Not Your Average Memoirist: Six Questions with Jeremy Jackson10/09/2012
Jeremy Jackson isn’t your typical memoirist. He grew up in rural Missouri and had a mostly happy childhood, unspoiled by the drug addictions, abuse, or financial hardship we’ve come to expect from the genre. His focus, instead, is on the ordinary hard times we’ve almost all faced—the death of a loved one, the fade of a fledgling romance. And yet he evokes the events with a bittersweet clarity, expansive tenderness, and uncommon wisdom that transforms the everyday into the sacred and the personal into the universal. In I Will Not Leave You Comfortless, Jackson chronicles his unforgettable eleventh year, when he lost more than a girlfriend and a Pinewood Derby race. He lost his innocence.
Here, Jackson talks about unboxing his childhood memories, not seeing the weather, and almost getting married in fourth grade.
Milkweed Editions: In the memoir, you take the freshman composition maxim “write what you know” to a whole new level. How did you remember the past with such clarity?
Jeremy Jackson: I wrote Comfortless in part as a way to discover and understand a fuller version of the family’s story than I understood at the time, as a boy. Sort of a “write what you know” plus “write toward what you want to know.”
My memory of my childhood is good, but the book creates an illusion that I remember it spectacularly well. Luckily, I had access to a trove of family documents from the time I was writing about. My most important sources included items like my family’s daily calendars, my grandmother’s journals, and dozens of dated and labeled photographs. But I had many, many more things, like a tape recording of my grandmother’s funeral, my sister’s journal, notes girls at school had written to me, and the notepad that sat at my grandmother’s hospital bedside for months. Additionally, my parents were excellent sources, because they recalled many events that I wasn’t even present for.
So my research helped immensely in recreating a fuller version of the family story than I remember.
While writing Comfortless, what was a once-lost childhood memory you unearthed that was especially pleasurable to remember?
There’s hardly a page of the book (at least the ones where I am present) that doesn’t have some tidbit that I retrieved from the deep reaches of memory. The time our little black cat rode on top of the car to town, for example. Or how I built my Pinewood Derby car backwards that year, and didn’t realize it until the night of the races. Buying earrings for the girl I had a crush on. The way my grandmother would give me cut-up brown paper bags to draw or paint on. Pick a page and I’ll point out something that I had semi-forgotten but recovered during the writing of the book.
In the memoir, life-changing events like your grandmother’s death are presented alongside less weighty memories like losing the Pinewood Derby. As inconsequential as the latter may seem, the experience can be just as memorable as the former. Why do you think everyday experiences loom so large in childhood?
Oh, the world is fresher when you’re a kid, isn’t it? Or, really, you’re fresher, and the things that are happening to you—big and small—are being etched right into your brain.
I think one of the things the book does is show how the generations—of any family—move forward inexorably and simultaneously. One of the structural tensions in the book is the contrast between my grandmother’s story (the older generation passing on) and my sister’s story (the younger generation coming into maturity). The stories in a family can be both sad and triumphant at the same time. During the writing and publication of the book, I also got married and became a father, so I entered a new life stage, and this made me appreciate and understand my parents’ roles as the middle generation taking care of both the younger generation and the older generation.
Comfortless is as much a story of your family as it is of everything in your environment—volatile summer storms, fresh cow’s milk, wild pink mulberries, the smell of Missouri soil. How does place influence you as a writer and as a Midwesterner?
For me, setting is one of the most important and dynamic parts of a story. I love the Midwestern landscape and weather. I lived on the East coast for six years, and I was constantly frustrated that I couldn’t get a good view of the sky or horizon through all the trees and buildings. I couldn’t see the weather! I couldn’t see storm clouds coming, which was upsetting a) because you needed to see them coming so you could be prepared and b) they are beautiful.
In one particularly comic scene, you’re standing in the schoolyard, waiting to get “married” to Toni Renken, a girl in your class. In retrospect, if you could live the crush all over again, what would you do differently?
I still find the concept of our semi-arranged playground marriage to be hilarious. A few years ago I talked with one of the girls who helped organize the “wedding,” and she recalled that she and some of the other girls got into a little bit of trouble over the whole thing. I think the teachers didn’t like them playing at being grown ups so literally.
But really, it just wasn’t meant to be. You can’t force a thing like that.
Read the first two chapters of I Will Not Leave You Comfortless and learn more about Jackson’s extraordinary, atypical memoir here.