Mitchell S. Jackson amazed a group of 10- and 11-year-olds with a simple fact.
“What if I told you I’ve been working on this book as long as you’ve been alive?” Jackson asked, prompting gasps from the fifth-graders who crowded the classroom floor on Friday.
“I’ve been working on this book,” he paused for effect, “for 16 years!”
That was too much for some in the room.
“How old are you?” asked one boy, incredulously.
The book is called “The Residue Years” and it is the 2014 recipient of the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence. The novel is based, in part, on Jackson’s experiences growing up in a Portland, Oregon, neighborhood fraught with violence and drug use. It follows a mother and former addict trying to steer her three sons away from drugs.
Now a resident of Brooklyn, New York, the 39-year-old Jackson was in Baton Rouge to accept the award.
Along with the $10,000 prize, Gaines Award winners must speak to school groups. Jackson spoke to three elementary schools in Baton Rouge, one on Wednesday and two on Friday, finishing in Cheryl Donnelly’s classroom at Westdale Heights Academic Magnet School .
“I hear we’ve got a lot of scribes in the room,” he said, looking around with a smile. “This is where I want to be.”
Like a video game aficionado who plays until his hands ache from working the controls, Jackson said he wants to read until it is painful.
“I want my thumbs to hurt from turning pages,” he said.
Jackson said he starts his stories in the middle of things, like an action movie. He tries to withhold information from his readers, as much as he can, to keep them wanting more but not so much that it angers them.
He comes up with his first sentences but quickly tries to think of his last ones too. The idea is known as “recursion,” where seeds of the ending are found in the beginning.
It doesn’t always work, though. Then, he said, he has to revise, a painful process of remaking key parts, sometimes the entirety, of the story.
He has two big writing weapons. One is a small red journal he keeps with him at all times and on which he writes ideas he hopes to use later. The other is a stack of index cards filled with new words he runs across that he wants to remember.
Jackson held up his current journal. He said has piles of similar journals back home. Inside each, he writes that he will pay someone $25 to someone who finds it. He said he’d pay more.
“I have lost one before, and it felt like I lost my arm,” Jackson said.
Afterward, Erin Regan, 10, a budding writer herself, said she can relate. She keeps her own journal in which she writes her own stories.
“I’d feel like I’d lost my arm if I lost that,” she said.
He then asked the class how many words one should know. One boy answered, “a multitude of words.” Another boy on the other side of the room, answered, “copious words.”
“I see a little competition,” Jackson interjected. “He’s trying to one-up you, ‘Multitude.’ ”
Jackson finally his own answer: “Just one word short of your brain exploding.”
Afterward, Brandon Patterson, 10, said he loved seeing a writer in person. But he’s not sure how Jackson can withhold information from the reader. That’s not how he himself writes.
“I never tell just a little information,” Patterson said. “I want to tell everything I can.”
Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.