Let People Be Who They Are: Sam Pink by Leah Schnelbach

On writing without moral objectives, Florida’s thunderstorms, and jobs both terrible and sublime. 

Sam Pink Photo Credit Devyn Waitt

Photo by Devyn Waitt.

I fell in love with Sam Pink’s work when I came across Rontel (both the book and the titular cat). Reading his latest work, the combined novellas The Garbage Times/White Ibis (Soft Skull Press) was like reading a smudgy love letter from parts of my own life. The Garbage Times is an ode to the working class, to the people who clean out toilets and sweep up our trash and spend a lot of time thinking about rat populations; as a former janitor and food service technician, I felt recognized in a way I usually don’t. And White Ibis, a beautiful leap in Pink’s writing, reminded me of everything I grudgingly love about my longtime home of West Central Florida, revealing a lesser known pocket of its culture. 

Leah Schnelbach Your narrator interacts with his physical environment the same way he interacts with people. You never caricature anyone, and your cats and birds have as much personality as your people and clogged toilets. Does that come naturally to you?

Sam Pink I think it comes from a general feeling that I’ve had since I was younger that everything is confused and cluttered, and the only comfortable way forward is untangling it by letting it present itself, without charged interference from my/other minds. I’ve found that letting people be who they are, without changing who you are, leads to genuine change and interaction. You can’t expect a genuine interaction with someone if you don’t let them be free. In terms of morality, for me to decide why a character is acting a certain way would mean I have a moral objective in mind, and I don’t really, not with writing.

LS Do you write in larger chunks that you then distill down into these biting, compact sentences? I’m asking this as a maximalist who tends to write enormous paragraphs even when I’m trying not to, so I’m always interested in how someone else does it.

SP I started by trying to edit paragraphs and breaking them into sentences, which then became easier to ‘eye.’ When I did that, I realized I had no idea how to make a paragraph, and it seemed like I was just doing it for look and standards. Breaking the paragraphs down into sentences (which Nietzsche did in Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Noah Cicero did in his work) allowed me to test each sentence and make sure it was necessary/well-constructed. I try not to think of it as ‘minimalism’ or ‘maximalism’ (even though I know what you mean) because I think either all writing is minimalist, because no one puts in stuff they don’t think should be there, or the writing is called overly ’wordy’ but even with ‘wordy’ stuff, you’re still thinking about economy and expression and all that. Or it’s all maximalist and every word we write doesn’t need to be written.


LS When you write, do you begin with an image, a word, or a scent? Has your starting point changed over time?

SP Usually just a bunch of notes and a general idea of scene/tone. I knew when I started writing notes for White Ibis that it was going to be different, and I’m not sure why (could be the environment, my age, etc.) but tone is really important to me. Just realizing it now, actually. When I wrote ‘person’ the idea in my head was ‘your life is a cartoon.’ I’m 35 now, and I started writing when I was 23 or so. Part of the tone shift is just maturity. I look back on old books and think ‘Wow, that’s where I was at.’ Not in a negative way, I still love all that old stuff and think it was necessary to me, and overall, I’m glad I documented something. But with age, I think, I’ve moved away from scrutinizing myself/being obsessed with the ‘I’ character, and feel interested in other people.

LS Do you have any writing rituals you maintain, or fail to maintain?

LP Not really. I like the idea of not relying on that, because then it becomes neurotic. And soon enough you need to fly to a different country and climb a mountain to use your friends cabin to write. It’s fun to switch environments and put different pressures on yourself. When you work with rituals, you have an end in mind, and it’s usually value based: I can only produce (masterpiece) in (certain conditions). When I started thinking about writing/art as ‘attempts,’ it became much more fun and I didn’t have to worry about anything other than just doing the thing in front of me.

LS I used to work at a deli that had an outdoor walk-in freezer which had no interior door handle – I was warned on the first day that if the door closed behind me I was essentially fucked. (And as someone who grew up on “locked in the freezer” sitcom episodes it was basically my worst nightmare come true.) Obviously I survived. Thinking about this made me wonder: What was your worst-ever job experience?

SP I’m trying to imagine how I would break it to someone that they might freeze to death. Also seems like there’d be an easy mechanical fix there. I remember having a breakthrough moment one day where I was just sitting around miserable and thought ‘why would any job be worse than this?’ and since then have realized I like to stay occupied and jobs are probably the best way to learn about human behavior/the world. I’ve learned more about humans/interactions/feelings from work place interactions than all the think pieces and tweets combined. I have had a couple of jobs where people died though. I was painting the outsides of houses one summer and a kid was walking with a ladder and it touched a powerline. At another job, in a Florida factory, a giant spool of metal fell on a guy and crushed him.  

LS I was fortunate that as uncomfortable as some of my jobs were, no one actually died on shift. Did you continue working those jobs?

