Vending Machine Press Presents Interview with Sheldon Lee Compton
What was your early life like? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Pike County, Kentucky, which is the eastern-most county in the state. I don’t know the population numbers like some writers do who are from Eastern Kentucky. But then I don’t actually know of any writers who are actually from Eastern Kentucky except my uncle, the poet Gayle Compton. He probably knows population numbers. I only know that we don’t really have cities even though people call them that in this area. The county seat in Pike County is Pikeville, where I was born and currently live, and I think it has a population of maybe six thousand. Of course I could be completely wrong about that number. Early life for me was all about poverty. That’s the answer I pretty have to give today, now, looking back at it as a middle-aged man. But at the time my early life was about playing outside. I mean that was my entire existence. When the sun came up I went to school, endured that strange mess of a world that had nothing to with me, and then came home and immediately went “out to play.” The rest of the day and as far into the evening as I could get by with was all spent in my imagination, using the landscape and whatever else was around me to incorporate that world. I lived inside my head but in a world made up of places and things very much from the physical world around me. From Pike County, particularly the town of Virgie and an outlying holler in Virgie called Monkey Town.
What made you want to write?
I can’t really remember. Mom said when we were first living by ourselves (I was about four years old) I started folding sheets of paper in half, turning them sideways so you could open them up like greeting cards, and drawing figures and writing captions underneath. I called them my books, she said. I barely can remember that. I do remember it, but just barely. That would have been the beginning, I guess, but I have no idea why I would have started doing that. I just did it. I do also remember that it seemed really important to me that Mom read them. And anyone else who came by the house.
What are your writing habits like? Are you always working on a story or poem?
I’m always writing something, yes. My habits are not set, though. I’ve tried to be disciplined and have a schedule, first with a word count and then with a timed sort of thing. None of it worked for me, or rather none of it felt right. I can hold myself to a word count; I can always make myself sit in front of the laptop for thirty minutes. Thing is, none of that is writing to me. This is going to sound really corny, but it is what it is. For me, writing is storytelling, and what I mean by that is that there’s something a little bit magical about it – a feeling that comes with it, that rush writers talk about sometimes when the sentences are adding up just right or the plot is falling into place without much effort. I’m not talking about some kind of muse taking over, but I can’t really say what I’m talking about, either. I don’t really know what the hell is going on when it’s happening. All I know is that, at that point, it stops being writing, simply putting one word after another, and becomes storytelling. I don’t get that when I’m checking my word count every ten minutes or looking at the clock for how much time I have left to work. It blocks the doorway for that frame of mind. So I don’t have a writing habit, unless you want to think of it as an actual habit, a kind of chemical event in my brain or from outside my brain that enters it in some fantastical way that I’m always chasing. My whole process is an attempt to balance for long periods of time both a steadfast craft that requires total concentration and, on the other side, a complete relaxation of the mind that leaves open some kind of door for invention.
Can you discuss your literary influences, or at least name some writers whose work you greatly admire?
Influences would be from the earliest such as Stephen King and Clive Barker to more recent masters like Etgar Keret, Breece Pancake, and Michael Ondaatje. There’s a lot in between there, such as southern writers or Appalachian writers Donald Ray Pollock, Chris Offutt, Larry Brown, Flannery O’ Conner, and Barry Hannah. Lately I’ve immersed myself in writers of great imagination and scope like Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolano, and Italo Calvino, along with poets Charles Baudelaire, Anne Carson, and Michael Robbins. I try to read more than I write. I could name books to read and writers to read until my fingers went numb from typing. Writers I know on a personal basis whose work I’ve really been admiring lately is Anne Weisgerber, Sophie van Llewyn, Christopher James, always Ben Loory, Elaine Chiew, Hugo Esteban Rodriguez, Howie Good, Robert Scotellaro, Arielle Tipa. There’s Bud Smith. The thing I like best about Bud is that he seems like he could give a damn less about most the stuff writers care about, and his voice is actually sincere. And there’s Brian Alan Ellis who is witty and clever in a day and age when every writer is trying to be witty and clever, but he’s able to do it successfully without seeming to imitate anybody. I should go to the next question here or I won’t stop. Reading is more important than writing. For me reading is prayer.
How important is community amongst fellow writers, do you get along with other writers?
It’s important. I think it’s a little less important than most people would like to believe, though. Or maybe it’s not that. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that we should all actually act more like brothers and sisters. Like actual brothers and sisters – protecting each other, encouraging each other, but also fighting and arguing here and there, debating, challenging each other, exposing one another to some brutal honesty on occasion. I don’t know. I’ve seen kinship do amazing things in a literary community and I’ve been on the receiving end of that numerous times. I’ve also been on the brutal end of it when those poles shift. But there are times when I’m not sure about myself or a story or poem or an entire novel and I really need a professional’s straight forward talk. Or other days I want to really engage in a serious conversation about postmodernism with somebody who still thinks it’s a viable movement in literature, the complete opposite of what I think. It’s surprisingly difficult to find this sometimes. The sad answer is that I think I get along with other writers as often as I find myself agreeing with them. Honestly, as I’ve gotten older, it’s simply a question I consider less and less.
