Plowing the Field: Something Like an Interview with Writer and Editor Garrison Somers
Garrison Somers and I have been friends since we met as undergraduates at the College of Charleston (SC) nearly 40 years ago. He was/is a couple of years older than I and soon became a big brother to me in many matters, not the least of which was, and continues to be, literary. After graduation he returned to his childhood home of New Jersey (by the way, his mother was from my home state of SC) and is primarily responsible for my attending Rutgers for my Ph.D. In addition to a writer and (in what I know he will say is by far his most important role) an extraordinary father to two spectacular daughters, he is the editor of The Blotter, a journal like no other, which you can find at http://www.blotterrag.com/
Ron Cooper: Garry, thanks for hanging out with me today. I have sabal palm tea, okra with currants tarts, and swamp cabbage pudding. This is, after all, Florida. Anyway, tell our readers a bit about growing up in NJ. Did you read much as a kid? I know your father had many interests and was quite a voracious reader. Was he the cause of your interest in lit?
Garrison Somers: Books were scattered before us like candy. After supper, my mom and pop always sat in well-lit, comfy-chairs in the living room and read—first the newspaper, which they shared, “Here, do you have the local news? Yes, I’ll trade you!,” and then their books, whatever they were currently consuming. We had bookcases everywhere: in the living room, along one wall of the dining room, literally up the staircase built into the wall. I was given a desk for one birthday, made of a 1-inch plywood sheet affixed to two matching pine bookcases, which I proceeded to fill with my own library. Gentle Ben, all of my Dad’s old Rover Boys volumes, the old hero-bios of Kit Carson, Davey Crockett, Daniel Boone, Custer. Coincidentally, we lived across the street from the quite adequate town library. I burned through the children’s section, as did my sisters, and then we were given permission to be upstairs in the “adult library,” so long as we were very quiet. The head librarian was a Japanese expat and double-checked my selections for age-appropriateness, especially the war histories and sci-fi volumes, and gave me a frown-nod when I’d chosen well (you know that look that grown-ups have for precocious kids?)
RC: Somewhere along the line you must have been allowed to move up to more mature literature.
GS: Right. Eventually I was able to make choices from Pop’s own shelves. Nothing off limits. I read Ball Four when I was in seventh grade (probably where I got my love for the art of foul language) and did a book report on Doctor’s of Infamy (about the Nazi medical experimentation on concentration camp victims) which raised an eyebrow or two at school. Found his history of Buddhism and copy of Catch-22. He gave me the idea that one should always be working on five different books at once: a non-fiction, a classic lit., a new release, a “textbook” about something you don’t already know, and a “candy” (either something you’ve read before or a fun-read.) Pretty good advice from a renaissance reader.
RC: Garry, help yourself to a Florida-made Cuestra Ray cigar in the humidor there by you. Do you need me to show you how to light one? (Proceeds to show the proper way to “toast” a cigar.) Do you remember the first poem or story you wrote (or at least something early on)? What inspired you to write it?
GS: Thanks—that’s a good smoke. I was ten, and it was actually a limerick: The difficult thing about sand/is it’s siftable, right through your hand./ And if you’re not careful/you might get a hair-full,/ It’s a very unstable-type land.
Inspiration? I think it was a challenge to copy the kind of doggerel my little sis was reading called Beastly Rhymes by Jack Hanrahan. No one believed I’d thought it up when I read it to them. But it did give me that little bit of “crowd approval” that fed the beast within. By the following year, I was keeping a poetry journal – writing terrible first-person free verse and lots of it and getting past that inevitable part of every poet/writer’s life: uncomfortable self-absorption. But so many years were necessary before I learned that writing isn’t as much inspiration as it is crafting.
RC: Let’s change keys here (see what I did?). You come from a family of musicians. Here’s a topic that intrigues me, and I’d love to hear your ideas: Do you see a connection between an appreciation of music and an appreciation of literature, or between musical performance and writing?
GS: A good question—a professor’s question! Connection? Hell, yes. You want to create as broad a spectrum of possibility in a child’s life as you can. All music is game. All the words in books. All of that art hanging on walls within driving-distance (or the train to NYC when I was a kid.)
As a dad myself, trying to scatter opportunity for knowledge before my own children, I tried to take everything my own folks did (the bookshelves, stuffed to the gunwales, turning the hi-fi on in the morning and therefore making classical music the soundtrack of my childhood as much as my own pop-music choices – I love Erik Satie and Stevie Wonder with equal passion) and add some of my own twists. I never called it classical music when the girls were growing up. Everything was opera or jazz or rock and roll. In other words, when we listened to the classical FM station (they have one here in Chapel Hill, god bless ‘em), whatever came on was fair game, be it Ravel or Rossini. I’m not a fan of actual opera, but I hope my girls don’t have my bias in that regard. Sure, they’re teenagers now and make their own musical choices – and holy crap some of it is quite awful – but they also dig Earth, Wind, and Fire, Miles Davis, Gillian Welch, and Bernstein’s Candide, so there you go.
