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People-Pleasing and the Art of the Sentence-graph: The Definitive Sam Pink Interview (part one)

Interview by Mike Kleine.

Sam Pink is one of the most brilliant storytellers alive today; inimitable but also hilarious. I cannot remember the last time I have laughed out loud at a book that was not written by Mr. Pink. In reading The Garbage Times / White Ibis, I progressively became more happy—only because I knew that what I was reading was a literature that was pure and genuine; as-in, completely from the heart (and not anything else). I have realized, over the years, that I appreciate and enjoy Mr. Pink’s brand of literature the most—one that is unabashed and incessantly capable of providing a poignant and very necessary critique on the human condition—because to me, this can only mean I am reading a writer that is worth reading. Mr. Pink, I believe, writes only because of a need to write; a compulsion to produce a very particular type of literature. I will even go as far as to say: if ever, a writer feels they are experiencing writer’s block, please, tell them to immediately stop what they are doing, and go out and read some Sam Pink! The Garbage Times / White Ibis—these two books, for me—have completely changed the game. There is a mundane beauty to The Garbage Times and a magical tenderness to White Ibis. Together, the pair create a literary event that has shattered everything we thought we knew about modern life and contemporary-everything else. Behold: a brand-new age of remarkable literature, from a more mature, but still-intense, Sam Pink.
— Mike Kleine

The Garbage Times Trailer
White Ibis Trailer


3:AM: What is The Garbage Times / White Ibis, in your own words?

Sam Pink: the garbage times is a novel(la) i wrote a couple years ago, about working at a bar in chicago. white ibis i wrote in 2016 / 2017, shortly after moving to florida. they were originally going to be two separate books but then the publisher and i, kind of at the same time, said, why not put both out at once? they’re sort of connected and also it’s like, i think we were / are just really excited for people to see them. so we decided to do a two-in-one. stylistically, to me, they represent an end and a beginning, so i think they’re connected that way. garbage times i always describe like that last bit of shit you need to cough up or piss out while sick and white ibis is something different. the publisher commented that the style seems different and new. so i’m excited for people to read them. really really excited.

3:AM: You’re always doing something new and different—something exciting, I feel. I noticed, this time around, the covers were not designed by you. Usually you design your own covers.

 SP: the covers were done by Michael Salu. this was the first time i didn’t do the cover. i really like the covers and was excited about someone else doing that aspect, especially someone with a lot of talent. he made the exact same image suggest two completely different things. [multiple punching sound effects]. i’m very happy with it.

3:AM: Were you already familiar with tête-bêche [two-in-one] books? Did you go into this project knowing you wanted to release two books?

 SP: i was not. and no, they first accepted the garbage times, and then in the time between accepting and publishing it, i sent them white ibis, and we agreed to do two separate books, then began discussing putting them together and everyone liked that idea.

3:AM: The Garbage Times, when you first told me about it almost a year and a half ago, made me think of reading a newspaper made of trash that was about a series of stories involving garbage. And then putting the two things together: the words, “The Garbage Times” and “White Ibis”. Why? What does it mean to you?

SP: it means a time period but also the document of that time period.  i didn’t realize it had that double thing until after thinking about it though, so i don’t know if it was intentional or whatever. but yeah. i’m really glad they’re paired because i think the difference in tone between the two, enhances each one. there are also a number of parallels and references between the two books, which i again didn’t notice until we started to view them as a pair. overall it feels more complete to me. shout out to yuka igarashi and andy hunter for the editing moves, summa that [punching sound effects], littla that [bat hitting baseball sound].

3:AM: You spend a great deal of time talking about the different types of liquids and mold that can be found in The Garbage Times. And you highlight the consistency of excrement and vomit. It’s disgusting, at first, but then, in a way, it almost becomes too beautiful. Clearly, the garbage is made up of all of these fluids and waste, gross stuff, y’know—but then, you have the protagonist and the people in the bar (workers as well as patrons). They are producing this garbage. Everyone is producing garbage and waste, all of the time! And then the day ends. And we start all over again. Again and again and again. Are people also garbage, would you say? Should we be condemned because we produce so much garbage?

