The Residue Years, the debut novel by Mitchell S. Jackson, has been promoted as a fictionalized account of his time growing up as a black man in predominantly white Portland, Oregon. Jackson, celebrating the launch at Greenlight Bookstore, dispels the notion that he wrote a memoir. Its purely fiction. Later he’ll explain why: “I didn’t want anybody to catch any cases.”
Jackson has been to jail, and he doesn’t even mean the MFA program he graduated from at New York University. He did time for selling crack, a drug referenced in the selection he read from. The focus of the reading is on Champ, a protagonist similar to himself (he says he isn’t quite ready to read from the perspective of his female characters yet). Still, Jackson insists the autobiographical elements are only hinted at; this is “fiction disguised as memoir.”
Jackson has been making a documentary about himself and his stories and the making of the book. He showed a trailer of the film before reading and he hopes to show it later in the year at NYU. In one portion of the trailer, he is reading for inmates at the prison where he served time fifteen years earlier.
He was inspired to make the documentary by MTV–its hard to know if he’s serious or joking, but he laughs. He explains that he wanted a film exploring the creation of a novel because its never been done, but “its not sexy sitting in your room with your computer or typewriter.”
He never expected to be a writer. He never really thought about it that way. But he needed something to do and he wanted to tell his story. Eventually, he grew “tired of playing dominoes” and began to write about his experiences.
Jackson suggests writers attend readings and take classes at places like The Center for Fiction, two activities he credits for improving his own writing.
The editor Gordon Lish taught Jackson the importance of the sentence. Lish praised Jackson’s ear for sound. They worked together growing Jackson’s interest in well worded sentences to a seemingly obsessive level.
Jackson reads with the lyrical cadence of a poet, a practiced, experienced voice. But its not just performance. His words are precise. He structures his sentences to achieve a kind of perfection in configuration and sound. He says he cares about sentences’ acoustic value.
“There needs to be emotional currency in a sentence,” Jackson explains, “People will react to that.” Strong sentences take time though. He estimates some of his sentences he has been working on for ten or twelve years. He still would be too if his editor hadn’t cut him off.
Jackson is currently working on stories and essays in addition to the documentary.