If you haven’t already, do you think you will ever write a novel?
I’ve had one novel published, a book called Brown Bottle. I’m proud of it and think it’s a good novel. Nothing fantastic, but good. Maybe I’ll write another, but I’m not sure. I’m a short story writer first and a poet second. Being a novelist is a distant third for me. Six days a week, I’m a short story writer. Poetry and novels share visitation on Sundays.
Do you feel a sense of home? Is there a place like that to you?
I was born and live in Pike County, Kentucky so I for sure have a sense of home. Even if I didn’t want to, I wouldn’t have a choice. But I don’t mind it. I have a lot of other interests and a kind of crazy attention span when it comes to writing and I jump around a lot and write everything from kitchen sink realism to allegorical fables but my real work, the writing that comes in a direct line from my heart and mind, is always Appalachian literature, work about the people and places I know. I was born, raised, live, and will die in Eastern Kentucky. I am one-hundred percent thrilled about that. It’s so much a part of me that I really don’t consider what I write as Appalachian literature. It’s simply literature. Stories. People have to label it Appalachian because I write about people and places I know. But I don’t necessarily think of my writing that way.
Do you have any writing rituals or superstitions, before you start to write?
I really don’t. I’ve always wanted to develop some for some reason, but never have. They’re just not my thing.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Sometimes I’m energized but never really exhausted. Usually if it’s going good I feel this rush of energy going on in my mind, but not really in my body or anything. If I’m pushing along hunting for that switch to hit, I don’t feel anything. Impatient maybe. Bored. I’ve not felt exhausted. But then I’m not much of a marathon guy when it comes to writing. I don’t sit down and write fifteen-thousand words in pencil from the top of a refrigerator like Thomas Wolfe or anything Homeric like that. I put in a little time and search for a little charge and then ride that for a bit and I’m good. String together about ten or so of those and I’ve got myself something worth reading out loud when it’s all said and done.
Are you a science fiction fan? If so what attracts you to the genre?
I don’t look for science fiction stories or books to read, so I guess I’m not a fan as fans go. But I’ve read a lot of science fiction that I like. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is good. Earth Out of Balance by John Minichillo was a really cool read. The first book of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy hooked me in. I can’t remember the title, the three are so similar. The same way I just happen to write stuff people call Appalachian is the same way some author’s write stuff people call science fiction. That’s what I think, so it really just depends on who’s writing whether or not I’m interested. I don’t pay a lot of attention to genre.
Do you think literature can help readers make sense of their lives?
Sometimes it feels like it can. Or it feels like it can help me make sense of mine. I’m not sure what literature can do for readers in general. If it can offer them entertainment that’s good enough. Of course I hope it can accomplish as much as possible. I want it to change the entire fabric of the world, the universe. I want literature to reverse time, to create a new cosmos. But having fun is a start.
How autobiographical are your stories/poems.
There’s a lot of autobiographical elements in my stories, poems, and books. But I don’t go out of my way to make sure that’s obvious in anyway at all. Writers who write a lot about themselves in this weird way they call fiction has always been painfully odd to me. Most readers don’t care what an orange tastes like to you. Or how hard it is for you save money for rent. They tune that kind of thing out. They want to hear what you can tell them about their own secret heart and how you found out about it by searching your own.
I would be remiss if I did not ask. What is your favourite films and TV shows?
A quick list: Films – Contact, The Hustler, The Color of Money, Superman, A Clockwork Orange, Let the Right One In, The Wrestler, Black Swan (both of these I view as companion pieces), The Godfather I, II, and III (which I view as one film in total and always watch in one full sitting), The Big Lebowski, No Country for Old Men. TV shows – The Sopranos, The X-Files, Trailer Park Boys, Fringe, Boardwalk Empire, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, American Horror Story, Cheers, Life, Lie to Me, Rescue Me.
Are you political? What do you think of the current political climate?
I was a politician once. I was a speechwriter and then later the director of communications for the Pike County Fiscal Court. I no longer express my political views publicly, but because this is for Vending Machine Press, which I love, and, more specifically, for you Mike, who I also love, I’ll make a couple political statements. One, the fact that Donald Trump was elected president of this country was, for me, the final defeat. We’ve lost this country. And by we I mean good people. Second, I now hold the firm opinion that we should return to England and admit we gave it a try and it didn’t work. Furthermore, could we please return, your Majesty? God save the Queen!
How do you hope your stories/poems will affect people?
I hope they’ll be entertained. I don’t have expectations more than that. If readers can manage to better understand something about the character and strength of the noble everyday individuals of Eastern Kentucky I write about, well that is a bonus I won’t argue with one bit.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of three books, most recently the novel Brown Bottle (Bottom Dog Press, 2016). His most recent fiction and poetry can be found in People Holding, gobbet, Unbroken Journal, Live Nude Poems, New World Writing, and Gravel. He was cited in Best Small Fictions 2015 and Best Small Fictions 2016.