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This is the first of what I hope will be an occasional series of short interviews with authors with new books out that are worth your attention.
Jeremy Jackson has written three books of fiction; two young adult novels under the pseudonum Alex Bradley; and a pair of cookbooks, one of which, The Cornbread Book, was a finalist for the James Beard Award. He attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (graduating in 1997; I met him in Iowa City when I arrived there a couple of years later).
I Will Not Leave You Comfortless is Jackson’s first memoir. “The eleventh year of life brings Jeremy Jackson his first love, the loss of his grandmother, and his sister’s departure for college—seemingly ordinary events that erode his innocence in a way that will never be fully repaired. With storytelling informed by a profound sense of place and an emotional memory startlingly vivid, readers young and old will be transported and transformed by this coming-of-age tale.”
Q1. The level of detail in this book is extraordinary, and it creates a deep sense of a very particular time and place. The reader can see that this isn’t just a few memories that you dashed off; you researched this book. It includes any number of quotes from family letters, notes, and journals. How did you go about that research process, and what did it feel like to research your own life?
JJ: First off, thanks for asking these great questions, Nick.
The amount of documentation that my parents have kept from the time period is, well, somewhat preposterous. In addition journals and letters, they kept meticulously labelled and dated photographs, the family calendars that hung on our bulletin board (you know, the calendar with all our dentist appointments and PTA meetings on it), my school papers, cancelled checks, hand-drawn maps of our garden from each year, records of what my parents gave us for Christmas each year, and so on and so forth. I also interviewed my parents at length, and they were tremendous resources.
So, yes, it was a bit odd to be researching my own life, but it was also fascinating, because I discovered things I wouldn’t have remembered on my own, and I also discovered “intersections” between my ten-year-old-boy life and the lives of my other family members. For instance, the night I went on a raccoon hunt with my fellow Cub Scouts turned out to also be the night my grandmother had so much pain from her yet-undiagnosed disease that she got out of bed very early. My friend Craig and I stayed up super-late at the post-coon-hunt sleepover, so probably my grandmother and I overlapped—me up late, she up early. Additionally, my mother and eldest sister had a big fight that night and my sister also got up very early the next morning to drive an hour to go take the SAT test. So I was able to write this big multiple-POV chapter about this night, thanks to the sources I had. I wasn’t guessing or speculating about things based on memories, I had documentation. If this book were an academic book, it would have five or ten footnotes on many pages.
Q2. Was there a particular moment when you knew you needed to write this book?
JJ: In 2003, my mom emailed me a transcript of about three decades of our family calendars; this got me thinking about 1983 and 1984 and how our family changed that year. I started writing, exploring that year. But I had no experience in writing memoir, so I didn’t really know what the heck I was doing, so I took the chapters I’d written (which are indeed the first three chapters of the book) and showed them to Frank Conroy, the late director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, because he’d been an important teacher for me, a fan of mine, and because he’d written a famous childhood memoir of his own.
I asked Frank, What is this I’ve written? Where is it going?
He said, It is what it is, it’s going where it’s going, and you have to write this book.
I took that as a commandment.
Q3. You are a successful novelist and, now, a memoirist — you must know the strengths and weaknesses of each genre very well. If you locked fiction and memoir together in a cage in your mind and made them fight, which one would win?
JJ: It’s a draw! Boring, but true. Though perhaps the prevailing view is that memoir has been ascendant in the past couple of decades and fiction is in a bit of a holding pattern, I don’t see that either genre has any objective advantage. It’s a bit of a muddle anyway: memoir can contain a lot of fiction, and fiction can contain a lot of fact.
I personally like to read fiction more than memoir, and I also happen to think that there are many more “great” works of fiction in the world than “great” works of memoir. Or is this just me? I can easily name twenty amazing novels from the past hundred years, but I’m hard pressed to name five amazing memoirs….