January 30, 2014 | by Tim Small
Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, was published last fall and drew immediate notice for its amazing use of language and voice, the cadence of its sentences, and the authenticity at its center. It tells the sweet, sad story of Grace, a recovering drug addict, and her drug-dealing son, Champ, as they both struggle in an African American Portland neighborhood that was ravaged by crack in the nineties.
Critics said the novel was about race, or poverty, or America’s failed war on drugs. Big, social themes. Personally, I disagree: to my mind, The Residue Years is a personal story, a novel about love, redemption, and freedom. Interspersed throughout are a blank form for a rehabilitation center, a police report, a Baptist church member registration form, a petition for child custody—subtle reminders that this novel is also about all the ways in which we are held captive by institutions that, more often than not, fail us. Between these pauses lie some three-hundred pages of beautiful sentences that mix urban slang with pitch-perfect lyricism, resulting in a new way of expressing American English—at least to my European eyes. Victor LaValle agrees: “It’s tough to write beautifully about ugly things, but Mitchell S. Jackson makes it look easy.” Amy Hempel has said that Grace and Champ are one of the fictional families she has cared about the most. And that’s at the heart of Mitchell’s novel: family.
Last month I fired up Skype and talked to Mitchell for more than an hour—I was in Milan, and he in Brooklyn—about his novel, his writing, and the dangers of how books are marketed today.
Your language is a fantastic mix of literary, poetic, lyrical English, and urban slang—it goes up and down and back and forth. I’m curious to know if you tried to bring together those worlds consciously.
I do feel like I’m in the middle there. I have my preliterary experiences in the urban world, listening to a bunch of hip-hop and listening to my uncles, my friends. When I got in school and started reading, I found people who were writing about a similar kind of experience, and whom I thought the canon respected. But I don’t feel like I’m in a tradition. I don’t think I read deeply enough in either field to really know about a tradition. I do have influences—James Baldwin, of course, and John Edgar Wideman. But also Denis Johnson and Barry Hannah. I like to stay in the middle. I think that that tension lets me play around with voice.
What was your starting point for the novel?
I started writing autobiographical scenes and tried to string them together. I didn’t understand the characters’ motivations. It took me years to figure out what they really wanted. I had a premise—mother on drugs, son sells drugs—but that’s not human. Those are just things people do. It took me some time to figure out what the humanity in the characters was. I saw that this story was really about a mother and a son, about their will to redeem themselves from the hurt they’d caused. Once I realized that, I went back and rewrote a lot of stuff. When I started, the characters were so close to my own life that I felt like they had to speak and act and behave like the people they were based on.
Champ and Grace began as avatars of you and your mom?
At the beginning, and then they became composites. But the origin was in truth. Once you realize the characters have a life of their own and you let them do what’s right for them, the work opens up. I wish I were as smart as Champ, but I’m not as smart as him. Read More »
March 28, 2013 | by Tim Small
Alexa Karolinski is an old friend. I first met her in 2005, when I was the editor at VICE Italy, in Milan, and she was a particularly bright intern at the VICE Germany office. Alexa quit VICE a few months after I met her; she then moved to Paris for a while, started working in television for ARTE, met her husband, moved back to Berlin, and then moved to New York three years ago, where she studied documentary filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts. And now she is a film director. Oma & Bella, her first feature-length film, began as her thesis, and was then released in German cinemas after being accepted at the Berlin Film Festival last year. If, like me, you have any sort of fascination with World War II, food, and your grandma, it is an absolutely must-see documentary.
Oma & Bella tells the story of best friends Bella Katz and Regina Karolinski (Alexa’s grandmother), two octogenarian Holocaust survivors among the oldest surviving members of Berlin’s Jewish community, who moved in together when Regina had a hip operation. They spend most of their time cooking traditional Eastern European Jewish food, giving that food to their family, talking about food, organizing dinners, going food shopping, preparing food, washing the utensils they use to prepare food, putting food in Tupperware and freezing it, and occasionally taking a break from the food in the form of an amble to the park or the cemetery. With a delicate grace and a warm sense of humor, Alexa made one of the most touching portraits of an elderly couple―and of Holocaust survivors―I have ever seen on screen.
A few months after the movie was released, we collaborated on The Oma & Bella Cookbook. That is to say: when Alexa told me she wanted to make a cookbook that would collect the movie’s recipes, I begged her to let the Milan Review design it.
I recently got on Skype with Alexa to talk about her movie, grandparents, and food.
