Conversations with Literary Ex-Cons: Mitchell S. Jackson

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What have I learned from these conversations, this unfolding investigation?

In keeping with the original impetus, I wanted to reflect on what they’ve shown me so far, what patterns and lessons I’ve gleaned. This is an education for me, learning as I’ve gone from each of these writers—about craft and gurus; places and ways; different cases and precedents; wild keeps and haunts; modes of surviving and transcending.

A polite Southern gentleman whose soul was marked by living among lepers in a federal pen. A strong black man who took drugs and the street and transformed them into urban fiction and a different beat. An educated blonde woman’s past catching up with her, fueling her advocacy and a hit dramatic series. A woman in her eighties whom hard living could not defeat. An infamous smuggler whose crime and time drove him to break free, yet who returns to it again and again, as though rubbing a mysterious stone.

Here are some lessons they’ve imparted, corroborated and averred:

  • The power of art is a true consolation, a method in the madness.
  • There is a saving grace in being able to articulate your experience, to objectify and step outside it, cast it into a different realm, allowing you to turn it over and examine it, freeze it, set it spinning like a top at the tip of your finger.
  • Americans prefer being imprisoned abroad rather than in our own United States.
  • Ex-con is an incident. Literary is the faculty, an inclination, a character. In that lies the foundation and the essential part.
  • We need to pause, if not stop, to reflect. There are many ways to stop or be stopped. The quality of a person’s reflection may be the prime determinant of character.
  • If you have books with you, you can live in a void, floating out in space, in the deep recesses of a cave, at the bottom of a well…

***

Mitchell S. Jackson has written a fine one. His acclaimed novel The Residue Years (a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Fiction) is the story of a young mother and son plagued by love and drugs, heartbreak and hard wisdom. A fiction of truth, told with compression and velocity.

I sat down with Mitch at the Center for Fiction in the old Mercantile Library in midtown Manhattan.

***

The Rumpus: Thanks for meeting with me. Love this building.

Mitchell S. Jackson: I think it’s a recognized landmark. The director is a woman named Noreen Tomassi. When we did a reading here the last time, she was telling us some of the history. I remember her saying Frederick Douglass had been here. Five or six really important people she listed that had read here. It made me feel like, Wow, and me too. I had a reading here on my 35th birthday. They gave me the space. I’ve been coming here since 2009 when I took a workshop with Gordon Lish.

Rumpus: I saw you thanked him at the end of the book. Very cool to do that on your birthday. You can feel this building. I walked past it, circled back. Mercantile Library. You have to look up to see the big banner. All the old furniture and book stacks.

Jackson: I’ve gone on all the floors. In the basement they have really old books on the shelves. Amy Grace Loyd—she used to be the book editor at Playboy, I think—she just published a novel. It was a New York Times notable book. She wrote that while I was a fellow here. They have the Writers Studio on the 8th Floor.

Rumpus: Matt downstairs was telling me that you beat out a lot of other applicants for the fellowship.

Jackson: Yeah, I think they said it was a couple hundred people. Then they picked eight fellows. Then my novel was shortlisted for their First Novel Prize. They have an annual banquet with the eight finalists. They bring publishing people and we read for them. You ever hear of this book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena? It’s like the big book out there right now. Shortlisted for the National Book Award. He was one of the finalists with me here.

Rumpus: That’s an ambitious title.

Jackson: He said he got it from looking up the dictionary definition of life in an anatomy book.

Rumpus: Interesting. Conglomeration of stuff going on, that’s all we are. You’re among good company. You can be proud of that.

I take writing and reading very seriously, but at the same time never want to be too stiff, too precious about it. All the time, with words on the page, as a writer you try and get them to stretch and not be so confined and predictable. It’s obvious you have this approach in your language in The Residue Years. Before meeting you, I was curious whether you might speak like this in person, with that vivid phrasing, the fresh metaphors.

Jackson: I wish I could speak like Champ in real life.

Rumpus: That’s what I mean. John Edgar Wideman—

Jackson: Ah, that’s my guy!

Rumpus: I’ll come back to him. He’s someone I want to talk to, someone I want to have in this series. Of course, Brothers and Keepers. The insight he must have, his brother and his son in prison.

Jackson: Brother and his son. Both doing life sentences.

Rumpus: That just floors me.

Jackson: I actually interviewed him in this building.