 Mustardy puddles on the ground.

Backed-up sewage …

Dust, slime, filth, scum, drips, mold.

Different kinds of garbage.

So many kinds!  [The Garbage Times]

 SP: yeah, for sure people are garbage, but it’s not all in bad ways. some people find treasure in garbage.  i don’t think we should be condemned but maybe think about it more. also it’s sort of the only ‘nature’ in a city. it’s the only ‘natural world reacting’ situation. a process. it’s comforting. one of the only signs that time is moving.

3:AM: Your characters talk in a way that seems like the conversation is either never going anywhere or, it could end up anywhere; literally. When a writer is writing a scene and it’s designed to be a scene, you can tell—the structure that’s there. Like, everyone in the moment is an actor for that specific purpose. Your scenes feel like you (Sam Pink) are literally standing there with a pencil and notepad, scrambling to write down what all of these very real people are saying and doing. You are observing the world and then you are working very hard to write it down exactly as you see it and hear it. To me, that’s what makes it so interesting. This idea that your books are a slice of life that doesn’t seem voyeuristic (at all). Your main character is always part of the cast. Like, he integrates himself into what is happening. You can feel that he’s been living what he is writing—does that make sense? For example, he knows the names of the people on the street and in the alleyways. He knows that Crazy Keith is Crazy Keith because of what Crazy Keith does and how much time he’s spent with Crazy Keith. Or, all he does watch, as the bartender says these crazy things—and he just watches her do these things.

The bartender said, ‘I didn’t even know we had dat.’

Then she went tup tup with her lips, and swatted around at her face.

‘This goddamned fly. I think it touched my lips, gehhhh.’

Then she laughed and made a diamond-shaped hand gesture over her crotch with her gnarled hands.

‘It’s coming for my dried-up cherry!’  [The Garbage Times]

 SP: yeah i guess it’s because (for whatever reason) life presents me with stuff much much better than i could ever think of, but then there’s some stuff i think of because of it, and add that in too, so there’s the scene / people / environment, and then, hopefully, another mildly entertaining angle, which is the narrator. i think it’s because anything i’ve ever tried to do with a purpose, really sucks, and is obvious, and feels pointless and bad. it’s not even a preference overall, just how i do things.

3:AM: All this shittiness that surrounds the narrator, it’s almost like his life and how he reacts to the things in his life is an exercise in self-discipline and how to not let your situation affect your outlook on life. Do you think this creates a more likable narrator? Or is this meant to alienate and cause an I-am-watching-from-a-distance effect?

 SP: yeah i agree about the self-discipline thing, but not necessarily that the things are shitty. some, for sure, and maybe even overall, but to me it’s more about going beyond yourself. like in the no hellos diet there’s a line about how the narrator was just happy to have a job so he had a reason to leave his apartment and see people. i think people read too much into the ‘shitty / miserable’ aspect of the writing and not enough of the ‘seeing it for what else it is.’ i’m not sure what i’m saying with these texts. i feel like i like to make things that have to be read in their entirety to come to a point—come to a point at the end—and yet there is no distinct point, but not in an empty way, but in a way that feels more free and interesting. the thing just is what it is. ideally, when someone asks what each book is about, the answer is ‘all the words inside of it.’ it describes itself.

3:AM: When you’re writing, do you show your work in progress to anyone?

SP: no, i am actually totally against showing anyone something until it’s like 99% done, and will only change a little bit maybe thereafter. if there’s still stuff i know needs to be changed, i don’t want anyone else’s opinion of it to be altered by stuff i’d already be changing. if that makes sense. like as long as there’s visible changes to be made, why let anyone else read it? who knows though, maybe it would help me. i’m very stubborn about this shit.

3:AM: The Garbage Times has a dedication: “for the rats”. Is this literal or does it mean something else?

