Sheldon Lee Compton.
Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of the collection The Same Terrible Storm (Foxhead Books, 2012), recently nominated for the Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award. His work has been published widely and been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was a finalist in 2012 for the Still Fiction Award as well as a finalist for the Gertrude Stein Award in Fiction the following year. He survives in Eastern Kentucky.
How many stages are there in the writer’s journey, and where are you on that path?
Sheldon Lee Compton: I can only speak for myself, of course, but my first stage was becoming obsessed with reading at around age ten. A couple years of that, and I was ready to write some stories of my own. That was the second stage, I guess. Stage three, in my case, involved writing dozens and dozens and dozens of horrible stories, terrible, handwritten stories I still pull out and read even today. It was like learning to walk – the bumps, the scrapes, the broken bones, deep bruises and ego. Once I’d started wobbling along on two feet, I decided it was time to write to shock folks. Stage four. Stage four lasted about two years when I, at last, realized there were plenty of stories, at once shocking, poignant, gritty, and true, beneath my very feet in my hometown in Eastern Kentucky. So, that’s where I’m at now – writing about my region, my people, and the many colorful stories springing up from this area bright as spears of sunlight, smooth as a fat moon’s glow tracing the mountaintop.
What single piece of work, published or unpublished, are you most proud of?
Sheldon Lee Compton: The work that comes immediately to mind is one I wrote in 1994 while a senior in high school called “The Son.” My dad was a veteran of the Vietnam War and returned, like many others, broken. In the reason for his discharge was a single word of explanation. It simply said “Dysphoria,” which became the title of a novel I would write years later. But at that time, I wrote “The Son.” I had not dared write about my dad before then, a recluse who left his back bedroom only a handful of times over the better part of a quarter of a century. I wrote that story for myself, promising no one else would ever see my heart placed secretly in the folds of my sleeve. It would be the first of a long line of stories I would write about fathers and fathers and sons. I’m not sure I’ve yet got all that material out of my system. But it was real and honest. The first time I’d told a story I could say that about, so it remains my favorite. And likely always will.
What are you currently struggling with or trying to master? Some aspect of craft, say, or some area of publishing or finding an agent.
Sheldon Lee Compton: Two things at present. The first is to write my third novel and write it well. I’ve written two bad novels, trunk novels that will never see beyond the darkness of that trunk lid, and now I’m working on a novel I’m calling Brown Bottle which I’m pleased with at this point. I may have at last figured out how to write in long form. I mean I’ve written thirty and forty page short stories before and felt pretty good about them, but a novel is a different creature all together. I’m not an outline-enslaved storyteller. I like to discover as I go along, cast out into the dark as Ondaatje has so famously said. This makes the novel form a challenge.
Another thing I’m working on, as far as the business-end of things, is to seek representation. I had not considered pursuing an agent until recently and still can’t really explain why I’ve started now. I’ve had a more-than-satisfactory publishing record with my stories, poems, and essays and have even been blessed enough to see my first book (The Same Terrible Storm) published by an established press (Foxhead Books, 2012). And all this without an agent within a hundred miles of me. But I’m aware that having an agent can serve the full-time writer well. It’s simply a matter of time and how much a storyteller is willing to spread himself thin doing the business of literature when he should, to be perfectly honest, concern himself with improving his craft, his art, the storytelling he was meant to give the majority of his labor.
Can you give us a short list of tips, a lesson on craft, or a writing exercise of some kind?
Sheldon Lee Compton: To return to my previous statement, to write truthfully hardly expands that notion sufficiently, so I’ll speak more to this idea. I sit down to tell a story and consider the following ideas: 1) Am I telling a story I’m interested in? 2) Do I care at all what happens to the characters? 3) Depending on the point of view I’m working with, am I being natural with my dialogue, my narration? 4) Am I allowing the land itself, the region, to ease into the story as more than just a setting but also as a character, considering it has paramount control over what my characters either overcome or accept? 5) And, finally, will the folks in my stories strive and succeed, give up, or stubbornly dust off to try another day?
