Ah, the kindness of strangers and friends. I’ve been lucky enough to receive both recently. Hearing about Khapil’s notion of “a complete gesture” was helpful when I was struggling to let the book go and let readers and the world do with it as they will. I wouldn’t call myself a perfectionist, but I do have high standards for myself and my writing. Which means that I’m still making corrections to the book as I’m reading it aloud from it these days, even though it’s already printed and between hard covers. Some friends, the Shutes, sent me a copy of Ann Patchett’s essay about being on book tour in The Story of a Happy Marriage, and that’s been a balm too. So has sleep and spending time with friends and family who keep me grounded.
Answer the question.
Is this novel a complete gesture? Yes. Does that mean I’m happy with it? No. But, I think that a certain amount of dissatisfaction is productive for writers and in life.
What’s the most surprising question you’ve been asked on book tour so far?
Are you a Christian? I think that this question comes up because my book is set in a conservative, mostly Christian community in Barbados in the early 1980s. It makes sense, but I was still surprised. I recently came out about my faith in an essay for BuzzFeed Books. So I may stop getting this question, or it may get more layered. Only time will tell.
What’s it like to write for The Nervous Breakdown about a book that features a mother whose mental health is on the decline?
Meta. Surreal. Just right. I read Bebe Moore Campbell’s gripping novel, 72 Hour Hold, that features a character struggling with bipolar disorder, when I was in my twenties. Campbell’s book made visible an experience of black families struggling with mental illness in a way I hadn’t seen before. It made space for the story I tackle in Star Side – Phaedra, Dionne, and Hyacinth’s varied, multilayered reactions to the illness that consumes the mother character, Avril. See also this Vice essay by Fariha Roisin about living with her mother’s mental illness.
What makes you crazy?
Since the book hubbub began, I’ve been offered several rides to crazy-town that I’ve declined. That said, there’s been much more sweet than sour on this ride so far.
What kind of writer do you want to grow up to be? How have your dreams about this changed?
Every year for the last twelve years, I’ve set writerly goals. They never changed and pretty much stopped and started with – publish a novel. Now that I’ve done this, my goals include – publish another novel. I’m also excited about expanding into and returning to other genres – film, poetry.
What did writing this book teach you about your life and yourself? (This question is stolen from John Keene, author of Counternarratives; he asked it at my book launch. I had to repeat it here, because it was so good.)
Stamina. I can write many more pages than I ever thought possible. I can get by on much less rest than I thought I needed. Visiting the dark emotional places that this book required temporarily drained me, but it’s been worth it, both for myself and for my readers.
What can you do now that you couldn’t do before this book came out?
I have an answer for all those well-intentioned people who ask writers: “where have you been published?” Still, I think that writers are such because they write. The publication piece is coincidental, and mostly out of our control.
What’s on your bedside table?
Tanwi Nandini’s gorgeous novel set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh, Bright Lines, and Morgan Parker’s hard-hitting poetry collection, Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night. I keep returning to New York magazine’s feature on Serena Williams (what’s happening with Serena and those ballet barres is almost criminal); it gave me so much insight about persistence and faith. Since reading that essay, I’ve been working on hardening and polishing my carapace, while trying to keep the tender parts that I need to create.
What has surprised you recently?
How little time and attention I have for reading! So much of my life as a writer has been organized around reading – novels and poetry for pleasure and education, sociological and historical texts for research, magazines because I love them. I’m coming out of a six-month long reading hiatus. The good thing is that there are so many books to read. These are just a few of the novels I’m looking forward to circling back to – Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi & The Sea of Happiness, Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper, Annie Liontas’ Let Me Explain You, Lauren Holmes’ Barbara the Slut, and J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest. As far as poetry is concerned, I’m looking forward to digging into celeste doaks’ Cornrows & Cornfields, R.A. Villanueva’s Reliquaria, and Mary Hickman’s This is the Homeland. I’m excited for the release of Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees, Camille Rankine’s Incorrect Merciful Impulses and Sanderia Faye’s Mourner’s Bench in September.
What are you looking forward to?
I love to travel, so I’m looking forward to upcoming book events in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle, Decatur, Athens, Miami. (When I’m in LA, by hook or by crook, somebody is taking me to Santa Monica, my happy place.) I’m pumped to appear at these venues in my beloved borough – AfroPunk, Brooklyn Book Fest, and Franklin Park. I’m also excited about heading to Barbados in November to share my novel, which is set there. Most of all though, I’m looking forward to getting back to writing, bingo dates with my grandma, and play dates with my niece and nephews.
NAOMI JACKSON is the author of The Star Side of Bird Hill, published by Penguin Press in June 2015. She studied fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Jackson traveled to South Africa on a Fulbright scholarship, where she received an M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Cape Town. A graduate of Williams College, her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines in the United States and abroad. She is the recipient of residencies from the University of Pennsylvania’s Kelly Writers House, Hedgebrook, Vermont Studio Center, and the Camargo Foundation.
Photo credit: Lola Flash