Published on the day of the prophesied apocalypse, Jared Yates Sexton’s new collection of short stories, An End to All Things
, doesn’t envision the end of the world by a stray asteroid or a sudden explosion of the sun. Instead the apocalypse is explored through real, American characters who are running out of patience, money, and time. The hero isn’t an astronaut; he’s blue collar, a family man, a neighbor. He’s the guy you pass by in the grocery store or wave to from your car. Here Jared Yates Sexton talks about his inspiration for An End to All Things
and his relationship with the end of the world.
You originally began writing these stories after you returned to your hometown in Linton, Indiana from graduate school in 2008. Can you describe some of the changes you saw when you returned? Did it feel like you were coming home?
It was really hard. When I came back from Southern Illinois I found this town that I could hardly recognize. Almost all of my life I’d lived in Linton and I’d seen it gradually erode in terms of business and economics, but by the Summer of ’08 it was readily apparent everywhere I looked. Downtown was shuttered, my neighborhood had taken a strange and dangerous turn, and the paper was filled with stories about meth and murders and fights outside of the local bars. For years and years we knew that it was coming–my family had always talked about how the country was changing, how industry was going to dry up and kill towns like ours–but seeing the suffering firsthand was really sobering.
How did you understand relationships between people differently after this experience? Does it take some strain to see how relationships really work, or do you think they change during times of economic hardship?
I tell the writers I teach that all fiction and narrative is based on change. You seriously don’t know who someone is until you see them under stressful conditions. When money gets low, or the final notices pile up, you see what relationships are made of. That was definitely a side-effect of the economic downturn – seeing my loved ones and their relationships pushed to the point of breaking.
It’s clear from your first story in the collection, “Just Listen”, that your characters want their stories to be told. In that story specifically, the narrator has to interrupt himself to make the reader listen. Do you think there is a lack of voices from “Main Street” America in literary fiction? Who are some other writers who you think do capture these voices?
I think people like my family are almost entirely looked over in literature. Maybe their lives aren’t glamorous enough, or sensational, but they are the center of one of the biggest crises in American history. I mean, we hear the term “flyover fiction” all the time as some kind of derisive label. These are states–Midwestern states–that some people just can’t be bothered to hear about. That’s an unbelievably sad fact, and it’s probably played a huge role in how bad things have gotten in terms of economic disparity.
In regards to people who’ve told their stories, some of the best American writers have focused on the working class and done admirably well in rendering their problems. Raymond Carver sticks out the most. Larry Brown too. As far as friends of mine, I met a lot of great writers in Indiana who’re talented and important. My good friends Michael Meyerhofer, Andrew Scott, and Kerry James Evans are all necessary reads. Chad Simpson’s newest collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, is just fantastic.
Even though violence is communicated in a minimalist style in the collection, and even though many of your characters participate in violence, they still seem to know that something about it is wrong. A good example of this is the narrator in “The North End of Town.”
Then the Ford guy swung and landed a shot right on the chin that knocked down the Plymouth guy. Landed on the ground and didn’t get back up. The Ford guy started kicking him in the side and the head.
–from “The North End of Town”
Why do you think people will become violent anyway?
I’ve been thinking about violence a lot lately. I think everyone has. I looked back on my writing, most of the writing I enjoy, and I keep running across the same standard thread–violence happens when people run out of ways to communicate. I think it’s a scream for help, a last call of exhaustion. Looking at violence that way makes it easier to understand, I think, and provides possible solutions. If we shore up the economic lives of people, if we provide counseling to those who are suffering, if we just start taking better care of each other and communicate maybe we can put a dent in a very old problem.
Were you ever in a fight? Did you win?
It’s funny, every time I read the story “A Man Gets Tired” (from the collection) I always have someone ask me that. It’s a mostly autobiographical story, for sure. I’ve been in a few dustups and I’ve won a few and I’ve lost a few.
But your characters aren’t only violent, they are paranoid, hopeful. Some obey, but some revolt. Are these different reactions to tense conditions attributed to character, or are they more about the multiplicity and spontaneity of people in general?
When you study human beings you come down to a few truths. People will surprise you, but they’re predictable. We all react to stress in a limited number of ways, it’s just a matter of what kind of stress is being applied to the person and how the person has been raised to deal with it. You look around the country now, what with all the poverty and violence, and people either react by getting angry, growing disillusioned, or acting. And if history tells us anything it’s that everyone, when pressured and beaten down over a long enough period of time, eventually lashes out.
Some of the stories in your collection are more fantastic than others. As the 2012 Mayan prophecy looms over us this month, it makes sense to talk about the end of the world. But what made you want to take some of your stories to a more surreal level where it seems the world is actually ending?
This is an odd thing to say, but I was raised on apocalypse. My grandma was a strange woman, a throwback to a generation and group of people who still looked for signs and omens and studied the surreal and absurd. Living through The Great Depression will do that to a person, I guess. She told me the end was coming, that the living and the dead could communicate, that I should always be searching for prophecy. As a result, I’ve grown into a man who struggles sometimes not to look for destruction in everyday events and tragedies. It was such a constant part of my life, a religion unto itself, that it still informs practically everything I do and write.
…the desire to start a conversation with [your] audience, and to open their minds to the reality that everyone either fears the end of things, or is numb to this fear. This book is a call for us to recognize our fear about “the end” and examine it.
Do you agree that this is ultimately what the book is asking its readers to do?
I’d have to say that’s at least partially accurate. I’m a member of a generation that has perfected the art of apathy. We’ve ignored the dysfunctions of our country, our philosophy, our world for so long that they’ve ground our progress to a halt. The End isn’t always necessarily an apocalypse, not a literal one anyway. Revolution, or a major change in daily life, is an apocalypse all of its own. Maybe our fear of death, or death of our culture or way of life, has numbed us to the necessity of change and progress, and ironically we could be authoring our own demise via inaction. I don’t expect something I write to be a call for action or a rallying cry, but not commenting on a readily-apparent crisis doesn’t help anyone.