long, mostly a couple years in high school. I think As I Lay Dying was one of the first books to really show me writing as art. Anything by Flannery O’Connor. And then I found Ken Kesey and got into his work, which was nice because it showed me more areas to explore. But mostly I was into narrative journalism when I was younger. I read a lot of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my favorite book for a while. I became a reporter right after college. I thought I could do this and try to make it something to live off; there was the reporting, and I had an editor that was nice enough to pay me $15 an hour to write longer, narrative stuff on top of my regular basic reporting. Katrina interrupted a lot of that. I wrote some stuff for my employer after Katrina, but I was having a hard time doing journalism for some reason. I don’t think I could handle everything that was going on back then. So I started playing with fiction again. That led me to grad school where I was probably the least well-read fiction writer there. I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and some Barthelme, and everything changed. I still pick up O’Connor and Barry Hannah but not so much for navigation as I do newer stuff. For the past eight years or so I’ve been looking everywhere for new things.

Could you talk about some of the journals these stories appeared in and your experience with Lavender Ink?

Life in the slush pile, mostly. I haven’t gotten out of it, but it’s gotten better, whether because of luck or I’ve actually become a better writer, who knows, probably both. Half of the book that was published beforehand in journals or whatever was stuff that somehow fought its way out of the slush pile because of editors that still take time to read strangers and not just their friends, editors like novelist Elizabeth McKenzie at Chicago Quarterly Review, Susan Swartwout at Big Muddy. Some of the stories were published by Ralph Adamo at Xavier Review, whom I met after I discovered his poetry and became a fan; he read some work and liked it enough that he wanted to publish it, so that was nice and easy—so I guess equal parts slush pile and nepotism (or friends taking care of friends because we all know how much the slush pile sucks). Lately, though my new stuff has all been slush pile victories at places like McSweeney’s and Tin House online, which honestly feels better. But I think you just have to take what you can get when it comes to short story publications. Right now I have nothing to submit, not one story, because I’m trying to stay focused on my novel.

As far as my book and Lavender Ink goes, Bill Lavender made it really easy once it was accepted. He wasn’t controlling at all. He’s also really smart and kind. He’s a good guy. Like every other small press though, there is zero money for publicity, so be prepared to do things that might make you uncomfortable, like harassing strangers to review your book. I guess it’s worth saying that I never submitted the book to an agent. I did query a couple and both said collections alone are a tough sell. I’m happy it ended up where it did. Bill is familiar with what sells and doesn’t sell, but he doesn’t care; he just wants it to be good.