Mitchell S. Jackson is the author of the autobiographical novel The Residue Years (Bloomsbury USA). He received an MA from Portland State University and an MFA in Creative Writing from New York University and has been the recipient of fellowships from Urban Artist Initiative and The Center for Fiction. A native of Portland, Oregon, Jackson currently resides in New York City, where he teaches writing at New York University and is the literary editor of Dossier Journal.
What inspired you to write The Residue Years?
Mitchell S. Jackson: What inspired me to write this book was sitting in prison and thinking that I was wasting my time. Also, thinking, like many prisoners do, that my life story would be entertaining to someone. That’s what got my pencil moving. But years later, when I had a better idea of the heart of the book, I felt compelled to write about my city (Portland, Oregon) during a time that impacted to me. I became motivated to give voice to a particular collective story.
Your book deals with poverty, drugs, and race at a time when Americans are struggling to discuss social and economic divides. What do you hope your book will add to this discussion?
MSJ: I didn’t intend for the book to be overtly political. My goal was to tell the truth about the characters in the book as I understood it. There are pundits and politicians aplenty to speculate on race and poverty in America, but if the book can do one thing, I hope it can serve as fodder for different kinds of conversations. I teach, and so many of my students think we are living in post-race America. To me, that’s a giant obstacle to confronting the issues. What happens when 10 or 20 years from now, they are the ones who are leading the country? What happens to the discussions that we need to effect changes if they feel the problem is non-existent? So I hope that my book presses the issues of race, poverty, the war on drugs, class, etc. on the mind of readers, but does it in a way that’s human and personal and not political. When my family and I were on welfare and hoping for our number to be called for the Section 8 housing lottery, it sure didn’t feel political to me. It felt like life.
Were books an important part of your childhood? If so, what book had the greatest impact on you as a child?
MSJ: I read as a child, but I couldn’t identify a book that had a profound impact on my life. Since I was not the kid sneaking in the closet with a flashlight to read, there aren’t many books from that era for me to choose from. But I do remember that one year my mother bought me a set of encyclopedias from a door-to-door salesman. That summer I convinced several of my friends that we needed to study. That set of encyclopedias made me feel studious, made me value learning. They also made me feel as though I might one day be able to think my way out of tough circumstances.
Are you working on anything right now?
MSJ: To be true, I’ve been working hard on making final edits on my documentary, but I have also been scribbling notes for a collection and have written a few nonfiction pieces. The collection will include fiction and nonfiction, but I’m toying with the idea of not differentiating between the two. One of my favorite writers is John Edgar Wideman and he quotes an old African proverb that says “all stories are true.”
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
MSJ: I realized I wanted to be a writer after I was in graduate school for creative writing. I went to school so that I could gain the skills to write my novel. While I was in my first graduate writing program, I realized that I had a talent for writing that could be nurtured, and most importantly, that reading and writing gave me a sense of purpose and fulfillment. That’s when I decided that I was going to write beyond the novel. These days, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life.
You recently had a book tour. What was your favorite part about touring?
MSJ: My favorite part about my book tour was meeting booksellers. I love meeting people who care about books. It made me see how very personal the relationship is between bookseller and reader, that a book can have a life by a few people who love it becoming its champion.
What books are on your nightstand right now?
MSJ: Actually, I just cleaned the bedside table, but the book I’m reading right now is Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins. I’m also rereading James Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name.
If you were a bookseller for a day, what book would you want to put in every customer’s hand? (Besides your own, of course!)
MSJ: That’s a great question. If it were a newish book, I’d say please read Barry Hannah’s new and collected stories Long, Last, Happy. If it were a contemporary but not recently published book, I’d say Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson. And if were a classic book, I’d recommend Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
If you could invite three authors (past or present) to a dinner party, who would they be? What do you think would be the topic of conversation?
MSJ: If I could invite three authors, I would invite Mark Twain, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. I’d love for them to talk about white privilege and also about race in America. An old Southern white man, a gay Civil Rights-era black man, and a black woman who loves to explore race and identity. Can you imagine? If I could throw in a fourth person, I’d love for it to be Barry Hannah. I’d warn Barry to leave his pistols at home and avoid drinking too much. We wouldn’t want any violence to erupt.
The Residue Years, by Mitchell S. Jackson (Bloomsbury USA, Hardcover, 9781620400289) Published: August 20, 2013
For more on Mitchell S. Jackson, visit mitchellsjackson.com.
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