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