 SP: it’s literal but also for, like, metaphorical rats, in a positive way, people getting by. the main character has different reactions to rats, some sympathetic and some aggressive.

3:AM: You write one sentence at a time, there are no paragraphs. And there are spaces between each sentence, almost like there exists an invisible sentence (like the invisible wounds the narrator experiences in The Garbage Times). Visually, it all looks like a poem. Why write like this? Why choose the sentence-graph style?

And then, yet again, I woke up in time for work! Haha, wow!

But today when I left my apartment, I started bleeding.

The moment I closed and locked my door, I started bleeding from all these invisible wounds.  [The Garbage Times]

SP: i initially wrote like that because when editing something, i’d spread it out to test each line and treat them almost like legos.  but then i realized i didn’t understand how to write a paragraph. a lot of the features of the writing that people comment on, are in fact just results from approaching something without knowing much about it .

3:AM: A stylistic touch of yours, when characters talk you use single quotation marks rather than double. Is there a particular reason for that?

SP: i don’t like how double quotes look and also, the way i see it is i’m quoting someone.

3:AM: Do you consciously attempt to maintain a certain style when you write? Like, writing in a manner such that if someone reads a sentence, they can immediately identify it as written by Sam Pink?

 SP: no, i think my style is just a result of my personality. so i don’t believe i have a range that exists outside of changing as a person. but i do change a lot as a person, so i guess i’ll always take it with me. in that way, i’m pretty limited in terms of range, but also in some ways free.

3:AM: Talking about style. Tao Lin wrote Shoplifting from American Apparel and people read that and thought, you can write like that? So then for five years after the book came out, there were dozens and dozens of copycats. It even got to the point where a book called tao lin’s third novel came out. The author mimics Tao Lin’s tone almost perfectly. With your poetry and the way you write your stories, have you ever read anything or come across a book and thought, wow, that sounds just like me. Or do you not feel that you have a particular style?

 SP: yeah i really like that book. i remember it was controversial or whatever because some people seemed to viscerally hate it. but no matter what you think about the content, you can’t say it isn’t extremely well edited. i read it like five times back in the day to see what that succulently squirrelly lin was doing. people have sent me stuff that they say they wrote trying to copy my style or something. but to me, my style is just being simple. the content is what, when copied, becomes obvious. like, if i think a certain patterned way or whatever, then copying that will be obvious, whereas i think copying my style would almost be impossible to see.

3:AM: That’s fair. I guess part of what I would call your style is also the way your characters swear. In The Garbage Times, for instance, the protagonist likes to say fuck a lot. But the fuck he uses is more like part of his vocabulary. Almost like it is a necessity—something that is as necessary to him as his breathing. It’s not as if he is using it to be negative or antagonizing or anything else. For example, he hates his coat and keeps saying ‘fuck you’ to the coat and describes how ridiculous he thinks the coat is. He laughs about, and at, everything. It’s as if it’s his own little way of coping with the world and what is happening around him. Is this his way of shitting on himself before anyone else can, so that, in a way, he is winning? Or is it something else and I am completely missing the mark?

 I grabbed a bottle off the ground and threw it at the toilet outside the abandoned building.

The bottle smashed against the toilet and I smiled.

Haha, fuck you too.  [The Garbage Times]

 SP: no i think you’re right, about it being coping. not the ‘shitting on himself so he’s winning’ type of way but more like venting aggression rather than suppressing things and lashing out in less healthy ways. like that’s how i, and a lot of people (especially in chicago) operate, with the constant ridicule and making fun of each other to both express honest feelings, but also lighten things up and almost bond even closer. that’s how i was raised.

3:AM: You use sound effects a lot (i.e.. chik, ung ung ung, fiff). Why do you feel it is important to have these sound effects, as opposed to, you know, just describing the sounds?

I plunged deep and slow…koosh……koosh…koooosh.

Yeah, you love it, you stupid fuck.

Koosh…koosh. The plunger folded backwards…frip.

I straightened it under the rim…flok.

