A Damn Fine American: Jared Yates Sexton on Film & Current Politics
Interview conducted by Aaron Haughton
Jared Yates Sexton is the author of three collections of fiction, a novel, and The People Are Going To Rise Like The Waters Upon Your Shore: A Story of American Rage. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The New Republic, Politico, Salon, and elsewhere. Currently he serves as an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.
Jared and I go way back to the overflowing cornfields and flat land of Indiana, to my undergrad days at Ball State University in the somewhat decayed city of Muncie where he served as an English professor. He was my first professor of creative writing and the only educator I ever really wanted to grab a beer with.
It's not hard for me to believe that Jared's since reached the heights he has today, but the journey toward the peak is seldom ever expected. For instance, I never thought he'd cover the campaign trail like a modern day Hunter S. Thompson (minus the substance abuse), which led to several death threats from neo-Nazi scum, or that his coverage would break national, leading to several appearances on MSNBC, either. But that's just where our lives lead us sometimes, and for Jared Yates Sexton, it's led him into some pretty interesting places.
I was pleased to catch back up with Jared to discuss his work, the current state of affairs in American, and, as always, film.
Aaron Haughton: It's been a busy couple of years for you. You've published 4 books in the last two years and covered the election like a hawk, all while teaching at Georgia Southern. Where do you find the time to write?
Jared Yates Sexton: The truth is I have to work every day. I’m kind of miserable if I don’t because a lot of what I do is driven on guilt in terms of not working hard enough and not earning what I’ve got. The reportage came on my days off, and usually I’ll spend those free days, and the nights after I’m done teaching, getting things done.
AH: Covering the campaign must've been stressful and scary, and on top of that your national attention has led to death threats and fake YouTube impersonations. How do you unwind? Is there a film you turn to for comfort?
JYS: It depends on the season. Right now I’m into grilling and watching baseball, which is to say I’ve always been into grilling and baseball. Movie-wise, I kind of treated myself to this thing called Film Struck when things got really bad. It’s like Netflix, but with classic and independent movies. I like to put one on, have my phone in another room, and just go through a bunch of films I would never watch otherwise.
AH: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about attending the Trump rallies?
JYS: The way the crowds fed off each other. This was a communal thing, an event where every individual who said and did these awful things was communicating with those around them through their behavior. I wrote about this once, but it really felt like there was a safe space aspect to it, like they were surprised they could get away with it.
AH: What genre of film would best describe the current political state?
JYS: Sadly, it’s hyper realism. The things that we’re dealing with now have been under the surface for a very long time, we simply ignored them and let them fester. Now, they’re out in the open.
AH: Are there any films in particular that you feel embody the current state of America?
JYS: Definitely. The 1969 movie Z and Punishment Park, which I think anyone concerned with fascism should give a quick watch.
AH: Will the Trump pee tape be your new favorite film if it’s released, something you'll add to the shelf and cherish as part of the collection, or will you wait until it arrives on the criterion collection?
JYS: Man, I’ll be honest, I don’t want to watch that thing. I have a hard enough time looking at that guy. The idea of him doing...anything just about kills me.
AH: Are there any films that influence your fiction?
JYS: For sure. I’m a huge Paul Thomas Anderson guy, and I love his images and dialogue. There’s such a nice music to the way he writes for his people and it moves their development, as well as the plots, along unbelievably well.
AH: Your crime novel Bring Me The Head of Yorkie Goodman brings a certain Peckinpah film to mind. Is there a direct reference there, or is it purely coincidental?
JYS: Funny enough, I didn’t actually know about that movie until after I’d written the book and titled it. I wanted the title to be direct, and really like the mystery it produced. Who’s this Yorkie Goodman and why would anyone want his head? I loved the way it played with the reader. I didn’t find out about the Peckinpah film until much later in the process.
AH: I feel like the southern influence has always been present in your writing. Has the move from Indiana to Georgia changed or influenced your style at all?
JYS: Definitely. The change in culture not only opened my eyes to what has changed in my life, but also shone a spotlight back on what life was in Indiana. There’s a very strong connection between Southern life and Hoosier life. Indiana, in a way, idolizes the South with their language and their culture and, of course, with their love of the Confederate flag. There’s a bizarre relationship there, something having to do with the state of the world and their frustration with it. It’s been impossible to keep that out of my work.
AH: When we used to spend time in Indiana drinking together, you said something to me that I'll never forget. I asked you where you found the inspiration to write, and you said, "Fear. The fear of dying." You were just shy of 30 at the time, and it was a sentiment I couldn't quite fathom as a younger man. However, now that I’m nearing 30 myself, I think I understand where you were coming from. Does this still hold water for you now that you’re a bit older, or has it changed given the increased sense of fear and dread we live in today?
JYS: It does. I’m in a weird place in terms of my view of the world. Before I went on the campaign trail I was fighting off a real nasty case of nihilism and depression. Then I started to see fascism growing in the country, and I started getting death threats and harassment, and I couldn’t be that way anymore. I had to start believing in some kind of hope. Personally, I’m continually driven forward by fear of death. I think constantly about my age, about how I could possibly be halfway through my life, what that means, etc. That’s one of the reasons I can’t rest.
AH: One of my favorite stories of yours is "Punch for Punch". We used to drink at Mr. Mouse in Yorktown pretty regularly which makes a cameo in the story. Is there any truth to the narrative, or is it purely fiction? Did you ever go blow for blow with one of the Mr. Mouse patrons?
JYS: Funny enough, there’s truth to it. I met this guy at Mr. Mouse a few times and he’d come in from a shift and sit down next to me. He was so chatty. I don’t know what was happening with him, but he really needed someone to sit there and listen to him grumble and talk about how much he hated the world. We got onto the subject one day of punch for punch. Neither of us had played it in a long time. I was in a bad place, a masochistic place, and if I remember past the haze of beer enough I went outside with him. He started laughing though, didn’t want to play, and we ended up drinking the rest of the night. The actual punch for punch of the story, though, that takes place years before.
AH: What’s the most important film that has been released recently that you feel is seminal to today's time and audiences?
JYS: There Will Be Blood. Period. People sleep on that movie because they don’t understand how much of an allegory it is for the history of America. It’s all there.
AH: If your life was turned into a film, what would the title be?
JYS: Good lord. That’s a good question. I have literally no idea, but considering my book titles are all trending long I’m guessing it would have be something that didn’t fit very well on a poster.
Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar, well...he eats you.
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