Glenn Lester’s “Take Warning: The Ballad of Sammy Slug,” winner of our inaugural Novel Excerpt Contest, was published on Monday. Read it here if you missed it! Then check out this interview assistant editor Brandon Williams conducted with Lester below. Got your own novel in the works? Submit to this year’s Novel Excerpt Contest before the deadline closes Dec. 1st! Find all the details on our contest page.
The excerpt begins with an introduction to our main character and narrator, Sammy/Andrew, who gives us almost instantly the refrain “this is a story”—that refrain guides us through our introduction, showing up in both the second line and the final line of the opening section, as well as many places in between. The awareness of his life as story felt incredibly important to me as a reader, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the importance of that refrain to Sammy, or if I’m entirely off my rocker right from the start.
Let me answer this in a round-about way: the first sentence came first. I was in my early twenties, in Chicago, in February, walking home after work down Kedzie Avenue, one of those midwinter weekdays where it’s dark by 4:15. Trudging through snow sludge and feeling maybe a twinge of self-reproach for all the recent time I’d spent not writing, a voice from nowhere butted in: “My name is Sammy Slug, and I faked punk.”
Now there is a story, I thought. Who is Sammy Slug? Is that his given name or a moniker acquired later in life? What does it mean to “fake punk”—is that like faking sick or is it something else? Why is this Sammy fellow telling me this, and who else might he be wanting to reach? This feels like the beginning of a confession—what does Sir Slug intend to confess, and why? And what secrets does he desperately want to conceal?
I held onto that first line for close to ten years before Sammy gave me the next: “This is the story of me…” I imagine that “me” is said with slight surprise, as if he doesn’t quite realize what he’s gotten himself into.
Sammy certainly encounters a whole host of self-mythologizers throughout the course of the novel, and he finds storytelling to be a useful tool to understand his own diffuse, inchoate experiences. As do we all, right?
One of my favorite elements of this excerpt is the voice. Sammy is so much fun to read, and expanding that to Point of View, the first-person reflective narrator guiding us through his past but written from his future POV is handled so deftly. How did you develop his voice, and was it always the plan to have him telling his story; or, I suppose, why did you choose first person as the right way of telling this tale?
Thank you—really. For me, voice and point-of-view is everything—or, nearly everything. Nothing will make me drop a book faster than if I don’t believe the voice. A big part of that, for me, is that the narrative voice must communicate, first through its syntax and diction, a particular viewpoint on the world. I can’t recount every plot point of, say, Emma, but Austen’s opening sentence puts me right there, in Highbury, and I believe. The feeling of seeing through a point-of-view—as revealed through voice—is the realest thing.
I never considered anything other than first-person for this book, although I do find close-third to provide the most flexibility and the biggest challenge. In terms of process, early on, I read and re-read many big-voiced books: The Catcher in the Rye, Rule of the Bone, Lester Bangs’s Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, Charles Mingus’s Beneath the Underdog, Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen, etc. One recent guide was Stephen Florida, by Gabe Habash. Highly recommended.
I absolutely love the way you use cross country running in this excerpt; it builds character so incredibly well, and it creates instant uniqueness linguistically and authority narratorially. I’m curious whether this is a research or a knowledge thing—are you a runner yourself, or was this meticulous research? I almost want to ask what your best time was, but that’s probably just a little too personal.
I picked up running in grad school, actually, and the process of writing this novel coincided with my taking running increasingly seriously. But in high school, I didn’t run more than the required fitness mile. Swimming was my sport. Which does, come to think of it, share much with distance running, including long hours spent technically “with” other people, but mostly in your own head.
I picked up running lingo through reading, friends who shared cross country stories, and many hours spent on the fairly-toxic-yet-highly-informative LetsRun.com forums. I am dreading the inevitable “Well, actually” email from a cross country coach!
My best 5K time is 21:16, on a cold Thanksgiving morning a few years back.
The dialogue was so strong: from the father, to the Path family, to the boy in blue corduroy, each speaker sounds distinct without losing any feeling of reality. I don’t have any fancy question here, I’m just curious for some thoughts on how you go about writing dialogue.
Trial and error? I wish I had a better answer—and a more efficient method. I wrote many, many hundreds of pages of pure dialogue, usually between two characters. Just riffing, disagreeing, talking ideas or bragging or trying to present themselves as much more knowledgeable and wise than they actually are. When my characters quit sounding like a late-90s Tarantino-ripoff and more like actual, vulnerable humans, then I knew I was onto something. I think the goal for dialogue is to have characters reveal something about themselves other than what they are saying literally. In the finished product, each piece of dialogue should be an action: it should move the story, and/or the reader’s understanding of the character, along.
Excerpts are always fascinating to me as a medium. I’m assuming that these are the opening pages of your novel (although I suppose I can’t be 100 percent sure of that), but did you have to do anything to make them work as a standalone? Was the idea of an excerpt, of these pages being a self-contained piece, part of your thought process at all as you were editing these pages, or does the inherent pull of an introduction make it easily stand alone already? And if these are the opening pages in their entirety as they are in your novel, is there anything that works differently about them when they stand on their own like this, when you know the reader can’t turn the page to keep reading?
