Psychological dramas and fragmented stories in Joe Sacksteder's "Make/Shift" push against form and content conventions


Jack Sacksteder and his book Make/Shift

A contestant in a game show where people are eliminated if they get aroused. Parents and kids enduring an overnight trip for hockey. A man in grief who sees letters in the sealant on the road. An international student and her hall counselor coming to understand each other’s perspectives. 

Each of these characters, among others, navigate the shifting situations of the short stories and flash vignettes of Make/Shift, the new collection by Joe Sacksteder.

Sacksteder studied and taught at Eastern Michigan University. He was a visiting instructor at Interlochen Center for the Arts and now serves as Director of Creative Writing there. 

On Monday, July 1, at 7 pm, Sacksteder returns to town to read at Literati Bookstore with Matt Kirkpatrick (see related interview). The two authors met at EMU, and both received their Ph.D. at the University of Utah, though at different times. Pulp interviewed Sacksteder about his connection to Ypsilanti, writing, and upcoming projects. 

Q: Tell us about your path as a writer. 
A: After getting my master’s at Eastern Michigan University and teaching for a few years as an adjunct, I entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Utah. The experimental, interdisciplinary focuses of these programs allowed me to bring my interests in writing, music, and filmmaking to bear on what would eventually become my core academic and artistic obsessions: multimodality and aesthetics. A visiting position at Interlochen was posted kind of suddenly in the summer between my exam year and my thesis year at Utah, and it seemed like an opportunity to lengthen my time on the job market while gaining new teaching experience at a place that was already both exciting and familiar to me. As an institution that brings together talented high schoolers in seven different arts emphases, it became a perfect place for me to put my love of interdisciplinarity into action.

Q: What do you most fondly remember of EMU and living in this area?
A: After my first tenure at Interlochen in Residence Life from 2006 to 2008, I moved into a partially renovated barn in 2008 in Milan, Michigan and filmed a horror movie for a year while working at the Great Lakes Rabbit Sanctuary just down the road and moonlighting as a movie extra in films like Whip It! and Gifted Hands. I applied to EMU kind of on a whim -- I wanted to try out for the hockey team -- and it was seemingly not the right place for me, as I was a writer of fairly traditional fiction and the EMU program’s emphasis is experimental poetics. It ended up being the best thing possible for me. Although those six years in southeast Michigan were difficult in a lot of ways -- I was painting houses to pay the bills -- living there on Cross Street was where I learned that I loved teaching, and it opened up the world of experimental writing and art in such a way that put me in the position to attend a dream program at Utah. Particularly meaningful were the two years I taught at the Huron Valley Women’s Correctional Facility as part of EMU’s College in Prison Program.

Q: In the acknowledgments of Make/Shift, you thank your family for their support “even when the stories were weird.” How do you see your stories as “weird”?
A: “Stories” there can cutely refer to both the individual texts that make up Make/Shift as well as the stories of my life. In my circles, we spend too much time debating terminology, whether to call such fictions “experimental,” “innovative,” “avant-garde,” or what. They all have different connotations. I like “strange,” but “weird” works as well. Some of the stories in Make/Shift are fairly traditional psychological dramas in the Realist tradition, but many of them are nonlinear and fragmented, taking on forms that attempt to replicate what the stories are about. Several of them also admittedly verge into taboo subject matters -- these are the stories I have to find a delicate way of warning my family about. Some have called them my Black Mirror stories, which is fine. As for the strangeness of my life, see for reference the year I lived in the barn.

Q: There are also flash vignettes, which reference advertisements, interspersed with the short stories in Make/Shift. How do these forms work together in the collection?
A: Good question. Since I found it so difficult to publish a first book, these stories were written over the course of a dozen years, during which time I underwent massive changes ideologically and artistically. The question becomes how to achieve a sense of cohesiveness. These flash vignettes were my answer, binding the collection’s diversity into some semblance of unity. Flash fiction / prose poetry is a genre that immediately wreaks havoc on aesthetic taxonomy, so their uncategorizable nature, for me, reinforces the title story’s attempt to confuse binary distinctions. And I just really hate TV commercials.  

Q: In the story “Enough Sealant to Pool the Concavity,” the main character has lost his daughter and begins playing the piano. He narrates, “I’m also remembering that the more you try to channel passion or sadness or joy from your real life into your performance, the more you tend to botch it.” How did you develop this perspective? In fact, music, particularly piano playing, appears in several stories in Make/Shift. What draws you to writing about characters who play music? 
A: I took piano lessons from a young age, but I didn’t work hard, and it meant very little to me until I discovered classical music in high school, watching Amadeus on a nighttime bus ride through the Alps to Salzburg. So I got a late start -- but still, I tried to do piano performance, and I majored in Music Composition in college and even went to a master’s program at Louisiana State in 2005. I would drop out after a year for a variety of reasons, including Hurricane Katrina, but I remain interested in the impossibility of pursuing perfection, the synaptic tumult of a performer’s mind, as well as the fruitful interchange between music and writing. 

Q: Some stories are set at a boarding school, and others focus on characters in high school. Do you find inspiration from working at Interlochen Center for the Arts? How do you develop the voices of characters in this stage of life?
A: Those two stories are ones that I wrote eight years ago, and I remain a little nervous about their presence in the collection, as I would not want anyone to think I’m mining my students’ lives for the sake of artistic production. They are fictional stories set at a fictional school but are no doubt influenced by my time in Residence Life at Interlochen. Both stories are actually told from the perspective of the counselors rather than the students, and it was a dynamic that I found quite interesting: young, sometimes vocationally adrift professionals acting in loco parentis and the dazzlingly talented high school students with whom they share a living space.

Q: I’m curious about the inspiration for your other stories, too. The story “Nepenthe” feels like a precautionary tale as a town reacts to the presence of Jake, a character with a compelling odor. How did the idea for this story come about?   
A: Speaking of weird stories: Truly, I woke up one morning sleeping on a couch in my sister’s basement, temporarily homeless, and I was curled in a ball, and my hand was near my nose and it smelled good. Jake is not meant to be read as an author figure, but it was from the liminal disorientation of waking up that the idea sprang into my head. The story “Unearth” came to me in a similar fashion.

Q: What short story collections for other books are you reading and recommending now? 
A: Bennett Sims’ White Dialogues, Henry Hoke’s The Book of Endless Sleepovers, Ethan Chatagnier’s Warnings From the Future, Deb Olin Unferth’s Wait Till You See Me Dance, Pamela Lu’s Ambient Parking Lot, and always, always, always Muriel Rukeyser’s The Book of the Dead.

Q: You also have a forthcoming novel, Driftless Quintet. What are you working on next?
A: Another novel, tentatively titled Hell and Its Torments, about the construction of the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud and my experience growing up in the shadow of a convent in Illinois. It’s done, just needs some editing. I’m also a songwriter, so I’m hoping to record an album or two if my new hearing aid can help me sing in tune.

Martha Stuit is a former reporter and current librarian.

Joe Sacksteder reads from "Make/Shift" along with Matthew Kirkpatrick (see related interview) at Literari Bookstore in Ann Arbor on Monday, July 1, 7 pm.