If you ask Samuel Ligon if he's been busy, he'll just laugh and tell you that of course, he's busy. He rolls up the sleeves of his rumpled, white dress shirt, adjusts a toothpick in his mouth and, in his typical caffeinated staccato, rattles off everything he's got going.
The press deadline for the next issue of Willow Springs, Eastern Washington University's literary journal for which he's served as editor for 12 years, is just days away. He's just returned from a reading the night before in Moscow, and he has to be in Missoula next week to do the same, promoting his gripping new novel Among the Dead and Dreaming. Right now, we're keeping an eye on the clock because he's got to meet with a student; after all, he's a professor in EWU's creative writing program. Soon, he'll need to start thinking more about the Port Townsend Writers Conference; he's the artistic director.
He remembers the last day during which he didn't work at all. It was in January.
"I did nothing and it was amazing. Well, I read. I was able to read," he recalls.
The Spokane literary boom has often seen Ligon as an editor, mentor and confidant to the region's other poets and novelists. He's OK with that role, and is known to be sort of the hard-driving coach behind many of the region's literary successes. With the release of Among the Dead and Dreaming, as well as Wonderland, a collection of short stories illustrated by his former EWU student Stephen Knezovich, there's been more focus on Ligon as a writer.
"He's a passionate and committed teacher whose students go out and publish great work, and he's one of the best editors I've ever worked with," says Jess Walter, the Spokane-based best-selling author and Ligon's close friend. "This vibrant, thriving writing community we have in Spokane is a rare thing, and Sam might be as much to blame for that as anyone."
Among the Dead and Dreaming allows Ligon, whose essays and fiction has appeared in the Inlander, to showcase his penchant for spinning a tight, weird and gripping story as he tells of a woman, Nikki, looking for peace in her life in the years after she killed an ex-boyfriend in self-defense. Now, that ex's brother is out of prison and trying to track her down as she navigates another tragedy. Told through multiple first-person accounts — think William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying — the book is a brisk, thrilling and almost cinematic read. For Ligon, the near-decade spent crafting the novel was an experiment in genre.
"The romance novel shape is that against impossible odds, the lovers come together. I wanted to write a romance novel in that sense, but the other genre I was playing with was the thriller. And that's why I wanted a villain," says Ligon.
In creating his protagonist, Nikki, Ligon realized a common thread in all of his writing — something likely influenced by his own life.
"I've noticed that this comes up in everything I write. The theme is that people say that you can't outrun your problems. Why not? Yeah, you can. That's what Nikki does, and that's all that anyone does anyway," he says.
Ligon says he isn't from anywhere. If you press him on that, he says he grew up everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River as his engineer dad climbed the corporate ladder. After high school in Chicago and college and graduate school on the East Coast, Ligon eventually landed at EWU in 2004. Taking over Willow Springs, he made the literary magazine into a beloved journal in the literary world while lending pages to local writers, including Walter, even though he and his mostly student staff had to manage some 10,000 submissions for each issue. He also started the Pie and Whiskey event, perhaps the most popular reading during EWU's Get Lit! festival, pairing free whiskey and pie with short, pie-and-whiskey-inspired readings.
A couple of years ago, Ligon was back in New York and realized something: He was from somewhere.
"I felt that I was from the West now. Everything I'm writing now is set around here," he says. ♦
Ligon's novel, Among the Dead and Dreaming, and his new short story collection, Wonderland, are available locally at Auntie's Bookstore and at samuelligon.net