Rumpus: Is that right? So it’s all coming around. That’s beautiful. What did you interview him for?

Jackson: I did a documentary for the book. It was a couple of years ago. It’s a two-part narrative. The first part is the backstory of the book. I go back with my mom. We talk about her drug problem. I visit my friend in prison in Snake River, the guy who first gave me drugs. He’s doing like seventeen years for murder. I go back to the prison where I was incarcerated and I do a reading there.

Rumpus: Where’s the prison you were in?

Jackson: It’s in Oregon, a little city outside of Portland called Salem, where most of the state prisons are. I was in two. A really small one called Millcreek, a minimum with about 150, 200 inmates; and the one I was released from in 1998, Santiam, had about 300. Not big. They were right around the corner from one another.

Rumpus: There’s the uniqueness of your novel being set in Portland. You must hear this a lot.

Jackson: Yeah, people say, “We didn’t know there are black people in Portland.” Or, “What do you mean there’s poverty there?”

Rumpus: You went down for drug charges, right? How much time did you do?

Jackson: Sixteen months. They were calling me a short-timer when I came in. I don’t get the badge, really.

Rumpus: Well, no, you qualify for sure. Having your freedom taken for even a day is profound. What was that like for you, going back into that?

Jackson: It was the first time I’d been back. Fifteen years later. They got cameras behind me. I had been corresponding with this assistant superintendent and she was standing there waiting for me, and she’s like, “Mitchell!” Like we’re old friends. She helped calm me down. I was nervous ‘cause we have this whole crew with us. Then we start walking through the prison. I had to walk past the yard to this rec area, but when I got to the yard I heard the guys on the pile saying, “Who the fuck is this dude?” And everybody just stops. Everybody looking. It’s on the camera. And I had to walk past them, with a crew behind me. I get to the rec room and the warden/superintendent is standing there and she says, “Hey, Mitchell, welcome.” And I’m like, “Oh, okay.” I walk into this room. They have about fifty inmates that have signed up to be there to listen to me, to hear me read.

Rumpus: Were you announced as a former inmate?

Jackson: Yeah, they had given them copies of the book I had out at the time, Oversoul, a collection of short stories and essays that I’d published as an e-book. Residue Years wasn’t out yet. The lady was sending me updates before I came, telling me the guys were fighting over the copies. So everyone in the prison had an opportunity to attend the reading.

Rumpus: What was the population like? Black, white, Hispanic?

Jackson: It was mixed.

Rumpus: I ask because Matthew Parker, who was on the series, described the Arizona prisons. Real racist, it seems, racially split. Kind of tripped me out.

Jackson: They do definitely have Aryan Brotherhood, the Muslims. The crowd that came to the reading, though, were a lot more white guys that I thought. I couldn’t believe it.

Rumpus: I haven’t been to the Pacific Northwest. If you tell me Portland, off the top of my head I’m thinking coffee, white people, hippie, progressive, liberal, green. But that’s not you or this book. It’s awesome to get that other picture. Most every city has these layers, I bet.

Jackson: This is a different kind of Portland that they weren’t aware of. While I was writing this I was never really aware of the other Portland. I didn’t see that hippie, progressive, green side. It didn’t exist for me. I only recognized what I grew up with in my life; that was it. I recognized that there was affluence outside of us, but I never saw it.

Rumpus: Power of travel, even if you just hop on a bus. For me Columbia University, Morningside Heights down into Harlem, really brings that home, at least the last time I made that little trek, years ago. You’re up top, Ivory Tower, ivy walls, high cost. You just drop a few blocks and it’s a different world. With the documentary, what were you looking to do?

Jackson: I figured that people were going to try to decipher what was real in my book from what wasn’t. I thought I would kind of help them with that. It was also catharsis. I had never talked to my mother about that stuff, her drug use. She took me to the place where she first smoked crack. She told me how it all happened.

Rumpus: If I’m hearing you right, this was also to walk through it all for your mom.

Jackson: Yeah, to make sense of where we were and how we got there. One of the other ironic things is, I used to live in a house in the heart of the Northeast with my girlfriend. When my mom visited us for the first time, she said, “Wow, this place looks familiar. I remember this place.” But she didn’t say any more. This was 1995. Then in 2012, for the documentary, we’re walking around. I was telling her that I got robbed outside this house and she says, “Well, remember when we came here the first time? Well, I was in this house and it was the first drug raid I had ever been in. This used to be a dope house.” When my girlfriend bought it they had torn down the old house and remodeled it.

