Meredith Alling’s debut story collection, Sing the Song (available this month from Future Tense Books) is a powerful debut. LitHub named it one of its 16 Books You Should Read This November, and for good reason. The collection is unique, yes, (an ancient ham rolls out from a sewer to tell fortunes in one of the book’s most memorable stories), but it’s Alling’s lyrical, dream-like language that makes Sing the Song a stand out collection. The book is imaginative, odd, and surreal, while still managing to make profound commentary on our everyday world. I spoke with Meredith over email about her writing process, sentence structure, and what we can expect next from this debut.
Many of your stories are told by a nameless first-person narrator, many of them with a sort of stomach-level anxiety. Did you see distinctions between the narrators as you were writing?
I never thought about linking the narrators when I was writing, other than through shared experiences of anxiety and/or identity concern, which are things I’m familiar with and think a lot about. I did wonder about the distinction once the collection was all put together — about whether people would be able to distinguish the narrators, I mean —- but really, if people read the nameless narrators as the same, that’s fine with me, and I can see how that could be an interesting way to gather it all up. People should have whatever experience they want with it.
I listened to your interview with Brad Listi. One thing that really stood out to me was when you mentioned that part of your writing process is writing a story and then not allowing yourself to look at it for weeks. You described the process as an “enforcement [you] set.” This was so interesting to me and I was wondering if you could speak a bit more on this. What do you think you get by setting this enforcement? How does the story change by putting it away and then returning to it?
It’s always going to be difficult to be objective about your own writing, but I try to get as close to objective as possible by putting fresh eyes on it. The only way I can do that is to truly put the writing away, work on other things, and look back at it once I feel that I’ve had enough distance. This often results in me realizing that something I thought was great when I finished it was actually pretty shitty, and vice versa. I struggle a lot with the idea that it’s impossible to ever be truly objective about my writing —- it’s scary to think about that —- so this is something I do to try to ease that concern.
There are a few stories in the collection in which the narrator is concerned with appearance. What about women being concerned with their appearance interests you?
I’ve had issues with my appearance my whole life, even periods of body dysmorphia. It’s gotten better as I’ve gotten older, but I’m still not totally free of it. I’m interested in the idea that someone can understand or intellectualize body issues, but still not escape them. For example, I don’t want to be a person who gets plastic surgery when I’m older, but I spend money on expensive face creams and masks to stave off the inevitable. I think a lot about this contradiction.
Many of your stories are not driven by plot, at least not in the conventional sense. They’re driven by voice and style and syntax. I’m thinking specifically of “Other Babies,” the first story in your collection and “Spaghetti.” These stories that don’t have a traditional narrator or a traditional plot—how do they begin? Do you start by having the idea for the first sentence? Or seeing a single image? Or none of the above?
Most of these types of stories — which maybe are closer to prose poems — come about when I’m just letting myself mess around. I don’t have an idea or a plan, I’m just feeling my mood. If I’m lucky, I’ll land on a sentence or two that interest me, and I’ll make a decision to see where it goes. These are the most fun for me to write. The more plot-driven stories usually start with an idea. For “The Drug,” for example, I was thinking about these Polish teenagers that used to stand on the corner when I lived in Greenpoint in Brooklyn. Whenever I walked by them, I felt old and weird. So I decided to write a story about feeling old and weird, and the things a person might do to try to counter that feeling, even if the instinct is wrong. The narrative stories are a lot more laborious for me, and I’m obsessively concerned with avoiding corniness or over-sentimentality, so I do a lot of editing and take more breathers than I do with the experimental pieces.
I do want to talk about the role of language in your writing. There’s a certain poetry to your writing. For instance, in “Ancient Ham” you write, “It rolls back into the sewer, sweating, and shimmering.” And then in “Lady Legs” you write, “The meter ate my money and the slat slid back out.” Sewer, sweating, shimmering. Meter, money. Slat, slid. How concerned are you with the poetry of your stories?
