Mitchell Jackson Has an Excellent Jump Shot
Mitchell Jackson is a writer from Portland and a protégé of legendary editor Gordon Lish who has what his brother calls a “James Jones-style jumper with great form.” He’s also the creator of two kids, the owner of a great smile, and has the ability to...
Mitchell Jackson is a writer from Portland and a protégé of legendary editor Gordon Lish, which kind of means a lot in and of itself. Mitch is also the possessor of an excellent jump shot (which was described to me as a “James Jones-style jumper with great form” by his little brother), the creator of two kids, the owner of a great smile, and the ability to make up sentences that are much better than any others I’ve read recently. He also claims authorship of Oversoul, an e-book of piercing essays and amazing short stories that was published a few months ago. We loved it. A lot. We loved it so much that we excerpted the title story and ran it as a centerpiece of our annual Fiction Issue. I’m complimenting him so heavily primarily because I like him and his writing so much, but also because I’m kind of needy and like to be thought of as a nice guy.
Mitchell is currently hard at work on a new novel that’s going to be out next summer for Bloomsbury and will probably kick all your other books’s asses.
VICE: What is your memory of Portland? I imagine the Portland we all know and make fun of today is pretty different from the one you grew up in, right?
Mitchell S. Jackson: Yeah, definitely. I go back about twice a year, or maybe three times in a year, and the area I grew up in was an area you would never go—you definitely wouldn't be caught there after dark. Now it’s an area with coffee shops and people walking dogs and bicycling and, you know, boutiques. I think what I remember most was everyone playing basketball around me, wanting to make it out of there playing basketball, and then probably after I was about ten years old, crack hit really bad. It was in that area where all the drugs were.
So you remember that happening, the crack explosion.
It's funny you mention basketball and crack in the same sentence. I was just talking the other day with my friend about Len Bias. When he died... man, that was such a defining moment for contemporary American culture. The effect of such a hyped basketball player being cut down by cocaine a couple of days after the draft...
It was symbolic, but not only.
You know that was the moment that pushed Congress to actually change the crack cocaine laws.
It wasn't just a big moment in the sense of his death. Thousands and thousand of men got really long sentences, essentially because Len Bias died of cocaine overdose.
You were pretty good at playing ball, right?
Yes, I played in high school and I played in junior college, I probably could have kept going but I decided that just wasn't my avenue. I didn't feel passionate about it the way other people around me did.
Was this parallel to a new first start and you being interested in writing, or did that come later?
You know, I wasn't interested in writing at all when I was young. I was a good student, but I wasn't great. I didn't read and write until I was in my 20s, really. I went to prison when I was about 19 years old, and I read a couple of books in there, but there wasn't anything available, it was like Terry McMillan books, and we didn't have a library. I read a few pieces, and I decided, I'm bored, so I just started writing some stuff down. You know everyone in prison thinks their life story is the greatest life story of all times, so I just wrote those down on loose leaf, and when I came home I was like, I'm gonna do something with this. But I just let it go and went back to school. So I would say I didn't get serious about writing until I was actually in a graduate writing program.
At that point you were like, OK I'm gonna do this writing thing for real?
I had graduated from for my bachelors, and I thought, “Man, it must be really cool to have a Master's degree.” It didn't have anything to do with writing. I thought, “Damn, I could get a Master's, they said I could write, so I should just apply!” So I called them and they said, "Well, the deadline has passed, but if you could get some papers to get the application in a week or so we could consider you." So I scrambled…I hadn't written any fiction in my life, so I bought a book on how to write fiction and I bought James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain. And I read the book on fiction and I wrote ten knock-off pages of Baldwin and I called them back and I said, “Man, I don’t have the 20 pages, but I got ten and I got the application. Could you take this and I’ll get the other ten to you by next week?” and she said OK.
You had like a layaway program for the writing.
Yeah, exactly. And when I called back she said I was in.
Has the James Baldwin thing remained for you? Is he still your guy?
Yeah. I’d say so. He’s still the guy because he’s not only fiction but his non-fiction's amazing, too. I teach a lot of his stuff.
So when you were scrambling to finish that application and you picked up Baldwin was that because someone had recommended him or you knew him already?
You know what, I don’t even know why I picked him up. I must have had a recommendation from him because no one required me to read Baldwin while I was in college. No, it wasn’t the internet because I didn’t google him. I don’t know why I picked him up. Someone must have told me about him.
I think one great thing about Baldwin is how he manages to make his very specific experience incredibly universal. Like I felt like I knew what he was talking about even if my life couldn’t be more different from that of a homosexual African-American man in the 50s.
I mean, it’s such a different life and yet it feels so true, it's doesn't matter. It's a classic, in that it transcends what it is and becomes more, I guess.
But what made you think you could do this as a living? As a job? Was it Gordon?
I took a class with him and then he kind of singled me out as someone with promise and once he singled me out, that was it. Like, you know, I respected him on a sentence more than anyone else. And so once he said, “Mitch, I think you can really do this, like I think you can be one of the ones that they remember.” That was pretty much all I needed to have to confidence to do it.
I imagine that would give a person confidence. Were you a fan of his work as an editor and a writer?
Yes, I came to him really late but I studied with Tom Spanbauer, who was a student of his, and he’s in Portland and so that’s how I found out about Gordon. But then I started reading Barry Hannah. And once I started reading Hannah I was like, “Ah, man, whoever helped him do this…. This is amazing stuff right here.” So I was a fan. Big fan.
Me too. Have you internalized his kind of exacting critique? Are you that tough on yourself?
Most definitely. Like, I will work on a sentence, for, I’ve spent half a day on a paragraph. Easy. My hope is not only to write something that means something but that it has some kind of acoustic value and if it doesn’t, then to me it’s false. I’ve got that ear always in my head.
It’s incredible how musical your sentences are. And how you approach each sentence in its own way, and in every sentence you can see that there’s work in it. You can see that it’s also…it’s literary but at the same time colloquial. I was wondering how much of your own experience you put in that? Not only in terms of plot but also in terms of language.
I think I got this from reading James Baldwin's famous essay... Well, I didn’t get it directly from him, but I’m aware of it a lot more since reading Baldwin's If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is? The idea of who makes the rules on what is a language and what isn’t and what’s respected and what isn’t... it's arbitrary. So, I’m always trying to include something that kind of goes against the power structure: “Oh you can’t put that in there. That’s not how people talk, they’re not going to respect that in the literary world.” But I put it in there. And it also happens that that language is my native language so I’m always trying to include those themes.
How important is it to you to make sure that even with all this literary, conceptual work on the language and on the sentence, that it ends up sounding kind of... true?
That’s the most important thing! If I do all this work and it looks like I just did all this work, then I failed, you know? A good story sounds like someone talking to you and telling you something. Like overhearing someone tell you something—that’s the goal, sure. Do it. But don’t let them see you’re doing it.