On Monday, we published Alan Sincic’s “The Slapjack,” selected by Dan Chaon as the third place finalist in our inaugural Novel Excerpt Contest. Today, we’re pleased to share with you this interview with the winner, in which we discuss the remarkable voice of the excerpt, the writer’s background in drama, and more!
In Dan Chaon’s intro for your excerpt, he remarks that it was the voice which won him over–“the unique and surprising vernacular, the grinning energy of the prose, the enthusiastic sense of scene and detail.” Every reader who read the excerpt during our contest noted the voice, too. It is remarkably unique, frenetic and memorable. Where did this voice come from?
First of all, thank you to the readers and to Dan for the words of praise. The writers I most admire take delight in the tunefulness of everyday speech—a touchstone for me as well. If you think of a word-for-word transcription as the “official melody,” then I guess you could say I’m a bit like a jazz musician who riffs along, up and down the melody line, diverging just enough to generate something new, but not so much that you forget the tune that anchors it all.
But there’s more. If what we call “voice” is the vessel that conveys the tale, then you can’t ignore the way the container shapes the content, including the imagery. We sometimes talk about imagery as if each image were a separate cell, crisp and complete, little set pieces flashed up onto a screen for silent viewing. Certainly it’s possible to write with an emphasis on the image alone (I’ll leave it to the scholars to list the ways), but I’ve always been partial to writers who embed the image in the body of a speech, as if it emerged—like the knots and the whorls in the grain of the wood—from out of a living thing. A conversation or debate or declamation. A scolding or a summons or a bit of banter in a circle of friends.
Think about it. If you’re a painter, you render the image with a stroke of the brush. If you’re a writer, what do you have to work with? Syllables. The right combination of syllables to conjure up an image. There was a time—back in the day of the bison on the wall of the cave—when every word was an utterance. The words ride the breath. You sing the story. But then a funny thing happened. Somebody came up with a way to shoot the words directly into the brain of the onlooker. The written word ushers in the era of the silent reader, and from that point on the two modes of story-telling proceed apace, converging or diverging depending on the venue and the market and the taste of the age.
Call me a primitive. I move my lips when I read. And when I write. If the cadence calls for a stress on the final two syllables, and I find that the lovely image I’ve concocted out of half a dozen words is simply not going to fit, I set out in search of a more distilled way of speaking.
Exactly how you find a rhythm that fits the meaning is a bit of a mystery. The words themselves do some of the work for you. When you consider that every word in common currency has already been—like a pebble in the bed of a stream—shaped by a billion collisions with a billion other words—you can understand why the gemologists call their little machine for the polishing of stones a tumbler. Into the barrel you drop the rough-cut—the geode or the chunk or the scree—stir in a bit of grit, and set the whole thing spinning. So it is in every spoken moment. The word refines the word it neighbors. They rub shoulders.
This came up when we discussed the copy edits. You noted that I used “a” rather than “an” on a number of occasions. Certainly the “an” is grammatically correct, but I wrote “a” in keeping with the Southern dialect I grew up hearing as a child. I then built the line with that particular stress in mind—when you say the lines out loud, the word “an” tends to glue itself to the word that follows, i.e., the words run together. When you use the “a” you get a break between the words that throws the stress onto the key word (undertaker, elbow, exit, arms-length, eight-legged) and, at the same time, keeps the rhythm crisp.
Am I cheating? Absolutely. Did Shakespeare take liberties with the words that flavor his plays? Until we uncover a tape recording in a tomb somewhere, we’ll never know, but I’m willing to bet he shaped the language of the day to suit his own purposes. The motto that I go by echoes the speech we used to give, as American actors at the opening of a play by a Synge or a Yeats: We’re not going to pretend that the Irish accent we adopt here is completely accurate. Our only hope is that it’s plausible, that it’s consistent, and that it preserves the spell we’re trying to cast. Call it a work if you want, sure, but we prefer the word play.
The communal POV works so well for the conflict in these chapters. Was that a decision that came to you early on?
