Sunday, November 25, 2012

Q&A with Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of the new short story collection An End To All Things (Atticus Books, 2012), an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University, and the Managing Editor of BULL literary magazine. His work has appeared in publications around the world including Hobart, Emerson Review, PANK, and Monkeybicycle; he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and The Million Writer's Award, and was a finalist for the New American Fiction Prize. The stories in An End To All Things explore the toll the recession has taken on the inner emotional lives of working class Americans: they're the kind of taut, tense, and moving stories that might prompt a shift in the way you interpret and observe the world around you, and it is truly a delight to welcome the author to the blog today.

Your collection tells the stories of working class, blue-collar folks, set in places geographically and psychically very far removed from the political culture of Washington, DC and the financial culture of New York -and, perhaps, from the usual terrain of the literary world as well. What first compelled you to tell these stories? Are Americans living in completely different worlds, and what is the significance of the gap between them?

I think what you said is dead-on. The Midwest, and Middle-America, are definitely far away from the center of power and are mostly forgotten. What's more, they're also forgotten about in terms of literature because some publishers, and artists, don't see much earning power from telling their stories. For me that's an absolute shame. I'm from Indiana, grew up in a town of about three thousand people, and whenever I go home I see how much the people are hurting. Town centers are drying up and being replaced by Wal-Marts that barely pay their employees. Restaurants go under when a McDonald's moves in. It was bad back in the 80's, for sure, but The Great Recession really exacerbated that.

The result is a struggling Rust Belt where people lose their manufacturing jobs as corporations move overseas and those workers who have been lucky enough to keep a job for the last forty years are either being laid off or going on disability because they've been worked nearly to death. That's where all the assistance is going, all the disability payments, unemployment benefits, subsidies. It's a place where the consequences of American growth and consumerism are really starting to show. I've been watching that for all thirty of my years and it's hard not to put that into words.

I was especially moved by the way inner lives and outside events connect in your stories. “To the Thirsty I Will Give” is gripping, and maybe the first short story I’ve read set during the the BP oil spill. You went on a research trip to the Gulf - can you tell us a little about it, what you saw and experienced?

I was lucky enough to take a trip to Louisiana that summer and see the situation firsthand. I think we have a real tendency to see disasters on cable news and feel disconnected, but being down there really brought the magnitude of the spill home. In New Orleans the people were all talking about government conspiracies, which I think was a reaction to what they perceived as institutionalized negligence. Those who didn't think the world was out to get them were beat down. The French Quarter was filled with people drinking like mad and laughing about how they were going to lose their fishing boats or homes. At one point I rented a car to visit a friend of mine in Florida, and the ride along the coastline was surreal. Cars were parked off to the side the whole way and people were standing out on the beaches and overpasses taking pictures. I stopped a few times and looked. The water was clouded with oil and dead fish and animals were washing up. It was the closest thing I've ever seen to a real apocalypse.

Your characters are often in tough financial circumstances, but it seems that their true struggles are to fill spiritual or existential voids, ones they often can’t quite define. They turn to drinking, arguments, fights, cheating, and even rioting. One line particularly struck me: “Don’t you know we gotta find some goddamn truth?” Would you say that the spiritual cost is the real/most tragic cost of the recession?

I think it's faith in general. I've been told since I was little that the American Dream was more of a promise. It said that if you worked hard, put in the hours, kept your head down and tried not to complain, you'd make it. In a way, that's what religion and philosophy offer too. The Great Recession kind of pulled the curtain back on that as a somewhat empty promise. In the past it worked quite well - our economy was growing and opportunities increased, but everything that rises must fall. Now the game has changed and people are starting to see the holes in that worldview.

