More than a Vulture: Talking Love and Loss and Sin and Forgiveness with Jesse Sensibar

by Margarita Cruzjesse

It’s not often that you get to interview your landlord for their book release–but Jesse Sensibar is much more than just my landlord.

He is a former tow truck driver, former drug dealer, former tattoo shop owner, frank about his love for strippers and strip clubs as a former strip club bouncer.

He is a Midwesterner who seems to have found a home amongst the pines and the cacti that surround Arizona, and a supporter of the written word–being both an active participant in the literary community of Flagstaff, Arizona and being on the board of the year-round Northern Arizona Book Festival, where he organizes events and helps run the MFA-partnered reading series, Narrow Chimney.

He towers tall, looks just a little scary, but I can assure you that there is nothing to be afraid of when it comes to Jesse–unless you cross him, but I guess that’s anyone you cross.

Blood in the Asphalt: Prayers from the Highway is Sensibar’s debut book. It is a collection of essays and pictures chronicling his time on the road, whether he is driving for pleasure or for work during his tow-trucking years. This is more than an exploration of the American Southwest through roadside shrines, drunks, and hitchhikers–this is a contemplation and resurrection of ghosts: his own and the road’s.

Being both tenant and friend, as well as proud owner of a “Jesse in the 1980s Holding a Tiger” T-Shirt, I got to talk with him about his work before the release of the book, available on October 16th from Tolsun Books.

Before I even began the book, I flipped through the pages and recognized pictures and smaller stories–these were your Facebook posts. Sure enough, during the first few pages you tell the story of how these were posted to Facebook, read by friends like myself. I know people have been telling you that you need to write a book, but when did you feel like they were ready to become collected? Was there anyone/anything that inspired you to create this collection?

When I had enough material–once I realized that the Facebook posts reached 250 pages. I didn’t know who the hell I was going to give it to, but I knew I had a manuscript. I knew there was a connection between some of my longer writing and the shrines that I was doing in the short form on social media; I knew there were connections, and I had trouble seeing the threads that existed, but I knew there was someone who was seeing ‘em.

How much editing happened to these pieces? What was the editing process like?

A lot. Some of the longer-form stuff was pretty heavily edited by Chelsea Burke–she’s my regular editor and agent. The longer-form stuff is edited by her. The shorter-form stuff has little editing stuff done to it. Just corrections on spelling and grammar, otherwise it’s mostly been left alone. As far as putting the manuscript together: that was an entirely different editor. I’m a terrible editor. I hate to revise–I’m really bitter about it. The people who edited my book are saints. They put up with me. Quite often the editing process comes down to me saying, “let’s do it your way. I trust you.”

David Pischke, editor at Tolsun, put the manuscript together. I sent him two big Word documents: about 250 pages of shorter-form and shrine photos, and another fifty of prose. He’s the one who actually laid the book out. I handed him about 300 pages, and out of that he picked out what went into the book and put it in its order. I didn’t really know where it connected, and I needed someone else’s eyes. That was him, and he deserves a great amount of credit for helping this book become published.

I’m very close to this material in every way, so I needed someone less passionate about it and more committed to an overall vision. Someone who could figure out how to cut 300 pages to 100, and make the right choices doing it–and those choices weren’t always mine. I made a decision in the beginning to work really hard not to override them.

I think there’s one piece in this book that I asked to be put in. It wasn’t in the original manuscript that David gave me. “11 April 2016” was the only addition I made. It needed to be included because they chose to put the longer piece that comes before it in the manuscript, and I said that this one needed to be included, too. The shrine, that post, needed to be in it. The longer piece, “I-40 Mile 205.5 Westbound,” talks about my step-son, and “11 April” is his shrine.

This book follows the road, leading readers to roadside crosses, graffiti, wrecks–everything a trucker might encounter. During longer sections, we get a closer look at your life, your haunts, and your heart. In “I-40 Mile 205.5 Westbound,” you share the memory of placing a cross on the side of the road for a step-son. It leads me to wonder: when did you begin writing about this trucker life–the roadside graves and the wrecks? What made you start writing? What keeps you writing?jesse book

I guess I write about things that are interesting to me. I also write about things that trouble me, and I write about the things that I try to figure out. I don’t write things I don’t know about and this is the world that I know. I didn’t know that other people would be interested. I write to answer questions about love and loss and sin and forgiveness and my relationship with the world and the questions I’m trying to answer.

When you look at this collection, what are some that stick out to you? Why?

[Laughing] The acknowledgements and the author’s page–I really like those. All of it stands out to me. I guess I’d like to say the stuff that’s closest to me sticks out.

What was the process for selecting these pieces? What’s the significance of the order of the book? The dates range from 2015 to 2018 in no particular chronological order–is there a significance in their order? 

David wanted to put it in an order that made sense to him: there’s a biographical reveal in this order. A while ago, Waxwing magazine published about 30 of those shrine posts in chronological order. David was looking for more of a storyline reveal. He chose that. Not so much caring for chronology, but caring for a thorough storyline, which is what I wanted.

Throughout the book, throughout the wreckage, your hopes still rise–if haunted, and hurt, and full of new stories. How have these stories shaped you?

I’ve spent a lot of my life intimately related with loss. I have both a great deal of respect for that loss, and I’ve also profited  from it. The connotations of that are not lost on me, that I am sort of a vulture in this situation. I wanted to do more than just take–I wanted to be more than a vulture, and I think that recording this and writing this and my intimacy with this and the stories that I can tell about this hopefully sort of…. I hope they make me more than just a vulture. In this book, I’m trying to attach meaning to the loss. 

You got your MA in English with an emphasis on creative writing at NAU. What led you to it?

In 2010, I successfully retired from the towing industry. I was almost 43 when I sold my towing companies, and I really had an opportunity to get to decide what I wanted to do with the next part of my life. The first thing I decided I wanted to do was finish the bachelor’s degree I had started in the eighties, simply because it was the one unfinished piece of business I had. So I went back to NAU and began to work on finishing that degree.

Ann Cummins, a professor in the English department, found me. She and I had been in sporadic contact since I first met her in the 90s. She asked me what I was doing and I told her I was planning on going to law school. I was planning on doing some English classes, and she was teaching a ten-minute-play class during the summer. She got ahold of me and asked if I would be in it, so her class wouldn’t be cancelled. Somewhere she got me to fill out an application for the MA–now MFA–program, just in case law school didn’t work out, and I decided it didn’t work out. I got a letter in the mail and decided to go for it.

This is your first book? Congrats! How has your experience been–the conception of it, the picking of a publisher, working with the publisher, etc.?

It’s been great. I had a certain way that I wanted to go about getting my first book published. I really wanted someone who didn’t know me, who didn’t really have any connections to me. Someone who wanted to see my stuff and want to publish it based solely on my work, who had no relation to me or anyone I knew. And that’s exactly what happened. I got invited to do a reading in Phoenix and the editors at Tolsun heard me read. They sent me an email a few days later asking if I wanted to do a book. Most of my heavy lifting was done by the editors, so it was great. I’ve been really happy with it. It’s been really rewarding. And I’m very pleased with the results.

Are you touring?

I’m going on tour! That’s the plan. I don’t know yet. I’m trying to get out of the Midwest. Other places in the world–or at least the country. Pretty much anywhere anyone will let me read. I’m gonna call in all my Narrow Chimney favors. 

jesse tiger shirt