I’m very concerned with the poetry of them. My favorite stories and books are those in which language is a priority, and this is true for movies I love as well —- I don’t need a strong narrative thread if the mood is right. I work on a sentence level, and I worry about every word, as well as the rhythm of each sentence and the disposition of the story as a whole. I also read the stories aloud, and that can be really revealing. I cut a lot of words this way. And I read a lot of poetry —- I love poetry, and I’m actually working on some poetry right now, which is new for me, but it also feels like a linear move.
Many of these stories take a surreal turn. A small man coming out from begin a television. An Ancient Ham crawling out of the sewer answer, actually questions. Do you consider your stories to be surreal or other-worldly?
For sure, and I hear the word “dream-like” a lot too, which makes sense. I suffer from a bit of dissociation at times — it’s a symptom of my anxiety —- and this causes the world to look and feel a little weird. That uncanniness lives in my brain even when I’m not experiencing it. And even the stories that aren’t so surreal, there’s often an interiority to them that can feel a little eerie.
Something that really surprised me about the collection is how funny it is. Don’t get me wrong—it’s not “a comedy book” by any stretch of the imagination, but there is a sense of humor imbued in the stories. Where do you think the sense of humor in the book comes from?
I’m glad you think so! When I was little I was always trying to make people laugh by dressing up in costumes or making up nonsensical jokes (I recently found out that my brother uses one of those jokes as his internet security question, and the punchline as its answer). I’m still a jokey person today, so I think it’s only natural that some of that makes it into my stories. Also, my celebrity crush is Larry David.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve not been “trained” in the “craft of writing.” You don’t have an MFA, you majored in art history in undergrad, and you don’t work in publishing. Do you consider yourself to be “self-taught?” Do you have a “writing practice?” You have such great writing instincts.
I guess I’m self-taught, yeah. I took one creative writing class in college, but beyond that I’ve never taken a class or participated in a workshop. I’ve been writing for a long time though, and I started getting more serious about it about 7 years ago. I was sharing some of my writing with a friend of mine who has an MFA and is a great writer and artist, and he encouraged me to start submitting, so I did. I’m thankful for that.
As far as a writing practice, it’s pretty relaxed. For the most part, I write at least an hour a day, either in the morning or at night, but I don’t enforce it. If I don’t feel like it, I don’t do it. But I find that I usually do feel like it. I have a day job, but if I’m not writing too I feel lazy. I usually have a bunch of little things going at once —- like multiple stories or poems or right now I have the beginning of what is maybe a novel that I’m working on in really little pieces.
Future Tense describes your book as “for fans of writers like Diane Williams, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, and Amelia Gray.” Are these the authors who influenced you while you were writing? Who else, if anyone, influenced you?
Definitely, I love and admire all of those writers. If I’m feeling stuck on a story or even if I want to start something new and don’t know where to start, I’ll open a book from a stack I move from my bedside table to the kitchen table to the coffee table, depending on where I’m writing, and try to catch a vibe. All of those writers are in that stack, as well as others like Mary Robison, Selah Saterstrom, xTx, Paul Beatty, Lily Hoang, Eileen Myles, Joy Williams, and Noy Holland.
Are you working on anything new at the moment? I’m excited to see more writing from you!
I mentioned this above, but I’m working on a bunch of poems right now. I can’t stop writing poems, so I’m not going to. I’m also in the beginning stages of what is maybe a novel. I read this BOMB Magazine interview with Mary Robison in which she describes her writing process for Why Did I Ever —- which is a book I pretty much worship, it is so smart and funny and heavy too —- and she talked about how some bad things had just happened in her life, and to get through it, she began just taking notes wherever she went —- “scribbles” —- and eventually she read them over and realized there was a steady voice and characters and themes. So she assembled the scribbles and they became this great, sort of experimental novel. I’m approaching this new thing I’m working on —- is it an novel? I don’t know, I keep saying that, so sure —- in a similar way; just writing notes, maybe little scenes, a sentence a day or something. It’s what feels manageable right now as I attempt a longer form, and it even feels fun, which I probably shouldn’t say. Writing isn’t fun! No, it is. It is. I’m grateful to be able to do it and do something with it and talk about it like this. Thank you.