Three Iron Horse managing editors sat down with the fiction and nonfiction writer, author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters on Your Shore: A Story of American Rage, and Twitter phenom Jared Yates Sexton for soup, cheesy salad, and some incredibly intense conversation. The exact transcript of this conversation, like all magical encounters, cannot be retrieved, as a poet was left in charge of the recording and only got four and a half minutes of it. But in an extension of the uncanny generosity we experienced from Yates Sexton in person, he shared some of his thoughts on the topics we asked him about in writing.
The first question we asked was about how the visibility of being a Twitter user with 163,000 followers had changed Yates Sexton’s life and writing. We knew he had received death threats, had his home broken into, and was the constant victim of conservative and Russian trolls. Safety remains an ongoing concern for him as he continues to tweet as an ever more prominent liberal voice. The theme of the dual nature of Twitter as a tremendously powerful and problematic platform was one that he came back to again and again.
JYS: It took a while using Twitter, particularly with a platform on Twitter, to understand how it changed the way I thought and considered things. There, at the beginning, it dawned on me that often I was thinking in 140 characters, which obviously had the effect of whittling down nuance and shrinking my concepts. I had to break that, but also it came to worry me that this shaping and framing of thought undoubtedly changed the way we perceived issues and thoughts but also how we communicated. It's a really, really toxic thing in a lot of ways, even while it's a great democratic tool and is undeniably changing society with every new day.
We wondered how Yates Sexton thought about his own writing now that he has been successful in so many genres, particularly as a writer trained in short fiction who became famous writing about Trump rallies, and is now perhaps best known for his journalistic nonfiction.
JYS: As a fiction writer, this whole political thing is a side-deal. I never intended to have it, never intended to do it, and now that I'm in it, it feels consistently odd. It's stressful as hell knowing that I can pick up my phone and log in to a website and suddenly affect a conversation in the public arena, or that there are consequences to what I say or what opinions I express. As a result, fiction has turned into something of a lifeboat for me. In the past, like many writers, it was hard sometimes to sit down and put words on the page. There's an agony to it, of course, and even writing a sentence can be exhausting. But now, it's a release and a relief. I make sure to have a novel going during all of this, to have something that I can think about and focus on that can serve as a release and an exit from all of this existential dread.
We don’t remember what relatively uninspiring question we asked to elicit this answer, but we sure remembered this idea, and begged him to write it down for us.
JYS: I truly believe the internet is the collective unconscious made visible. Writing, of course, is the expression of internal thoughts made external, but there's always been a delay there. Publication on paper has meant that ideas were given time to gestate and then of course they weren't fully digested and/or disseminated. Now, the internet, in all its immediacy, is the concurrent expression of everyone's immediate thoughts and considerations, and when it comes together we see so many instances of psychological factors, whether it's the relationship between the Id, the Ego, the Superego, or how the madness of crowds can spread. We were sold a product in the internet that was supposedly a way to shop or send notes, but what we were actually getting was the messy human mind denoted in zeroes and ones, a digital manifestation of us, and especially the us we don't like to admit exists.
Not feeling we’d made the interview hard enough for him yet, we asked him to please predict the medium-term political future of the United States.
JYS: I think one of the best case scenarios in this entire mess is that people will just tire of this madness and want to return to something calmer. Donald Trump and the chaos he brings to our system is just exhausting. Every single day is a major cultural clash and instances of Constitutional crisis. I've seen people age so fast in the past few years, and this is definitely having an effect on people's mental health. Regardless of what happens, this isn't sustainable, and if people could choose what's best for them, and we all know that is unfortunately very rare, then we should move away from all of this, but that's an outside chance and could prove only to be wishful thinking.
One of the most beautiful and heartbreaking things Yates Sexton discussed with us were his memories of growing up as a boy in a conservative family in the Midwest, and particularly his experience of how men initiate boys into the enforced codes of their gender identity.
JYS: Toxic masculinity, unfortunately, is taught to boys at an early age and is more than likely incurable. This is because we learn the words and actions that define our reality for the rest of our lives, meaning once you see the world through a certain lens, in this case patriarchal masculinity, it's unbelievably hard to get rid of it completely. Like I was saying, addicts who have overcome their addictions in the interest of sobriety often tell you they aren't cured, they're still an addict, they just happen to be in remission. Men raised in patriarchal situations need to realize the best they can do is acknowledge the problem and overcome it day-by-day. Thinking you're cured is the quickest way to relapse and ruin your life and the lives of others. It takes work, consistent work, and I think even those raised in the most patriarchal worlds can be compassionate, kind, and empathic, but it takes desire and a commitment to struggle.