Rumpus: A seeming pattern to it all. That’s a scene in the book. I loved that. A flash of her running out of the house as cops descend on it.

Jackson: Right, she ran out of her shoes. Ran until daylight… I forgot about that.

Rumpus: Reminds me of prison escape in the sense that it almost doesn’t matter what the person has done—maybe I should speak for myself—but that we sympathize with them in the escaping regardless. Here’s this character, the mother, doing drugs. We think of drug use as selfish. It’s just self-pleasure, you know, the id out front and center: just give it to me. Yet there she is, escaping from that drug raid. She can’t put on her heels ‘cause she’s gotta be able to run—you’re writing it from her POV—and she’s in her bare feet. She said she could feel the dog’s bark. Love that. I think you’re spare. Seems like, say if we were to write a scene set in this room, you’re going to use just a couple of specific details to give the reader enough grounding. I never once in the whole book, in a scene, felt like I wasn’t well-grounded. I was with her when she was running.

Maybe it’s also me, that gray area, where stuff is not right or wrong, but both. It’s neither, and how do we cut through that and make a life for ourselves. I was with her. Escape the law. I guess I’m partial in that sense, though there are some people who I want to get caught.

Jackson: The personal thing with the doc was for my mother and me to have honest dialogue in our relationship. The issues spring from her drug use.

Rumpus: To do that on camera. In the moment.

Jackson: Yeah.

Rumpus: Good for her. I mean, that’s brave.

Jackson: One thing she told me was, “I hope that our story is able to help someone.”  And the other thing she said is, “These secrets are gonna kill us.” I was like, “Okay, all right. I appreciate that.”

Rumpus: “These secrets are gonna kill us.” You know what gets me, Mitch, is the way we’re all gonna die anyway. I think—no, actually, I know—most people die with a ton of secrets. There’s this whole other universe of all those moments that other people never see, where I’m in the side room… all these acts lost to the world. I guess this is why certain faiths have this idea that it’s all being recorded somewhere, eternal records, the comfort that that gives us. The easy route is to not speak it, to just let it die.

Jackson: Well I knew we were gonna be confronted with this when the novel came out, because it’s autobiographical. I was gonna have to address it, and in me addressing it, she was gonna to be pulled in it.

Rumpus: And readers instinctively want to know what part is fiction, what part real. But also there’s this stereotypical response that novelists get bothered by these questions. Do you ever get bothered by it?

Jackson: I do. I do. With the novel, they say, “Did this really happen? Did that really happen?” I say, “It’s all true if you believe it.”

Rumpus: That’s the Wideman epigraph you drop in there, isn’t it?

Jackson: Yeah.

Rumpus: Which is kind of having it both ways. With fiction, fine. With memoir, I’m one of those who says, “No, come straight.” Because the reward from coming straight, regardless of what it is, that reward is gonna outweigh the tricks and hijinks. Save those tricks for this, a novel, where you can put that circus up.

Jackson: I agree.

Rumpus: So you can understand as a reader, that he wants to know: in memoir, “Is this part legit?” And with fiction, “Might this have actually happened?”

Jackson: I do think that publishers see the autobiographical part of novels as a marketing tool.

Rumpus: They’re borrowing some of the power of both, trying to get the best of both worlds. Underneath this is the guy’s real story. He went to prison. He knows the drug life. He grew up with a mom who was dealing with this. He’s seen it up close—and yet it’s a piece of fiction.

Jackson: Haha, so don’t judge him.

Rumpus: Why not write it as memoir?

Jackson: For two reasons. One is, I wrote the first couple of words of the story when I was locked up—a guy thinking his girlfriend is coming to visit him in prison. I didn’t have a daughter then. When I started out I wasn’t a reader, so I didn’t really even know the genre of memoir. I hadn’t read a memoir. I didn’t know what was available to me. But I did know that fiction existed. The other thing was, it was so autobiographical in the beginning that I didn’t want people to recognize themselves. I didn’t want to get people in trouble. If I was writing about a drug dealer, he was still dealing drugs when I got out, so I didn’t want that kind of problem. Then when I went to a writing program, I thought, I need the latitude that’s in fiction in order to kind of shake this out. One thing I was hypersensitive of was being pigeonholed as a guy who just had a story and could just put the story down and wouldn’t be seen as someone who can write, so I spent a lot of time trying to figure this out. I went to two programs, back to back: Portland State fiction writing program, in 2002; then I came here to New York, went to NYU. But I started writing in prison.