Who have been your teachers?
Sheldon Lee Compton: My first teacher was my uncle, G.C. Compton, an accomplished Appalachian poet. He always made me feel like an equal, even when I badgered him for advice as a ten-year-old kid hanging off his literary shirt tale. When I later attended college, I truly understood how much he afforded me, how generous he was with his time, when during my first visit to the college library I was told the poet G.C. Compton’s papers were stored in the special collections section at the school. Of course, I also, like many other storytellers, had that one English teacher in high school who took an interest in what I was doing and pushed me. Her name was Deloris Woody – Mrs. Woody. I’ll never forget the times she spent going over my assignments, marking them up with that red pen until the paper looked more like a mugged Pollock painting than an essay assignment. She could have let me slide by, as I was proficient enough to have passed, but she took the extra time. It wouldn’t be until grad school when I met such writers as Neela Vaswani, Phil Deaver, K.L. Cook, Mary Yakuri Waters, Kirby Gann, Crystal Wilkinson and so many others, that I really felt it was okay to tell stories about where I was from. Each of them helped me see the way in which I could tell my stories without falling into stereotype or parody. I’ll never forget any one of these people. I owe more to them than I can ever repay.
Author Josephine Humphries once said she sacrificed friendships and soccer matches so that she could write. What have you lost or sacrificed in order to write?
Sheldon Lee Compton: Sacrifice comes in different ways for different storytellers, I guess. Something I cringe to hear folks say is that they don’t have time to write. They’d like to write, they say, but there’s just never enough time. I’m sorry, but, yes, there is time to write or build a birdhouse or sing a song or paint a picture or join a church choir or whatever you choose to do with your time. And it’s not extra time, not stolen time. Our labor is the greatest single thing we can afford any effort. Do you go into work at 8 a.m.? Perfect! That means all you have to do to get a solid three hours of storytelling in is get up at 5 a.m. Problem solved. I don’t feel I’ve sacrificed a single thing in my life in order to write my stories, to do the work I’m compelled and blessed to have the chance to do. Of course, there’s a good case to be made for the fact that I have sacrificed any number of things, but that’s a perception issue. And I just don’t perceive it in that way.
Looking back, what mistakes have you made?
Sheldon Lee Compton: All of them, so far. I’m sure there are several more to come, but for now, I’ve made them all. More specifically, and most importantly, there have been far too many times I’ve forgotten the point to storytelling. My job is to tell stories, and tell stories that entertain folks. I don’t know when the idea of entertaining people became less of a concern, but I’m afraid that seems often to be the case. I’m proud to tell a story that entertains folks. If something I write also causes readers to think about the world or some situation more than they might have otherwise, then that’s fine. But I like to keep my eye on the ball and remember the craft I’ve devoted my time and effort to meets an ancient but simple need. When I forget this and fall into a pattern where I take myself too seriously, consider what I’m doing any more important than sharing stories for folks who need to hear them, the work suffers. It’s the biggest mistake we can make. Literature is important, no doubt. But it’s one of few things in the world so vastly important and yet so fun and gratifying to create for others.
What do you wish someone had told you?
Sheldon Lee Compton: It would have been great for someone to have told me to stop reading a book the second it became boring or uninteresting. I can hardly count the number of “great” books I suffered through only because the literary community called them “great” and insisted they be read. Thanks to the good Lord I’ve shed that notion and now don’t waste time with a book that fails to do the job for me. There’s just too many actual great books, in my opinion, to spend one minute with a lame duck story that some group of people have knighted as “great” for reasons of academic obligation or personal preference.
What scares you about the road ahead?
Sheldon Lee Compton: There’s a reoccurring thought for me that one morning I’ll wake up and feel I’ve told all the stories I brought to the table. It’s certainly a fear, but not one that lingers. The stories are there, in my head, each day. The day I have no more stories to tell, then that’ll be the end of it. Now that thought can develop into a festering and significant fear fast as a hummingbird’s heartbeat. But I’ll accept whatever’s ahead.
