Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Awful People Still Exist: Part One of Andrew F. Sullivan In Conversation

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Andrew F. Sullivan already gained attention for his 2013 short story collection, All We Want Is Everything (ARP Books), and just three years later, he’s releasing his first novel WASTE (Dzanc Books), which has already amassed heaps of praise and landed on several most anticipated books list.

People who are fans of All We Want Is Everything, like I am, will know what to expect from WASTE. Andrew’s a writer who wants to tackle the darkest, most uncomfortable parts of humanity. He pushes this aspect of his writing even further in WASTE.

I chose to focus our discussion mostly on character, as Andrew chose characters that most people would avoid (both as writers and also just in life). Below is Part One of our G-Chat conversation.

 

JT: Hi! How's it going this morn?

 

AS: Hey, bud. Good, I woke up at like 9:30, but I am fresh and so clean clean.

 

JT: I am still dirty as sin and dirty with sin. Anyway, thank you for agreeing to the interview and for doing it live like this.

 

AS: As long as I don’t end up arrested, it will be good.

 

JT: I think that depends on your answers! I wanted to talk a bit about your characters. All We Want Is Everything has a real mix of characters, whereas WASTE is focused on characters who have had rough lives and do terrible things. Would you call your characters "bad people"?

 

AS: I would call them bad people based on their actions. I think Moses and Jamie (the protagonists) are both 

confused, flawed and volatile people, but a lot of the choices they make lead them down a pretty brutal path. I wanted to represent "bad" people who are still human, who have made mistakes, but who still recoil when they bump against something truly amoral. The selfish and misguided are still people, but their choices have consequences whether they're intended or not.

 

JT: Yeah, we were talking a little bit the other day about the purpose of writing about these types of characters... like Moses and his friends are wanna-be skinheads and Jamie is also fairly violent and short-sighted. You said there are people who are like this in the world and we have to figure out how to live with them. Do you want to expand on that and how idea informed WASTE?

 

AS: Sure. Ignoring awful people only works to a certain degree. They still exist even when their politics/worldview are absolutely horrifying (see: Trump supporters) and usually they have beliefs and motives that would not even seem possible from the other side. But they aren't going to magically disappear. And their actions, the choices they make, have real world consequences that often have some brutal effects on the people around them. I wanted to explore that with WASTE. Moses and his friends, Jamie, these aren't smart, clever anti-hero archetypes. These aren't geniuses trying to get one over on some other evil. They are small-time, common banal people thrown into vicious, untenable situations and trying to survive.

 

JT: I don't want to give the ending away to the Open Book readers who won't have had the chance to read WASTE yet, but I was wondering about the difference between the way Moses and Jamie end up and if this was something you knew from the beginning. Are there differences in who the characters are that you felt led to them having different outcomes?

Like I felt that Jamie was a little smarter, he maybe had a more secure family, he had more to lose and then doesn't really end up getting to level of violence Moses does.

 

AS: Yeah, I think it's probably my latent Catholicism. You can't wash that shit out. The past is coming for all of us, and it comes for Moses something fierce. To me, it's more about their decisions than their origins, but I can't deny that the origins have something to do with it. The fewer options you give a person, the more desperate and misguided their choices can be. It's also linked to family too, Jamie's daughter keeps him tethered to a fate outside his own and he is well-aware of that fact. It slows him down when he's going to act too rashly, but he still makes quite a few blunders along the way.

 

JT: I definitely noticed how much family kept coming up for the characters and how the past "was coming for them".

I think some of the best written passages are summing up the characters' pasts, sometimes even with a whole chapter.

For instance, when Jamie meets the woman he'll have a kid with, that whole chapter is really powerful with the transition from Jamie looking for a no-strings interaction at work that his boss calls "maintaining a bonsaii tree"  to Jamie obsessively blacking out cruel bathroom graffiti about Alisha, who will become his baby mamma. I found this scene one of the only really "happy" memories that's  included in the book.

The characters' pasts mostly seem to be almost branded by these terrible things that have happened to them and that haunt them. Do you think this is because your characters just have terrible lives or are you trying to say something about the memories that define us?

 

AS: I think trauma really does shape a life. I think closure is a nice idea that I haven't seen really work out for anyone. People learn to come to terms with who they are, but those brutal events don't seem to ever truly leave. People learn to live in this new shape and continue living. I do think we hold on to pain longer than joy and I don't necessarily think that's a negative thing. For these characters, their memories often define their options, what they think is possible for them out there in the world. And when the past is littered with disappointments and failure and fear, it can often feel like those options are terribly limited. And that the consequences don't really matter. I don't believe in fate, but your actions do have an effect. And it usually can't be undone. Just like memory. It's burned onto the brain.

 

Check out Part Two of the interview here!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Jess Taylor

Jess Taylor is a Toronto writer and poet. She founded The Emerging Writers Reading Series in 2012 and is the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. She's released two chapbooks of poetry, And Then Everyone: Poems of the West End (Picture Window Press, 2014) and Never Stop (Anstruther Press, 2014). This October, her first collection of short stories, Pauls, was published by BookThug. The title story from the collection, "Paul," received the 2013 Gold Fiction National Magazine Award. Jess is currently at work on a second collection, a novel, and a continuation of her life poem, Never Stop.

You can contact Jess throughout the month of February at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Jess Taylor’s Author Page