Rumpus: You hadn’t written before that?

Jackson: Never written anything before that.

Rumpus: Was that because prison made you stop on a dime?

Jackson: Well, you know people always think their life story is gonna be this great thing. I was just tired of wasting time, playing basketball, dominoes…

Rumpus: Ball’s no waste of time, man. Some of the finest, simplest moments of my life, the rock and the rim, the beauty of all that.

Jackson: That’s true!

Rumpus: You know they’re making a new He Got Game, Spike Lee and Ray Allen. These are Wideman’s themes, yours, aren’t they? Basketball, young black men, absentee fathers, the inner city, the racist and unequal history of the United States. And the basketball: a really good grounding for it all.

What you said about wanting to be respected as a writer being able to tell a story that people want to read—well, you did it. The Residue Years is a page-turner. You didn’t want to be just a one-off. This is important for literary ex-cons, someone who’s dealing with a story that has that sensation of crime and punishment. It’s a trap to think, Oh, you can tell that one because it’s criminality, the underworld, that secret world of prison that people have illusions about. To be respected as a writer first and foremost.

Jackson: I felt it acutely because I knew that to get into the literary world… I don’t think there’s a whiter industry—maybe finance—than publishing, the literary world. There aren’t many people of color in publishing. I recognized this. When I was at grad school at NYU, in the writing program, there were three or four people of color, just a handful. So I thought, I’m gonna come out with this story, and they’re gonna say, “Here’s another black guy who has a hard-knock story.” So I was like, I have to get to a point where they have to look at this writing and say this is good writing, and he just happens to be telling this story. After I did the first program, I said, “I’m not ready.” That’s when I applied to NYU.

Rumpus: Did you feel your writing getting more and more novelistic?

Jackson: I felt myself learning more and more tools. ‘Cause I had zero tools when I started, not even enough reading to recognize things. By the time I got to NYU I was reading more. I was around other people who were telling me what to read. I was hearing their stories, and I thought, If they wanted to be writers their whole lives, they’ve read all these books, been in these programs, they got BA’s in English, and I was writing from the rear, but I feel like my work is standing up to theirs.

Rumpus: Going beyond it. Because you lived it. Because it’s real. I’ve always had this notion that the writer’s writer was the dude who lived it, and you could see it on him. The stories are lived-in. You’re a little bit of both now, right? You’ve got the story of the streets and you’ve been through these ivory tower programs, and so you’ve had some of each. Clearly you have that talent to tell a story and move someone. It was there. You found your way to it. You found those tools.

Jackson: The reason I wanted to come out here had to do with Gordon Lish. He was Raymond Carver’s editor. He made Carver. He was the fiction editor at Esquire for a long time, also at Knopf, so he published all the great ‘80s short story writers. In Portland, I read about Chuck Palahniuk and he talked about Tom Spanbauer, who teaches a workshop called Dangerous Writing. I started going to some of his classes. Spanbauer was actually a student of Gordon Lish, so his Dangerous Writing came out of Lish’s teaching. This is how I found out about the Center for Fiction.

Rumpus: “Dangerous writing,” I like that. I hate feeling safe and tame and I feel it all the time! That gap between what you really want to say and what makes it palatable to an audience, you know what I mean?

Jackson: Definitely.

Rumpus: I want to get into this with you, because male sex, male lust, male whoring, love of ass and neck and hair of a woman—this is one of those areas. In the novel you even disclaim Champ’s sexual appetite, the way he strays. You say, “Hold up, I’m sure my vagina monologues are tiring you.” I’m thinking, Whoa, he’s really disarming it! I tell my writers all the time to be aware of how they may be coming off. I think it’s more natural to do this in nonfiction, but I see you doing it here, your protagonist-narrator being aware of how he’s coming off. It’s not about being politically correct, or ethical. That’s often boring as hell—that’s not dangerous. I think it’s about being aware as a writer. I see your narrator doing that a bunch along the way. He stops himself, he checks himself, he checks in with the reader. You even break down that fourth wall:

Peoples, peoples, ladies especially, you few sentient gents. Tell the truth, you got to be tired of my vagina monologues. You’ve got to be tired of all this wannabe boss-mack-player talk of pussy and conquests and general female malice. Let me apologize in earnest to those who’ve had it up to here… Trust and believe, trust and motherfucking believe, I’m tired, so tired, of living this talk.

