20 Questions with Jared Yates Sexton

We here at Split Lip are super stoked about our first full-length collection coming out this Thursday (tomorrow!), Jared Yates Sexton’s The Hook and the Haymaker. In anticipation of the book’s launch, we (well, Amanda, Split Lip Mag’s EIC) sat down with (well, emailed) Jared to talk to him about the book, his writing life, and some other random stuff.

I just finished Jared’s collection An End to All Things a couple weeks ago, and I’ve read a lot of the stories coming out in this newest collection online. I have been a huge fan of JYS’s writing since we were featured in the same magazine a year or so ago (shoutout to our friends at Buffalo Almanack!) and I was able to follow his work–which is no easy task considering how prolific he is (check his website if you don’t believe me).  He’s a master at realistic dialogue and subtle action. And his endings always slay me. The stories in his upcoming collection, especially, I think, highlight the extraordinary moments in seemingly ordinary lives. Seriously, even though I am admittedly biased, I can’t wait to have this book in my hands.

I asked Jared twenty questions, in honor of his book coming out soon–some serious, some not. He was a good sport…except for all the punting in questions 18 and 19.

20 Questions with Jared Yates Sexton, Author of The Hook and the Haymaker

Jared Yates Sexton1. Everyone always asks which story is your favorite, or which story is the most “you”, but I’m more curious: which story do you feel the most distance from? Or, I guess to ask it a different way, which one is most absent of autobiography?

That’d probably be “Maggie,” considering I don’t have a brother, dead or alive. However, I always had this strangely vivid picture in my head of a man standing in front of a mirror with another man’s razor and shaving his face. I’m not sure why that is, but for as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by bathrooms and how it’s the one room of the house where we leave all of these intimate objects and things around to be discovered by people who have carte blanche and the time to explore. That got imagined maybe five or six years ago and I’ve started it, finished it, and came back to it too many times to count, but it’s always had some kind of pull.

2. What was the last book you read? 

A couple of days ago I just reread Freedom for the second time. It’s been useful for crafting language and tone for the novel I’m writing now. Before that was Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment and the last fiction book was Roth’s American Pastoral, which was a punch to the gut. Right now I’m reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk on the suggestion of a buddy of mine.

3. Name something/someone who might be a surprising (to readers) influence on your writing.

Stephen King. I grew up reading him at way too young of an age and I think that did me a ton of good. It basically gave me the green light to write anything I ever wanted, which is important. Not to mention, the guy’s a hell of a craftsman. Outside of him, probably Flannery O’Connor. She was brutal.

 4. How was putting together your second collection different than putting together the first?

The first collection was this thing that I looked up one day and suddenly there was a book. The stories all kind of hunkered around the same theme because it was written, primarily, during the Great Recession, meaning there were apocalypses aplenty. This one had a little bit of a different birth in that I’ve started writing a lot of different genres and styles, only my realistic fiction, I noticed, was centered around characters and their second and third and so on and so on chances. Or, men and women who want them, who’ve squandered them, who don’t even realize they’re possible. If the hub of the wheel with An End To All Things was environmental, then maybe this one was more incidental.

 5. What career would you choose other than writing/teaching/editing?

Sometimes I have these flights of fancy where I think I could start up a brewing company or learn to cook. Cooking’s a thing that, if I hadn’t have gone to get my MFA, I think I would’ve liked to have pursued, whether it was going into a program or just focusing on it more.

6. Any weird writing rituals—food or drink habits, meditations, readings, knuckle-cracking, pen selections?
I have to read. I tell students all the time that reading is fuel for the engine. I have to sit there and pick through sentences and hope that maybe I can pick up some inspiration or some kind of focus. When I was little, and used to bang away on this old sky-blue typewriter, I decided, for whatever reason, that whenever I wrote I’d have a bowl of white grapes on my desk. Needless to say, that was kind of dumb and probably had more to do with the grapes in the fridge at the time.

 7. Who would you to play you in a movie of the life and times of famous author Jared Yates Sexton?

I get told I favor Charlie Day sometimes, but I think that’s due to the beard.

 8. Follow-up: Who would play (Split Lip Press Editor) Scott Bugher?

This is an excellent question. There’s this guy who was in a Mad Max movie I saw one time who was a spitting image, but I couldn’t even begin to tell you the name.

9. A lot of the stories in your last book (An End to All Things) were apocalyptic, focused on the end of the world or the end of (cough) all things. Kinda dark. This collection is less dark, but would you say there is an overarching theme or focus? Or are they more connected by style?

I’ve already answered this question, but I think the one thing I could point to is that I’ve grown as a person since that book. It stands as a pretty good testament to what it’s like to be in a place of depression and hopelessness, both as a person and citizen, while this book’s got some more hope, some more solid ground beneath its feet. Nobody could mistake it as being overly optimistic, but the sun comes shining in every so often.

10. Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

Before I could read and write I used to write this gigantic, Star Wars-like space sagas where I drew these spaceships – usually just triangles pointing at each other from across the page – and would make up backgrounds for the pilots. Then I’d take markers and draw lasers blowing up the ships. If I remember, those battles got pretty hairy.

 11. What do you like about the short story form (vs. the novel, which you also write)?

The short story is such a beautiful little artifact in its own right. You get these glimpses into lives that allow the reader to fill in holes, visualize some of the more vivid details, and have these intense moments of connection. They’re little flings that are multi-faceted and passionate, but fleeting in certain ways. The novel’s exhaustive. A several decade-long relationship that twists, turns, and develops and falters. By the time you’re done with both you should feel changed, more in touch with yourself and the rest of humanity, but they take different routes getting there.

12. What do you find to be the hardest part of the writing life?

The self-doubt. There’s no getting around it either. Every artist I’ve ever met or studied has been plagued with it. Regardless of how something’s reviewed, revered, or how it sells, the doubt is still lingering there in the back of your head. Sometimes it’s your career or canon as a whole, others it’s every single, solitary word you write. There’s just no real way to overcome it in full. Not that I’ve ever come across, anyway.

13. Follow up: the best part?

The thing I tell students who are thinking about going into writing is this: it’s the worst thing you’ll ever do and the best. That’s just how it is. With all of the doubt and self-flagellation, there’s a wonderful opportunity to externally digest the meat and grit of existence. Everything I’ve ever suffered or gone through is available as fodder for the mill, and maybe if I meet it head on and work through it on the page, I’ll be able to heal, understand, and overcome in everyday life.

14. What do you do when you feel like you can’t write anything?

I don’t believe in blocks, truth be told. If I can’t write, usually it’s because I haven’t been reading or writing with regularity. If that’s the case, then I push forward. I grab something off the shelf that always inspires me and read. I make myself write some terribly stilted prose and hope eventually the motor will kick in. Worse than that? I walk away. Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Pray it’s only temporary.

15. You’ve been known to tell your own creative writing students (at Georgia Southern University) to write what terrifies them. What are your worst fears (Top 3)?

Top three really narrows it down. I think every writer is terrified that it will just stop. Because someday it will. Someday you and I will write our last piece and that will be the summation of everything we’ve ever done. That’s a powerful realization, a living death that’s almost impossible not to think about and almost impossible to function while thinking about.

With that, I think all artists are afraid they won’t ever truly be happy. The condition that allows writers to write their stories or poetry is the same condition that makes existence occasionally bleak and unbearable. There’s some kind of quiet hope that maybe someday this malaise will break completely and forever leave us be, but I’m not sure that’s the case.

And last, but not least: losing everyone I love.

16. Best piece of writing advice anyone’s ever given you? (or was it to write what terrifies you and you’re just recycling that because it’s great?)

 The story will tell you what to do. I heard my graduate advisor Beth Lordan say that in graduate school and I didn’t understand it until maybe four years ago.

17. Fine, I still want to know, even though you’ll probably get tired of answering this question: your favorite story in the collection?

That’s almost impossible to answer. I have favorites, but for varying reasons. I think the title piece is one of the lushest things I’ve written and it came from a marathon writing session one afternoon where everything broke the right way. “Yankee” (from Hobart)  was this thing that took me almost no time at all and arrived fully-formed and virtually perfect. And “Punch-For-Punch” (in PANK). I just like the hell out of that one.

 18. Who are some up-and-comers writing right now (and no, you can’t say me—that one’s obvious) who inspire you?

I’m going to punt on this one because it’s just going to turn into a list of the people I love. There are just so many writers who are hustling their asses off and getting words on the page that say more about existence than anything on our TVs, phones, commercials, or websites. And it’s not even close.

19. Online journal/s you get excited about reading (besides Split Lip, which would, again, be obvious)?

This falls into the same category, I think. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a journal online, or read one on a bookstand, where I didn’t find at least one thing that got me excited about writing.

20. What’s next for you in the literary world?

That’s a hell of a question in its own right. I don’t know. I’ve got another collection coming out from Split Lip next year – an experimental one called I Am The Oil Of The Engine Of The World – and a crime-novel forthcoming from New Pulp Press called Bring Me The Head of Yorkie Goodman. I’ve got another three novels finished and am working on another right now. It’s an exciting time, for sure, the future filled with book ideas for as far as the eye can see. Certainly better than the alternative.

Hell yes it is, JYS.

Thanks to Jared for taking time out of his super busy teaching/writing schedule to answer these inane questions. The Hook and the Haymaker will be available tomorrow, Thursday, January 15th, and we couldn’t be prouder to have him as part of the Split Lip family.




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