Some water splashed on my book.   [The Garbage Times]

SP: well, to me, writing the sound as a word is the best way to describe the sound. i also think it’s really funny. other people have also commented that they’ve liked that in my writing so i probably keep doing it for that reason too. because i’m a people pleaser, you see.

3:AM: Violence is always an interesting concept in your books, I feel. You open The Garbage Times with people dying offscreen. The narrator throws bottles of liquor at rats. At the same time, he lets one go when he finds it trapped inside a dumpster. There’s a moment when there’s a rat that appears from behind a wall, and the narrator, he humanizes the rat. He talks to the rat (and responds for the rat) as if it were a person. The narrator is told, as part of his job, that he needs to kick people out of the bar and stop fights. What exactly is his stance on violence and rats? Does it matter? Like, stepping on a rat’s tail just to mess with it… Does he just do what needs to get done? Or is he a pacifist who is willing to bluff and play tough guy through life because he knows it works? Coasting through this life until the next life?

 SP: i think the stance on violence is related to the stuff i mentioned earlier about mocking each other as bonding. there is a place for violence that i believe alleviates more than it damages. i wouldn’t characterize the main character as a pacifist, necessarily. or, he would be if possible, but it’s not possible. being a bouncer at a bar is like, half psychological and half physical. it’s an eye-opening look into humanity too. because, for the most part, people get away with what they’re allowed to get away with. so if i let a guy keep harassing a group of girls, then he’s going to keep doing it.  if i go up and tell him to stop, then he’s going to stop. there is a very interesting exchange of energy too. when you approach someone to discipline them, at least with guys, they immediately calculate the situation. i’ve seen guys bigger than me look at me and calculate that it’s not worth getting into something. like a rat. you let the rats walk on you, they will bury you.

3:AM: So then, in essence, would it be safe to say the main character in all of your works is you? And if so, could we also say the other characters are also real people, or at least, based on real people? The sort of world-building you do is very much hands off. For the most part, we know that most stories take place in Chicago but then the rest is primarily people-watching (more in The Garbage Times and less in White Ibis). It’s an observational type of world-building, I feel, where a lot of details are purposefully left out. The focus is on the minutia and less the big picture so to speak. Do all of your books take place in the same world or universe? Could one character from your book of plays, say, make an appearance in The Garbage Times? Or is this something you don’t even consider?

 SP: yes, i think so. for me, it’s about accuracy and also, maybe, morality. like, i can only speak for myself, and the people who enter my world, speak to me as me. so to me, to represent anything else, any other way, would be morally wrong because you’re taking too much control. like imagine how lame it would be to go into great detail wondering about the lives of the people in witch piss. they’re giving me their lives, like any character, so why not let them speak for themselves? and the same with me. i don’t have any real morals / goals to storytelling, in terms of ‘this is what you should take from this.’ i’m more interested in representation. the tone of every book / sentence / idea is, ‘you’re in my world now, motherfucker.’ if you want a different world, new character / narrator, write your own. this is mine.

 3:AM: One of the characters in the bar where the narrator works (in The Garbage Times) is called [Regular]. How come his name is omitted? Same with the name of the daughter of the waitress: [her daughter]. Is this to imply that these two are the only two real people in the entire story?

SP: i can’t remember exactly why i did that but probably because i thought [1] it was a closer form of realism, and [2] no other option seemed less clunky. like why name a regular who is only going to be in a couple pages. it’s just confusing. i also like the distance it creates in how you view the character.

3:AM: Rontel the cat makes an appearance in The Garbage Times. You wrote a book titled Rontel. The homeless folk and bar people I feel have shown up in your other books (at least some of them). I just really want to know, are there actually recurring characters in all of this or do they all just seem really similar?

SP: yeah there’s a lot of overlap / cross referencing.  i like the feeling that gives. almost seems more open than enclosed.