Absolutely. The very first line of the entire novel manuscript, back about a billion years ago, seemed to spring up of its own accord: Barnett that son of a bitch. The lament of the locals about this intruder, this nobody who, again and again, tricks and outwits and enriches himself at their expense. Picture a teller of tales in a circle of tale-tellers, all eager to be heard, all together in the here and the now. He plays to the audience with an eye for the vivid event that will win him a hearing. He shapes the tale in the moment of telling, and in so doing, bears witness, not as a journalist or a commentator but—like the fella who imitates the walk and the talk of the fool he mocks—a performer in his own right. He holds court. Hence the diction (the rural south), the range of reference (the world of the Good Old Boys), the quick pivot from moment to moment, the snapshot imagery, the ratta-tat-tat of the rhythm.
As a practical matter (hard to wedge a Greek Chorus into a novel) think of the “we” as this (unnamed) individual who speaks for the tribe, to the tribe, and with the voice of the tribe. A voice of authority earned, not from any special claim on the truth, but from the certainty that comes from a consensus of feeling. In a sense, this is the opposite of “emotion recollected in tranquility.” His job is to magnify what the tribe already believes to be true, and to present it in such a way that the truth of it reverberates right down to the ribs.
The rhythm and syntax of your prose is very stylized and particular. Is this typical of your style, or something unique you’ve brought to The Slapjack?
I’d say—broadly speaking—the style is recognizable across the board. Because I think of a story as a piece of sheet music for the voice to play, it’s no surprise I favor First Person, communal First Person (the narrator as “we”), and Limited Omniscient. Even when I speak in the guise of the omniscient Almighty, I tend to avoid the sober tone we associate with the “God voice.” In my short stories “The Smile Contest” and “The End Of The World” I ask: What happens if we give the god an attitude? His own distinctive idiom? Consider also the way the teller shapes the tale. That’s always intrigued me—the detail that draws them, the hunger that spurs them, the delusion that leads them astray. And how does the imagery carry the imprint of the speaker who serves it up? As the author you can simply ghost the image up onto the page, but I’d rather hear it from out the mouth of the character, from out the depths so to speak, like a fisherman feels a tug on the line, gives it a yank, pulls up onto the surface the catch of the day. Think of how the narrator, on the fly, refers to the tribe—we who bear the cross, who smack the chiggers, who slap ourselves on the ear and the wrist and the ankle.
The novel differs from many of my stories in that it offers up a world more or less recognizable as the one we all share. A narrator who, as the voice of the tribe, takes the kind of liberties you’d expect from a raconteur. Partnered with him? An omniscient narrator who serves up the dreams and the fantasies of the major players, but otherwise remains within the bounds of the real.
A handful of stories, going back to my days as a performer, are what you might call hyper-real. Played for comic effect, and with a satirical edge, they feature characters who navigate the world of the normal with a recklessness borne of desperation (“My New Car,” “Dear Mr. Gottlieb,” “Bob Sanders”). In other stories a rational protagonist confronts an irrational world (“Congratulations,” “How To Catch The Ball,” “Random Sample”). In still others the actors operate within a universe familiar but—just beneath the surface—fundamentally absurd (“Porter Must Be Stopped,” “The Babe”).
GB is quite the showman. Did your background in theatre influence how you’ve crafted his character? Is there a difference in how you approach drama vs. prose?
You learn pretty quickly as an actor or director that the best dialogue is less like a chat and more like a duel: characters that contend with one another in the here and now for something of great value. But things get even more interesting when you look at the nonverbal behavior that conveys character onstage. In rehearsal the actor takes the “sheet music” the playwright gives him and then—with some guidance from the director—proceeds to play it. He gets to experiment with the choreography of action and reaction as the scene unfolds, looking for different angles of attack, deciding how, for example, he’d receive the cup of coffee offered him as he rises from a drunken nap (I once played a debauched professor in a production of Bus Stop). Do his hands shake? Does he conceal the shaking or does he flaunt it? Is he distracted by it or intently focused on it? Does the cup rattle or do we merely see the tremor of the liquid inside? And how do the others react—is he conscious of them watching him? Does he execute some practiced trick to steady himself—bent up into a ball like Rodin’s The Thinker, the arms folded double as if to warm himself, a single finger sprouting out to, just barely, hook the handle?
