Contributor Interview: Sam Savage

The Cry of the Sloth bookcover

I discovered Sam Savage on a bitterly cold January evening in Madison about four years ago. I was in town for a job interview, walking to the Greenbush Bar when I passed a Little Free Library. I stopped for a look and a book called The Cry of the Sloth caught my eye. Coffee House Press, so I figured it was a good bet. And then I saw in the author bio that he lived in Madison! It seemed synchronistic. Shortly, out of the cold and alone at the bar with a local stout and a hot Italian sandwich, I began reading. And I’ve been reading Sam Savage ever since, one novel after another. When I was asked to edit Midwest Review, he was high on my list of writers from whom to solicit work. I discovered he’s also a poet, and am honored and thrilled to have several of his fine poems in our most recent issue, beautifully scathing and smart and timely as they are. For this contributor feature, I reached out to Jeff Bursey and Douglas Glover, editor of Numero Cinq, and received permission to republish Jeff’s interview with Sam Savage, and his insightful essay as well (links to these below—please check them out). I hope this introduces the writing of Sam Savage to a new audience of readers like me, who, when they’ve read him, find the night a little less cold, and the world a little less lonely. —Christopher Chambers

What’s your connection to the Midwest?

Both sides of the family have roots in America going back to the mid-1600s, my mother’s side in Virginia, my father’s in Massachusetts. My father owned large tracts of timberland. We were local gentry of sorts. My father was probably the town’s most prominent and certainly its most admired citizen…My parents were kind, upright, generous people, utterly devoted to their children. In manners they presented a seamless blend of Yankee restraint and Southern courtesy.

We moved to Madison, [Wisconsin] twelve years ago. We moved because we have a disabled daughter, and this is a better place for her than isolated among the pine trees in South Carolina… [my] life in Madison? I work. I used to take walks in the neighborhood. Now I look out the window. In the warmer seasons Nora and I go out to lunch once or twice a week. My sons come for long visits every year. Friends come from South Carolina and from France. I don’t know anybody in Madison apart from neighbors, a couple of Nora’s friends, and doctors. I can hardly be said to live here. I feel I am just passing through, practically unobserved, like a ghost.

Pencil, pen, typewriter, computer?

I write on a computer. Before computers, I used a typewriter. On a computer I am able to try out sentences, turn them this way and that, as many times as I like, something one is loath to do on a typewriter or in longhand. I fiddle with them endlessly. When revising I save the work as a new file and rewrite from the beginning. I seldom go back and rewrite individual parts, since by doing that I would lose the feel of their place in the whole, the tempo, for example, or the overarching mood in which they are inserted.

What’s the best job you’ve ever had? What’s the worst job you ever had?

I was eighteen when I first imagined becoming a writer. By the time I dropped out of college at twenty I saw writing as what I essentially did, everything else being ancillary to that. And so it has been ever since except for the five or six years I was obsessed with philosophy. I wrote a great deal, mostly poetry, but fragments of novels as well, and disliked what I wrote, and threw it out. I was not discouraged by rejections. I submitted rarely, was accepted as often as I could expect. It was not a rewarding thing to do, publishing poems of no interest alongside other poems of no interest in journals that nobody read. Publication has never been the goal; rejection has never been the problem. The writing I did for forty-odd years was not coming from the place that real writing comes from, and I knew that, and that was the problem. Genuine writing, writing that is true and good, is a product of compulsion. It possesses the shape and content it does because you can’t do it any other way. It took me a long time to feel that what I wrote was coming out of that kind of necessity.

In my final year as an undergraduate [at Yale] I was named “Scholar of the House,” which meant that I was exempted from course work that year and allowed to spend all my time on a thesis, rather like a Masters program. I wrote my thesis on Nietzsche. I also taught Nietzsche at Yale during the three semesters I was hired as what they called an Acting Instructor, which meant basically a full-time teacher who was paid very little. I also taught an introduction to ethics and a course on Marx.

I enjoyed teaching, but I never wanted a university career. I finished graduate school in 1972, taught for a while, as I said, and got my Ph.D. in 1979. In the years between 1973 and 1978 I was living in France and making fitful stabs at writing fiction, actually imagining myself as a writer but not accomplishing anything, and at the same time doing nothing to advance my doctoral studies. In 1978 I decided to complete the doctorate, for no good reason, just so as not to have another abandoned project on my conscience. It took me six months to research and write the thesis. It was a fine, almost intoxicating feeling, to be through with the academic world for good. I went back home to South Carolina, to a little town of 400 souls, stayed there for the next twenty-three years, raised two children, and wrote doggedly, living all the while on my small income, occasional jobs, and the labors of my wife.

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It is important to note here that I always had a small inherited income, not enough to live on easily, but enough to keep me free of the economic restraints that drive many people into careers they dislike. I was fortunate in being naturally handy, I actually enjoyed physical labor of the less grueling sort, and neither I nor Nora minded living on little. People like to talk about the unusual jobs I have held, but some of those were actually of no importance, more like pastimes than work.

Favorite music or musician?

Classical and jazz, for the most part. And Dylan. But he’s an outlier…In classical, pretty much any epoch, though I am not musician enough to enjoy some complex modern works. Most of Schoenberg, Webern, and Carter, for example, is beyond my reach. In jazz, it’s the 1950s and 1960s. Coltrane, Davis, Monk, Mingus, etc.

Do you have a pet?

I grew up with dogs all around and have lived with dogs, often multiple dogs, whenever circumstances permitted. We have a dog now. I am fond of her, I show it, and she responds. Her predecessor, a marvelous fellow, was dying at my feet while I was writing the novel [The Way of the Dog]. I wrote the first two paragraphs thinking of him, of his impending death, of myself without him. At the time I thought I would not live to write another novel. Hence the paragraphs:

“I am going to stop now. A few loose threads to cut, some bits and pieces to gather up and label, so people will know, and then I stop.

I had a little dog. We went through the world together for as long as he lasted, through the world this way and that, just to be going. At the end he had grown so weak I had to prod him onward with my shoe. He is buried somewhere. His name was Roy. I miss him.”

So the entire novel, in a sense, came from the presence of the dog at my feet at that moment. I should have listed him a co-author. His name was Bertram. I miss him.

What’s on your radar now? Current projects?

While I am waiting for a novel, I write little things. They are, I suppose, the debris left behind by my searches for a novel, outgrowths and trimmings of aborted starts. Some are ten or fifteen pages, many are not more than three or four sentences… I play with the idea sometimes [of a collection of those pieces], of ways I might arrange them so as not to present just a grab bag of disparate stuff. I have a lot of trouble estimating the value of many of them. (Editor’s note: Sam Savage’s last book,  An Orphanage of Dreams, “a collection of stripped down visitations, flash fictions of smoke breaks and long drives and friends who finally stop showing up,” is due out from Coffee House Press in January 2019.)

The preceding is excerpted from an interview with Sam Savage conducted in February and March 2015 via email by Jeff Bursey, first published in Numero Cinq. Jeff Bursey is the author of two works of fiction (Verbatim: A Novel and Mirrors on which dust has fallen) and one of criticism (Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews). Read the full interview, and more on Sam Savage in Numero Cinq:

It Is Not a Novelist’s Job to be Merciful: An Interview with Sam Savage—Jeff Bursey

Thoughts on Sam Savage who is in Hospice Awaiting the Inevitable—Jeff Bursey