Professor Mitchell Jackson’s first guest from ASU is Jesmyn Ward
Mitchell Jackson has a story to tell.
It’s about a boy growing up in Portland, Oregon, with a drug-addicted mother. About a young man who went to prison for drug trafficking and, while incarcerated, began writing about his experiences.
It’s about thoughts becoming words, words becoming a novel, and the novel – “The Residue Years” – which won the Whiting Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
And that was only the beginning.
In 2021, Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for his Runner’s World essay on the life and death of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the National Magazine Award in Feature Writing.
He has written for The New York Times, Esquire, The Washington Post Magazine, and several other publications, and now, as Dean John O. Whiteman’s Emeritus Professor of English at Arizona State University, he hosts Conversations in Craft and Content, a new creative writing lecture series that brings acclaimed writers to ASU to talk about their work, as well as their writing and editing process.
Jackson’s first conversation will be a virtual event with two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward at 6 p.m. Arizona time on Friday, February 4. The conversation is free and open to the public. register here.
ASU News caught up with Jackson to talk about his journey as an author, the lecture series, and the advice he would give to budding writers.
Question: Mitchell, your journey to becoming a writer has been interesting. Your mother was a drug addict and you became a teenage drug dealer who ended up in prison. When and how did you decide to become a writer?
Responnse: I guess the easy story is that I decided this in prison, because I started working on a manuscript… I didn’t even know what to call it a manuscript. I started writing a few words that I intended to become the story of my life while I was in prison. But I also didn’t know what it meant to be a writer. It was really just an exercise to mostly acclimate back to school and have something to do to feel productive. Because I didn’t know what a writer was, I didn’t know I was pursuing a writing career until I was in college. It would have been at Portland State University in 2000. So I was already in a graduate-level writing program before realizing, “Oh, this thing might actually become something I do.”
FOLLOWING: When it comes to writing, Mitchell Jackson’s wound is his bow
Q: Is it true that when you went to prison you heard other inmates say, “The story of my life would make a great book”, and that’s when you decided to write the story of your life?
A: It’s true. It is the thought that this suffering must have some value.
Q: How has your upbringing influenced who you are as a writer and what you write?
A: It gave me a subject. I always write about the house. I always write about my family. I always try to make sense of our triumphs and our struggles. I always try to represent a very small black community in Portland, so outside of those themes…I don’t consider myself a particularly imaginative writer in terms of creating stories or writing science fiction or fantasy from a different world or another time. I really try to make sense of what’s going on in the things that are close to me, so without that kind of experience, I would have less to dig into.
Q: I was going to ask you how you come up with ideas, but it seems what you write is personal and based on your life experiences.
A: It’s always a connection to the house, even when I write about, say… I wrote a profile of Chris Rock. I will try to find a continuity, a connection from my life to his life. Or when I wrote about Ahmaud Arbery; I’m trying to find a connection between what happened to him and what happened to me. It gives me meaning to my work.
Q: What is the creative process like for you once you’ve decided on an idea?
A: It is different for different projects. With Chris Rock, it’s easier. If I write a profile, I will research the person and their background. Try to read, watch and listen as much as possible. Then try to think of the central question I want to answer about them. With a celebrity, you don’t usually spend that much time with them, so you have to figure out what the angle is and take lots of notes. I remember the story of Chris Rock. I went to his old neighborhood and continued to walk around the block where he grew up. I went to where his father worked. I went to the comedy places where he used to perform. He’s not with me when I do these things, but I just wanted to get a feel for what it’s like to be him.
Q: How much research do you typically do when writing a novel or feature film?
A: My first novel was autobiographical, so I could talk to people who were in my life. The person I interviewed the most was my mom, which was great, because I could call her anytime and say, “Hey mom, I need 20 minutes of your time. With the novel I’m working on right now, it’s hard to place yourself because I’m still at the beginning… I think you have people you know you have to go back to, so with this one — I write about people who were with a former coach – so two of those people I interviewed at length, multiple times. A lot of this also relates to stock footage. So I imagine I’m going to come back to that throughout this novel and do a lot more. It’s put in wattsA neighborhood in South Los Angeles, California., so I want to go spend a few weeks in Watts and just walk around and talk to the people there. For the Chris Rock story, I interviewed probably 15 people. Not all of them went down in history.
Q: What is the new novel about?
A: His title is “John de Watts”. It’s about a young man who was a college basketball player who didn’t make it to the NBA and started a youth program in Watts to train at-risk youth to become athletes who would come out of their situation, and then the training got really strict, then it turned into abuse, then they started living in a commune, and it basically became a cult. There was a young girl, the founder’s daughter, who was beaten to death, and that’s when the authorities came in and found out what had happened.
Q: Is it a non-fiction story?
A: It’s a non-fictional story that I fictionalise, yes.
Q: What does your rewriting process look like when you’re working on a piece, and how do you maintain the discipline to rewrite and rewrite over and over again?
A: I think you have to figure out what standard of excellence you want to hold yourself to. I think a lot of that comes from reading, reading what you think is great work, and reading as a writer what works and what you admire. Next, do you have the stamina and wherewithal to sit down every day? I don’t write every day, but when I commit or have a deadline, I’m eight, 10, 12 in a chair. Sometimes 16 hours on a chair. I’m not advocating this for anyone, but on a weekend I can spend 20 hours working on pages to hand over to my editor. I’m gonna look at them and say, “Well, I could stop here and just give it to him because I know I’m gonna edit it,” but I also know I can’t live with showing this to anyone. a. It really is what you can live with. That’s not what the editor will say. It’s what you can live with, and I try to hold myself to a level of greatness.
Q: As a black man, do you think you bring a different perspective to your work?
A: I think the theme that gives me hope for my place in the collective of black writers is that I am an Oregonian. In particular, I’m from Portland, Oregon, which is why I’m writing specifically about my experience there, because my experience is not that of a black man from Mississippi, or a black man from Oklahoma , or a Boston black. So by telling a particular story, that’s why I think there’s enough space for everyone.
Q: You’ll speak to two-time National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward as the series’ inaugural guest. How does his writing captivate you?
A: Jesmyn is perhaps the most acclaimed fiction writer we have. I think one thing that connects me about Jesmyn is that she always writes about the house. She’s trying to uplift or show people what it means to be where she comes from, and I find that commitment really inspiring and really worthwhile. I thought, “Who better to do that?” She’s also primarily a novelist, so it takes a different mindset to write a novel than, say, a feature film. So I want to talk about that, especially for our students, who are writing a six- to eight-page essay. You can do it overnight, but can you commit to something for six years where you have to touch it every day? It’s a different level of engagement than writing.
Q: One last question. What is a singular piece of advice you would give to students who aspire to write?
A: Keep on going. Because you don’t want to give up. You either have to have someone in your ear to tell you that, or you have to believe it.