Mitchell Jackson on The Residue Years and His Own Story, Fictionalized

While The Residue Years, a riveting debut novel from Mitchell S. Jackson, may be a work of fiction, as the author explains in our Bibliostar.TV interview, it’s highly autobiographical, as well.

In a story similar to Jackson’s own, The Residue Years tells the story of a young man named Champ and his mother, Grace, a drug addict just out of rehab in Portland, trying to stay clean and put her family back together. Thrust into a position of having to support his family, and with dreams of a happier life and home, Champ turns to selling drugs, perpetuating the negative cycle while the dream, tantalizingly close, remains just beyond reach.

The cover of The Residue Years provides a glimpse of the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, with the words, “A Novel” crossed out. “I just thought that it spoke to what I was trying to do,” Jackson explained, “using my life as a breeding ground for my fiction.”

Jackson’s own mother gave her approval to her son to mine their family story for his novel. “I was really worried about how she would respond to it. I used to call her and read passages,” he said. “What really gave me the courage to tell more of our story, was when she told me, ‘it’s time for us to tell the truth. I hope this helps someone.’ And so when she said that, I thought, I can just tell the truth now. It’s not going to hurt her. And that was really it.”

Jackson’s prose has earned comparisons to Junot Diaz‘s immediate, streetwise style, and the book has received kudos from no less than John Edgar Wideman. Of The Residue Years, Wideman wrote, “I was touched by characters whose lives were often as real for me as my memories of growing up.” A recent New York Times review was equally effusive: “Jackson’s prose has a spoken-word ­cadence, the language flying off the page with percussive energy.”

Jackson’s own journey from drug dealing and prison to NYU adjunct professor and published author has been filled with an incredible cast of mentors, teachers, and supporters who encouraged Jackson’s writing and gave him the self-confidence to keep pushing. “I knew it was going to happen, I just didn’t know when,” Jackson said. Besides Wideman, whom Jackson met after taking a class with the author, Jackson caught his first break when he was accepted into the writing M.A. program at his alma mater, Portland State–a program run by the author Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Birds of Paradise, Crescent and others books.

Later, he took a writing workshop at New York’s Center for Fiction with the storied literary editor and writer Gordon Lish (former editor to Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah or Amy Hempel, most notably.) As Jackson explains, aspiring writers aren’t given much leeway in the infamous editor’s class, with students frequently halted in mid-first sentence by Lish while reading their work. “I was the only one of 40 people that got to read one sentence. It was the happiest writing day in my life, to be able to read one sentence in that class. And then the next class, I was again the only one who got to read one sentence. And the first thing Gordon Lish said to me was, ‘Jackson, you got an ear.’ Once I had him, all of the rest of it became, “when is it going to happen.”

Jackson is also at work on an accompanying documentary for The Residue Years. In an interview with the online site, The Skanner, Jackson said, “I always used to watch behind the scenes of an album—the making of Nelly’s first album or something and I was always intrigued,” he says. “And I was thinking to myself, no one had really done that for a novel.” The documentary will include behind-the-scenes features on the process of making the novel as well as background on the Portland Jackson grew up in the 80s and 90s that also appears in the book.

The Residue Years speaks to the sadness of broken dreams, but also–as Jackson’s own story attests–to redemption, love, and the possibility of hope.

Related Video

Trailer for Mitchell Jackson’s first book, Oversoul: Stories and Essays

Recorded at Book Expo America, New York, 2013.



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