Moments of Crisis: An Interview with Andrew F. Sullivan


Sullivan pic

By Shawn Syms

One of this year’s best Canadian fiction debuts, Andrew F. Sullivan’s All We Want Is Everything (Arbeiter Ring) trades in pain, punches, pills—and possibility. To an inattentive observer, Sullivan’s rough-hewn characters may seem merely pathological and sociopathic. But from child abductors to suicidal embezzlers, from barroom brawlers to front-porch tattooists, they fumble outward, seeking to feel something, grasping to find one another. These stories are short, sharp and frequently shocking.

An Ontario native, Sullivan was born in Peterborough, raised in Oshawa and lives in Toronto. In addition to All We Want Is Everything, he’s written an as-yet-unpublished novel about skinhead culture and two guys who steal a drug dealer’s pet lion, and is at work on a second novel about human trafficking along Highway 401. Sullivan and I met one morning during a brief respite from August’s perpetual humidity, and talked about America, CanLit and the raw appeal of writing about the body—warts, bruises, scars, track marks and all.

The stories in your debut collection reveal people in hard times, and you were raised in Oshawa, Ontario, which is reputed to have a few rough edges of its own. Has your hometown influenced your writing?

A pretty blue-collar town when I was a kid, Oshawa was a fairly average place to grow up—unless you lived on the south side where a lot of my friends did and where I went to school. Oshawa is the kind of place where you don’t realize how bad it is until you leave. You grow up thinking a lot of things are normal—getting beat up on the second day of school, people stealing your Christmas lights off your house. It’s more of a commuter town now and has lost some of its grungy rep, but if you get off at the Greyhound station, you’re in the middle of its Hell. One intersection had four pawn shops—and a Coffee Time with a reputation across Southern Ontario as Cracky Time because of its location between the emergency medical clinic and the methadone clinic. This stuff infiltrates your thinking even though you don’t notice it happening.

A lot of the stories in All We Want Is Everything stem from my experiences at a summer job in the local LCBO warehouse, or are inspired by people I met while working there. I was the youngest guy there at 18, and in a very blue-collar, very male environment, you have to quickly figure out your place. As students and union guys got phased out and more temps were brought in, you met people with many different experiences in life—a lot of folks released on day passes from Whitby Psych, guys on parole, people who couldn’t offer you a ride home from work because they had too many DUIs. Many of my characters are based on guys I knew from the warehouse—or in some cases, guys who only lasted two days before they got fired.

While there is significant despair and brutality in your stories—a man’s hand is intentionally shredded by a whirring garburator in one story, for instance—there is hope as well, even if it’s faint or subtle.

Yes, it has to be there. Hope doesn’t necessarily mean a just ending or a positive one, but it’s an acknowledgment that these characters will survive and they may know something different about themselves afterward. They will continue on beyond the borders of the story. Sometimes you need to make things bleak to be able to point out moments where some truth illuminates—you poke a little push-pin through to allow just a sliver of light to enter.

My characters are often misguided; they frequently make wrong choices, and just go about things in all the wrong ways. But the impulse to do good or touch somebody else’s life is still there. I’m very sceptical of the idea of the monster—of just writing off human beings who may have done horrible things.

They may enact atrocities, but you leave the reader with a sense that there is an entire history behind each violent action.

An idea that resonates through a lot of my work is the notion that there will always be a reckoning. After all, the past is who you are. You can try to rewrite yourself repeatedly, but if you’ve never actually confronted whatever made you, it will keep coming back. If the hope in my stories may seem hard to find, it’s always tempered by that inescapable confrontation with who you once were. Trying to retreat from it will get you nowhere. I think all of the characters struggle with that, and with a desire to attain a past state, a moment when everything in their lives once made sense.

These stories are characterized by an intense focus on physicality—the body: its lesions and viruses, pock-marked skin and scabby faces.

Maybe this is a uniquely Canadian thing. I think of Cronenberg… The body is you, but is somehow separated from your self, yet it is a display of yourself. It is not your friend and it can betray you. It’s malleable, changing based on your choices, or how the world treats you. I’m fascinated with it. I am not big on contemplation: wondering or thinking or pausing or believing with my characters. I’m more focused on their physical interaction with the world and with what they leave behind. When I describe how the punches hit a guy’s face, how the knuckles separate or what his face looks like after, that’s uncomfortable to read. It’s uncomfortable for me to write. But when it comes to fights, I’ve seen much worse than what I’ve written about. There are very few murders in the book, but there are a lot of beatings. Really interrogating that beating can be very uncomfortable. Dealing with an aftermath is always discomforting. But ideally this can be a way to connect with readers too. I try to focus and linger upon the person as a real thing, a corporeal being, not a pawn or a stand-in for a political belief.

