Mitchell S. Jackson: Turn around

The novelist and teacher who didn't turn his back on his past, but faced it head on to find a voice uniquely his own.

mitchell s. jacksonMitchell S. Jackson turned his life around. He grew up poor and underprivileged in one of Portland, Oregon’s most neglected neighborhoods, and before he knew it, he was serving time in jail for dealing drugs. Today he leads a life of writing and teaching on the opposite coast with an altered outlook. But Jackson didn’t turn his back on his younger years or try to forget them. He wrote a book about them. The Residue Years is an autobiographical novel featuring characters based on himself and his mother. Writing about memories and events that took place during his formative years, Jackson has a melodic, memorable style. Although it was a difficult history to put on paper, The Residue Years lays out Jackson’s upbringing in a striking, poetic fashion. Next from Jackson will be an essay collection, which, he says, will allow him to expand his writing in a way that the book didn’t. I chatted with Jackson after his  appearance at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2014.

Your history is well documented, and parts of it are explored in The Residue Years. Can you talk about what your childhood was like and how that influenced your writing?
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, in the ῾80s and ῾90s. A lot of my peers and I were really enamored by sports. We all played basketball. Some of us played football. That was my focus early on; I was going to play basketball. And then around the time that I got to be 10 years old, my mother started struggling with cocaine addiction, and that lasted until I was well into adulthood. So I had to deal with that the best way I could. And then – like in the book – I ended up selling drugs and getting into trouble and going to prison for a little while. But while I was young, even though I wasn’t really a reader – I was not a reader – I always kept a journal or some form of a journal. Not a consistent journal but I journaled and took pride in writing whatever papers I was assigned. I was on the periphery of writing, but I never considered myself a creative writer. I never read poetry or novels or anything. I didn’t really get into writing until I was already in graduate school for writing.

What was the academic atmosphere like in prison?
There was none. We had a small shelf with a few books on it. I can’t remember how many books. I read two books while I was in prison. The one I remember reading was a Terry McMillan book, it was either Waiting to Exhale or How Stella Got Her Groove Back. It wasn’t like we had “literature” by Malcolm X lying around for us to pick up and read.

The voice and style in The Residue Years has rhythmic cadences. How did you craft that voice?
There are two markers for that voice. When I was in my second graduate program at NYU, I took a class with the writer Paule Marshall, and the first story she had us read was by John Edgar Wideman called “Weight.” The story starts off: “My mother is a weightlifter. You know what I mean.” When I read “you know what I mean,” that sounded so familiar to me. I kept reading his story, and it was told in a voice that I recognized from my experiences. I started to read about John Wideman, and I figured out that he was a highly respected writer and at some point in his career, he was vacillating between using a more conventional voice, a narrative voice, and then he came to the voice that was in “Weight.” That really gave me permission, or license, to use a kind of language that was already native to me. And then in about 2008, I took a class with Gordon Lish. He runs this workshop and at the end of a class asks people to read from their work. But he does it sentence by sentence. He’ll say: “Read one sentence and if I like that sentence you can read two, and if I like two you can read three.” But if he doesn’t like that first sentence, you can’t even read the whole thing. So the first time he did that, I wrote a sentence the night before, and he let me read the whole sentence. I was the only person that got to finish the whole sentence out of 40 or 50 people. And the first thing that he said to me was: “Jackson, you’ve got an ear.” I ran with that, the idea that the sentence should have some kind of acoustic value. But I don’t think I would have ever felt comfortable using it had I not come upon Wideman first.

What was the revision process like on The Residue Years? Did you read it aloud?
If the work doesn’t stand up aloud, to me it’s deficient. That is one of my real markers of whether or not I think it’s strong is if it sounds good to me. I spent a lot of time playing around with syntax and diction. I don’t want it to sound, like, rhyme-y, but I do want there to be some kind of ligature in the sound between one sentence and another. I read a lot of work aloud. There are some sentences I fiddled with in Residue for probably a day, two days, three days.

