A Conversation with Garrett Socol

Writer, Dramatist, and Television Producer. Interview by Cynthia Reeser

For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 4.3, September 2010

Garrett Socol’s fiction has been published in three dozen literary journals, including The Barcelona Review, 3:AM Magazine, Perigee, Paradigm, PANK, Hobart, JMWW Journal, Pear Noir and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. His essays have appeared in Prick of the Spindle, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Huffington Post. His plays have been produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse. For 15 years, this native New Yorker found himself in Los Angeles, creating and producing television shows for the E! Network.  His first collection of short stories, Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn, will be published by Ampersand Books in 2011. Most of his published work can be found at www.garrettsocol.com.

CR: Could you provide an overview of your development as a writer?

GS: I remember writing my first short story when I was around ten years old. It wasn’t a homework assignment; it was the creative expression of an introverted kid. Over the next few years, I wrote several more, but I didn’t take them seriously. Flash forward to my junior year at college: While eating lunch at a restaurant and eavesdropping on the conversation taking place at the next table, I was inspired to write a one-act play. (Frantically, I began jotting notes down on paper napkins.) This came out of nowhere. That play was presented on the USC stage along with one-acts by Edward Albee and Tennessee Williams. (I have a photo of the marquee somewhere.) The experience was thrilling and surreal. That’s when I began to take writing for the theatre seriously. My next decade or two consisted of writing plays, television, and the occasional magazine article. (I never dared to think I was adept enough to write fiction.) It wasn’t until I left television in 2007 that I tried my hand at writing another short story, then another and another and another and another, and I fell in love with the format.

CR: Can you put your finger on anything in particular that drives your writing?

GS: Here’s what drives my writing: the ideas I can’t get out of my head, the ones that demand to be written. I honestly don’t know where they come from or how they creep into my psyche, but once they’re there, attention must be paid. I often think of myself as a vessel, and the writing comes from some very distant place. I realize some readers might be laughing right now (at me, not with me), but it’s the truth. However, occasionally I’ll have an actual idea like: How would an ordinary woman react if…let’s say…she’s struck by lightning just days after being hit by a meteor? How does her life change? And what if her mother drowns in beer a week later? Is all this happening for some larger, cosmic reason? This particular story is called “The Manicurist,” and it will be in the August issue of Drunken Boat as well as in my upcoming short story collection, Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn (Ampersand Books, 2011).

CR: What authors do you read?

GS: I devour everything Mary Gaitskill writes. If she published a Post-it note, I would read it.

If she wrote an angry letter to the gas company, I would cherish it. I just grabbed her bookVeronica off my shelf, and I’ll choose a line at random. Here’s what my finger found:

… We handed our coats to a gaunt creature in a coat-lined cave, then walked down the glowing sound chamber hall, where music, lightly skipping in the main rooms, here bumbled from wall to wall like a ghost groaning in purgatory.

Whenever I read her, I think I might as well look for another profession. What this woman does with language is nothing short of miraculous. I also admire the Michaels: Cunningham and Chabon, Joshua Ferris, Nabokov, William Styron, Margaret Atwood, Alain de Botton.

CR: How long have you been writing? Have you started to see your work evolve in any way—thematically, or in any other manner, such as in form or language?

GS: As mentioned, I wrote my first short story as a kid, but my career took a major detour when I went into television. I won’t say this was a mistake because I loved every second of it (until the final year). But when I started writing full-time in 2007, I felt I had gotten back on track. There is nothing like writing a page of prose (or dialogue) that works. It feels like a drug-induced high. I especially love when I’m laughing hysterically at something a character says, and my dog Pete looks at me like I’m out of my mind.

My first few stories involved average people dealing with seriously serious issues like suicide, murder and infidelity, but these characters dealt with their situations in darkly humorous ways. The first line of an early story:

Tammy Hicks, the most well-liked hairdresser in the small town of Tendency, Idaho, decided to throw a huge bake sale to raise money for her upcoming electroconvulsive therapy.

Soon I entered my “2% true” era. I became fascinated with questions like: Who invented dental floss? Who came up with the idea of deodorant? How on earth did Roget go about writing the thesaurus? After researching each of these topics, I wrote outrageous fictional accounts of the creation of these products. But there’s a morsel of truth in each story. For example, some prisoners actually used dental floss to escape from a prison window. They made it out, only to be captured on the ground.

CR: You write fiction, but also plays. Could you comment on your approach to those forms—it is different for each? Is there a different mindset that coincides with writing a play versus writing fiction? Different sources of inspiration?

GS: Writing fiction and writing plays are two different animals. The only common element is that the characters live in my head 24/7. They just move right in and take over my life. Authors obviously have more freedom in a short story; you can go anywhere and include a cast of thousands. Plus, you can write a story in a matter of weeks while a play can take months or years. However, I happen to like the challenges of the theatre: You need to convey your message with a limited number of characters and sets. But realistically speaking, you need a team of people to put a play on. In today’s economy, it’s almost a miracle to get a new play off the ground. A short story requires only YOU and a kind editor.

