If It’s Not Like Music I Don’t Want to Read It: Mitchell Jackson on His Love of Language [Interview]

by Tyler Beckett

Mitchell Jackson is the author of The Residue Years, the 2014 winner of the Earnest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence, and the critically-acclaimed short story collection Oversouls. Mr. Jackson’s work stands out partially for his use of language, which The Paris Review describes as “a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang.” Jackson works his lines until they sing, and Barely South Review was very fortunate to have the chance to sit down and ask him about his art.

Your novel The Residue Years has been praised in places like ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Paris Review’ for its language, the way your work combines urban voices with precise lyricism. What’s your process like for writing these lines?

Listening and reading. I think what people term as ‘urban language’ or ‘urban slang’ is a part of my native tongue. I grew up listening to those voices and I think when I got to be in maybe middle school I really became infatuated with the way that people spoke, and I always would make note of the distinctions in how they spoke. So I kept that with me and then when I decided to become a writer I knew I had to read. And there was enough out there. And I’ve been a professor now for almost thirteen years and I’ve been around that academic language. So it’s always felt very natural for me to combine those two because that was my experience.

So you’ve had your ‘literary’ influences for your language but these works often try to achieve something very different in their style. Did you have any trouble adapting their lessons to your voice?

No, it’s not easy. You can go too far in either direction. One of the things I aspire to is to have a voice that’s recognizable without my name being attached to it. So I think if I go too far literary then I’ve become like another voice because that language to me feels very prescribed. And then if I go too far in the other direction I think I lose a part of what makes it unique as well. I’m constantly trying to balance the two of those.

Makes sense. Is there anyone you have read for you that helps you establish that balance? Who do you tend to go to read your drafts?

The first person that read my work that made me pay attention to it on a sentence level or even word-by-word level was Gordon Lish. I studied with him for two years in 2008 and 2009. We would go through a few of my stories line by line and he would say “What do you think about this line?” and “Why did you write this? Can you push it this way?” And though he didn’t have the experience to give me diction advice as far as the urban language he was experienced enough to know that that was a strength that I should try and develop.

But now when I workshop I have one or two readers that I send most or all of my work that are in this one workshop and I have one or two friends from graduate school that I send it to as well. So I have about four readers other than my editor, who will also read anything who will also read anything I give her.

This is more on the macro-level of writing, but when you’re planning your novels— or your short stories, whichever one —what sort of outlining do you do before you get to writing? What sort of preparation do you do?

I don’t outline. I always start with the concept or an idea or a line. If it’s non-fiction there’s always a concept. And I usually start with the concept and some kind of anecdote and I’ll write those two things out and try to make my way to some deeper understanding of where I thought the concept was going to be initially. And if it’s fiction, I might have a general idea of what I want the story to do, but I usually just start with a line and just keep going. With fiction I’m more-so concerned with having fun with the language. In both cases [of nonfiction and fiction] after I have— I don’t know if this is true from beginning to end— but after I have a fair amount of work done then I go in and I try and see if there is a measure of structure for whatever I was working on.

Is that typically the same between your short stories and your novel work? Is there any particular difference in your prep or process for those?

That’s pretty much it. I actually don’t like very many short stories, I’ve probably written, I don’t know, ten short stories in my life. And that’s because I was working on the novel. But I perceive my novel chapters as short stories, so I kind of approach them not in the exact same way because it was a longer narrative I was working on, but I did feel like they had to have a beginning, middle, and end, and something had to happen inside of them. And a lot of what I’m doing is really language-driven, and then I try to go back and see what I’m trying to say or see what it is I’m saying but haven’t recognized. Even when I have a concept, it never ends up that way, it never is what I imagined it was going to be.

That makes a lot of sense, breaking it down like that for the chapter’s concept, making sure each chapter is complete on its own.

Yeah.

What has been the most useful lesson in regards to your writing?

I think the most useful lesson was from the Lish workshop, and that was when he talked about “writing from your wounds.” What he meant by “wounds” was the experience in your life that you are most afraid to talk about. I took that to heart. I think there is a certain amount of courage that is necessary in writing about that and I think that gives your work a certain sense of gravity. And another thing that someone said, who said it, shoot, “Always be a poet even in prose.” And I can’t remember who said that. But that quote stuck with me because I think oftentimes people feel like when they’re writing prose they can abandon the poetics of the language. I strongly disagree with that tactic.

You’ve got to keep the craft good.

If it’s not like music I don’t want to read it. I was reading some nonfiction, I’m not going to name anybody, I started reading yesterday a nonfiction memoir that this critic wrote. I remember I posted about it and everyone was like ‘oh it’s so great, it’s this and that!’ And later I was reading the book when I saw a poet, Catherine Barnett, and she said ‘Oh you’re reading that’ and I said ‘Yeah, do you like it?’ And she said ‘Well everybody else likes it but the language to me just doesn’t stand up. It’s boring.’ And when I got on the train I read more and I understood what she was saying. It was intellectually rigorous but it’s like plenty of smart people can write the same stuff and I wouldn’t know the difference between them. So I understood what the poet, Catherine, was saying about their not being much pride in the language, the syntax being kind of boring. So I feel like if you can have that intellectual rigor and then marry it to an engaging voice, having that is a win-win.

It just heightens the craft, keeps it at its best.

Yeah.

So, final question, sir: What is it that you hope to see more of when you’re reading novels and short stories going forward?

People paying attention to the language. I’m all for stories and plot, but I love reading work when the syntax surprises me, when I didn’t expect the metaphor or the analogy. I love repetition, I love wit. I want to learn something from reading, I want to have my world opened up, but I also want to be seduced by the language. So I hope that more authors, along with plotting out their novels and their short stories and making outlines, that when they get down to the sentence-by-sentence work that they take just as much care with it.

 

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Mitchell S. Jackson is a Portland, Oregon native who lives in Brooklyn, New York.  He received an M.A. in writing from Portland State University and an M.F.A in Creative Writing from New York University.  He has been the recipient of fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, The Center For Fiction, and The Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference. He published the e-book Oversoul: Stories and Essays in the summer of 2012 to critical acclaim. His novel The Residue Years was released in the summer of 2013 and was praised by publications such as The New York Times, The Times of London, The Paris Review, and The Sydney Morning Herald. The novel won The Ernest Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. It was also a finalist for the Center For Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First novel prize, the PEN/ Hemingway award for first fiction, The Hurston / Wright Legacy Award for best fiction by a writer of African descent; it was long-listed for the William Saroyan International Prize for writing and the Chautauqua Prize, and named an “Honor Book” by the BCALA. Jackson has become a well-regarded speaker who was read and/or and lectured at institutions including Brown University, Columbia University, Yale University, Middlebury College, and UMASS; at events including The Brooklyn Book Festival, The Miami Book Festival, and the Sydney Writers’ Festival; at various adult prisons and youth facilities; and for organizations including The Pathfinders of Oregon, The PEN / Faulkner Foundation, and The Volunteers of America. He serves on the faculty of New York University and Columbia University.