If you could write your own obituary, what would you want it to say?
Sheldon Lee Compton: In addition to the typical obit info such as what my name was, where I was from, and so forth, I’d like someone to make sure there’s at least this one sentence included: He tried.
March 18, 2013 5:15 PM EDTAlmost forgot! One lucky person who leaves a comment for Sheldon wins a copy of THE SAME TERRIBLE STORM. So be sure to say hello and introduce yourself.– Sheryl Monks
March 18, 2013 7:18 PM EDTI found Sheldon Lee Compton’s concept about unburdening ourselves with the notion of sacrifice being necessary in order to create; that making time to write isn’t a sacrifice if we approach the need for time to storytell as a natural necessity. How we perceive the use of our time, in service to our goal of writing, is the bigger, freeing point. Thank you for that fresh insight.– Priscilla F. Bourgoine
March 18, 2013 7:43 PM EDTGreat interview…I enjoyed the discussion. I knew of Mr. Compton from Degrees of Elevation and Night Train and am happy to hear about the book of stories.– Jim Nichols
March 18, 2013 8:02 PM EDTI agree, Priscilla. Thanks for weighing in. Hi, Jim. Glad you could stop by.
I suppose we need a deadline for this book give-away. How about 5pm on Friday? Blind drawing from those who comment. Good luck, and thanks again!– Sheryl Monks
March 18, 2013 9:09 PM EDTGreat interview. I second the advice about being willing to give up a book you don’t love even if somebody is telling you it’s a classic. As you start through your 40s you start becoming aware of your mortality and how precious your remaining years are, and you need to spend them in the best way YOU know how.
(Don’t sign me up to win the book, I bought it as soon as it came out. Spread the love to someone else.)– Ray Shea
March 19, 2013 1:35 AM EDTI’ve been waiting for somebody to say it:
Thanks to the good Lord I’ve shed that notion and now don’t waste time with a book that fails to do the job for me. There’s just too many actual great books, in my opinion, to spend one minute with a lame duck story that some group of people have knighted as “great” for reasons of academic obligation or personal preference.
Thanks– Steven Gowin
March 19, 2013 7:33 AM EDTThanks for spreading the love, Ray. And thanks for stopping by!– Sheryl Monks
March 19, 2013 7:35 AM EDTSame here, Steve. It needed saying. I appreciate Sheldon’s candor. Thanks for stoppping by.– Sheryl Monks
March 19, 2013 8:42 AM EDTGood interview! I especially liked the question, “what mistakes have you made?” The answer: “all of them”. And one in particular resonated with me. “My job is to tell stories–one that entertains folks. I like to keep my eye on the ball and remember the craft I’ve devoted my time and effort to meets an ancient but simple need”. I’m going to tape this statement above my laptop.– Kathy H. Mendenhall
March 19, 2013 9:59 AM EDTThat’s great advice, indeed, Kathy. I think I’ll do likewise.– Sheryl Monks
March 19, 2013 11:04 AM EDTLove what you said about every writer “charting a new country.” Looking forward to reading your work– GLM
March 20, 2013 4:27 AM EDTGreat interview. Three things really struck me: one, that Sheldon doesn’t consider all the usual sacrifices sacrifices. I love that, and it’s so true–it’s a matter of how you see it. Two, how Sheldon allows setting slip in and become character in his stories. And three, that at the end of it, all we really need anyone to say is that we tried. Yes. What more is there? Looks like Sheldon is a writer for me to keep my eye on. Very excited to read his work! Thanks, Sheryl, for this!!– Susan Woodring
March 22, 2013 11:01 AM EDT(Don’t sign me up to win the book, I bought it as soon as it came out.) Great interview. I loved Sheldon’s story collection–haunting and lyrical, gritty and spellbinding. I’m excited to learn he’s working on a novel. Can’t wait to see it in print!– Karen George