RC: I’m betting you did the same thing with literature for your daughters.
GS: Yes, although literature was something of a matter of a little family luck—because they’re both voracious readers (as were my sisters and I). Music is something you can broadcast and you’ve done your “job” as a parent. But you can scatter books and still nothing gets picked up and actively read, or not the things you intended for them to try. I think some of that hunger to consume is dulled by “assigned reading” in school, just as it was for me. But I see this summer my rising college sophomore sitting at the breakfast table reading a copy of “The Art of Peace” without a requirement to sum up the volume in a two-page essay for anyone. As parents, try to walk away from that without patting yourselves on the back!
RC: That was surely a proud moment. Does music provide a more connective family material? You can read to your kids when they are small, but later on reading is a private affair. Oh, more sabal palm tea?
GS: Another cup, yes, but can I have some sugar?
RC: What—are you some sort of Philistine?
GS: A decent host will have sugar, milk, lemon, you know, when guests are invited over for tea.
RC: You know I’m diabetic, right?
GS: Just forget it. So, musical performance (learning to play an instrument, to sing) and writing (choosing to write prose or poetry) are, in my opinion, matters of advocacy. Put the tools there and there’s a chance. Do some of it yourself, and share it? I think it improves the chances. Of course, then you have to cheat a little. Do something unrelated to it (like playing cribbage or chess or Monopoly) and make that a regular thing that mutates into breaking out the paper and pencils and crayons and so now it’s coloring with Mom and Dad! I swear my parents used to put on The Kingston Trio and we’d all dance in the living room for a while, then we would do a sing along that turned into karaoke (long before that was a real thing). Was this nascent performance? Were we all allowed to learn to play an instrument, or take lessons? Yup. Did I purposefully do this very thing with my own girls? You betcha, bucko.
RC: Hey, I made those okra and currant tarts just for you. Do you know how hard it is to find currants down here? OK, let’s back up a bit. After college you worked for many years at IBM, not a place we’d normally think of as conducive to literary creativity. How did that affect your writing? Was it like leading two lives, or did that somehow help?
GS: OK, I’ll have a friggin tart! Jeebus. So, a strange fifteen-year purgatory, you might say. Working in the office, our old friend Wallace Stevens to the contrary, was not conducive to the creative side in the sense that I made no effort to write prose nor poetry. In fact, I tried my hand at a few pieces during those years and they were very, very bad. I would like to be able to, but I can’t explain why. But I did write a fair number of song parodies (a la Weird Al Yankovic) for the entertainment of my customer-support-hotline officemates. One thing led, as it always does, to another, and I was tapped by management to provide entertainment for a department recognition event – that sort of circus that big companies used to have to motivate/reward employees. We assembled a “big band” out of secret musicians from the office (god, I know it smacks of Steve Carell, but this was three decades ago) put on a show good enough to be requested by other departments. I was tapped again a year later for a division-wide event and was interviewed for “humorous customer support” anecdotes to be used by the actual event entertainment. So, in effect, I’ve written jokes for Bob Newhart. No, it’s not on my resume.
RC: Then let’s hear a joke.
GS: Ah, ok, then. What’s the distance between a beaver’s legs?
RC: I might remember this. In any case, I give up.
GS: I don’t know, but it’s a fur piece.
RC: (Laughs hysterically) You know I love that kind of stuff.
GS: You told me that joke when we were young enough to find it funny.
RC: I never quite understood if it was supposed to be a dirty joke. Is it?
GS: Can we get back to the serious stuff, please?
RC: Durn, don’t get huffy. And have some goddamned swamp cabbage pudding. What kind of guest are you?
GS: OK, OK. So, near the end of my tenure in the business world, I was clearly a fish looking to wade out of the murky water on my prehensile fins and try out those old lungs. I wrote short-stories while managing the 800 # technical support night-shift, and later the draft of my first novel while listening in on personal computer special-bid negotiation conference calls. Sounds more scandalous than it was, a co-worker of mine crocheted shawls during the calls, and one could occasionally imagine that the strange, rhythmic rumble in the background was someone snoring without having depressed the mute button. Say, that pudding—what did you call it, skunk cabbage?—isn’t so bad. What’s it made from?
RC: You don’t want to know. Now, how did you get connected with the Blotter?
GS: Long story. I’ll try to shorten it.
RC: Our readers will thank you.
