Chad Simpson writes characters that could be your older brother, or the guy you bumped into at the supermarket-- yet his masterful writing turns the ordinary into something captivating and mysterious. His short story "Resources" appears in Volume 2 of WTR, and is inspired by his own experiences working in a homeless shelter.
Amanda Silberling, Managing Editor: At Winter Tangerine, we always have our interviewees leave a question for our next interviewee. Terese Svoboda left the following question: What do you read before you sleep?
Chad Simpson, Volume 2 Contributor: Wow, I love Terese Svoboda's work, and that's a great question. To be honest, I often watch television before I sleep. Lately, I've been working through the third season of The Walking Dead. But I also have a stack of books on my nightstand filled with poetry collections, short story collections, comics, and a couple novels, and every now and then, I'll pull something from the stack and read it.
AS: Building off of that, do you think there's any kind of artistic distinction between television and literature? What makes the two different, besides the literal page vs. screen?
CS: The biggest difference that comes to mind right away for me is that literature is capable of conveying interiority in ways that film/television can't quite capture. Dialogue and gesture are fantastic ways of conveying emotion, but I think literature is capable of communicating the various leaps the human brain makes from one moment to the next in really unique ways. That said, I love a lot of television from the past ten or fifteen years, and I'd argue that some of the best pure storytelling around can be found in television shows like The Wire, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, etc.
AS: For you, are characters or plot more important in telling a story?
CS: For me, it's mostly about language, sentences, syntax. I've mostly thought of myself over the years as a story writer, rather than a storyteller. I think that's why I've invested a lot of time in watching good television. Shows like The Wire helped teach me about the importance of character. If I had to choose between character and plot, I'd say it's all about character. It's the character who wants, who yearns, and the plot typically falls into place from there.
AS: If you could only pick one, who would you say is your favorite character of all time?
CS: Omar from The Wire, no doubt. I don't think I've ever cared about a fictional character the way I cared about him.
AS: Now you're making me feel like I should watch The Wire. To twist the question, who is your favorite character that you've ever written?
CS: Hmm. That's a tough one. I think I'd go with a girl named Peloma. I wrote two stories about her that were included in my collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, and the first one, which was called "Peloma," was actually the first story of mine that I ever published. She's dear to me for a number of reasons.
AS: What's Peloma like?
CS: In that first story, she's sad. It's two years after her mom has died, and she has entered puberty. She's kind of suicidal. She sends herself cards in the mail with a message that reads "Why are you still alive?" But she's also smart, thoughtful, resilient. She's mildly hopeful.
AS: Sounds interesting! How much do your own experiences impact your characters or what you write about?
CS: Quite a bit, both directly and indirectly. I don't usually start out with a premise lifted from my life; instead, I end up struck by some image, and then I use my own experiences as a way of making that image meaningful in the context of the story.
AS: What's an example of an image that has "struck" you?
CS: I'll list off a few, since I'm kind of loose with my definition of "image." A boy wandering around his backyard in the dark, shining a flashlight at the stars. Drawing a chalk outline with masking tape around a still living body. In the story that's going to be published in WTR: I used to work at a homeless shelter, and one of the residents there told me once that he'd found some ground chuck while Dumpster diving and that he'd thrown a BBQ at one of the barrels down by the railroad tracks. That image stuck with me for a long time, and eventually, I kind of built a story around it.
AS: Speaking of "Resources," you mentioned on your website that it was piece that had "encountered some resistance." Why do you think that was?
CS: Well, in the early drafts, there was this odd filter, one I'd borrowed from Hemingway's "On the Quai at Smyrna." That story begins, "The strange thing was, he said, how they screamed every night at midnight." Essentially, there's a first person narrator who's kind of embedded. It seems like he's the one telling the story, but really he's not. I wanted to do that with "Resources," and most people didn't like it, including y'all, who thought the filter should be done away with. I think this is the correct decision. The story also met some resistance because of the way it moves around in time. It kind of blends two different narratives, and the narrator has a hard time on occasion keeping things separate. So, a couple people who've seen the story in the past haven't liked that as well. I think I was trying to be somewhat true to the way some of the men I worked with at the homeless shelter would tell stories. They would often tell stories in very intelligent ways, blending narratives, not filling in the gaps for the listener, because they knew the story--or stories--they were telling so well. I wanted that kind of energy. That kind of trust in the listener/reader to keep up, to follow along.
AS: Well, we're glad we were able to house it!
CS: Me, too! And I'm grateful y'all were so thoughtful with your edits. I'm grateful for the attention you gave the story.
AS: That's what we aim to do! What are your favorite and least favorite things about the publishing process?
CS: I suppose this is true of all writers, but most of the time, I work alone, without any kind of audience. I'm making sentences, doing my best to translate this thing I'm working on from my head to the page by way of prose rhythm, and image, etc. Once I end up submitting, say, a short story to places for potential publication, I put my faith in the editors to tell me whether I've accomplished what I've set out to do. One of my favorite things, then, about the publishing process is having my work receive such thoughtfulness, such consideration from editors. For me, it's not about a 'yes' or 'no.' It's more about finding readers--whether they're editors or eventually people who engage with the text down the road--who have engaged with the story in meaningful ways. Does that even make sense? I hope so.
AS: Don't worry, that makes sense! I think we're approaching the time to wrap up, so as promised, the last question: What would you like to ask our next interviewee?
CS: Thank you for your time and questions, Amanda. Since I knew this was coming, I've been thinking about it, and here's what I've come up with: What artist--writer, musician, filmmaker, visual artist, etc.--do you just not get? Someone whose work you know you should at least appreciate, and maybe even admire, but you just can't?
Chad Simpson is the author of Tell Everyone I Said Hi, which won the 2012 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press. His work has appeared in McSweeney's Quarterly, The Rumpus, American Short Fiction, and The Sun, among others. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches at Knox College.