SP Honestly, I felt safer doing those jobs because I told myself to be careful and the consequences of not being careful were very apparent. If you can get crushed by a giant spool of metal, your mind is always on the lookout for that. I would also like to say, that if I die that way/in a similar way in the future, I advise anyone who might be upset about it, to find the humor in it. It’s thrilling that there’s a chance that your ‘I wish I was dead’ feeling at work, could, at any moment, be satisfied.

LS I also hugely admire the fact that you’ve found a way to dig into a part of life that most literature consciously avoids—it’s rare that we’ll see a janitor in fiction, and even if people write about restaurant shenanigans it’s usually more from the point of view of an extremely attractive waitress, or a sommelier, or someone who is either “upper class” already, or trying to consciously move up. I love that your narrator doesn’t do that, but throws himself into the job itself, knowing that it’s necessary. Did you set out to write about garbage and garbage tenders as a project? Or did the theme gather itself together as you wrote?

SP That’s a good point. I never consciously realized how people do that shit, like ‘Ugh, can’t wait to get out of this bullshit.’ I really dislike the narrator who ‘knows everything/if everyone else could just see!’ I think the garbage theme just came to me one day. I realized that pretty much every job I had involved garbage. So I figured, fuck it, raise the garbage flag. If someone has a readable style, I’m interested in reading about just about any job, especially the ones you don’t see represented as much. I think it’s the reason Florida is producing a lot of interesting literature/movies/etc., because people are interested in new environments.

LS There seems to be a surge of writing about Florida, some by natives, and some by transplants who are trying to figure it out. When you wrote White Ibis, did you think of yourself as becoming part of a tradition of Florida writers?

SP I think Florida is ‘coming up’ or ‘becoming hot,’ as they say in the entertainment / real estate industries. I really had no idea until I was there and writing the book. But I think it’s cool because one, I appreciate art from less conventional places and two, Florida is awesome. I’m glad to have contributed something, and have been honored by people from Florida okaying it and saying it captured Florida.

LS Do you feel that the move to Florida has changed how you approach writing and visual art in general? 

SP I think so yes. I like to think of the creative process as ‘downloading things into my mind’ and then processing them. So rather than ‘writing about Florida,’ I just let it seep into my head and let whatever comes out, come out. It felt calmer there than in Chicago, so I think that added to the tone. Also, the colors/shapes are different there. Even just the layout of the city is a north/south and east/west grid. Florida is the opposite. It’s so expansive and has an endless feeling. Very dreamy and calm. It was interesting to see what fell away from my mental process and what grew in the expansiveness. When I finished Garbage Times, I didn’t feel like writing. So in Florida, I started painting, which I had never tried before. I really love it now. I’ve learned a lot about writing from painting/drawing, but I don’t think I’ve learned much about painting/drawing from writing, although I do get the same sense of ‘release’ from coming up with titles for paintings/drawings as I do writing.

LS Of all of the Florida creatures you’ve encountered, do you have a favorite or a least favorite?  

SP The white ibis is definitely my favorite. It has amused and enlightened me with each encounter. When the book was done I looked it up and it’s an ancient symbol from Egypt. It was ‘Thoth’s symbol animal and represents the god of letters/wisdom/creativity. Somebody recently sent me a couple pages from a book on spirit animals and the ibis stands for spiritual change and new paths. I encourage anyone reading this, to hang out around a white ibis for a little bit and see if they don’t agree.

LS Going back to what you said when we started the conversation, about morality, and not wanting to have a moral objection, that is something I try (and usually fail) to do in my work. Are there other writers you can recommend who have made this part of their project?

SP Mallory Whitten. She just lays out a situation. It’s a hard thing to do and I feel like I have a lot to still do to accomplish it. I also like the exact opposite, where people just make a bunch of assumptions but it doesn’t feel spiteful or negative. Noah Cicero comes to mind. I remember in his old books he’d have these long character descriptions. It never felt like he was shitting on the characters, just testing stuff out with his mind. I enjoy wildly speculative writing too and writing that purposely makes the main character a flawed person, like Fante, or Scott McClanahan. I actually think that kind of writing is even more important. So much writing takes place from the ‘flawless’ narrator, like the characters you mentioned who work in the service industry and act ‘beyond or above it.’ I don’t understand why anyone would write with answers in mind. Why would you write about a know-it-all (who doesn’t discover that they actually don’t know much). The best kind of writing to me uses the main character as a tool, which sometimes does what it’s supposed to do, and sometimes malfunctions. But either way, there is a meaning to it.

Leah Schnelbach is a staff writer for Tor.com, a fiction editor for No Tokens, and an associate prose editor for Fairy Tale Review. Her work has appeared in in Joyland, Volume 1 Brooklyn, Tin House Online, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She posts (intermittently) at leahschnelbach.comand tweets (sporadically) at @cloudy_vision.

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