GS: Have you done interviews before? Anyway, I left the business world, got down to the business of raising little girls while my wife tore the marketing world a new one, and found a copy of this monthly pulp with saucy color covers and rapier editorial wit, sitting next to an Auto-Shopper in an indy coffee shop. Sent them a story I’d written about a tough old broad tooling across Texas in the back of an Eldorado with her Indian driver. Think “Driving Miss Daisy” meets “The Hundred Foot Journey.” My predecessor was in a different life-place than I and needed to go back to a paying job, and I needed to absolutely never go back into the office, so he threw the reins to me.
RC: That horse says “The South’s unique, FREE, international literature and arts magazine.” What makes it unique?
GS: I don’t know. I used to be quite self-righteous about it, but now I really don’t know. I took over the editorial responsibility about four years into the magazine’s run, had exceptional initial guidance, and we’ve just past our fifteenth anniversary so there’s that. And we’ve always prided ourselves for having a weird bent (without seeking out the bizarro stuff, if you know what I mean.) Honestly, there are many good ‘zines out there, more than there used to be back when we started, and some come and go in a blink, but the fact that they’re even here for a while is a hopeful thing. And since our inception, the technology for content creation has matured a fair bit, so for both readers and writers there are a lot of choices. In truth, I am still amazed that the phenomenal quality of work that is shared with us for publishing consideration. We have managed to avoid being a movie/music review ‘zine with a monthly calendar. Maybe we’re only kind-of unique – is that a thing?
RC: More tea? I’m sure not going to drink that shit.
GS: Pour it into a zip lock bag, and I’ll take it home along with the tarts and pudding. It’ll definitely be appreciated there. Believe me.
RC: Did you bring any cigars? You said you that your brother-in-law could get Cubans. In the meantime, every literary journal, regardless of size, is flooded with submissions, which has to be exhausting for a small staff. Do you have some rules of thumb about what you are looking for to help you get through the mounds?
GS: Sorry. I had some Cubans but smoked them both on the drive down when I stopped at those incomparable South Carolina barbeque places. Back to your question. Just plow the field. Keep reading. Get help from other readers when you can. Don’t turn away any type of assistance. And the one rule of thumb I have is to respect the author. If I think that a sincere piece is going to be misinterpreted as satire, I will tell the writer this and probably reject the piece. If we receive a poem so brilliantly obscure in its construct, I will say so. In other words, sometimes we get work that really doesn’t belong in our publication. If the contributors don’t see this, I think it’s important to gently explain it, because a generic rejection note or postcard doesn’t do this. And rarely does providing feedback come around and bite us. Way over on the other hand, we once received a poem submitted by a sixteen-year-old girl. Her cover letter was so fraught with self-abasement (please read this or don’t – I can’t see how it will make any difference) that I was hurting for her. The poem? It was a sixteen-year old’s poem – fearful and lost and full of passion and yet seeing no tunnel-light. But there was a single image in the poem, one nugget of…potential? I responded to the author that while I appreciated her having shared her work, the poem had problems that needed more craft and polish. Still, I continued, I wanted to publish that one fragment as an “excerpt” from the poem. And I did. Not because I’m saint or a Samaritan, but because it was a good piece. And did it change her life? I don’t know. That she’s eleven years older and a freelance writer working on international assignment might just be coincidence.
RC: Smoked them both? Son of a . . . ! OK, since you’re so smart, try this one: What makes good literature good?
GS: Why don’t you give me a hard one? Like M*A*S*H’s Klinger once said, “if I had all the answers, I’d run for God.” My Pop would dismiss this with a “good is good” tautology. I suppose that there’s a lot to be said for the fundamentals – developing good characters and real dialogue, and a sense of pacing. Here are some words I use when something is good: elegance, surprise, fresh, mature, consistent. Certainly there are more superlatives out there, and I’m just one reader, but these are my initial filters, I guess.
RC: Will you stop hovering over me? I know you’re a giant, and I’m not a tall man.
GS: What are you talking about? I’m just stretching.
RC: Just sit, will you. OK. Now, what are some mistakes inexperienced writers make when submitting?
GS: You know, there are so many mistakes we all make (this should come as no surprise to you) – it is so urgent that we accomplish that primal task of getting read. I forgive and forget the page-layout muffs that irritate so many editors, or the little proofreading errors that word processing software doesn’t catch. Some folks think that this is a sign of laziness on the writer’s part. I know better – it’s sitting in a room by yourself and having long worn out your “can you please take a look at this” welcome with your family and friends and your own eyes don’t see the little mistakes anymore. (There is an entire industry dedicated to charge-per-page editing. I also cannot imagine paying for something I’m not likely to be paid for when it’s fixed.)
RC: You sound like an exceedingly forgiving editor (unlike your traits as a guest). Some things must be too much, though.
GS: I suppose the tipping points for me are when point of view is muddled or when a story seems like a fragment of a novel, or how a character isn’t fully developed and therefore I don’t really know why someone is saying or doing what they’re…saying or doing. Dialogue ping-pong (question/answer, speak/response). Clichés. These are some of the signals that a piece wasn’t given the right amount of fermentation between scribbling it down and submission.
RC: Let’s face it—we’re old men. Our views on everything—politics, art, hospitality manners—have changed. How have your literary tastes changed over the years? Who were your favorite writers when you were in your twenties (if you can remember), and who are they now?
GS: In college, I read what I was told to read, and got the most fun out of the great British poets; the Transcendentalists; the Beats; Dickens; the ex-pats; Wallace Stevens and John Keats; Milton and Dante; Herodotus and Josephus. Everything in print by Kerouac and Kesey. Right after college, I went through a “John” period – Steinbeck, Cheever, Hersey, Irving, le Carre, Fowles. What they each had in common was a body of work that one could dip into for a while before moving on. I also played catch-up, reading Walker Percy, Charles Portis, J.K. Toole, Wolfe (both Thomas and Tom); Faulkner, Welty, Capote.
RC: Thank God!
GS: Stop it. Say, got any cod liver oil? I need to cleanse my palate.
RC: No got. How ‘bout some crystalized ginger? Don’t the crazy types up in the North Carolina Research Triangle where you live now go by that sort of stuff?
GS: I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll try anything. So, anyway, no rhyme or reason, except that I frequented an indie book store at the Jersey shore with a good cheap used paperback fiction section. And the complete works of Sir Richard Francis Burton. Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall….” I tried the tomes of Proust and failed, the tomes of Solzhenitsyn and succeeded. Did my tastes change? Maybe. I like reading Ron Rash, Wiley Cash and Charles Frazier. I like short stories a lot more than when they were assigned work. I like some of the fun, edgy authors like Mark Z. Danielewski, Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Adam Levin, Monica Byrne, David Mitchell, Richard Powers (we were close to having a list of Daves!) I also find contentment going back and reading Frank O’Hara, Auden, Yeats, Wisława Szymborska and Gerard Manley Hopkins like old friends.
RC: We mentioned literary tastes, now how has your writing style changed?
GS: I’m more comfortable with and aware that I have a voice of my own. I’m a little bit smarter than I used to be. I no longer sit and wait for inspiration but just start typing. I’ve learned to work harder, too, to be able to carve a thousand words out of a blank screen every day for a month before taking a couple of days off, and then get right back to it for another month. That’s how you write a novel, by not surrendering. The short answer is my style is I’m more disciplined, although I still enjoy scribbling like I speak, with long meandering sentences that chew up and spit out images, flinging sliver-dollar metaphors off the rules-wagon into the thorn bushes.
RC: Silver dollars? Geez, you’re older than I thought. Do you have any advice for young writers or young editors?
GS: Like you don’t have any silver dollars stashed up? Hell, you showed me ten of them some years ago, dammit! Whew. Back to the question. Writers: be polite. Patient. Ask for help. And sit in coffee shops and listen to real conversations (I know, harder to do than in the old days when people still talked.) Editors: Be kind to your writers. Everyone is having a hell of a time of it, imagining they’re out there all alone with their needs and struggles and tastes and that ineffable golem we sometimes call a muse. And if someone gives you start-up money, for god’s sake don’t spend it on furniture.
RC: Well, Garry, I think we’re out of time. I need to go, um, somewhere. You can find your way out and back to the hotel or wherever you’re staying, right?
GS: What? You said I could stay here at your house.
RC: Garry, you’re so funny.
Ron was born in the swampy Low Country of South Carolina. He received a BA in philosophy from the College of Charleston, an MA from the University of South Carolina, and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. He moved to Florida in 1988 and since 1995 has taught at College of Central Florida in Ocala where he lives with his wife Sandra (also a CF faculty member) and their three children.
Ron is a past president of the Florida Philosophical Association, has published philosophical essays, and is the author of Heidegger and Whitehead: A Phenomenological Examination into the Intelligibility of Experience. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Sleipnir Literary Journal, Chattahootchee Review, American Book Review, Deep South Magazine, Yalobusha Review, Apostrophe, Timber Creek Review, and The Blotter. His novels Hume’s Fork, Purple Jesus and The Gospel of the Twin are available from Bancroft Press. His newest novel All My Sins Remembered was released by Goliad Press in March, 2018.
Ron is also a bluegrass enthusiast, and he challenges anyone to play and sing worse than he does.