The Sweetest Debut: Sam Allingham Mashes Up Drake and Shakespeare

Welcome to the Sweetest Debut, a regular installment in which we reach out to debut (or near-debut, we’re flexible!) fiction, poetry and nonfiction authors working with presses of all sizes and find out about their pop culture diets, their writing habits, and their fan-fiction fantasies. 

Today we hear from Sam Allingham, whose story collection The Great American Songbook, “alternately roguish and melancholy, always mellifluous” per Kirkus, was on our December list.

What is your elevator pitch to folks in the industry describing your book?

The stories in The Great American Songbook are about the ways in which music takes hold of people’s lives: a jazz musician in search of an ever-elusive sound; a man who falls in and out of love through lyrics from the Talking Heads; a songwriting duo that fights bitterly through the pages of their songs. The book is concerned with the way music functions as a kind of secret life, where people place their hopes and hidden dreams.

What you tell your relatives it’s about?

Egomaniacal clarinetists.

How long was this project marinating in a draft or in your head before it became a book deal?

I was twenty-three when I wrote the earliest story in the collection, and I’m thirty-two now, so you could say the book represents most of my twenties! Of course, I was working on other projects, too, in the intervening time: a few novels that never panned out. Story collections often proceed like this, I think; they sort of accrue, one story building on another. I always knew I wanted to put out a collection sooner or later, and when the editors of A Strange Object came calling I was ready!

Name a canonical book you think is totally overrated.

I think it’s pretty remarkable how seriously people take Kurt Vonnegut, so I guess I’ll say Breakfast of Champions? Not that Vonnegut isn’t talented and funny, but there’s a flippancy to him that rubs me the wrong way; he seems to have this knee-jerk, detached disdain for humanity, a self-satisfied misanthropy, like he’s drifting in space, commenting on humanity from his high perch. And then so much of his writing is so lazy…

What’s a book you’ve read more than two times?

My favorite book of all time is Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude; it’s about this guy named Hanta who works in Communist Czechoslovakia as a paper compacter. It unfolds as a kind of long monologue about how living among the collected wisdom of the world and then destroying it, one bale of paper at a time, has wreaked havoc on his brain. I think it has the best last twenty pages of any book ever written. (A real close runner-up would be Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, which I’ve also read over and over.)

Is there book or other piece of art that influenced your writing for this particular project?

Since the book was written over the space of ten years, it’s hard to pinpoint a particular piece that influenced the whole thing, but I can say that John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was a real influence on me throughout my twenties – not only for his music, but for the way he blurred the lines between song and story, and for the way he’s gone on steadfastly making music (and now writing books) for twenty years. Listening to All Hail West Texas in college was a real turning point for me, in terms of the boundary between song and narrative.

What’s your favorite show to binge watch when you’re not writing?

I’m a sucker for watching period miniseries with my wife. The BBC Brideshead Revisited with Jeremy Irons is quite special, and we’re currently working our way through The Jewel in the Crown. I also liked North and South, because it got me yelling about class conflict [Ed. note: us too!]. I have to stay away from any Tory garbage, though, like Downton Abbey. Don’t get me started on Downton Abbey. My wife won’t forgive you. [Ed. note: us too!]

What’s the last movie you saw in theaters?

Lord, I don’t get out to the movies much! I guess it was the new Star Wars movie, where I shouted like a little kid. Later on I had my critiques of making a note-for-note remake of A New Hope, but at the time my child-brain just took over.

Do you listen to music while you’re writing? If so, what kind?

Absolutely, though it has to be instrumental. I tend to put a single album on repeat. Favorites include In a Silent Way, Neu!, and Shostakovich’s string quartets.

Who is your fashion icon?

Young Sam Beckett was a looker, let me tell you.

Do you prefer a buzzing coffee shop or silent library?

like the energy of a coffee shop. A library provides too much browsing temptation.

Do you work best at a desk, bed or couch?

Desk. Beds and couches invite a nap.

Do you prefer morning writing or late-night writing?

Morning is the best for clear-eyed editing and working on ideas that are already formulated. Late nights are good for chasing down a wild notion, albeit with the unintended side effect of insomnia.

Is your style more writing it all out in one big messy draft and then editing, or perfecting as you go (or something in between)?

My absolute favorite feeling is writing the first draft of a story in one sitting. It almost never happens, but pure invention (and hacking away the dream-thicket later) is always the preferred mode.

If you could write fanfiction about any pop culture character, real or imagined, who would it be?

A remake of Hamlet with Drake in the title role.

Care to give us a few sentences of micro-fiction about that character?

DRAKE:

For who would bear the weak attempt at flexing
negative energy, fucking with me mentally,
hot temper, scary outcome, police asking questions,
budget journalists searching for a story,
my ex girl been searching for a story,
I just want some head in a comfortable bed,
It could all be so simple…
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.–Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! You’re a good girl, but
You act so different around me.