Research Notes · 01/05/2013

An End To All Things

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Jared Yates Sexton looks homeward toward the roots of his new collection An End To All Things (Atticus Books).

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My grandma used to tell me stories about The Great Depression. She was the daughter of a limestone-splitter and when he lost his job her family was thrown out of their home three separate times. The world she described was nightmarish. Apocalyptic. And when she talked about it, and World War 2, it was less a remembrance and more prophecy. She told me constantly that, in the future, America would suffer some kind of massive sneak-attack, akin to Pearl Harbor, and that my generation would be plunged into another depression.

When I was eighteen my grandma passed and two years later terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center. In seven years, just as I was leaving graduate school and entering The Real World, the President of the United States was on TV warning of imminent economic collapse.

Being someone who had forsaken a good deal of my grandma’s traditions — apocalyptic religion, old school superstition about supernatural forces, absolute pessimism — I was more than a little terrified. It seemed that all of her predictions were coming to pass. It was in that state of mind that I wrote my first book An End To All Things.

In 2008 I graduated from Southern Illinois’s MFA Program and got a job teaching creative writing at Ball State University. In the months between the end of graduate school and the beginning of the fall semester I moved back home and found my hometown — Linton, Indiana — a changed and surreal place. What had been mostly an idyllic small town had been twisted into a suffering, violent place. Every few days I’d pick up the paper and find it filled with accounts of theft and assault and drugs. Our downtown area, once full of independent shops and restaurants, had dwindled to the point of extinction. Loved ones and friends were being laid off or declaring bankruptcy because of debt and medical bills.

It really did feel like the end of the world.

The stories in the book are my account. Some of them are about a literal end. One is about a party the night before a prophesized apocalypse while another takes place in what will eventually turn into the new American Revolution. A third, based on a trip I took to Louisiana following the Deepwater Horizon Spill, portrays a very real situation in apocalyptic tones. Most of the stories though are about normal people and their relationships. Those relationships are either falling apart or just this side of disintegrating. The characters lie, cheat, and destroy every last vestige of trust they have.

When I was putting the book together to submit to presses I was teaching a fiction class at Ball State. As a professor you’re challenged to create your own philosophy about writing and implement a way to deliver that creed to your students. The one thing I continually emphasized was that good fiction, or compelling narrative, stems from taking your characters out of their comfort zones. You interrupt their status quo and see how they react to the stress of change. In the end, there are two types of resolutions — static and apocalyptic. Stories of the former kind return to the status quo before the change and apocalyptic pieces find a whole new world in which things have changed forever.

After the Recession hit I started to see a lot of relationships — my family’s and my friends and my own — fall apart. In a way those relationships were destined to disintegrate, they were plagued by the same lying and cheating as those of my characters, but it was the added stress of the times that pushed them over the edge. When the shit hits the fan, as they say, you find out who people really are. After all, there’s no reason to put on airs when the end is nigh.

It made for a hell of a strange time. In the wake of it all I was left changed. My home was changed. The people I loved and had loved were changed. The world was changed in a way that no one, not even my grandma, could have predicted.

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A born and bred Hoosier, Jared Yates Sexton currently serves as an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Georgia Southern University.