Andrew F. Sullivan’s All We Want is Everything is not the kind of book you pick up if you want a simple read or an escape or a laugh. It’s a book that you pick up if you want to get into the weight of a story, if you want to be shaken up, if you want to step outside your comfort zone. It is the kind of book you pick up if you want to jump into something that is gripping, honest and gritty. It is the kind of book that is masterfully crafted. There is nothing that does not need to be here. There is nothing that makes you question this writer’s voice or confidence. There is nothing that isn’t short of a brilliant debut. Sullivan will be one of the masters of the short story.
When did you first start writing? What inspired you to write? What did you write?
I started writing actual short stories when I was seventeen or so, but I have always been creating stories, creating worlds since I was little. I used to write war epics about raccoons and dogs fighting over magical jewels when I was eight years old. That is probably the earliest story I can remember—it was fairly violent for that age. A lot of raccoon and Doberman blood was shed in the process. Hopefully the story has been burned or turned into compost by now. All my toys had stories, backgrounds and narratives of their own. A lot of it could get pretty elaborate if I think too much about it. I think storytelling is a very natural process, a really human drive inside most people. I just kept pushing it.
What was the process to put All We Want is Everything together? Did you have a bunch of stories you culled through and then compiled? Did you start writing stories with a collection in mind, etc.?
I gathered together a lot of stories I felt existed in similar universes, similar strains of doubt and desperation mixed together. I have a lot of other work in different genres, flash fiction pieces, witch hunting stories, eulogies for Twin Peaks, all kinds of nonsense that did not make it into the book. I wanted the collection to feel cohesive overall, more so in tone than in content. I tried to feature a variety of voices and perspectives—this is why there are sixteen year olds girls dealing with sinkholes and old men in taxidermy shops. There are a lot of collections out there with some great stories, but the same voice pulsing through the whole book. At that point, why not just write a novel?
A number of stories were cut from the collection which is part of why it is so lean. I think that is a necessary and healthy process. If you hand a manuscript to an editor and it comes back unchanged, you should be worried. Very worried. The stories that remained in the collection were stronger due to that process. I had no idea for a collection when some of these stories originated, but after ten or twelve took shape, I was definitely moving toward a whole. I wanted something about unease and desperation, something about plummeting while stuck in one place.
I’m going to call you the king of first sentences. Honestly, each story could not begin in a better way. I was going to list some first sentences here, but I think the readers should just go buy the book and read them there. How do you approach the creation of the first sentence?
That’s very kind. My friend and mentor Jeff Parker got the idea stuck in my head years ago—each story has to seize the reader, make them pay attention, make them choose. A lot of writing workshops or websites will say the same thing, but I don’t think it means to open with a mystery or shocking incident. It means you need to give your reader a reason to care.
Often I got back and delete original first lines from the first draft. I want the opening to pose a question, to ask you to keep going, to read deeper. Unlike a first impression, you are always in control of that first line. You need to make it count. There are a lot of great writers out there writing great work. What makes your story any different from theirs? Why should I read it?
There is no padding or fat to absorb some of the harsh subject matter. Your writing is muscular and trim. Is this your natural voice, does it come easy to you? Or is it something you work at and cultivate through the editing process?
I think my voice is something that developed over time and it does not always hit the page cleanly. Rewriting and editing is always where the real writing starts. I used to be quite a bit flowery when I was younger and I still enjoy that part of myself, but the stories I enjoy and the stories I want to tell usually get right to the point. The style needs to match the content and so my voice has shifted over time to meet the needs of the stories. Trimming the excess fat is just part of the writing process, its inherent to the final goal. I end up asking how much of the story is necessary. If it’s not vital, can the story live without it? And of course, at some point, you still want to go back and yank a few more lines into shape even after it’s all done.
Your stories are full of action and tension, characters are heavy with the weight of life or bad decisions. What’s your process for creating characters? Do you start with a vague character and then let them take over or do you have their personalities and worlds mapped out before you begin to write?
With short stories, I don’t map things out. Everyone has their own process, so I am not going to cast any decrees on what works or doesn’t. For me, I start with a moment of crisis or change for that character, I suppose. A relationship with someone that has eroded or been altered drastically. Something that needles at a person, causes them grief, whatever else. I want to get to the root of those insecurities and fears. I build the characters around those stories, around the relationships they have in their lives. We have a lot of stories about orphaned or abandoned children, of people totally isolated—it’s easy to create a character when they don’t have the complex webs of family, friends and community weighing them down from the outset. I think it’s those relationships that create great characters though—complex, willful people, struggling to balance their own needs with the needs of the community around them. That’s where the hard choices happen, the vital ones worth reading about. And writing about.
You cited Miriam Toews in your acknowledgements and she has provided an endorsement for AWWIE. How has she influenced your writing?
I worked with Miriam at the University of Toronto and she’s always been very supportive of my work. I think the great part about her fiction is the humour she infuses into some pretty horrible and dark situations. There’s always a little underlying tone of dread or sorrow in a lot of her work, which you sometimes miss during the funnier parts. She’s got a great way of navigating that unease for the reader—she’s the perfect guide to have during a horrible experience. For me, Miriam’s influence shows up in the love I have for a lot of my characters, even the brutal and screwed up ones. Even when there are awful human beings doing terrible things, I still try to find some strand of empathy to hold onto. Writing to redeem yourself and everyone else.
What are you working on now?
I am working on two or three different novels about trafficking people, trafficking organs and a haunted house no one seems to have torn down yet. I want to write about a lot of folk monsters and hidden backwoods creatures. I want to write about failing institutions and people trapped in those institutions. Eventually, I will have to focus and choose one thing and that is the worst part.
What books are you currently reading?
Cataract City by Craig Davidson
Solip by Ken Baumann
PostApoc by Liz Worth
What are some of your favourite reads?
The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh
The Alligators of Abraham by Robert Kloss
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Don’t Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews