Exploring the art of prose


Interview: Joe Sacksteder


Joe Sacksteder debuted twice last year: with his first full-length story collection Make/Shift in April, and his first novel Driftless Quintet in November. Between the two, he showcases a number of forms and a blend of genres. Flip through the collection and you’ll find stories told in the form of a grief diary, a partial screenplay, a graduation speech, in commercial marketing text. In the novel, a teen sports narrative gradually morphs into a paranoiac horror novel with a variety of other genres and techniques folded in. Some of his work makes use of traditional forms, and others give the sense of traditional forms broken into pieces and rearranged into something new. In this conversation, Joe shares his thoughts on the nature, value, and mechanics of experimental structures in fiction. —Ethan Chatagnier


Ethan Chatagnier: Your stories range from fairly traditional structures to wildly experimental ones. What tells you that a straightforward form is or isn’t right for a particular story?

Joe Sacksteder: What has come to pass for straightforwardness in narrative can serve a few different purposes for me, but it usually means that the telling of the story is either not super important to that story or that it’s not supposed to look important—because it’s about to be. By “telling,” I mean a story’s constructedness, on the sentence level or larger structural level. Fairy tales have flat characters because fairy tales are not about exploring the uniqueness of an individual consciousness; the flatness offsets what the genre is good for. Similarly, at times my approach is straightforward because I want the reader’s attention elsewhere, or because something about the constructedness of narration or the expectations of genre are useful in offsetting some other sympathetic or dissonant aspect of the text.

Usually, though, straightforwardness belies an ulterior motive in my writing. Driftless Quintet begins like a YA sports thriller to lull the reader into the fakeries of realism, into disregarding the form, because I want something to sneak up on them. There it’s like misdirection in magic. I’ve also discussed with my students a phenomenon we’ve independently noticed; that, when you’ve been writing experimental stuff for a period of time, it can feel weirdly edgy to just tell a good story. Lastly, straightforwardness can come across as a type of wary respect, when I’m involved in subject matter I feel I have no right to mess with.


EC: At what point does the experimental impulse come into your process? Do you know what kind of form you’re working with before you begin drafting, or does the draft evolve toward the form?

JS: Usually the experimental impulse presents itself when there’s something wrong with the story, with the situation or how the characters are responding to it. I begin to get this nagging sense that the story is resistant to stable narration. A version of the first story in Make/Shift, “Earshot—Grope—Cessation,” was originally written in 2002 as a Hemingway iceberg story in which a mother playing at a piano recital seems sad and we have to figure out why she’s sad—or, worse, we have to wait for the author to tell us. It was a decade later that I came up with the idea for her to filibuster the stage, looping the same piece of music over and over. It isn’t simply a story about her grieving her son’s death in a car accident; it’s more about grappling with the unknown—why he’d been driving his car that night in the middle of nowhere. Like the looped piano piece, this uncertainty seemed like it could never be resolved, so I understood the need for the story’s form to take on that cyclic and unresolvable trajectory.


EC: Your novel, Driftless Quintet, opens in the manner of a traditional sports narrative, but layers in other genres and styles as it progresses. Can you talk about the interplay between styles in it? Was that built into the concept of the book from the start?

JS: I’d always wanted to write a hockey horror novel precisely because it sounded like such a bad idea. I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Stephen Graham Jones at the University of Utah and he had us reading books that were further from Utah’s usual approach to literary strangeness and closer to what we often call genre writing, books like John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Blake Crouch’s Pines. We read Megan Abbott’s Dare Me, which is a thriller set in the world of competitive high school cheerleading, and I thought I could do something like that with hockey. Turns out I couldn’t, but I also found that I didn’t want to, not really. I wanted to put readers in the place of expecting all the tropes of a YA new-kid-in-town sports recruitment narrative before taking them to a very different place. A eugenics cult, among other things.

The best way I can answer your actual question is to describe a chapter in the book that’s titled COUNTDOWN. In a usual sports story, we spend more and more screen time or page space with a team as they move through the playoffs toward the championship. I did the inverse, not only spending less time as it moved toward what had seemed to be the destination of the book, but also making the representation of each game more and more abstracted from the athletic event itself: first, a novelistic description, then a summary of the highlights by a news anchor, then just the scoresheet for the championship game. As if to say: this book was never really about sports.


EC: You’re a musician. Driftless Quintet and several stories from Make/Shift each involve pieces of music and are sometimes structured in ways that mimic musical compositions. How does importing musical elements inform or expand what you can do with fiction?