Male sex for me is a bugbear. If I really said what I think and feel, many readers are gonna have trouble with it, I think. This is true for many men. Have you seen this in reactions to your book?

Jackson: That section you’re talking about, where I break the wall and come out and say that, that came out of a conversation with my editor. She said, “Mitch, you really need to be aware of how you’re portraying women. It might come off as chauvinistic.” I went back and looked at some of my descriptions of women and was like, Wow, she’s right. I went back and changed some of them, but I didn’t want to change them all because that’s who Champ really is. So I thought, Let me just acknowledge it.

Rumpus: Intentions and acknowledgements. I talk about those in class a lot. Acknowledgments not in who you thank, but tipping your hat to things, saying in a sense, “Now I know what you’re thinking…” As you go. Really important for a nonfiction writer, I think. I liked it even in your fiction. A critic will say that it’s self-conscious. The plus side is that it’s hugely disarming, and it can save or sort of recalibrate a story that might otherwise be off-putting. Tell me about studying with Lish.

Jackson: In my class there were forty people in the room on the second floor here at the Center for Fiction. Gordon would come in, white hair, he just sits down and starts writing things on the board. He basically lectures for five or six hours and you just listen. You can’t move, nothing. You just listen. At the end he says you have to have a great sentence. It’s all about the sentence. Then the next sentence.

Rumpus: Sounds like he’s focusing on voice, prose style.

Jackson: His two main things are the sentence, and then the thing he calls “your wound.” He says you’re not really writing unless you’re talking about your wound. For a long time I was trying to figure out what my wound was. It’s like the fountain of youth, knowing for yourself what you’re really hurting about, and that’s what you’re supposed to be writing about.

Rumpus: I like it. He’s putting you right in conflict, going into that room with your demons.

Jackson: He’s like a general about this. The first day he says, “Everybody go home and write a sentence. If I like your first sentence you can read two. If I like two, you can read three.” We had to read them out loud. Your sentence has to stand up in the air.

Rumpus: A way to work on a writer’s prose. I’m often thinking of how I can address that—a person’s basic prose style—because sometimes I think in my heart of hearts you can’t teach that, you can’t teach language to a degree.

Jackson: I think you can teach them to be attuned to how they tell it and teach them to recreate that.

Rumpus: You and I have these overlaps, in terms of the teaching. Do you find that as a teacher you can only diplomatically, tactfully point students toward that wound?

Jackson: I taught fiction last spring at NYU and I told them about the wound. When I was giving them feedback, I would ask them, “Is this true? Is this the story you want to tell, in the voice you want to tell it?” Lish is not that kind. He’ll tell people, “Stop it, stop it. Why did you read that bullshit? You knew it was bullshit when you read it. I’m gonna die soon. Why you wasting my time?”

Working with Lish is how I created Champ’s voice. We sat down and worked on this story in Oversoul. I remember reading a part of the story to him. I had this guy who dropped his cigarette and smashed it with his foot. We sat downstairs at a table, and he said, “All right, let’s look at this line. This is pretty pedestrian. I want you to work on this sentence.” And I turned it from “He dropped his cigarette and smashed it with his foot” to “He dropped his cigarette and murdered it with his shoe.”

Rumpus: You have tons of that kind of language in here. It’s fresh. You use these verbs like flit and whirl and flurry into a room. All these active verbs. My guess is that you had a facility for this already.

Jackson: I had an ear. Because I grew up with pimps.

Rumpus: That’s it! It’s part of the culture in terms of storytelling, and even tall tales, even talking smack, singing songs, rapping. The language hops and is interesting. It’s got character. Did you have some of that in your writing before he worked with you? Or once he showed you this, you took to it?

Jackson: I remember sitting down and talking to him about this story I was working on, “Hand Down, Palm Up.” I got to read a paragraph of it in the class when other people only got to read a sentence. He said, “Stop, Mitch, we’ve heard enough. You can do it.” He said, “Jackson, you’ve got an ear.” I heard that, that was it. I had already been through graduate programs and listened to all that stuff, and it was cool, but working with Lish on a sentence level and really caring about having a unique voice, that’s what really did it.