The goal, of course, is to find the single act (however subtle) that contains within itself everything we need to know about the character at that particular moment. It’s in this search for the convincing gesture that the stage and the page seem to intersect: insofar as I have to imagine (even act out) the behavior of my characters before I can capture them in words, the acting, even though it doesn’t necessarily make me a better writer, leads me to ask the questions every good fiction writer should be asking, moment by moment, as he daydreams his way down the page.
How influenced are you by fairy tales, folklore and romantic epics? GB himself seems to be a great deal.
A folktale. I think you’re on to something here. Every character in The Slapjack dreams of someday doing something grand. This is why they surrender—in spite of themselves—to these grandiose visions that GB advances. He’s the enchanter. But to give the miracle a proper glow, folk and fairy tales depend upon a backdrop of the humdrum and the everyday—the hovel out of which the seed and the beanstalk and the giant spring. It’s in the contrast between what he has and what he wants—between what all of them have and what they want—that gives the tale of GB its “legendary” flavor. It’s also at the heart of the love story that runs throughout the novel. The majesty of his imagination. That’s what Maggie—in the midst of all the squalor—loves about GB. Buoyed up by the language of the barker and the busker and the preacher, radio jingles and Biblical prophesies and snippets of wisdom from Seneca and Sir Galahad and Hopalong Cassidy, he’s like a Macy’s Day Parade float sailing out over a slum.
What else can you tell us about the novel?
I want to thank the team at First Pages Prize (especially Clydette de Groot for her support and Lizzie Harwood for her advice) – it was a great experience working with them last year. And to my favorite beta reader, Megan Granger-Drawec: you’re the best.
About the novel:
A pair of outsiders, each with a secret past, collide in the heartland of Depression-era Florida. Maggie the bitter beauty, hobbled by a childhood brush with polio. Barnett (GB), the barefoot boy runaway. Maggie converts a derelict Feed ‘n Seed into a diner, stirs up a circle of suitors, and sets out to battle any person fool enough to offer her a hand. GB commandeers a cow pasture and a billboard blown over in a hurricane to conjure up, out of nothing, The Piney Vista Drive-In. She taunts him at every turn but secretly favors him. He scrambles and grifts and bids on whatever piece of property might, somehow, magnify him in her eyes.
Back and forth they go as the years roll by, Maggie fierce in defense of that heart of hers, GB pawing like a bear at the door of love. The ridiculous duel (sledgehammer the weapon of choice) between GB and Joe. The accidental stabbing, Maggie stricken, GB nursing her back to the very border of a kiss but no, off he goes, the idiot, to buy her—such a gallant gesture—the deed to the Slapjack Diner. A gift. An insult. And now it’s a game. Who can prove themselves the prouder? The fake letters. The imaginary suitor. The confrontation. The confession. The promise of—come tomorrow, you wait he says, says he, you make ready now for—is it love?
Love it is, but the very day he buys a ring, the secret he’s carried and the scar he’s hidden come back to pay him a visit. As a boy in a backwoods lumber camp, he stole from the till. They caught him, beat him, scored his back with a hot poker. Out for revenge, he waylaid the work boss and accidentally killed him. Fled the scene. Hopped a boxcar south. The man’s partner now appears with an invitation to parley, GB offers up a blackmail payment, but the man robs him, pistol-whips him, and leaves him for dead. In a hideout deep in the woods, GB mends, but when he finally appears—a month later and no explanation—Maggie rages. Betrayed again. It’s over between them.
The seasons pass. The harvest ripens. In one last bid to win her over, GB engineers an elaborate scam involving a hurricane, a dare-devil high-diver, and rumors of a spectacular suicide that gathers in the whole of the town to witness the tender, the fierce, the final collision of these two most unlikely of lovers.
The Slapjack would appeal to those who appreciate the immersive history and musical language of Jess Walter’s The Cold Millions and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. My hope is that readers who love their evocation of place will warm to The Slapjack as well—a snapshot of America that mingles the authentic landscape, rich in quotidian detail, with a secret dreamscape just beneath the surface.
Interviewed by Cole Meyer