Mitchell S. Jackson’s debut novel, The Residue Years, won the Ernest Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. Among other jobs, Jackson has worked as a dishwasher while serving time in prison, stacked newspapers, written scripts for television news, and freelanced extensively. He is a now a clinical associate professor at New York University. His memoir, Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family, will be released in March. Here’s how he made ends meet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Medium: When you were growing up, what did going to work look like?
Mitchell S. Jackson: My mom had a lot of different jobs. A department store, an office job. The job I remember most was when she was the receptionist at the local black newspaper. I could go into the office and talk to the publisher. They knew my name. But for most of my life, my mom was on public assistance and didn’t work. My dad was a hustler, either pimping or selling drugs. There was no going to work, just a lot of us hanging out. My grandfather worked at a railroad company for what must have been 35 years. I lived with him when I was in high school. He got up, ate breakfast, and always went to work at the same time every day. He was the measure of what the working life looks like.
Were you a reader or writer as a child?
I guess when every other writer was reading in bed with a flashlight or going to the library, I was at King School shooting jumpers or Irving Park working on my dribbling. All I wanted to do was go outside and play basketball. I put in a lot of work. Maybe because basketball was only thing I knew that I could do when I got a bit older.
Was basketball your path to college?
I thought I was going to play Division 1 basketball. It didn’t work out. I played at junior college, where the coach told me about an academic scholarship for minorities. I was like, “I [just] want to play ball.” And he said, “Yeah, but sooner or later, no one gets to ball anymore. You’re a smart guy. Get your college paid for.” So I ended up at Portland State, on that minority achievement scholarship. Meanwhile, I had already started selling drugs.
Did prison interrupt college?
Yeah. I was a junior at Portland State. I think I was arrested in ’96 and I went to jail in ’97. Friday the 13th. I do remember that.
Tell me about that.
The prison was minimum security. It didn’t have any fences. I think it was an old farm. My dorm was probably 40 guys in bunk beds. Your cellmate, I guess, is your bunkmate. I had an old pimp named Tony. He had done, over his life, probably 20 years. We got taken out of our intake on the same day, on the same bus, and ended up in the same prison. When we got off the bus, people were leaning out of the prison windows going, “Tony! Tony! We knew you’d be back! Welcome back, man! You want your old job?”
I guess he’s one of the first people that I can call a mentor. He took to the role immediately, looked out for me. If a person had a reputation as someone who could get you in trouble, Tony would say, “I don’t think that’s a guy you should be hanging out with.” And he’d tell me what was going to happen. Where I wanted to go, what kind of job I’d want.
We had a little bookshelf in my dorm, probably 10 or 20 books. I read those books, then I started writing my life story.
What job did you get?
The first job I got was dishwasher. It was the worst, because people would come with their trays half-eaten, just throw them at you. I did that for a little while, then I worked in a ward at the Oregon State Hospital, the mental hospital from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. That was cool, because you got to leave the prison. It was only five or six of us, and we could move around as we wanted. I did that job for like three months.
Prison is where you first started to write. Tell me about that.
I did a lot of letter writing, which forces a kind of introspection. Letters to my girlfriend. Friends. My dad. My mom. All the people I cared about and anyone who would write to me.
I remember being on sanction because I had an illegal do-rag. I couldn’t go to recreation, couldn’t go to yard. I was on my bunk most of the day and didn’t have anything else but writing. And I was getting out in January. I remember thinking I needed to do something that was going to prepare me for returning to school in September, because I didn’t want to lose a semester. Guys in prison are always saying, “I wish someone would write my life story. It would be a bestseller.” So I thought I’d start writing my life story. I was like, “Should I write this as nonfiction or fiction?” Then I thought, “You need to write fiction because you don’t want to get anyone in trouble.” But I didn’t know how to write fiction. I couldn’t remember reading any novels.
So is it safe to say you started reading because you wanted to figure out how to write your own story?
Yeah. I was a writer before I was a reader. I came to reading because I wanted to be a writer. We had a little bookshelf in my dorm, probably 10 or 20 books. The ones I remember — and maybe this is because she was the only black author — were Terry McMillan books. I read those books, then I started writing my life story. I had about 60, 70 pages of that when I got out.
When you left prison, you said, “I made the decision to stay out.” Tell me how you did that.
I moved right back in with my girlfriend, who worked all the time. I was in college and had a crew of friends either in college or college educated. If I was hanging out with them, there was very little chance that I would end up in prison. So the decision to stay out of prison was mainly — when my money got messed up — not going back to the drug dealers and saying, “Let me get something.” I got a part-time job stacking newspapers at the Oregonian. I started selling a little weed. I lapsed on my insurance. I took out payday loans, pawned my Rolex Submariner and my diamond earrings. I did whatever I could to hold on, because I knew that if I touched any cocaine, there was a really good chance that I’d go back to prison.