Rumpus: Making the language fresh. Was thinking about this around holiday times: “Happy new year, happy new year.” As a writer it’s my job to rip that up, no? Don’t catch me dead saying “Happy new year.” It’s stripped of meaning. Zombie phrases. Tarnished.

When I read Wideman’s blurb here on the back of your book and he says, “The invented language to tell their stories engages, challenges,” I thought, Is it invented though, or is this the language of the streets, the way they spoke, à la Claude Brown’s classic Manchild in the Promised Land, where it’s got that funk real dialogue. Is your language completely invented, or does it capture some of the essence of the way people you know spoke?

Jackson: I hope that it’s both. I try to take a lot of the language that I heard and then marry it to the academic world.

Rumpus: Non-prison.

Jackson: Yeah, right, for people who’ve got a job, read a couple of books.

Rumpus: You’re using words like “flagellate” and stumping your boy with that. All power to you. You’re both. You’ve got both. Rough question for a novelist, but if you had to put a ballpark percentage on it, how much of Champ is you?

Jackson: How much of what happened to me is in there? Shit, really, probably like eighty percent. Getting robbed. I got busted for a seatbelt and I had dope on me, but I didn’t have my mother in the car.

Rumpus: And the way Champ looks at and feels about life?

Jackson: I would say about ninety-five percent.

Rumpus: You working a new book?

Jackson: After I got my advance I did this e-book, Oversoul, got some nice reviews, some press. My publisher said, “We like that. What about making this your next book?” I’m changing the name of it to Hand Down, Palm Up. My stepdad, who was a pimp, used to say that, when you’re around a girl, “Hand down, palm up.” She’s just gotta give over the money. He doesn’t want to hear from her. I use it for people who are being selfish and aren’t able to recognize it. All my energies, all my resources, right now are being put to, How do I go find black women?

Rumpus: That’s what J.M. told me. You’re lucky number seven. I interviewed him earlier. Plainfield, New Jersey. Rough and tumble. He’s in the hood, trafficking drugs, very articulate, turned his life around. Published urban fiction novels, more than ten now. He was talking about his audience, who reads him. “Seventy percent is black women,” he said. The other thirty is dudes in jail. “Forget the male hero,” he said. And to an extent, the mom in your story is as big as Champ.

Jackson: Smart guy. Yeah, that’s why I wanted to give her equal space. That’s what I told my publisher. I had a meeting at first: my editor, the publicist, the marketer. I asked each of them, “Who do you think is my audience?” And they would answer, and I would say, “No. It’s black women. That’s who we’re going after from here on out.” What was interesting is that none of them said black women.

Rumpus: Do you think that in general publishing is missing out on that demographic, an audience that’s being overlooked?

Jackson: I think they never had the kind of story to go after that market.

Rumpus: When you were writing The Residue Years, were you thinking about an audience?

Jackson: I don’t feel like I was thinking about audience when I was writing. That’s always far back somewhere in your mental space. I know this sounds cliché, but I honestly just wanted to write a book like I love to read. Not just that I wanted to read, but out loud, that I could read aloud and feel good about.

Rumpus: That’s not cliché; that’s a great guide. I saw that idea long ago, from Michael Chabon, I think it was. If I have any guide in my head, I want to find the kind of story that I think is cool. Hopefully that matches up with what other people like.

Jackson: Or you just write it and figure out who’s gonna read it later. [From James Baldwin:] “Art has to be a kind of confession. Discover the terms with which you’re connected to other lives and they discover it too.”

Rumpus: Taking a risk. That whole dangerous writing idea. Don’t waste people’s time. Make it count.

I loved this line in your novel. Champ is looking at KJ after he injures his teammate with a pass, and as Champ you write, “His face, my face from years ago. A boy with something precious knocked clean the fuck right out of him.”

Jackson: Yeah, I was actually thinking of my youngest brother, who I kind of imagined as KJ. Him being about the same age as I was when my mother started with drugs, so around ten or twelve. He had a really bad anger problem, so I started to think, At what point did I start going through my mental anguish? 

Rumpus: Anger due to…?

Jackson: My mom. It really wasn’t the drugs at first, ‘cause I never saw that. What I saw was her leaving.

Rumpus: Was that the precious thing? That safety, the absence of that anger?

Jackson: Having somebody you can depend on.

Rumpus: How is your mom today?

Jackson: She’s doing better. She’s got a job. She’s been clean for a good stint. She’s working hard. I’m proud of her. From what I can tell she’s doing the best she’s done in years.

