Visiting with Josie Sigler
by Claire Guyton
What inspired “A Man Is Not a Star”?
Sadly, this story is based on something that really did happen in my neighborhood back home: A good friend of my dad’s from General Motors killed himself by setting himself on fire when he was laid off for the third time in a year. I was with my dad when he got the news and I saw in his face for a moment this fast flicker, like for just a second it made sense to him, the idea that someone might do such a thing. He had recently been laid off himself. I think this story is a product of my rage more than any other story I’ve written as the daughter of a “factory rat.” People back home are losing everything and the Big Three continue to devise cruel ways to push them out. For instance, when a worker doesn’t take the buyout they’re being offered, GM has been known to change a worker’s location and schedule multiple times a week, forcing him or her to commute long hours after having been awake for more than twenty-four hours, which is particularly dangerous during Michigan winters. If workers don’t do what is asked of them, they forfeit their retirement benefits. But I think what is often just as painful is what these families have already sacrificed when times were supposedly “good.” My dad, for instance, was transferred from Michigan to Maryland for two years when we were teenagers. We saw him once every two months during that time. For most of my childhood, he worked fourteen hours a night and slept all day. So, in a sense, no matter how hard he tried to fulfill his obligations to his family in terms of financial and emotional support, he was set up to fail. That was why I landed on the story being written as a list of rules one must follow in order to be a man, meanwhile indicating through negation that the main character was unable to follow them.
Tell us about your writing process—either generally or specifically with regard to the birth and development of this short story.
When working on stories, I try to write at least 1000 words per day or for four hours per day, whichever results in more words for that day. When I am truly at my pace, I write far more than that, but that’s the minimum. I almost always start from the very beginning even if I know where I am headed. I won’t let myself do more than skip down the page and make a few notes about the climactic scene because I like to build up the emotional energy of that moment as I work my way toward it. This was an interesting example, though, because in a sense, this story is almost entirely about the final moment. I remember I wrote the story over the holidays. Every morning I thought I’d finish the story that day, but would soon find myself quite tangled up in its events; in the end it took most of December to write. The hardest part was trying to figure out which details could be included in a story that was a set of rules that had to be negated without being too repetitive in terms of language. Also, I went through a phase in which I made the narration even more complicated by addressing each member of the man’s family as a “you” in the story, which meant I had to craft some pretty complicated shifts, all of which were deleted at the end of that week after I read the story to my partner, Jennifer, who is absolutely unafraid of cutting huge chunks of my text when they don’t truly fit or they really belong in another story. This story was originally about twice as long as it is now, after her edits and my own final edits, which I did this summer, two years after the story was “finished.”
Is there something you would love to write about but you can’t? Or something you did write about but you wish you hadn’t?
Yes. I really struggle to write about the terrible things people in my family have done when they and the people they have hurt are still alive. In a way, it sometimes makes me wish that I hadn’t written about the great things or the regular things those people have done because it seems a lie not to say all of it. I know this is a cryptic answer, but I think in a few years I will have a different answer, that I will have found a way to get at the complexity of some of the people I love the most who’ve done things to people I love and desperately wish to protect. My hope is that I will learn, perhaps, to condemn and forgive and love those people all the while protecting those who don’t want their stories told right now.
Do you have any guilty reading pleasures?
Yes. I love to read medical thrillers, books about genetic experiments gone awry, old Robin Cook novels like Mutation or John Saul’s The God Project. But the guiltiest reading pleasure is the good old National Enquirer, which I used to read with my grandmother in the summer when I visited her, and is still associated for me with long lazy hot days in Detroit with glasses of iced tea or cranberry juice on the front porch. I suppose I can only hope my own stories are anywhere near as inventive as the stories in that magazine.