Caleb Tankersley‘s debut short story collection Sin Eaters won the 2021 Permafrost Prize, which judge Julie Iromuanya called “rich” and “emotionally resonant.” The collection reveals why we as a society is so weirdly obsessed with small towns and the oddities that inhabit them. His characters are unfortgettable.
In addition to this debut on University of Alaska Press, he previously released a poetry chapbook called Jesus Works the Night Shift.
Debutiful corresponded with the author via email to help take readers inside this mesmerizing debut short story collection.
I always have the hardest time telling readers what story collections are about. How do you explain what Sin Eaters is to readers?
When you find a good way to explain story collections to readers, please let me know. Personally, I like collections with a relatively thin connecting thread. That’s the advantage of story collections: variety. But that does create problems when you want to market the collection to readers. And, of course, that connecting thread does need to exist in some form.
My pitch for Sin Eaters is that it tackles religious repression and sexuality with an occasionally fabulist lens. I grew up as the gay son of a Baptist minister in small-town Missouri, so many of these stories emerge from that environment. I hope this explanation covers most of the stories but still leaves room for mystery and surprise.
The stories in this collection span a few years. How has your writing changed from the earliest story in the collection to the most recent written?
Writing can be a strange enterprise in that you’re looking into the brain of your past self. That feeling is magnified when the stories have taken place over a longer period of time. Exploring Sin Eaters from that vantage, I think my writing has evolved toward embracing weirdness. Many of the more fabulist stories—such as the title story or “Ghosts on TV”—are more recently written. That’s not exclusively true, though. “Apparitions” and “You’re Beautiful” are older stories with fabulist bends to them, so that was always an element in my work. And I hope there’s a continuity among all the pieces, even if they were written across different time periods. If there’s a discernable change in my writing, I hope it’s an increasing comfort in my own perspective and voice.
One thing I am super fascinated by is the order of collections. How did you settle on the reading order?
When thinking about how to order the collection, I read the first few paragraphs and last few paragraphs of each story and asked myself if there was a continuity in the emotional pitch of those moments. I didn’t want readers to feel jarred by the movement from one story to the next. I also considered length. There are several relatively short or flash stories here, which I think serve an important purpose in providing a bit of breathing space between the longer stories. The flash pieces also help break the collection into informal sections or movements. I thought of ordering my collection as akin to creating a concept album where there’s an overall arc to the ideas beyond each individual piece.
Similarly, how did you settle on making “Sin Eaters” the title story?
The term “Sin Eater” felt versatile to me. It has an ancient origin, a medieval Welsh tradition where a particular person in the village physically consumes a meal in order to take on the sins of others, which relates to the story. But I also thought about all the possible meanings that can plink between those two individual words, “sin” and “eater.” Desire and consumption. Denial and indulgence. Writing is alchemy. Take two items with distinct properties, toss them together, and a chemical reaction takes place. A new substance is born with brand new characteristics. The complex interactions between two simple words still astounds me. It’s part of what makes writing so fun. The term “Sin Eaters” felt layered in that enigmatic way, along with encapsulating some of the themes and questions of the collection overall.
One of my favorite stories is “Ghosts on TV.” Can you walk readers through the creation of this story from genesis to writing to edits?
“Ghosts on TV” is the most recently written story in the collection. I was a little unsure about including it at all, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the story. My partner loves to watch anything paranormal: monsters, ghosts, and those cheesy alien-conspiracy shows. That’s our trashy, guilty-pleasure viewing. We had a ghost story on one evening, and I began to wonder if there might be a ghost in the room with us in that moment, watching us watch the ghost story. How might a ghost react to this? Would they be critical? Would they start taking notes? Would they be amazed by TVs in general if they lived a hundred years ago? I began writing the story based on that idea, and at first I thought I was writing a quirky flash piece. But as I dove into the emotional pain underneath these circumstances—how this ghost died, accepting that death, reconciling with the world— the story began to rise. The narrator ghost grew from a conduit for the idea into a real character, which is when “Ghosts on TV’ was truly born.
What inspires your writing? Authors, TV, comics, dance, etc.
So many things. Other writers of course. In the acknowledgments I thank some of my inspirations for this book: Kevin Wilson, Roxane Gay, Marlon James, Charles Yu, Kelly Link, Sequoia Nagamatsu, and Louise Erdrich, my favorite writer of all time. I recently finished Kim Fu’s Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century and felt equally inspired by that text. I could go on for ages about writers I love.
Music is also a huge inspiration for me, especially for a book like Sin Eaters that feels positioned in a particular time and place in my life. While writing I listened to many of the mid-2000s bands that filled my college playlists like Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, and Metric. Sounds in general inspire me. I’m easily distracted or fascinated by the cadence and rhythm of human voices. So many of the stories in Sin Eaters are voice driven. I’m always trying to capture that complexity in my fiction, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. But there’s enormous power in the elusive sounds of a compelling human voice.