Rumpus: You stay in touch with her?

Jackson: Yeah, we talk every day.

Rumpus: Beautiful. Going back into your novel, Champ is sitting down with Jude, the real estate dude. I like the way you give the reader the sense of what’s coming, but Champ doesn’t know it. You let us in on that. So they sit down and Jude tells Champ his life story, kind of straight away, and you write: “Show me a nigger with that much trust and courage, who’s that open from jump.”

Jackson: I think that’s what we were talking about—why men can’t talk about their lust. It’s that kind of thing. Another thing I say in there is about white man’s audacity. That’s what it is. You have to be audacious to be vulnerable, and I don’t think that black men are afforded that opportunity. I think there’s something guarded about us because you feel like someone’s trying to oppress you.

Rumpus: But you as a writer seem to have that trust and courage.

Jackson: Well, from a fiction standpoint it makes it easier, because I can be telling the lie to tell the truth and you will never know which one it is.

Rumpus: Gives you an artful cover.

Jackson: But I’ve recognized the kind of power you can have by being vulnerable. So I do try to implement it in my own life. Probably my greatest courage is here, in this book. But at the same time, I have this voice in my head telling me, Hold on, don’t show too much! 

Rumpus: How about this line, loved this one, too: “One of these fools anonymous everywhere but in their own head.”

Jackson: Everybody wants to be important. I just did a radio show a couple of days ago, and I was saying how when people come home, where I’m from they start promoting parties. It puts them in that same area, makes them feel important. They’re still the guy to go to and they think it’s gonna bring them quick cash. The money is almost secondary to that level of importance. I just saw yesterday some guys, who used to hustle in my era, just got indicted on federal charges. Money laundering. And these are dudes with three or four felonies already: attempted murders, aggravated assaults. They must really want to feel that sense of importance to keep taking that risk over and over again and not doing it well, ‘cause they keep going back. One dude just got out from doing like twelve years, and now he’s on the run from the Feds and will be going back soon, probably for a life sentence.

Rumpus: Maybe for them getting caught in itself is a form of the importance.

Jackson: Right, I was thinking that, too. ‘Cause they’re on the news, everybody’s flashing them. Is that five, ten minutes worth another seventy-five years?

Rumpus: You said this in the Residue Years documentary. To understand it. To judge it is one thing. You know, it’s easy to judge it. To say, the dude’s misguided. I feel bad for him and anyone else in his orbit ‘cause they’re getting hurt, too. But to go beyond the judgment and dig deeper into the motivations, which is really where it’s at, to understand why he’s doing it. You speak about this in the doc. How are you gonna get out, better your situation, and pull yourself up? Okay, you’re gonna hustle maybe, go into the drug game. You know you’ll get caught at some point, but you’ll have this period of time where you’ll be the man, and everybody will have your name in their mouth, and that’s worth it.

Jackson: Yeah, for some people it is worth it. It becomes your identity.

Rumpus: Reminds me of these guys in the Victorian era, one of my heroes, Sir Richard Francis Burton, white British man of empire. But this cat had soul, a man of the world. You see this across time, for a man to earn a name, they would willingly throw themselves into the fight, sign up for war, beg to be taken, to even have the opportunity to have your name go down in history. Everyone wants to be recognized, to be seen, even if just for a moment. That plays itself out in a lot of crazy ways.

On the inequality of life, you write: “The lucky ones get more of a life than they’ve earned.” No rhyme or reason to it. Who gets what. That can lead to a lot of spite and envy, right?

Jackson: Definitely, especially in the underworld trade, that’s when guys start telling on each other, you know, plotting. I can think of at least five times where someone at gunpoint took something off me, where I thought I was gonna die. And these were guys I went to high school with. I was going up some stairs once—I must have been nineteen or twenty—and this guy ran up behind me and put a pistol in my back and said, “Just put it down.” I’m thinking, This motherfucker went to high school with me! There was no question about who it was. I knew his voice. This is some fucked-up shit. That dude is also in jail now for two murders. That envy, thinking I was getting more than I deserved. A lot of people thought that about me, because I was going to school. They thought that I wasn’t going to the lengths they would to earn money. I wouldn’t rob anyone, I wouldn’t set anyone up.

