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George Williams was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama and Richmond, Virginia. He is the author of a novel, Degenerate (Texas Review Press 2010), and a forthcoming fiction collection, Gardens of Earthly Delight (Raw Dog Screaming Press 2011). His stories and essays have appeared in The Pushcart Prize, Boulevard, and The Hopkins Review, among others. He is the recipient of a Michener Fellowship and a grant from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation. He teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design and works as a consultant and writer for Corra Films.


TDP: Your author biography mentions you teach. What subject?

GW: I teach writing at Savannah College of Art and Design. Mostly fiction workshops, but some essay writing courses. I don't call them "composition," since that word is a cognate of "compost." "Essay" describes it best.

TDP: Is there a more specialized subject you focus on in your own academic pursuits?

GW: Other than reading, writing and teaching, I have no academic pursuits. My degree from University of Houston was terminal, a Ph.D with a novel for a dissertation. I'm a generalist. Had I been forced to specialize, I would have found another line of work. I've nothing against it, but I'm unsuited for that kind of research. Frank Kermode said about poets what applies to fiction writers too: they are raiders and rapists, not colonists.

TDP: Your writing in Gardens of Earthly Delight could be described as difficult. Unique grammar, minimal punctuation—they can take some getting used to. Why do you use such a non-traditional writing style?

GW: I don't mean to be difficult. I could claim to be deliberately difficult by quoting Donald Barthelme, a writer I was lucky to know for a few years, who wrote in a wonderful essay "Not Knowing": "Art is not difficult because it wishes to be difficult, it is difficult because it wishes to be art." But that would be a lie. Regarding punctuation, I like the way it looks on the page. I've been advised against it, but I like the way it looks on the page.

TDP: Your description of travel is very different from most authors' approach. Where most would mention the destination and describe the journey, you draw a literal roadmap and leave the action for the destination. Why?

GW: I don't know that I draw in any literal roadmaps. When I was growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, the suburban city where I lived, Mountain Brook, was sprouting houses at such a rate a friend and I rode around on our Stingrays making maps of the new neighborhoods of streets that ran in and around a Confederate cannonball factory and past a mysterious Spanish villa that sat in the middle of the woods as if it appeared out of nowhere. Place names have always fascinated. Tickle Cunt Branch, for instance, referenced by Mrs. Mash in "Dickson," was a hamlet or village in Virginia. I stole it from David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed: Four English Folkways in America. One of the best history books I've ever read.

TDP: From your stories, it appears you have a fascination with and are well-versed in the occult, mysticism, and spirituality. Is your use of the metaphysical simply a narrative device (i.e., writing what you know), or is there a more personal purpose for it?

GW: I find most of it risible. A while ago I lived next door to a woman who thought she was a witch. Imagine if you saw a man reading a book called Finding Your Inner Jupiter. You'd think he was an imbecile or gone apeshit. But I saw a woman reading a book about the inner goddess with a high seriousness most people wouldn't give to Jane Austen or even a layman's nap over a book about quantum mechanics. It's been called the Age of Belief. People will believe anything. In the case of "Miss September," I liked the notion of using the occult as a confidence game. And the story of the Jet Propulsion lab, Aleister Crowley and L. Ron Hubbard I found at turns fascinating, comical and appalling. Hubbard was a malevolent huckster. Who knows how many lives and families he's ruined. Not nearly as many as our national government in the last hundred years, but still. One declared the other a tax-exempt religion. Can you believe that?

TDP: All of the tales in Gardens are incredible, though a few stand out as personal favorites ("The Bachmobile" and "Mule" come to mind readily). Which is particularly special to you?

Probably "Shocquohocan", because it is based on a crime that affected people I know, and while I didn't know the victims, I felt compelled to set it right, or undo a terrible wrong, in a story. A friend distilled from Dante his method and reason for writing: always have a muse, always get even. "At the Chamkar Café" was written for Corra Films. I was given a box of research and asked to invent a character based on a real person who disappeared in Cambodia decades ago. It was daunting. For months a few times a week I sifted through the research and nearly gave up twice, but I'd already been paid. Then it somehow all snapped into place. Neither story is comic in the least. That might account for why I'm partial to both.

TDP: Not to spoil it for readers, but I have to ask: in "Wissahiccon," is the protagonist really whom one would suspect given the evidence?

Of course not. Some lunatics look and act like lunatics. Most don't. Pascal wrote: "Men are so necessarily mad that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness." Why do men get to have all the fun? Can't women be wicked and insane too?

TDP: What would you say is the overarching theme for Gardens?

Bosch ought to say enough. Someone recently cited Neal Stephenson: "The twentieth century was one in which limits on state power were removed in order to let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir." In his Nobel Laureate lecture, Saul Bellow said: "We must not make bosses of our intellectuals ... Should they, when they read novels, find nothing in them but the endorsement of their own opinions? Are we here on earth to play such games?" Neuroscience and evolutionary psychology are all the rage among the intelligentry and the latest form of authoritarianism. Books that tell us we can't know our own minds, we make decisions before our brains even know we've made decisions, we're basically irrational, we have no free will, etc. If I have no free will, neither do the experts, but they don't really believe that, because what they really believe is that we're too stupid to make decisions; we should leave those to our intellectual bosses. Gardens is partly a reaction against this, as buried as it is. Bosch's Garden is hell, but last century, first in the West, and then in the East, we created hells on earth. Are we so much smarter now? When I was a fat baby on Signal Mountain, Tennessee, halfway around the world thirty million people were starved to death for a greater good. Steven Pinker et al. argue that statistically we're a much less violent species now and that it's a much safer world. Compared to the total population, the percentage of people killed in wars or by their own government last century was lower than centuries before. But if you were one of the hundreds of millions fed into what Milosz called "the meatgrinder of history," you didn't think in percentages. You loved the fat on your own sweet hide as much as the shivering creature next to you. There are worse things than war. Last century more people were killed by their own governments than died in all the wars combined. According to some historians, by a factor of four. Is it too soon to say we've changed? Let some natural or man-made catastrophe have a world-wide knock-on effect and disrupt food and energy supplies and we'll find out how much we've changed.

TDP: Do you prefer your readers come to their own conclusions, or were there specific ideas you wanted to communicate through this collection?

Their own conclusions. Communicating ideas I'll leave to the "social scientist," euphemism for "potential mass murderer." Look at how many mass killers tore their mediocre brains apart with dialectical materialism. And how many academics have made a killing espousing ideas they in no way practice in their individual lives? Support the minimum-security prison system called compulsory education but send your children to private schools, by all means.