Once you were back in college, did you take writing classes?
At that point, I didn’t want to be a writer. I just wanted to publish the book. So I put it on hold, got my undergrad in communications. Then I called up the local news anchor, who got me an internship at the CBS affiliate. I was a news assistant, writing scripts. That was the extent of my writing for probably a year and a half.
Did you just call the station and say, “I want to be a news anchor”?
One of the few black anchors in Portland used to play basketball with us on Saturday mornings. I said, “I read that there’s an internship. Can you tell me how I go about it?” He told me who to go talk to. I did that for two years, seeking out mentorship from the anchors and asking questions, going on news stories with them. The second year, I got a writer job at the agency affiliate. I was writing scripts and running the teleprompter on the overnight. That’s where I saw that Portland State was starting the MA program in creative writing.
How did your writing change during the MA program?
When I got there, it seemed everyone had read so many books. I remember thinking, “You’re so far behind.” But when I saw what they wrote, I thought I could catch them.
The only thing I ever worked on while I was there was the novel. Never turned in a story that wasn’t a chapter. But between the first and second year of the MA, I realized that I didn’t have the skill set to get published. So I looked up the top MFA programs in New York, because that’s where the publishing industry is. By summer, I finished my MA at Portland State, and I already knew that I was starting NYU’s MFA program that September.
Did you still want to work in news?
By this time, I realized I didn’t want to be an anchor. I didn’t want to have to wear a suit every day. And I’m still scared to be on camera, because I’m worried people will know I went to prison. Because I haven’t told anyone. I’m thinking, “I could get on TV, and then my career could be ruined because I’m an ex-con.”
How did you support yourself during school?·
About the same I time applied to NYU, I had gone to a summer writing program called Hurston/Wright. There, I met Marie Brown, who is like the fairy godmother of black publishing. She had said, “If you come to New York, look me up.” So I called her. She saw that I had a master’s and told me I should think about teaching, then gave me a number to call to set up an interview. So I did. I went up to the College of New Rochelle’s Harlem campus, and the woman there said, “Well, Marie Brown sent you over here, so you’re hired.” I started teaching, but only making like $1,100 for one class. I still had to make a living. So I started freelancing.
I would literally run out of one class, hop the train, and be like two minutes late to the second class. Run from there. Hop a train to arrive one minute before the next class.
How did you find those gigs?
Basketball is great. A friend from Portland and I used to play basketball with these guys who ended up buying Vibe magazine. One of them worked at a magazine called Upscale. And my friend is like, “My boy is a writer.” So I started doing little stuff, like $150, $200, $300. I met some other people, started writing for the Source. A couple pieces for Vibe. I’m introduced to a writer who was going to write a whole issue for this bikini magazine called Smooth, but his father passed and he had to leave really quick. So Smooth gave me the whole issue to write. I stayed there and kept working for like two years, becoming what they call the “editor at large.”
Were you still writing fiction at this point?
I finished NYU in 2004 and kept going on the novel. But I was doing a lot more freelancing than I should have been, working a lot less on the novel. And I was adjuncting everywhere. NYU. Medgar Evers [College]. John Jay [College of Criminal Justice]. There were days where I would teach at three or four different schools. I would literally run out of one class, hop the train, and be like two minutes late to the second class. Run from there. Hop a train to arrive one minute before the next class. I did that for eight, nine years.
How were you protecting your writing time at this point?
There was not enough time to protect the writing, but I kept a journal. I scribbled notes on the subway. I carved out weekends or the summer. But summers are stressful as an adjunct, because you’re not getting paid. I guess that is part of why Residue Years took from 1999 to 2013 to become a published book.
Today, you’re on the faculty at NYU and published. What do your days look like now?
I teach undergrads in the liberal studies program. I’ve been faculty for three years. I teach four classes, which is not advisable. Anyone should avoid doing that. My first class is at 8:00 a.m. Monday and Wednesday, I teach pretty much straight through, then hold office hours. I guess my writing process is to sit at my desk for as long as I can whenever I have any amount of free time. I do a lot of revision and writing in the summer and on weekends. This summer, there were weeks where I was writing 12 to 15 hours a day, only stopping to eat. I did that over Christmas break, too.
Since publishing, I think the struggle is to balance how much time I put into this novel that I have already made — meaning interviews or essays or literary events — versus how much time I spend working on the next thing. I’m still struggling with that. You [have to] figure out how much time to put into being a writer and how much time you put into being an author.
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