Rumpus: You write, when the manager interviews Grace for the job, and Grace thinks to herself, “She’s been through fire and got a soft spot for folks that seen the flame.” I love that line, might be my favorite in the book. The people I’m drawn to are the people who’ve seen the flame. You get burned by life, but getting burned makes the meat tastier. It’s why we cook stuff. Tell me about that line.

Jackson: When I see these guys going to jail—those recent news clips of those guys I knew back home—I was just thinking it’s not really their fault. I have an empathy for their experience because we come from the same thing. We came up in the same era. There’s nothing special about my backstory. No one had a daddy around. Everybody ended up selling dope. How can you deal with addiction and not have empathy for someone who’s dealing with that same thing? If you were an addict and got clean and then you have no compassion for addicts, you’ve lost some of your humanity.

Rumpus: In terms of changing the criminal justice system, I think a lot about methods of teaching empathy. Judges and prosecutors in particular, have them do field training where they spend time in prison, a mock experience, make ‘em feel it. Have them do a day or two in the cell as part of the training. For a lot of them—

Jackson: It would change them.

Rumpus: Right. Give them that extra little pause: Wait, before I judge this person, sentence them… Sometimes I wonder if I’m a bad guy because I have this soft spot for them, wrongdoers, for the underbelly, the judged. That I’m always in this moral gray area. Do you ever feel that?

Jackson: I do. I do. I don’t feel like I’m a bad guy because of it, but I also feel like I can never turn my back on them. I feel connected to them for a lifetime and it’s not just because I went to prison. It’s more because of the culture I come from. I have an uncle that was on death row that got himself off and is doing a life sentence, been in there since like ‘83. He just wrote me.

Rumpus: How did he get it commuted?

Jackson: I have no idea. Lot of law books, twenty years’ worth of reading the law books.

Rumpus: What a story that is.

Jackson: I haven’t thought about writing that, but I’m definitely gonna do some nonfiction. That world is what I come from. If I thought that I was different or better or I looked down upon them, at a family reunion I wouldn’t be talking to anyone. You know, my grandfather, upstanding guy, he did time. Got his college degree after he got out. This was in the ‘50s or ‘60s.

Rumpus: What for?

Jackson: He and my grandmom got into a fight. They tussled and fell down the stairs and she fell on the knife. It wasn’t like he murdered her, but she died that way. He ended up going to prison.

Rumpus: You think maybe being judged—going to trial, being sentenced—does that to a person? In my case, I didn’t face what a black man would face. I’m not up against institutional bias. I’m not automatically suspicious. I’m given the benefit of the doubt at first sight—wasn’t my own country, wasn’t my own society—but still, the lasting impression, I’ll never forget it—when you’re put on trial and strangers in robes tell you who you are and what you are and where you’re gonna go…

Jackson: Court and church, it’s all the same.

Rumpus: That feeling, I’ll never forget. For you as a person now, you can’t judge those people. Yes, they’re your uncles, cousins, friends, but I’d guess it extends even further than that. ‘Cause for me it extends further than that. My instinct is to feel sympathy and empathy for the judged. In my book, the dude who killed his two kids, he became my friend. His story still breaks my heart. You can’t judge another human being, really. Not fully. If you’ve looked into the horrors of your own soul, you can’t judge another person.

Jackson: I got that from growing up in a culture where people are just so flawed.

Rumpus: That’s what I feel like frees me up from so much baggage—instead of judging, trying to understand. You know when you catch people’s eyes, there are all these look-aways. You see suspicions, wariness, doubt, judgments. I like to think that when someone catches my eyes, I hope to god, that I’m keeping myself in a state where they just see my eyes clean, not seeing any of that in me. All the men in prison with you have been judged in the same way. They’ve had that heavy thing come down on them. Maybe seeing that makes us not want to be that way, not want to judge. I don’t want any part in that game.

Jackson: Trying to find the humanity and commonality instead of what sets us apart. I got a part of that from Lish. His piece of writing advice: never put yourself above the other.

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Image of Mitchell S. Jackson and his mother © by Nehemiah Booker. Image of Mitchell S. Jackson and Judge Kantor © by Nehemiah Booker. Image of Mitchell S. Jackson speaking © by John Ricard.


Cullen Thomas is the author of Brother One Cell, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book and one of World Hum's Best Travel Books of the Year. His writing has appeared in GQ, the New York Times Magazine, the Daily Beast, and Foreign Policy. He teaches The Dark Side: Crime and Punishment in Literature at New York University. More from this author →