These are twenty of the first forty pages, more or less—although this excerpt works so well that I am seriously re-thinking the opening of the novel. I worked very hard to make sure that the opening section (here titled “A True Dork”) and the first full chapter (“The Polis and Its Gods”) compel the reader to want to keep turning pages, primarily through hinting at (hopefully) tantalizing things to come.
To your last question, let me be 100% transparent: I am hoping that readers (and others, like, say, in the publishing industry) will bang down my metaphorical door to get the rest of the story.
I’m that annoying guy at the reading that always wants to ask the two super-cliché questions, so apologies in advance. First, can you tell us a bit about your writing routine? (mornings with coffee pecking at the keys; ten hours in front of a keyboard every day; chunks when inspiration strikes, et cetera?)
My writing routine has evolved and shifted over the years. In general, I like to write in the morning, every morning, for at least an hour. I feel cognitively and spiritually fresh, and routine is easier when it is, well, routine. I like the structure of habit, and I love the feeling of losing time in writing.
Much of the writing of the initial drafts of Take Warning took place in a spare bedroom that now houses a toddler. Occasionally, I wrote outside on the back patio. Always typing on a laptop, and usually muttering the words to myself as or just after typing them.
As life becomes more complicated, mornings are tougher, and uninterrupted time is increasingly difficult to come by. What helps, again, is voice. When I have a voice to fall back into—a voice that is telling the story—then it’s easy to make real progress in small, stolen chunks of time.
Coffee? Definitely. For years we were a French press home; now, the pour-over has taken hold.
Second, beyond writing routine, what about your writing process? Are you a seventeen drafts before your first reader sees it kind of writer, or does it all flow brilliantly to fountain pen on first thought (someone someday will reply yes to that, I’m sure), or do you write a single sentence a million times until it’s perfect, or…?
What works best for me is starting by rewriting what I did over the past two or three days. I’ll back up 1000 words, say, and read and re-write and expand and revise. Eventually, I’ll be moving past where I’d stopped and end up a few hundred words further along.
Nobody writes consistently brilliantly on first flourish. But: when the perfectly formed sentence or paragraph does present itself outside of the writing desk, as it might once or twice a decade, then that feeling is incredibly seductive. I’m inspired! It just came to me! And we go, like Denis Johnson’s Fuckhead, looking for that feeling everywhere. But it’s a lie. The bolt from the blue is not a reliable source of inspiration. What is reliable is a writing routine. And all writing problems are solved through the process of writing.
I realize that I began by describing my own bolt-from-the-blue experience, but note well that it took me ten years to write the second sentence!
And, one that you can ignore if you feel so inclined, but I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: what do you view as the function that literature plays in the current world, and what are you as a writer trying to accomplish with your work?
I actually think about the first question all the time in my day job as an English professor. Right now, my intro to lit students are working on papers that explore the question: “Does reading fiction increase our capacity for empathy, and, if so, why and how?” We’ve reviewed summaries of recent cognitive psychology research on the social-behavioral effects of reading fiction (including a fascinating study that revealed that people who read a short story were more likely than others to retrieve and return a pen that researchers intentionally dropped on their way out of the room). We have also tried to understand exactly which literary elements might lead us to empathy—either with fictional characters or in so-called “real life.” Does sensory, concrete detail press the empathy button? Does a close-third-person make us more likely to feel that we understand another’s experience?
I’m personally skeptical of the idea that reading literature is some kind of ethical vitamin that promotes pro-social behavior or that prevents us from treating each other like shit. And even more wary of the idea that because I have read about something or someone, that I now know everything about that thing or that person. All-knowingness is an easy trap for big readers to fall into—or at least for me.
What else? Reading imaginative language is pleasurable and provides an escape, and pleasure and escape are social goods that everyone deserves. A good story allows you to leave, for moments at a time, your own perspective and subjectivity. To get outside of your own head. And that experience of being transported by a voice that is not your own is incredibly valuable for one’s own personal well-being. That’s been my experience, anyway.
More briefly: Joan Didion was right. We tell ourselves stories in order to live.
My own goals are to give my readers an experience they find meaningful and to reflect something about themselves and their world back to them.
This excerpt is so much fun to read, and certainly does great work in whetting my appetite for the full work; obviously avoiding spoilers, what can you tell us about the novel?
Gibbs Mott, i.e., the boy in the blue corduroy suit who hands our narrator a zine at the funeral, turns out to play a major role in the rest of the book. He and Sammy team up for a series of increasingly dangerous and morally dubious misadventures. Sammy searches for a voice as a writer, if only of his own story. He makes something like peace with the loss of his father and with his mother. And he joins a ska band.
Actually, that’s another goal for me as a writer: I want to kickstart the fourth-wave ska revival. Pick it up!
interviewed by Brandon Williams