When I first met Jared Yates Sexton, he wasn’t a well-known journalist, a Twitter icon with 142 thousand followers, a bane of the alt-right, or a constant recipient of death threats. This all happened during the 2016 presidential race, as Jared started renegade reporting Trump rallies — live-tweeting and writing blogs for the lit mag Atticus Review. Back when I met him, Jared was just a Hoosier boy who’d done pretty well, become a creative writing professor at Georgia Southern University, and who, during a visit to Indianapolis, told a story slam the inspiration behind “Punch for Punch.”
In this piece of flash fiction from The Hook and the Haymaker, the protagonist explains, “The simple truth of it is one day I woke up in a house … [nicer] than any house I’d ever live in before or ever thought I’d end up in.” His rough upbringing feels like a different lifetime. But after going punch for punch with a middle-aged man in a bar, he tells his girlfriend, “I can’t stand this shit,” talking about the wallpaper and fresh coffee every morning, all the nice things that are bound to break at some point. So she tears it all down, wrecks the whole house. And then, bloodied and out of breath, she asks if he’s happy. His answer is no. He wasn’t happy with the nice life, and isn’t happy now that it’s wrecked.
In his newest book, Jared tells a similar story. This time it’s nonfiction. The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage explains how everyday Americans’ frustration with the establishment boiled over. It goes without saying that the whole campaign exemplifies how truth is stranger, messier, and less predictable than fiction. But that’s what makes Jared so great at telling it: He takes the fiction writer’s attention to narrative, to backstory, and to causes and effects, and he combines it with the journalist’s thirst to tell real people’s stories and to document a part of history. The new book shows how Americans weren’t happy with our government before the election, aren’t not happy now that it’s in chaos.
Jared has two other books, I Am the Oil of the Engine of the World and An End to All Things. His creative work has appeared in Hobart, Monkeybicycle, PANK, The Whiskey Paper, and many others, and his journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, and Salon. To honor my fellow Hoosier, I typed the quote pictured above on the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library’s typewriter. Unfortunately, the “S” key was broken. So I got creative. Concerned, later, that this would provide fodder for neo-nazis who see him as part of some lucrative global conspiracy, I asked if the dollar signs bothered him. “It would have to be focused on something in that arena,” he replied, totally unconcerned, “but you could be onto something larger.”
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?
Jared Yates Sexton: The worst thing I ever wrote was this bizarre little novel-project called The Wrecking Crew, which was a Richard Brautigan knockoff that I labored over for months and only ended up with something like eight pages to show for it. I drafted one outline after another and the thing couldn’t even coalesce into something I wanted to spend any time on, and yet it was so frustrating and flummoxing that I kept banging away at it.
Long story short, it was about this guy who lost everything because of a group called The Wrecking Crew that showed up and took care of “problems,” in this case it was a bull that got loose from a farm and wandered into a residential neighborhood. If my notes are to be trusted, and really they shouldn’t be, the guy would’ve joined the Crew and gotten into all kinds of nonsensical situations.
It was basically a project I wasted my time on because I didn’t want to get into the actual hard work of other projects that meant something.
Do you think there’s an illusion of fun when you’re trying to write something nonsensical? That because the characters and situations are silly, you will enjoy it more?
JYS: I had this period in time where I was imposing restraints on my writing. From conversations I’ve had, it sounds like most everyone goes through this phase. You’re trying to write what the people who wrote before you would write, what they would appreciate, or what’s “right.” I think letting go of those ideas and restraints is incredibly fun.
How do you judge whether a project really means something?
JYS: In the past I worried over this. I really want writing that’s culturally significant, that speaks to culture as a whole, and I think focusing too much on that is its own special kind of fault, much in the same way self-serving writing, or writing that doesn’t attempt to speak to culture at all, has its own issues. Now, I feel pretty confident that what I’m thinking about, what I’m looking at, what I’m writing about, is focused more on some sort of meaning.
After writing and publishing mostly literary fiction, your coverage of the presidential election and your new book speak to culture on a whole new level. Can you talk about why you felt compelled to write this book?
JYS: In a way, I just wanted to be there as the campaign unfolded. I reached out to Dan Cafaro, the former publisher of Atticus Books/Review, and said I wanted somewhere I could write analysis and articles and he graciously let me do it. I never intended to end up in the middle of any controversies or gain any attention. I just wanted to try this out and engross myself in a cultural moment.
You wrote during the campaign for some major media outlets. Did you learn about journalism from, say, working on the high school paper or taking a class in college? Or did you simply show up with open ears and eyes?
JYS: I worked on my college newspaper as an opinion writer and editor, but never had much in the way of training. Most of what I know I’ve learned from reading interviews, books, and generally studying on my free time. The word “journalist” has changed so much in the past few decades, and there’s a real opening for writers to insert themselves, particularly considering that writing should be interacting with culture in general.
What challenges have you faced, as a writer, with diving into a different genre?
JYS: Honestly, there’s a certain amount of siloing that happens in writing. When I first started reporting, the response was, “You’re a fiction writer, this isn’t your lane.” And now that I’m established as a journalist and non-fiction writer, it’s a matter of people saying, “Well, are you choosing that over fiction?”
When writing gets commodified — and boy does it — publishers and industry types don’t want to deal with multiple lanes. They want an easily marketable thing that doesn’t push boundaries. It’s a little disheartening, but, I think, ultimately it’s something that can be overcome.
Not staying in your lane seems to me to be a Hoosier trait, especially when driving on 465. How do you think where you’re from has influenced who you’ve become as a writer?
JYS: It’s been inescapable, honestly, in both good and bad ways. In part, I’ve had to get better at reading people because my family and loved ones aren’t great at actually communicating what they feel. Most of it is through nonverbal communication or shielded responses, so there’s a certain level of empathy and understanding that develops from that?
By the same token, especially in politics, and of course fiction to an extent, I think growing up in the Midwest gave me insight into a part of the country that has been pretty misunderstood, particularly in publishing and media. The current cultural crisis we’re in has its roots in what’s happened to my family and neighbors, and I think it’s been more or less the problem that’s really drug us into our situation now.
Learn more about Jared’s new book, The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, and other recent writings on his website and follow him on Twitter.