So, tell me—exactly when did you decide to make this movie?
It began about three years ago, when I was living in Berlin and decided that I wanted to learn how to cook. At the time I couldn’t cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs and I decided that one day, my children—the children I don’t have yet—should be able to eat the food I grew up with. Therefore, I needed to learn that from my grandmother, and from her best friend, Bella, who she lives with. So I started cooking with them and then I kind of decided very quickly that it wasn’t enough to just cook with them, that I would have needed to write down the recipes and make a cookbook out of it.
It must have been daunting.
Yes. And they don’t cook with measurements—they go by eye—so I had to learn how to cook with them and invent the measurements just by watching them cook. So basically I started this cookbook project, and within that cookbook project I was looking for a visual landscape. And one day I kind of decided, knowing that I was going to go back to film school, to rent a camera and, just for fun, film them. Then I cut a two-minute teaser out of that, just to teach myself how to use Final Cut. And then, when I moved to New York, I showed this around, mostly just to show some friends how much I love my grandmother and how amazing she is. And people were like, This is gonna be your thesis film, and I kind of thought, Yeah, I guess it is. Read More »
March 7, 2013 | by Tim Small
10:00 A.M. Having just quit my job (well, not just quit, but still) to dedicate myself to “my own projects,” I have the great luxury of being able to sleep until ten every morning. It’s disgraceful. I eat bread and butter and drink a cup of tea while I watch last night’s NBA highlights.
11:00 A.M. Yesterday I gave a copy of Train Dreams to my special lady, mostly because I started reading it again and it’s just a perfect-perfect gem of a book. I read more of it on the subway as I make my way to VICE Italy, my old office, where I have to pick up two pallets of new Milan Review books. They are both comics and they will both be presented at BilBOlBul, the independent comics festival in Bologna. One is the Italian translation of Prison Pit, a hilarious and ultra-violent graphic novel by Johnny Ryan, which is like a mixture between violent mangas, wrestling, and a twelve year old’s brain. I decided to title it Il pozzo di sangue, which literally means “the well of blood.” The other is called Rap Violent in the Ghetto Street and it is a collection of dumb, satirical comic strips about rap and new-age philosophy (but filtered through a weird take on Italian popular culture) by Dr. Pira, an Italian artist who specializes in terrible drawings with an amazing sense of humor. It’s very hard to explain to Americans, but Italians seem to get it. Read More »
October 16, 2012 | by Tim Small
Jim Shepard is the author of six novels and four short-story collections. In a departure from the typical trajectory of the American writer, however, his novels came first: graudally, he has, by his own admission, become more and more drawn to the short-story form. And what short stories! His subject choices are bold, strange, almost stunning in their range: the love story between two gay engineers on the Hindenburg; a Roman scribe sent to man Hadrian's Wall; the inventor of the Godzilla epics. His narrator might be the Creature from the Black Lagoon or Aeschylus at the Battle of Marathon or John Entwistle or perhaps a British explorer searching for a sea in the middle of the Australian desert. A lot of his stories are set in the world of sports—baseball players moving to Cuba during Castro's revolution, football players, mountaineers, a Yugoslav soccer player who moves to Ajax Amsterdam during the sexual revolution. And yet, despite such a range of subjects, each story manages to feel true, the voice credible, the world evoked uncannily, so much so that the reader often feels like he's stumbled upon these character's private diaries.
I recently edited and translated a collection of Jim's stories for an Italian publisher, and I decided to focus on those stories that had, more or less, some sort of connection to sports. The reason for that is simple: I have never read stories set in that world that manage to evoke it as well as Jim's. Also: I like sports. I called Jim up on Skype, from my ex-girlfriend's kitchen in Milan, Italy, and asked him a few questions about short stories and sports.
In translating your stories, I started resenting the way you write, because it forced me to do so, so, so much technical and historical research, decipher so much lingo and jargon. It really was the most laborious translation I’ve everdone, and it really hit me just how much work you put into a single story.
A different writer would take that kind of work and make a novel out of it. He’d make that much groundwork last three or four years.
My friend Ron Hansen, the novelist, always says to me: “You’re crazy! You know, you did eight months of research and all you got out of it is a story. I would get a four-hundred-page novel and make a lot more money.” But part of it is also that, you know, it doesn't feel like drudgery to me. If I’m reading about these subjects, it’s because I’m strange enough to want to be interested in them anyway. So the idea that I have to read yet another book about volcanology doesn't make my heart sink. It makes me think, “Oh, good, I get to do that!” You know?