A Life in a Snapshot: An Interview with Josie Sigler
Words By Dani Hedlund
I first stumbled upon Josie Sigler’s work last year, reading the winning stories for Hunger Mountain’s yearly competition. I only had a few minutes to scan through, trying to gauge if this was the sort of contest I should recommend to our TBL writers. With a steaming cup of tea beside me, I opened “A Man is Not a Star” and started to read.
By the time the story had released me, my tea had grown cold in my hand, tears were sliding down my cheeks, and I couldn’t stop smiling despite them. I remember thinking that this, this story, is why I write, why I read, why I still believe words have power. Lofty remarks, I know, but they are no exaggeration. In only twelve pages, Sigler had immersed me into a man’s entire life. I struggled with him as he tried to support his family, even after his job at GM fell apart, even after he lost the house, had to move into the trailer. I watched in horror as his children grew up too quickly, his wife forced to support them, his pride tangling dangerously with his heartbreak. I saw how desperately he wanted to be the man he thought he should be: a man’s man, a man his father would be proud of. And at the end, I felt when the pain became too much, and I wanted to scream out that he could still fix it, that I knew he was a good man, that I knew him, but it was too late. The story was over. All I could do was stare at the blank white space under the last line, wishing desperately for more of Sigler’s words.
That moment of bereavement follows so many of Sigler’s stories, making her debut book, The Galaxie and Other Rides, one of the most powerful short story collections I’ve ever read. Just like “A Man is Not a Star”—the story that concludes the collection—each tale focuses on the outskirts of society, the men and women our affluent world has pushed aside. Told with beautifully diverse narrators—one even written in second person—Sigler penetrates through the grit of her characters’ existence, and unearths truths both beautiful and horrifying from their struggles.
But what perhaps makes her stories the most unique is what parts of their lives she lets us see. Short story writing 101 tells us to write about the day that is different: the moment where our characters are tested, hurled into action. But Miss Sigler has moved beyond that. With the same thrill of conflict we come to expect, she instead tells the story of all the days that were not different, the days that pile up upon each other with such gritty reality, that the collapse is unavoidable. And in all her stories, whether heartwarming or heartbreaking, we are left with so much more than a snapshot of her characters’ lives. Instead, as our tea has gone cold, time disappearing with each word, we see a life in a snapshot, one we wish desperately would last just a little longer.
Sigler on The Galaxie and Other Rides
Sigler’s upbringing in deep Michigan inspired many of the stories in The Galaxie and Other Rides. She explores an array of characters living on the fringes of American society, from women trying to escape a future of raising unplanned children in the trailer park to horse healers failing to balance their careers with their lovers. Although Sigler emphasized that most of her characters are fictional, some stories have more than the setting in common with her own life. Raised as a “GM brat,” Sigler grew up with the myth that if a man could obtain a job at one of General Motor’s factories, he could create a good life for his family. When the recession hit and layoffs shook Michigan, this paradigm shifted radically. “Things got really bad,” she explained, “and people were killing themselves in these very violent ways.” It was one of these deaths—a friend of her father’s—that inspired the closing story, “A Man is Not a Star.” “That story was really a product of feeling utterly outraged,” Sigler explained, detailing how fervently she poured herself into writing it. “It was certainly one of the most draining stories [to write] in the book.”
Since “A Man is Not a Star” was my favorite from the collection, I was eager for Sigler to walk me through its conception. She explained that when she started writing, she clung onto the line “a man does not set himself on fire.” This led to her narrating his life as a list of things a man does not do, juxtaposing how the character thinks he should act with the choices he actually makes. Although she fictionalized the main character’s life, the tough exterior of a man in that time was inspired by her father and how “if you gave him a couple beers, he could open right up.”
Since this was a very radical narrative device, when she finished, she didn’t realize she’d achieved what she set out to do. It was only after she tried rewriting the story with a more conventional third-person narrative that she realized how much of the true story she’d been able to capture with her new style.
“A Man is not a Star” is not alone in The Galaxie and Other Rides in this respect. “I’m really interested in perspective and view,” Sigler said, walking me through the very different narrative voices that make up her collection. From the second-person—yes, I said second-person!—narrator in “The Johns” to the distinct Michigan dialects used in her first-person stories like “Breakneck Road” and “The Last Trees in River Rouge Weep for Carlotta Contadino,” Sigler is constantly pushing the boundaries of voice and narrative distance. She even entirely eschews quotations marks, relying on language alone to indicate when something is spoken or thought.
