Originally published in the Greenville Journal.
Southern Style Absurdity: Inside the mind of writer and teacher George Singleton
A woman once asked George Singleton for his opinion of a certain bestselling author’s work. “I said, ‘To be quite honest, I think it’s formulaic, and may be the worst writing in the history of American literature.’ And she said, ‘But he’s a millionaire,’ and I said, ‘A lot of people in America eat bologna as opposed to filet mignon, but that doesn’t mean it’s good.’”
George Singleton has developed a unique voice that manifests itself through his short stories. His third collection, Why Dogs Chase Cars, arrives in bookstores next month. It tells fifteen comic tales about the life of young Mendal Dawes, a resident of the eccentric fictional city of Forty-Five, S.C., and his very strange father (who buries fake toxic waste barrels in his backyard to keep developers away). Singleton’s personal favorite story in the collection, called Unemployed, features an elementary school class singing the Name Game song – you know, “Gary Gary bo bary, banana fana fo fary” etc. In the story, the teacher doesn’t think through the implications of a class that includes two Chucks, a boy named Lucky and another named Tucker.
Welcome to the world of George Singleton.
“I think they’re funny,” he says. “I don’t think this is high art whatsoever.”
Furman English professor Gilbert Allen agrees with at least part of that statement. “George is an extraordinarily talented writer,” Allen says. “He is one of the funniest writers of prose fiction in America today.”
Singleton grew up in Greenwood, attended Furman as a philosophy major and ultimately went to graduate school at USC Greensboro. In between, he had the requisite number of odd jobs, including driving a garbage truck, a water truck and a dump truck, teaching emotionally handicapped children and painting houses. Later, he taught at Francis Marion College and eventually ended up in Greenville, first teaching creative writing at the Fine Arts Center and now at the Governor’s School, where he’s really hit his stride.
“I like teaching,” he says. “It’s fun and the kids are smart.” And unlike a college-level writing course, all his students at the Governor’s School want to be there. “They have to audition to get here, and when I say go write, they do it.” Plus, he adds, when he’s in a classroom he’s happy and no one bothers him. “It’s easier than digging a ditch or something.”
Meanwhile, he’s also managed to find a real niche as a writer, regularly selling short stories to such publications as Harper’s, The Atlantic, the Georgia Review and Playboy. He’s also finished a novel, to be published next summer, called Novel. “It’s a satire,” he says. “I make fun of the publishing industry in it, I make fun of editors and agents. My own editor, I make fun of his name — talk about biting the hand that feeds you.”
Like many writers, Singleton harbors a sort of love-hate relationship with his editors. For his current collection, the editor wanted Singleton to create new titles for all the stories — things like Dad Gives Me a Job, Dad and I Go Watch a Baseball Game, My First Dog. Singleton quickly nixed those ideas. “This isn’t the Bobbsey Twins,” he told the editor. “But you have to compromise. So I tried to make every title fit why a dog would chase a car.” Hence some of the collection’s more unconventional titles: A Wheelchair’s Too Slow, In Need of Better Hobbies and No Fear of God or Hell.
Gilbert Allen not only uses Singleton’s work in some of his current classes, he also served as one of Singleton’s teachers back when the writer was attending Furman. “I remember him very vividly,” Allen says. “He was a real character, very irreverent, very unconventional. What I remember most prominently, though, was that he absolutely loves to write.”
Singleton describes his writing as comic short stories of the absurd, although, he says, they’re not so absurd that you think, oh that couldn’t happen. “There’s usually just an everyday guy doing the best he can with what’s going on around him.”
The whimsy and energy Gilbert Allen sees in Singleton’s stories also comes through in person. “My students here and students at the governor’s school just enjoy his presence,” Allen says. “There’s something about George that is still very youthful that I think the students respond to. He’s very open about speaking about his confusions and his shortcomings, and that’s something a lot of the students find refreshing.”
Singleton lives in Dacusville with artist Glenda Guion, who teaches at the Fine Arts Center. “We’re not married,” he says, “never have been, but we’ve been together for thirteen years.” He also lives with a lot of dogs, who help get him up early to write, which is perhaps why dogs figure prominently in his current collection.
“There’s that old thing about write what you know about,” Singleton says. When he’s teaching, he tries to help students see beyond what they literally know, to reshape their personal knowledge of love and hate, conformity and rebellion, innocence and experience into something with deeper meaning. “You’re going to have to lie a little bit to get to a bigger truth,” he tells them. “And they do it.”
George Singleton will read from Why Dogs Chase Cars at 6 pm on Wednesday, September 15 at The Open Book.