I don’t know why this is the case, but the plays I’ve written take place in large cities like New York or London and involve characters who are intelligent and witty. Most of the stories I write take place in small towns and focus on small town people dealing with murder and lust. I can’t explain this. All I can do is go with the inspiration.

CR: I grew up watching Talk Soup on E! Entertainment Network. I really never thought that one day, I’d be interviewing the producer. Could you talk about how you got into television production and your experience as a producer? What prompted a total departure from the field? Do you ever think of a return to the profession?

GS: After graduating from USC, I struggled to break into television. I landed a job as a part-time writer for a popular magazine show, PM Magazine. I learned all I could learn, gave 100%, and three years later, I became the producer. I did that for four years. A brand new network called E! Entertainment was starting up, and they brought me over to create and produce shows. I was living my dream (for the time being). I produced the original Talk Soup, The Gossip Show, Revealed, the 101 “Countdown” series, and a lot of specials. (I came up with the name Talk Soup as an homage to my favorite Los Angeles bookstore, Book Soup.) I travelled the world, met people I’d always admired, interviewed royalty. But throughout my years at E!, many nights and weekends were spent writing plays and essays. Two of my plays were produced (Berkshire Theatre Festival and Pasadena Playhouse) and a dozen articles for national magazines (Cosmopolitan, Movieline, McCall’s.) were published.

Despite the immense enjoyment I was getting from working in television, I always felt that I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing with my career. The epiphany came while I was writing something clever about Britney Spears. I stopped mid-sentence and thought, Why am I wasting my time and talent on this? By that point, I’d lost interest in the content of the network. It began as an edgy, creative take on “all things entertainment” and turned into a standard, silly exploration of celebrities and those who think they’re celebrities like Dina Lohan and Kim Kardashian. (To this day, I don’t know why Kim Kardashian is famous.)

I don’t see myself going back to television anytime soon. Creatively, I think the medium has sunk to an all-time low. Many of the reality shows are badly produced and just plain embarrassing. I think HBO and Showtime are the only networks doing quality work. (I love Nurse Jackie.) I do have an idea for a series (based on my short story collection), but that’s way in the future.

CR: Has your experience as a producer influenced your writing? If so, how?

GS: As a producer, you have to be on top of every single detail of a show: the direction, the writing, the performers, the staff, the budget, the graphics, the music, the crew, even the catering. As a short story writer, all you’ve got is your talent and craft (and sometimes a word count looming above). However, at a certain point I step back and look at what I’ve written with a producer’s eye, which is basically just an objective viewpoint. I read, and I make detailed notes. You don’t have to be a producer to know how to do this (and to know that you have to do this). Any good writer learns early on that rewriting is a major part of the process.

CR: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish as a writer?

GS: As a writer, I think I have a dark, humorous voice with a lot to say about the human experience. That’s why I’m excited about my first collection of short stories Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn, to be published by Ampersand Books in 2011. Most of the stories are what you’d call offbeat:

depressed but inventive young woman creates a checklist for those contemplating suicide… An affable but average accountant is chosen to host Saturday Night Live… A convenience store robbery goes terribly wrong, but a hot encounter between the female thief and the male clerk goes very right… Strange events at a birthday party include the sudden death of a guest who may have deliberately jumped from the balcony… A typical Laundromat is the setting for a Cinderella story of dreams, desire, betrayal, bloodshed and bleach.

CR: Do you have any plans for fiction collections or longer-form works?

GS: After my first collection is published in 2011, I’d like to work on a second collection. I already have a half dozen stories that won’t make it into the first one. I’ll also continue submitting to literary journals I love. I’m always excited when my work appears in a terrific publication like Hobart, PANK, Perigee, Barcelona Review, Underground Voices, McSweeney’s, >kill author, JMWW, Prick of the Spindle, etc.

I’m currently toying with a longer-form work that skewers today’s insatiable media. I’m calling it a novella. (It will probably end up to be around 40,000 words.) Working title: Fame and Madness in America.

CR: Whom do you admire most and why?

GS: Hard to narrow this down. Two people instantly come to mind: Noel Coward and Jack Kevorkian. (They make a great pair, huh?) Noel Coward did just about everything in the theatre, and with such style. He was a big influence on me. Dr. Jack Kevorkian is one of the bravest men alive. He isn’t afraid to fight for a basic right that I think all people should have: the freedom to die when the pain of life is too severe. He even spent several years in prison, defending his belief. I also admire Shirley MacLaine for standing up for what she believes in, despite ridicule. She brought spirituality to a mainstream audience. No easy task. And her screen performances are always so intelligent and entertaining.

CR: Could you leave our readers with a thought for the day?

GS: Always opt for fruit instead of the fries. But a more serious thought comes courtesy of author (Ms.) George Eliot: It’s never too late to be who you might have been.