Here’s a confession: It’s tough, close to no-way-no-how, for me to write something without first giving it a name. Why?
Names have always helped my ideas cohere (or at least transform from inchoate to an emerging form). Names have made me think about the pressing thing or things I want to say, and have helped me consider my reader: What do they need from the language, the characters, the story?
That being said, my novel has seen a few name changes. The first name I gave it was Luminous Days (there’s even a tattoo on my forearm to honor it). Not too long after I’d been released from prison, the place where I wrote the first few words of what I envisioned then as a fictionalized version of my life story, I happened upon a profile of James Salter in my local newspaper. Days later, I bought and began to read Salter’s famous novel A Sport and a Pastime, which begins, “September. It seems these luminous days will never end.”
When I read that line way back when, I was struck by the word luminous. For one, the title fit what I believed was the base hope of my characters—a brighter future. For two, no one I knew used the word, and because of that it had the air of intelligent diction and was writerly (it meant everything to me back then to sound like a writer). Even when I didn’t know what literary fiction was, I didn’t want—or rather, couldn’t afford—a title that typecast my work. Let’s keep it real, you’d be hard-pressed to find an urban fiction/street lit book called Luminous Days.
That title would’ve made the finish line if I hadn’t scrapped my initial idea of using a single first-person narrative. The new title was Letters to the Dead and Convicted, and the idea was that the narrator would tell his story through letters, some to a friend who was murdered and others to a fictionalized version of the godfather of crack cocaine, Freeway Rick Ross.
I was so psyched about my idea that I tracked down the real Freeway Rick Ross in federal prison and persuaded him to correspond with me. But yep, you guessed it, after drafting a few chapters of letters, I abandoned the idea. I didn’t have the skill to pull off an epistolary novel. So there I was, not only title-less, but also unsettled on how I’d tell the story.
Then one day in 2008 I was on a plane reading a GQ article on designer Marc Jacobs. In the article, Lucy Kaylin wrote that Jacobs “forges tight, obsessive relationships with people who can handle his compulsive need to share the residue years of therapy.” I must have read that line a gazillion times before I underlined it, sat back in my seat and smiled to myself. There was my title waving its hand at me, a giant neon hand.
The word residue was freighted in what I have come to call my former life. I know a thing or two about drug addiction, and a thing or two about small-time drug dealing as well. To be more specific, my mother struggled for two decades with drug addiction, and me, well, I peddled dope off and on for close to one of those decades.
Back then, when a smoker (that’s one of the things we called an addict) would get down to the last of their crack, they’d scrape the resin out of the pipe in the hope of procuring one last blast. Because of that, the word residue symbolized a sense of desperation, how addiction could fell a human being, symbolized the part I played in dozens, maybe hundreds, reaching that low.
The other major reason why the title seemed fitting was because of my mother’s struggle. Her struggle is why the title includes the word years instead of days. Though they say addicts live day by day, it seemed such a slight to measure a battle of two-plus decades in that increment. Or maybe what I mean to say is, I wanted to emphasize how the days made years, and those years were an era, the most affecting of our lives.
Let me end with one last conceit. Soon after my novel became forevermore The Residue Years, I realized how I would tell the story, a story I had discovered was not mine, but ours: my mother’s and mine. It was then that it occurred to me to divide the novel between two characters. It’s been the story of a mother and son’s—of Champ and Grace’s—not-to-be-forgotten era ever since.
Mitchell S. Jackson was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. In The Residue Years, his autobiographical debut, he portrays another side of a town known for bicycles and yuppies with the story of Champ and Grace, a mother and son whose struggles with drugs threaten their close relationship. Jackson, who has an MFA in creative writing, currently lives in Brooklyn.