What are you reading these days? Do you love/hate/feel neutral about it, and why?
I’m almost embarrassed to report that I’ve been plodding through Finnegans Wake since June of 2022. I’ve made it about three quarters through, and my enjoyment of and immersion in the book have varied with time, flowing and ebbing and flowing right back, depending on my mood, my workload, my interest. At times its sheer musical intensity transports me. I’ve also hit stretches (I’m in the midst of one now) where I’m totally, hopelessly lost. Even this can be fun; there’s something to be said for escaping the assembly line. Joyce, to me, is godlike.
I’ve also been reading short stories: Nabokov, Donald Barthelme, Diane Williams, Peter Taylor, George Saunders.
Contemporary works that excite and inspire me include Jordan Castro’s The Novelist, Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, and Lee Klein’s Neutral Evil))) and Chaotic Good.
Could you provide for us a passage of writing that deeply shifts something inside you?
I recently read a passage from Thomas Bernhard’s Woodcutters that made me laugh and (to adopt those classic Bernhardian italics) cringe with recognition:
“We’ll wait till half past twelve at the latest, the hostess said to the writer Jeannie Billroth, to whom she had been talking for some time, naturally about Joana. This woman, who was now fat and gross and ugly, fancied herself as the Viennese Virginia Woolf, though everything she wrote was the most dreadful kitsch, and in her novels and short stories she never rose above a kind of loquacious, convoluted sentimentality. This woman, who had come to the Gentzgasse in a black home-knitted woolen dress, had also been a friend of Joana’s. She lived in the Second District, not far from the Praterhauptallee, and had for years actually imagined herself to be Austria’s greatest writer, its greatest literary artist. This evening—or rather night—in the Gentzgasse she had no compunction in telling Auersberger’s wife that in her latest novel she had gone a step further than Virginia Woolf (I was able to hear her say this because I have such acute hearing, especially at night). Her new book far surpassed The Waves, she said, whereupon she lit a cigarette and crossed her legs….”
What does this shift inside me? I can’t really say—although Bernhard, in this passage, does something amazing: he titillates my desire for literary gossip and trash talk while implying (through a negative example, and through the hovering specter of Woolf) the reality of trueartistic virtue—the absence of which, in this scene, is grotesque. It’s also just funny. And I love funny writing.
When you are working on a piece, what inspirations do you draw from?
I’m a musician, so rhythm is very important to me. I’m also a suggestible prose stylist, so whoever I’m reading, if their style is infectious, will likely come out in that day’s or week’s writing. I have to go back and then edit them out. I have done, for example, atrocious impressions of Nabokov, Salter, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Yates, and many others. Even Thomas Pynchon, whose work could not be more different (or accomplished) than my own, can charge his way in and start changing my cadences.
I also listen to music as I write, mainly as a way of blocking noise, but also as a means of motivation. I’m in love with Four Tet—both as music for writing and music for life. Big Star is important to me, too. If I could do on the page what Alex Chilton once did with his voice and guitar, I’d be happy. Or so I like to think.
What craft elements are you most interested in/attached to within your writing?
I’m obsessed with mere sentences, sometimes to the detriment of the overall composition. To offset that sentence fetish, I’m trying to focus on character and motivation, on that strange but thrilling intersection between psychology and social expectation. The perfect union of language with the substance and strangeness of life—that’s the elusive and grandiose goal.
Who (or what) are some of your writing obsessions, and why?
I believe that reading well is the key to writing well. I want to read everything great and worthwhile so my sentence-crazed brain can absorb and remix it and make something new. I am wracked, from time to time, by the base, anxious thought that I simply don’t read enough. I blame my phone (which seduces me, leads me away from the page) and my guilt-ridden Protestant work ethic (which compels me to track all my reading and writing, to pile up the data and rue my own laziness). This compulsion isn’t good, but it’s better than doomscrolling.
What are some ways in which you remain productive/find time to be a writer?
I write in the mornings, an hour before breakfast and leaving for work. I’ve found that writing after teaching is tough, if not impossible. I also enjoy that early-morning dark, the sense that I’m ahead of things, including the birds.
Tell us about what your writing/creative space looks like.
During the school year, I write early in the morning at a table in the kitchen, but I also have a writing desk in our guestroom where I work when I really need privacy and focus. This desk holds a cup full of pens, a trinket or two, a three-volume translation of Remembrance of Things Past, a stack of Henry James and Gerald Murnane novels, and a pile of random to-be-reads. The books serve as talismans—inspiration for what’s possible with language. There’s also a wall-mounted bookshelf over the desk, and I sometimes find myself plucking down volumes to read myself out of an impasse in my work. There are also several paintings by my brother and at least three basses hanging from mounts on the wall. There’s also an upright bass in one corner, and of course several amps. It’s a packed, semi-chaotic space, but I like it that way.
What are some ways in which you get through a block in your creative work?
I’m in a group with other writers, old classmates from college, all of them excellent poets. We Zoom, critique, kvetch, confer. Even when I don’t bring something in, seeing my friends’ vital work is inspiring. Just as important, I have another writer friend, an older, more talented mentor-type (the amazing Geoff Wyss), with whom I trade stories-in-progress—an extremely rewarding experience I cannot recommend highly enough to young writers, especially those who have, like me, forgone the MFA route.
How do you navigate the experience of submissions/rejections/acceptances?
I am the worst person to ask this question. A recent and as-yet-unpublished short story, for example, has received an ungodly amount of rejections, and I can’t really say that I’ve handled it well. If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my submissions “journey” (to cop the parlance of The Bachelor), it’s that I shouldn’t check my email in the middle of the day, and certainly not before teaching a class. A rejection email (especially a form letter, with its boilerplate lethality) will ruin my mood for several hours, making me impossible to be around, let alone learn from.
I like and recommend the essay, "Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections a Year", by Kim Liao, where she talks about aiming for 100 rejections a year. It’s noble advice, but I always seem to forget it when I’m pulling up my Inbox, hoping for approval in the form of an acceptance.
Do you have a recent publication/project you would like us to highlight?
In addition to a short story published in a recent issue of The Woven Tale Press, I have stories forthcoming in Barzakh (Summer 2023) and Peauxdunque Review (Summer 2023).
“Every Faith" published by The Woven Tale Press on June 2, 2023
“After Cairo" published by Barzakh in summer 2023.
“Cochise" forthcoming from Peauxdunque Review.
What is something you would like to share with other writers out there?
My parents have always said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Anyone who’s struggled to get their work published while being flooded, via social media, by others’ successes will recognize the value of this axiom.
S.C. Ferguson lives with his wife in New Orleans, where he works as a high school English teacher. His fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Barzakh, The Westchester Review, The Woven Tale Press, Peauxdunque Review, The Champagne Room, and other journals. He is also a musician who has performed, with various groups, on stages across New Orleans and the South. He is at work on a collection of short stories. Befriend him on Instagram @samcferg, and on Twitter @fergmode.