JS: You described it best in your story “The Unplayable Études”: different impossibilities. We’re so used to the experience of reading that we often forget how feeble our chosen medium is, that, because we can only read one word at a time, we can’t do something as simple as simultaneity on the page. And, no matter how weird it is, stream-of-consciousness is always lagging far behind the chaos of our minds’ synaptic connections. I like showing the impossibilities, whether it’s the attempt to translate music onto the page or to represent the mind of an athlete at the moment the big game is on the line.

However, there is also a musicality to language, and I think that creative writing pedagogy needs to reorient itself to better account for this aspect of our art. It wasn’t until the exam year of my PhD studies that I realized I’d been interested in aesthetic theory all along, the ways we define the different disciplines, the affordances and limitations of various artistic media—and, more importantly, how we complicate those definitions and make our media ever more capacious.


EC: Besides musical forms, some of the structures you bring into Make/Shift are a screenplay, a graduation speech, and images mixed into the text. What do you think experimental or mixed forms are able to accomplish that traditional stories can’t?

JS: The first thing that hybridity accomplishes in creative writing is that it immediately makes the reader aware of the fact that the short story or poem or essay is also a form, a container, one that is no more “natural” than any other. Of course, like everyone else, I love the way that the conventions and the expected voice of the imported genre give rise to dissonances with what we expect from creative writing. And I will never stop quoting Samuel Beckett’s description of James Joyce’s writing: “Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read—or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.” If I have an opportunity to make the form of the story perform something that’s happening on a diegetic or metaphoric level, you know I’m going to take it. That way the reader experiences the story rather than just reading it.


EC: There’s an idea out there that experimental writing is at odds with readability—that the more experimental a piece of fiction is, the more specific its audience will be. To what extent do you think that is or isn’t true? 

JS: Still on the pretentious high of that last answer, I could adapt a quote by Alain Robbe-Grillet to claim that new forms only feel unreadable because they are being judged by reference to consecrated forms. But, look, what your question describes is very often the case. My hope is indeed that experimental writers are teaching readers new ways to read, and, thus, new ways to experience the world; however, despite that heartfelt investment, I used to get angry and annoyed ninety percent of the time I encountered some opaque-ass thing in the lit journals who publish such work. These days I less often have that reaction because I’ve reoriented my stance toward difficult texts from “What does this mean?” to “What can I do with this?”

But any answer to your question could also make the mistake of presenting experimentation as a homogenous stylistic approach. Different types of experimentation create different experiences and make different demands when enlisting readers as co-creators of textual meaning. To me, the experimental scene right now is way too focused on line-level weirdness, which is just one type of difficulty. I think this is because of the lit journal submission process; we want editors who might only have a few minutes to spend with our work to know straightaway that it’s wacky. I’m much more interested in larger formal experimentation, how we can take readers to places they didn’t know they were going over a significant stretch of pages. Often a less wacky approach on the line level works better here because some element of momentum is necessary for readers to recognize the overarching strangeness. But this approach can also be a harder sell to editors. I swear, if you just bear with me for two hundred pages, you’ll see it pays off.


EC: What’s out there in your future? What other structures and ideas are you restless to try out?

JS: I have two completed novels that are closer to the horror genre than Driftless Quintet currently under consideration by a publisher. I’m spending my quarantine time adapting Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé to our current administration—I’ve almost never written in this genre before, and it’s a humbling experience. My dissertation at Utah is a hybrid memoir called Ghost Notes (excerpts in Denver Quarterly and New South) that involves footnoting the often-invisible fingering of photographed, annotated piano sheet music in my repertoire to explore my love-hate relationship with music and the autoimmune disorder that makes it a difficult hobby to practice these past few years. That project has a significant sonic element as well, which involves me composing the eponymous piece of chamber music in Driftless Quintet. I’m productive to the deficit of so many other things in my life. I really just want to record some rock songs. And erase the part of my brain that’s seen Battlestar Galactica so that I can watch it again for the first time.


JOE SACKSTEDER is the Director of Creative Writing at Interlochen Center for the Arts and a PhD candidate at the University of Utah. His first story collection, Make/Shift, won the 2017 Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature from Sarabande Books, and his novel Driftless Quintet, won the 2018 Timothy Schaffner Award for Music in Literature. His album of audio collages, Fugitive Traces, is available from Punctum Books. Recent publications include Salt HillNinth LetterNew South, and Miracle Monocle.

ETHAN CHATAGNIER is the author of the short story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in literary journals including CRAFTThe Georgia ReviewGlimmer Train, and New England Review, and is forthcoming in Story. His stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Best American Short Stories. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.