Born from the First Line: An interview with writers Samuel Ligon and Robert Lopez

By Jeff Jackson 

Writers Robert Lopez and Samuel Ligon share a gift for creating voices that grab you from the opening line and propel you forward. Their critically acclaimed novels and short story collections brim with unexpected turns, inventive structures, disruptive humor, and finely wrought sentences. 

Robert Lopez is the author of two novels, Part of the World and Kamby Bolongo Mean River. The Los Angeles Times has raved about his "unconventional and bewitching stories" and the New York Public Library named his most recent collection, Good People, “one of the most stylish and urgent books of 2016.” 

Samuel Ligon is the author of several celebrated novels, most recently Among the Dead and Dreaming, a genre-defying book that’s narrated by both the living and dead. His latest story collection Wonderland features dark playful tales that revolve around love, illustrated with gorgeous surreal collages. 

Lopez and Ligon are longtime friends and will be reading from their books at New Frequencies at McColl Center on Thursday September 15, 2016. I interviewed them both about their latest books via email. 

ROBERT LOPEZ

There’s an urgency to the stories in Good People that springs from the first lines. You’re immediately seized by a distinctive voice, unexpected situation, unusual thought. Do you tend to generate the stories from these propulsive openings? Or do you find them later in the process?

Robert Lopez: The stories are always born from the first line. I never get ideas for stories, they always come from language. I write a sentence and then another and another and before long something is going on, there are people and problems. As a writer, teacher, editor, I always respond to urgency, so if a particular opening doesn't feel urgent to me, there is nothing that can be done. So the answer to this question is both yes and yes. The story is always born out of and somehow resides in that first line, but there is a blind discovery in the process of putting it together because I have no idea what might happen or how it might happen, or should happen. 

The twenty stories in Good People are quite varied but the book does an excellent job alternating between various different tones, voices, and lengths. How much were you thinking about pacing when putting it together?

Lopez: Putting a collection together is tricky business. The stories have to fit together, be of a piece, but you want both diversity and variance somehow. I did put together the manuscript in a particular way, mixing up longer and shorter stories, mixing up how the stories look visually on the page. I tend to write three kinds of stories, one with a lot of white space and air in them, one that is a wall of text with no breaks, or very short flash pieces. I tried to keep all this in mind when assembling the collection. Pacing is critical, both for an individual story and a collection. But for the final order of the book, credit goes to Erika Goldman, publisher and editor-in-chief of Bellvue Literary Press. She put a new order together after acquiring the book and I liked it much better. She was working with the same principles in mind, so we were simpatico.   

Were there particular influences or inspirations that were on your mind while working on these stories?

Lopez: I can't point to any specifically, for this collection as opposed to any other work I've done. That said, I started by imitating Raymond Carver, like a lot of writers from a certain generation or two. Then, I found other writers that blew my head open and made me see and hear things differently. Through this close reading and writing my own stuff and experimenting with language and form, I eventually came into what it is I do. Either way, any writer worth a damn, and there aren’t many, has to listen to his/her own page. For me, it was a process. I had to read Paley, Hannah, Michaels, Lutz, Beckett, Gass, Markus, Markson, Dixon, and many others. I had to steal what I could and forget what I needed to forget or ignore what I needed to ignore. 

SAMUEL LIGON 

As Jess Walter notes, one of the remarkable things about Among the Dead and Dreaming is how it successfully draws on elements of the love story, ghost story, and suspense thriller. Were there particular authors or books that inspired this novel?

Samuel Ligon: I was interested in the shape of the romance novel. I wanted a love story, but I also wanted crime elements. The book presented various hauntings, dead narrators, and characters who have tried to escape corrupt pasts, whose pasts are now coming to collect. I’m not sure there was a particular book that pointed me in this direction, the ghost story, but when I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire, I understood something about the convention of the romance novel, which is this: against impossible odds, the lovers come together. I wanted to try for that, but I didn’t want it to be hokey or sentimental. I also wanted a hard drive in the plot and an awful antagonist. I love noir, so that was going to influence it. And I love Faulkner, so the shape of As I Lay Dying was easy to steal for a book of voices. I love how Ann Patchett brings love and suspense together in Bel Canto. I love the fragmentation in Jess Walters’ The Zero. I wanted to play with conventions in this book, but I also hoped not to be too limited by them.    

Throughout the novel, multiple characters take turns in the spotlight and narrate the story. What led you to this structure?