The book jumps rapidly between the voices of Champ and Grace. The Champ character is based on you. But how did you get into the head of Grace?
Grace is a real composite of a lot of women I knew coming up. She has most of my mother in her, but she’s also like aunts and friends of my mother. I spent a lot of time talking to my mom and asking her questions, listening to her and taking notes when she didn’t think that I was taking notes. Just so that I could try to recreate her diction. The same thing for other women. I did a lot of calling up my aunt to say, “Hey, what was that club y’all went to? Yeah, tell me about that night. I just want to know.” I didn’t want to tell them that I was doing research for the novel, because I wanted the stories to be organic. But I did a lot of that. Then I read female writers. You can’t really be a black person and not read Toni Morrison. I really liked Toni Cade Bambara’s voice. Gorilla My Love is one of my favorite short story collections. Toni Morrison’s voice to me seems like my grandmother. It’s a wise, poetic voice. But Toni Cade Bambara’s voice in Gorilla My Love is a sassy, younger voice. I thought that was probably closer to how Grace should speak.

What was your family’s reaction to the book?
I don’t know who has read and who hasn’t. I know one of my cousins read it because she posted a review, but I would imagine my mom has read some of it. My grandfather said it had so many curse words he couldn’t get through it.

Who do you think the audience is for the book?
I always imagined that it would be people who were familiar with those circumstances. So I imagined middle-aged black women were my audience. But also I was hoping that I could find a younger version of myself to read it. The Mitchell from 1990. A guy who’s half in the streets but still has some good sense. Maybe in school. I thought the Champ character would resonate with them, so I was hoping for that. I would be disappointed if it didn’t attract a literary audience because I didn’t want the story to get dismissed as urban fiction. It was really important for me to not escape that category, but not be defined by that category. I hope whoever picks up literary fiction would read it.

What are your writing habits?
I wish I had a writing habit. I teach so much, and lately I’ve been doing more reading and speaking than I normally would, and so it’s tough for me to write. Right now I’m working on a book of essays so I have three large Moleskines with a tab for each of the essays. I’ll sketch whole scenes, whole sections of exposition or take notes. I’m doing a lot more writing by hand than I did for Residue. And then I always keep a Moleskine to note if ever there’s a line of dialogue or an observation that I make. I get a lot of descriptions from riding the train. Then it’s really finding time to write. When I, occasionally, don’t have anything else to do, I’ll spend a whole day writing. I’ll write for an hour, and then I’ll lie down for 10 minutes, and then I’ll write for another 45 minutes. I’ll try to think through where I’m going next, but I can’t do it sitting in front of the computer. I have to get away from it and lie down. I don’t know if anyone else takes naps between their compositions, but I definitely do.

You speak passionately about Portland and the community from which you came. How did you end up in Brooklyn? What do you see in Brooklyn’s literary community?
I moved to New York for the NYU graduate school program in 2002. When I first moved to New York, I was living in Manhattan, but [my apartment] was just so tiny. I found a bigger space, and I’ve been in Brooklyn for the last nine or 10 years. But the funny thing is: I don’t even know much about Brooklyn because I spend so much time [working]. I know where the dry cleaner is. I know where the grocery store is. I know where the post office is. And if I’m really hungry, I know what bar I can get a meal from. But other than that, I have no idea what happens in Brooklyn. I am a Brooklyn resident, and I’m proud because there are a number of other writers in Brooklyn, and I do hang out with those people sometimes, but Portland is what I always write about. I’ve never written a story about New York, ever.

Do you have a sense of what the literary community is like in Portland today?
I used to attend this workshop by Tom Spanbauer. He has a program called Dangerous Writing. He was a student of Gordon Lish, and then he started his own writing group. Most of the native Portland writers have come through Tom Spanbauer. Chuck Palahniuk is probably his most famous student. Monica Drake is one of his students. He holds a class in his basement. He has being doing it for 25 years. So I’ve met writers through Tom. I don’t know if I necessarily feel connected to them because I don’t spend a lot of time with writers when I go back because all my family is there. I always end up trying to see an uncle or a cousin or someone like that. But I do feel a sense of community with writers in Portland, especially when I read what they’re writing. But it also feels like a Portland that I don’t know.

Do you think you will ever move back?
Maybe when I’m well into retirement. I really love the energy of New York. And I like feeling like I’m not the last to get things. I like feeling like you’re at the introduction, not six months later we’re finding out about it in Portland. But I also like a house with a lawn and clean streets. That’s not bad either.

Aubrey Everett is a writer and editor in the Boston area.

*This article originally appeared in the March 2015 issue of The Writer.

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