When I think about this I think about my mom. My mother has worked harder than anyone over the past forty years. She raised me as a single mother and waitressed and worked double-shifts and sacrificed. In the 90's she was on an assembly line at a factory and decided to put herself through college. She went into debt, put in the hours, and got moved up the management ladder to the point where she made at least a livable wage. Earlier this year, after twenty-five years at the same factory, she found out she had a chronic health problem on a Monday and was laid off on a Tuesday. A venture-capitalist group had bought the place and cleaned house. That good faith my mom had put into The System, much like the same good faith many other people have put into it and religion and ideology, was not rewarded. And that's a terrible, frightening thing.

Speaking of filling a void, you wrote a terrific piece over at Bull {Men’s Fiction} magazine (where you are an editor) about why Don Draper appeals to twenty- and thirty-something men:
It’s as if we’re waiting for Don Draper to come and save us from the 21st century. We’re waiting for him to pay our debt like it’s a round of drinks at a smoky Manhattan bar. We need him there, smiling that composed grin of his, while everything crumbles behind him. And, most of all, we need him to tell us—in a voice that commands attention—that everything is all right. That he’s going to get on the phone and make some calls. Not emails, not texts. Calls.
How has life fundamentally changed for 20 and 30-something men in the last decade? Do you feel like older people get it?

Honestly, and I don't like to say this out loud, we're still kids. When my dad and grandfather were twenty they were full-grown men. I'm eleven years removed from that age and I still don't know if I've yet to reach that level of maturity or independence. I don't know if it's culture, how we've been raised, or maybe the effects of technology, but it's inescapable and undeniable. You see it in the prevalence of irony and all the retro stuff and fashion, which is sort of odd and off-putting.

The other thing we have going against us is this - the old model of masculinity didn't really work. Old gender roles promoted misogyny and fascist-tendencies, which is why it's a great relief that we've got away from them to a certain extent. The big question though is what do we do now? What do men become if we're not the men of the past? What masculine tendencies are positive and which ones need to be jettisoned? It's probably not a question we're going to answer for a long, long time.

Most of your stories are set in the Mid-West, where you are from, but you’ve recently come to Georgia to teach creative writing at Georgia Southern University. How have you adjusted to living in the South? What do you love? What do you miss? What has surprised you? What is the same, but different?

This Thanksgiving I got asked this a lot. The simple answer is that The South is a completely different world. Day-to-day life brings a whole new host of situations and experiences. I'm finding myself writing a good deal, and that's because I'm having different types of interactions almost daily. People talk differently, almost like a different language that I'm still trying to learn, and I feel like I'm learning from it.

I think though, that living in the Midwest has prepared me for the change. Indiana and southern states have a lot in common, both in culture and in how slow life moves. I'm comfortable with that, prefer it actually. The weather, though, is odd. As of this interview it's in the thirties in Indiana, chilly, and the Georgia I'm going back to is in the 70's.

Georgia has been home to some true literary greats. Do you consider any Southern authors among your own literary influences, and if so who? And if you had to pick, what would be on your list of must-read short stories by Southern authors?

One of the reasons I was so excited about the job at Georgia Southern job was because I am, primarily, a fan of Southern writing. For instance, Statesboro isn't too far away from Flannery O'Connor's home. She's one of my favorites. There's also Barry Hannah and Larry Brown, both from Mississippi. If I was going to make a reading list of sorts, I'd just tell people to read every last one of O'Connors stories, Barry Hannah's Airships, Larry Brown's Big Bad Love, Harry Crews' Feast of Snakes, and William Faulkner's entire catalogue. There're a lot of worse ways to spend an afternoon or a lifetime than reading those masterpieces.

Many thanks to Jared Yates Sexton for being a guest here on the blog. You can find more information about An End To All Things at the publisher's website, and find Jared on his blog, and on twitter. If you're so inclined, you can read my review of An End To All Things here.


  1. Fascinating interview. Sometimes we can get stuck in the East Coast point of view-I'd love to read his stories and get a different perspective.

  2. Thanks, Marie, definitely agree with you on the East Coast worldview. Hope you get to enjoy the stories.

  3. More of us need to be writing about real people dealing with real problems. Kudos to Sexton.


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