Ligon: I wrote an early draft of the novel narrated by one first-person narrator that didn’t work, and I put it away. Then I wrote a bunch of stories that became a collection called Drift and Swerve. The last stories I wrote were four linked stories revolving around a fucked-up girl named Nikki, a tough kid who runs away from home at 17, landing in Austin, where she stabs a guy. That was the end of that movement, when Nikki stabs Cash. But she haunted me. 

I went back to the novel and cut almost all of it—like 98%. I wrote a short Nikki section, hearing her voice for the first time. I wanted to know what happened after that stabbing from the past. In Nikki’s first section I found out she’d had a kid, who was now 13. I wanted to hear the kid’s voice, so she came next. Then Cash, the guy Nikki had stabbed, who it turned out bled to death. Then his brother Burke, who it turned out was just out of prison. All the voices in short sections, all the narrators bumping up against each other, some of them dead, felt like an oral history, and because so many of them were dead, this haunting quality quickly emerged. I wanted to follow that. 

Stephen Knezovich’s collages throughout Wonderland are stunning and nicely evoke some of the stranger elements in your stories. What was the initial inspiration to involve him and how did that work?

Ligon: I think Steve’s illustrations make that book. They help unify the stories and they’re beautiful and they make the book a beautiful object. They also seem to so perfectly fit the stories. Steve was a student of mine, maybe 10 years ago, and went on the work as an editor at Creative Nonfiction. I thought it would be cool to do a chapbook of some of the weird shorts I’d been writing. And then I thought it would be much better if Steve did a collage for each story. I sent him a few and he was interested, and started putting work together. It was unbelievable. He seemed to capture exactly the feeling of the stories. So I sent him a few more. Because he’s a great fiction writer and editor, he helped choose which stories fit the book, then helped with the shaping and the edit. He’d send me images of collages and I’d give him my opinions about some of those visual elements. I loved the collaboration and how the book became more than a chapbook, became this weird little picture book for adults. 

ROBERT LOPEZ + SAMUEL LIGON 

“How to Direct a Major Motion Picture,” the last story in Good People, is a collaboration between the two of you. It reads seamlessly. How did this story come about? 

Lopez: "How to Direct a Major Motion Picture" began as all the stories did, with a single line. "Give the actor something to do" was a sentence I had for a long time. There were other sentences behind it, a couple or three pages worth. Then it stalled on me and I put it away. Anywhere from two to five years later, I got solicited by Puerto Del Sol and they mentioned a forthcoming film issue. I remembered that opening and thought it a good excuse to go back into the story and see if I could finish it. I worked on the piece and did what I thought was just that, finish it. 

Because it was a second person imperative piece I was a little bit skittish, so I sent it to my great friend, Sam, for his take. He wrote back with an apology, explaining that he loved the voice so much that he wound up writing two more pages for it. Of course, I was appalled. I cursed him to his face and behind his back. Actually, I didn't do any of that. I'd loved what Sam had written so I kept almost all of his new lines, tweaked it here and there and sent more back to him. He did likewise, then I did, then it was finished. Another good friend and literary sleuth, Matt Bell, wrote an extraordinary essay about this story and successfully determined which lines were Lopez and which were Ligon. He was spot on.

Ligon: What’s great about collaborating with another writer, especially a close friend, is that you want to entertain the other writer, but you’re also involved in a kind of conspiracy and a kind of competition. You want to challenge the other writer, lay down a thread, take a turn, plant a seed, then see what he or she can do with it. 

“How to Direct a Major Motion Picture” came about as a result of an editorial crime I committed. Rob had a finished draft of a story. All he wanted from me was a read, some feedback. I was laughing out loud as I read it. It’s so absurd, and so purely Rob. I didn’t think the story was quite finished, though. Rather than telling him that, however, I jumped right into the story with him.

I knew it was kind of crazy to jump in like that, but it was also really fun. Whatever the first line I wrote was, I knew I should stop. But I didn’t. I added a couple pages. And then I sent it to Rob with mea culpas, telling him he should cut my addition, that I couldn’t help myself. He loved it, too, the additions and what the story was becoming. We went back and forth, adding more, playing with the beginning, the end, entertaining each other, laughing and laughing.

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New Frequencies at McColl Center and Charlotte Lit present a reading by Robert Lopez and Samuel Ligon on Thursday, September 15, 2016 at 8 PM. Advance tickets now available.

Jeff Jackson is a novelist, playwright, and curator of the New Frequencies at McColl Center series.