Given her penchant for voices, I was not surprised to hear that, when she first started out, first person came naturally to her. “I could get into the voice of the character very easily,” she explained. But I was surprised when she explained that this ease actually obviated underlying issues with her work. “One of the earliest critiques I got of my work was that I was depending on the snappy voice to carry me through a story that wasn’t really that good.” After getting over the initial outrage we all feel when our work is questioned, she realized that he was right and went back to strengthen her plot contraction.
As our discussion of form continued, we began to discuss her balance between narration and use of literary devices. In contrast to either plain story-telling or those rich with metaphors and descriptions, Sigler’s stories have a straight-forward, voice-driven narrative, interspersed with beautiful metaphors that seem all the more powerful embedded in her otherwise smooth prose. Those metaphors, she explained, come very easily to her—as does description—but she works to minimize them as much as possible. “I tend to drown myself in details…so when I write, there are a lot more of those lines, then I have to go and choose between them…if it [a metaphor or description] makes it to the rewriting, and if I still like it, I think ‘yeah, that image is really working’ and I keep it, but I’m really brutal with myself. If I’ve liked it everyday, but then today I don’t, I put it in brackets and see if I like it tomorrow…if not, it goes…I try to read something over and over again until it’s in my gut, and I can see when something isn’t helping.”
Sigler on Writing
To say that Sigler is a prolific writer is an understatement. The list of her literary awards and publications spans two pages (in 12pt font, single spaced), spanning over a decade of work. When I asked Sigler how she maintains this kind of stamina, she explained that she works hard to be consistent with her writing. “I try to write everyday,” she said, “even if it’s only just for fifteen minutes. You know, the real-writers-write-everyday kinda thing.”
As far as a set schedule goes, Sigler tries to write first thing when she wakes up, but since she’s gradually become more of a “night owl”—emulating the habits of her partner and her family—“first thing could be noon.” With a dedication that certainly makes me jealous, Sigler also prefers to work at home, somehow capable of ignoring the many distractions and settling easily into her writing. “Plus,” she added with a smile, “I don’t really like to get out of my pajamas.”
Aside from writing every day, Sigler also offers the tip of finding someone who can be brutally honest about your writing. Lucky enough to have a dedicated creative writing teacher when she first started out, Sigler explained how much those honest—and often negative—reviews were instrumental in her improvement. “[My teacher] would give my story a smack down, and then I’d rewrite, knowing that there would be another smack down, and another rewrite, and another smack down.” Sigler also stressed the importance of having someone willing to help one sentence at a time, one-on-one. This intense pursuit for perfection allowed her to develop the beautiful language that makes her stories so unique.
Excerpt from The Galaxie and Other Rides
A Man does not set himself on fire.
A man works. Strapped to the ceiling, dangling over a half-made truck, he welds, he solders, twelve hours, fourteen hours, weekends, overtime.
Thus, he is tired at day’s end. He does not lie awake, waiting out the dark hours open-eyed and jittery, shocked by the few quick splashes that haunt the bridge of his wife’s nose, headlights from the rare car out in this weather—folk coming home from the VFW hall a mile up the road.
A man enjoys a beer. His first beer, he enjoys the most. Twelve years old. Pabst on tap. Bunch of old drunks leaning over card tables, slapping him on the back. The women biting their Virginia Slims Menthols, hugging his boyish face to their breast. His father’s hand ghosting itself on the chilled mug and the beer was so smooth—
Or was it bitter?
Yes, that’s right. Before he was a man, he had looked around that hall and silently vowed never to go to war. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing a leg, the terror that rose in him whenever he saw the strange pattern of burns that moved down his father’s back like red-bellied snakes in the fallow cornfield—
No. A man is courageous. He is willing to fight. Sometimes he is just born in a good month, has the right letter beginning his last name, misses the draft, lands himself a fine job.
But this is not how a man’s memory works, the truth slipping back and forth like that painting thick with blue and yellow paint.
Painted by a madman, his wife had said.
Of course, a man pays no attention to art, and he should certainly not slip a bit in his chest over a damned painting. But maybe he could make an exception for this guy, crazy or not, who had captured so exactly the landscape of his youth, the blurred lights of distant smokestacks rising up beyond the hills, blazing in the night.
Those are stars, his smallest daughter said.
A man knows when he’s bested. He could have simply replied: Sure are.
Instead, he shrugged, turned his too-clean hands up and stuffed them useless into his pockets, wandered off. When no one was looking, he tore the painting out of the magazine and filed it deep in his wallet…