3:AM: In one of your other books, Witch Piss, which you mentioned already, the dialogue is written in a way that is supposed to closely resemble the way the characters speak. What I mean by this is that punctuation and spelling are thrown out the door. You literally are spelling out words phonetically so that the reader is able to experience how these people talk. And you do this in your other books as well. Is language a topic that interests you? How did you decide you wanted to write dialogue this way?

 Dahhhhhh. Shit’s fuckin badass, du.

Somebody dropped it off for me last night. [Witch Piss]

‘Hoowee,’ he said, shaking my hand.

‘Namn. I feel bayd t’day.’  [The Garbage Times]

SP: for dialogue it’s just like anything else. i like to be exact with descriptions. the closer you can describe something, the more credence people give your world. and to me, that’s just a part of it. like, imagine how weird it would be to spell out some of that dialogue in the ‘proper’ way. it would look / sound ridiculous. my goal is always just to find interesting scenarios / experiences, and then capture them as closely as i can.

3:AM: Immediately starting White Ibis after The Garbage Times, there is a certain softness, almost like a glow in White Ibis. At the same time, there are a lot of apparent juxtapositions. The weather is different, the environment is different, the animals are different, the people are different. Chicago feels like a hustle-all-the-time city (the narrator doesn’t even take a day off from work—shoveling snow when it is snowing, just because, and then giving all his money away at the bus stop). Florida is like a more chill place. What was your intention with this? And maybe, it goes back to whether or not you were intending to write both pieces to go together.

We pedaled down a long unlit section, moving toward the furry light of the one and only streetlight.

Halfway down the long unlit street it glowed white light onto the trees and the road for like thirty feet.

We braked, letting a group of peacocks waddle across the street.  [White Ibis]

SP: yeah i’m not really sure, but agree there is a definite tone contrast, in terms of the settings. it’s weird too because i didn’t even see / understand a lot of that about chicago until i was in florida. it’s another form of input that will have different consequences. i recommend that approach for all people creating shit. throw some different shit in your blender.

3:AM: In White Ibis, just very quickly—before I forget—there’s red Styrofoam plates all the time, everywhere (at almost every party the narrator attends). I have a bunch of question marks in these sections. What’s going on man?

SP: you’re not at a party unless you are holding or preparing a red styrofoam plate. without the red styrofoam plate, it’s just porn.

3:AM: Ha! Well, I think you capture very well, the day-to-say anxiety that exists when you are forced to attend a function or join in on an activity you do not want to be a part of (and this isn’t out of malice or anything). You worry so much about it, yet, when it actually takes place and happens, it’s usually not so bad. You do this great thing with characters where there’s a lot happening between the lines. The protagonist, for instance, realizes he is not alone in not wanting to be at some of these events and through talking to others (& body language, there is a lot of body language stuff happening) he is able to finally / actually relate to some of the people. Also, it’s that he creates these elaborate stories and potential scenarios for the people at these events that helps him get through everything (whether or not these stories are even true). And I think this is powerful because it is something we all do, yet you are able to present it in a manner that is totally easy to relate to and easy to digest. And I think that’s because you just speak from the heart… it is genuine. I think this is why and how so many people are able to connect with your work.

SP: thanks, that means a lot. yeah i don’t think any of that stuff is creative or even innovative, like you said, everyone experiences it. i guess it’s just captured well because when i go to write something, if nowhere / nothing else in my life, i want it to be completely bullshit free. and i don’t necessarily mean realistic, even though in my case, it’s realism. but like, i guess what i’m trying to say is, it’s important, for me, as a writer, to present myself / others as they are, without any polishing. especially the ‘me’ character. i like writing like fante and mcclanahan for how they are able to get past the ‘i want to present myself as the holy main character who has no flaws and always knows the right thing to do’ and let themselves be the asses they are. there is no better way to illustrate something than through yourself as the character with the same spite / fate you would unleash on a third person character.

3:AM: You hang out a lot with your girl’s family in White Ibis. If they read White Ibis, how accurately are they portrayed in the book? Were you conscious of this, as your wrote White Ibis? Like, being aware that these people might actually read about themselves, and how this might affect (potentially) their perception / how they act around you? Knowing, “Oh shit, we might be in his next book so now we’re going to act a certain way, ALL THE TIME, just in case.”