The desire to escape or transcend that embodied reality is present in many of your characters for whom drug use is a norm.

For a lot of my characters, this connects with the idea of the title, All We Want Is Everything: “I want every experience I can have, I want to be in that altered state—because the state I’m in right now is not where I want to be.” We can all do that: with booze, weed, anything. I haven’t personally experienced everything that happens in this book, but I’ve been around the table a few times… I’ve seen a lot of it, especially given where I’ve worked. When you’re doing shift work, often it becomes a question of “How do I get through these next ten hours?” When I got my wisdom teeth out, everyone on my line was trying to buy my T3s from me.

For many people, drugs are something that is there daily—it can be stuff you get on the street or it can be your mom’s prescription. And with some of the characters in these stories, I mean, wouldn’t you be doing drugs if that were you? It’s not a prerequisite, but it’s a natural endpoint, a natural occurrence to people in these situations. Yet it comes back to the notion of a reckoning again: a lot of these substances do come back to you in moments when you don’t want them anymore. It may fill a need at the time, but the act of fulfilling that desire doesn’t come scot-free.

A sympathy for outsiders comes particularly to the fore in your story about a family of Juggalos—members of the culture centred on the cult hip-hop act Insane Clown Posse, known for their violent and macabre lyrics. Tell me about “Hatchetman.”

“Hatchetman” is a super-short, super-crazy story that I wrote on my BlackBerry on the subway throughout the course of a day. It’s three pages of a violent family saga about the death of a grandma who was the only one with any sanity. Juggalos have been written about in Vice, The New Yorker and The New York Times… labeled a gang by some, they paint their faces like clowns, they have their own annual convention, a wrestling league, Juggalo board games. There is a sort of sideshow fascination with Juggalos. Many people consider them a joke culture, a made-up culture, but we’re talking about somebody’s life here, and I think we sometimes forget that. Juggalos are people who feel they don’t fit in anywhere. It’s a very strange subculture but in many ways it’s about family and community, feeling like an outsider yet wanting to belong to something larger than yourself. Juggalos find each other, and there are now Juggalos old enough to have children, who intend to raise them in “the Juggalo way.” So I wanted to tell a very personal story about a Juggalo kid and make it human. To treat Juggalos on their own terms. It’s about a child who’s dealing with loss while coping with a really unusual life situation. It raises the question of community—even in communities that may in some ways be terrible, why do people stay?

Like a number of stories in the collection, “Hatchetman” is set south of the border. What appeals to you in writing about America?

America is interesting because there is a lot at stake. I just did a road trip through the US, and it’s very different from flying in a plane. You drive in and out of the empires; you go from the centres out through the devastation. You drive through what once was and is still there, because they are worried about building what’s next or better, but the past still surrounds the city. America is a place where you can have, but always at the expense of others. It’s the same in Canada—if we are honest with ourselves about how we have treated Aboriginal people, if we look at what happens to certain minority groups—but we are just a lot better at keeping our closets shut. America leaves its wounds open; it doesn’t stitch itself up very well. America bleeds constantly. Things are concealed less, and so that rage, and these dichotomies, bubbles up a lot closer to the surface.

For a comparatively young guy [Sullivan is in his twenties], you are pretty prolific and widely published—more than fifty publication credits. How do you do it? What drives you as a writer?

I don’t have a perfect routine, I don’t have a perfect time of day, but I don’t wait until I’m inspired either. There’s a lot of voodoo around it, a lot of people making careers out of just giving advice to writers, when the base advice is this: if you’re not writing, you’re not writing. It’s work, and I try to work hard.

In my writing, I’m interested in moments of crisis. I like to interrogate those moments because that’s where I find people identify themselves. I want to write narratives that undermine or question sources of power. If I have to read one more Canadian story about taking a trip to Muskoka, I’m going to blow my brains out, you know? I want to write about the moment where a guy comes out of a bar and there’s two sober dudes just standing there waiting to fight him because that’s their instinct. I want to pause in the second before somebody raises their fist or decides to call someone else a faggot. I want that moment of choice, of dread, of tension. Of anticipation.

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Shawn Syms

Shawn Syms is an Associate Editor of the Winnipeg Review.