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Posts Tagged ‘Portland’

Visible Man: An Interview with Mitchell S. Jackson

January 30, 2014 | by

Portland

A still from the book trailer for The Residue Years.

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 »

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A Printer Called Lethem, and Other News

January 9, 2013 | by

  • Portlanders, start your smug engines: you live in the top city in America for readers.
  • James Joyce in Trieste.
  • Turkey has quietly lifted a ban on some 23,000 books.
  • The Lethem printer resides in the college’s library, Crossett, where it is used by students to print papers and assignments. Prior to Lethem, the college printers were called Rumi and Thoreau for no discernable reason, as neither went there.”
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    The Star-Crossed

    November 10, 2011 | by

    A few weeks ago, I went to the local art-house cinema in Royal Oak, Michigan, to see Gus Van Sant’s Restless, starring Dennis Hopper’s son, Henry Hopper, and the sensitive indie-girl du jour Mia Wasikowska. The movie is in many ways a conventional love story: awkward boy meets awkward girl; they both have secret traumas that they eventually reveal to each other; they support each other emotionally when the rest of the world is unable; they have a fight; and then, by the end, they come to a greater acceptance of each other. But one director’s trite structure is another’s fresh material. If Van Sant had made nothing but offbeat romances, Restless might have been boring. But he is one of the most experimental filmmakers we have, and his decision to helm an ostensibly ordinary love story is, itself, anything but ordinary. Read More »

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    Confidences

    October 12, 2011 | by

    Photograph by Aftab Uzzaman.

    If you are a writer with any presence on the Internet, even a very obscure one, you often get e-mails from strangers. Sometimes these strangers are quite eccentric, like the guy who once sent me a short story about men who were enslaved for breeding purposes and fed dog food. So I didn’t give much thought to a cryptic e-mail I got in the summer of 2009 from a person named Innocente Fontana.

    The e-mail contained a few terse words of praise for my first novel. I wrote back, “Innocente Fontana can’t possibly be your real name … can it?” He didn’t respond; three months passed. During that time, I was living off of unemployment benefits and savings from a job I’d recently lost, and I was feeling exhausted. To make a living as a writer, as I was trying to do, seemed impossible.

    In the fall, presumably because he’d read a blog post I wrote about traveling in Morocco, Fontana e-mailed again. This e-mail was longer and mentioned that, decades back, he’d spent time in Tangier. He said he’d known Paul Bowles during that time, that Bowles had become his literary mentor. Skeptical, I probed for more detail. Who was he, really? Read More »

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    Mystic River

    September 22, 2011 | by

    Think of all the takes of all the shots of all the movies ever made. Think of all the scenes and angles and alternate readings and alternate lines that were recorded on film—and then discarded in the cutting room. There are endless reels that have been perused and discarded by editors, never to be seen again. Many filmmakers would consider the discarded material worthless, but I, as an actor who has spent fifteen years in front of the camera, consider all of it valuable. They are the essence of my art. Usually each shot is taken four to ten times and, in the final edit of the film, only one of these takes, or portions of a few of these takes, will be used. At best, only one tenth of my total output is ever seen by the public. The other shots are filed away or destroyed. Sometimes these takes are inferior. But sometimes—as when they feature an actor like River Phoenix in a film like My Own Private Idaho, the best of his generation giving his best performance—every scrap is gold.

    Gus Van Sant made My Own Private Idaho in 1990 and released it in 1991. All the dailies were on film, nothing digitized; when I heard that Gus had held on to the editor’s film rolls, I told him that I would do anything to see them. We spent two days in Portland watching as much as we could. While we were watching, we discussed how Gus’s movies have changed in the intervening decades. His films now are much more spare in story and dialogue; they involve longer takes and fewer cuts. We were naturally led to wonder what Idaho would be like if he made the film now, and Gus offered to let me make my own cut.  It was overwhelming to be able to cut the raw material of my favorite film, a film that had moved me, that had helped shape me as a teenager. The only way I could justify cutting such material was to do what Gus and I had discussed: I cut it as if Gus had made it today.

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