Writers on writing: Andrew F. Sullivan

Andrew F. Sullivan is a Canadian horror writer and author of Waste, his first novel, which comes out in March. In it, he explores themes of moral and economic decay in Larkhill, Ont. His writing is snappy, brutal, and steeped in violence. In Waste, as well as in his dozens of short stories, Sullivan explores some of the darkest corners of the human condition.

When did you first develop an interest in writing?

When I was eight or nine years old, I would rewrite The Lost World about my friends and have them killed off slowly. I think, for me, a lot of it comes from storytelling — giving somebody some sort of hook to get them interested and keeping their attention.

I got serious about it when I got older and actually read some real authors. You start by ripping off other people and then, eventually, you start telling your own stories.

Writing a novel is obviously a huge commitment of time and effort. How did you know that your initial idea was worth committing to? Did you have any doubts along the way?

I think anybody who’s trying is questioning themselves. I really doubt you’re going to meet a lot of writers walking around with the arrogance to say, “Oh, no, I knew what it was from day one.”

But I think it’s important to finish things. I think that’s what really stops a lot of people from writing a novel — really incredible, great writers, really talented people. It takes a lot of time and discipline, no matter how great you are.

And, no matter how great you are, you’re going to have some pretty intense doubts about your work. You’re never 100 per cent convinced of your own self, I don’t think. But you kind of have to walk that tightrope — you can’t be so arrogant to assume it’s amazing but, at the same time, you can’t be so timid as to not finish it or never show it to anybody.

More than anything else, your work seems to be characterized by dark themes, horror and violence. Are these ways of grabbing and keeping a reader’s attention, as you mentioned earlier?

No, I don’t think so. I think, for me, the darker stories are the stories I’m interested in telling and reading.

I also think action is what makes stories. I’m not really interested in reading about how a character thinks or feels or wonders without action around it. Reflection and self-analysis and psychological realism in fiction is great, but you have to have something driving that story to justify your characters thinking aloud.

To me, violence is like a human currency. It’s a brutal, shitty currency, but it’s something people continue to use on each other. To pretend it’s not there isn’t very useful. If anything, violence is banal, and that’s what makes it so unsettling. It can just happen, and it’s not inherently going to be the most dramatic thing. It’s one of those human currencies that we trade back and forth.

Much of your short fiction is written in a surreal style — which walks a fine line between creating an interesting, disorienting effect and totally confusing a reader. How do you keep on the right side of that line?

I think that’s something that a lot of people struggle with. You get into the worrying area of dream logic: it’s never really that exciting to hear your friends describe their dreams. And a lot of more surreal, freeform, or stream-of-consciousness fiction can descend into “a crazy thing happened and then I woke up,” which isn’t really useful to anyone.

I think that, to keep a surreal or strange story on the rails, you need to make it tactile to give a reader clues and signals that this is really happening. You want to give your work texture—environmental texture or even relationship texture. I think you can take a really bizarre setting and, if the characters’ relations to each other are believable, you can go anywhere, because you have that core of human interaction there. You can be in the fiery depths of Hell, and if the two people are still relating to each other in a way the reader can recognize, they’ll follow you wherever you go.

Featured image courtesy of Angéle Boudreau