Alabama, now living in Mississippi, Philip Shirley's territorial
literary roots and style illustrate a deep, personal passion for the
South. He is a public speaker, CEO of an ad agency, and is currently
working on a novel. Previous publications include Four Odd and Endings, both early
volumes of poetry.
with Philip Shirley
How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?
Philip Shirley: These
stories were among some dozen or so I wrote from 2004 to 2006, plus one
written in 2007 after the book was accepted for publication. I
submitted a dozen stories as a manuscript to the Jefferson Prize in
2006, and it caught the eye of the publisher when it was submitted by
the judges amongst a stack of the top 15. I didn't win the prize, but
the publisher and his editor asked to publish this book too, after the
winner came out. In the end, we decided to cut three stories from the
original manuscript, so I needed to add 10,000 words to get back to the
word count we wanted. I sat down with a few scraps of notes for two
stories and in about a month forged them into an 11,000 word story that
became the last and longest story of the collection.
TSR: Did you
have a collection in mind when you were writing them?
PS: I wish I could say
yes, but the truth is that the collection came together later when
these characters began to line up and tell me they had one thing in
common--although they had problems (my wife would say, "Honey, these
people have issues."), they didn't give a damn about our pity, or care
for anyone's help. That single theme is what ties the stories together,
though the landscape is familiar in some of them and fairly contained
regionally. All are set in Alabama or Mississippi in the Southern
United States, but they include rural and urban settings, rich and
poor, smart folks and not-so-smart characters. That's a long way around
to get to the real answer, which is no.
TSR: How did
you choose which stories to include and in what order?
PS: I threw them
into the air and used them in the order they came down. Okay, not
really. That's just how I graded papers as a grad student. But I
thought about it. In the end I tried to put my favorites up front and
at the end, hoping at least those would get read. I also wanted to
start with something short so the casual bookstore browser might see
the story was only a few pages and find it might fit their busy
lifestyle to have something they could read in small bites. I had a
great editor, Henry Oehmig, who helped move a story or two around to
juxtapose a couple of stories where the pace was different. We tried
four or five different orders before we settled on this one.
TSR: What does the word "story"
mean to you?
love to ask someone I'm getting to know, What's your story? So I
suppose "story" to me means something that is a significant enough
event that you believe it defines you as a person. If you define who
you are by some important event (getting married, moving from one place
to another, having children, a job, losing a friend), then the telling
of how that moment in time unfolds is a story. Some of my stories
happen in an hour, others span years, but they share a single-minded
objective: let me experience something I might not otherwise know,
whether it's an occurrence, a place, a feeling or an interesting person.
TSR: Do you
have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?
I never forget that someone is listening. And it's always a close
friend who is that mental "reader" you ask about. I have several
non-writer friends that I read stories to. Some aren't really great
readers. I don't ask them for a literary critique, but I listen to
their questions carefully. When they ask me to explain something I
thought I had told them clearly, then I know I have failed to tell the
story effectively. That guides my re-writing. Which I do constantly.
Often after my work has been published.
TSR: Is there
anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
anything at all?
PS: Yes, would you
bother to spend your money and time on a second book of mine? That's
the real test, isn't it?
TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?
PS: A mixture of
exhilaration and fright perhaps. I love books, and think everyone else
should covet them the same as I, so I certainly don't want to
disappoint anyone who invests their hard-earned money and time in my
TSR: What are
you working on now?
PS: I'm co-writing
a book with David Magee on the romance that Americans have with the
Louisville Slugger baseball bat. Sweet
Spot: 125 years of Baseball and the Louisville Slugger is
a cultural study, a peek into the business side, and a look at how a
sport can be impacted by the players' bond to one of the tools of the
trade. The manuscript is due in November for release by Triumph Books,
a Random House imprint, in May 2009. Once in awhile I sneak a little
time on a novel that's about half finished, and I'm editing a completed
novel manuscript one last time before circulating it to find it a home.
TSR: What are
the three most recent short story collections you've read?
PS: I've been on a real classics kick lately. I just finished rereading several stories from my copy of The Complete Stories and Poems of Edgar Allen Poe,
which I bought in 1966 when I was only 13. It's always been a favorite
book and a close friend over the years. I bought it as part of a book
club of some kind. A writer friend in Alabama is writing stories based
on certain famous short stories and her work sent me back to read The Cask of Amontillado.
Of course, I couldn't stop there so I read another dozen stories or so.
That experience made me think of other old "friends," so I slid The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor off the shelf and ran my finger down the table of contents until I found A Good Man is Hard to Find.
From there I jumped around to whatever caught my eye. After a few days
with O'Connor, I had to compare her with another favorite, Eudora
Welty, since I live in the same town where Miss Eudora lived until she
died not long ago. I found a copy of her Selected Stories
wedged between something more recent on my short story shelf, maybe Tom
Franklin and a new anthology. Anyway, all three of those books are
still in a pile on the corner of my desk, ready to go back in my
library until some urge to feel small strikes me again.