SP: pretty accurately. i told them about it as i was doing it. whenever i incorporate people i know, there is almost never malice. if i include someone, it’s usually because i find something endearing / good about them. i don’t like the kind of stuff where people use close acquaintances or whatever, to recreate some story in their own favor. strangely enough, i somehow never really think ‘i’m going to write about this’ while something is happening. which I think is a blessing, because then you become the little twit reporter with the voice recorder, hiding in the corner.

3:AM: You have two emails in White Ibis, from fans / readers. Are these real or edited at all? If so, you let the authors know you’d be publishing the emails? And whether or not it’s real, I found it supremely endearing to read some of the ideas communicated to you in response to your work.

SP: yes they are real. one word out of both of them was edited because the word was used the wrong way. and yes i asked for permission. and yeah that’s why i included them. one of the themes i noticed in white ibis is ‘coming out.’ in the sense of exploring the world and opening yourself to it. it’s the last line / image of the book. and so i hadn’t written about ‘being an artist’ yet, but it had become a huge part of my life, so i wanted to include parts of that world in the book. it’s an attempt at showing unity and love and the shit that can happen if you just do what you do. the one email is also almost a direct parallel to the situation with the girl scout at the end. so i like that parallel.

3:AM: The Publisher’s Weekly commentary says it feels like both books go nowhere—they do not feel complete. I think the idea of two books released together creates a strange dynamic because it makes you wonder, is this supposed to be a continuation of the previous book or something else entirely? You also told me, specifically, to read The Garbage Times first. A few people have already written reviews saying they read White Ibis first but now realize they should have flipped it around. Do you feel that all of this is detrimental to the reading experience?

SP: well, i guess ultimately it doesn’t matter. i appreciate anyone’s review and never feel angry or whatever about ‘bad’ ones, but ‘not going anywhere’ or ‘being incomplete’ are really just kind of vague and lazy to me. the idea that someone can fill three hundred pages with words and you don’t think it went anywhere is weird to me. BABY WANT TO GO SOMEWHERE!!! the garbage times happens first, and should be read first, but it doesn’t matter. i love the cyclical feel of it and just realized that it indeed doesn’t go anywhere because it’s a circle. people who have read white ibis first told me they just read it again after reading garbage time. overall i just like that it’s some weird shit. like a weird thing that isn’t immediately comprehensible.

3:AM: So you’ve been doing art for a while now too. And you talk about this in The Garbage Times / White Ibis. I know you’ve always been into art and making art. But it always seemed sporadic. Or at least, what you’d share with the Internet seemed like it was every couple of months, there’d be a new piece by Sam Pink, but then also, at the same time, a new book coming out. When I met with Jarett Kobek earlier this year, he said to me, “Haven’t you heard? Sam Pink stopped writing. Now he makes art.” Is this true? Will you never write again?

SP: yeah i’ve always been into drawing and stuff like that but it was more of a side hobby. something to do instead of writing sometimes. but then i got into painting last year and do it a lot now. i still write. i love writing and will probably always do it in some way.

3:AM: Is the art connected to your writing at all?

 SP: it’s connected because it comes from the same mind. there could be some thematic similarities but i haven’t thought about it that much. maybe that they’re both playful but also grim. it definitely comes from the same burning / bright feeling inside that wants a little more than the normal. like if you had a video of my head during the day before i do any painting / writing, it’s like one of those videos that shows a nuclear blast levelling houses, a snake killing a large animal, eye surgery, etc. and then i sit down to paint or write and i feel peaceful.

Part two will run tomorrow, May 2, 2018.


Sam Pink is 34. Books available through Lazy Fascist Press, and Soft Skull Press. Art for sale at instagram.com/sam_pink_art

Mike Kleine is the author of Lonely Men Club (Inside the Castle, 2018) and other texts.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 1st, 2018.