Naomi Jackson burst onto the scene with her acclaimed debut novel, The Star Side of Bird Hill (Penguin Press, 2015). The brilliantly observed story of three generations of Caribbean women torn between Brooklyn and Barbados, it was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, the NAACP Image Award, and more. Naomi’s work has appeared in Tin House, Poets & Writers, brilliant corners, Obsidian, The Caribbean Writer, and—today!—the rooms of Ace Hotel New York.
As this month’s Dear Reader writer-in-residence, Naomi was invited by Tin House to stay at Ace Hotel in Manhattan, where she penned a letter to an audience of strangers. Her letter has been kept secret until now, when it will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Naomi to talk freedom, letting your characters win, and putting away the phone.
TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be? And why?
NAOMI JACKSON: I’d correspond with Sula from Toni Morrison’s novel of the same name, Antoinette from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, and Lucy from Jamaica Kincaid’s novel of the same name. My correspondence would be about liberty and freedom—what it takes to be a free black or Creole woman, whether liberty is something that’s possible, and if not, what you do with the bits of freedom which you can access.
Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?
I work in a variety of ways. Usually I begin a novel by trying to find my way into the story, which means letting my characters talk and lead me where they want me to go. Then I inevitably hit a wall where the initial thrill of a new project peters out and I use mapping and outlining to help guide the next phase. The work often goes in directions that I never expected. Characters say and do things that surprise me, and then my job as a writer is to respond in an intelligent way; usually I let the characters win, but not always.
Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?
I almost never think about my audience when I write, so in a way, Dear Reader is a perfect exercise for me, as it’s about writing to a stranger, which is so often what my work feels like. When I’m editing, I do think about audience—there’s a flip that switches from thinking about what pleases me most as a writer to considering how the book might be received; in particular, I find myself thinking about how the work will be received by Caribbean and Caribbean diaspora communities. But allowing the audience into the room during the writing process leads to censorship, which is a sure and sudden death for creativity. I don’t find myself too surprised by who is drawn to my work as I think that there are openings in it for a wide variety of audiences.
What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?
I wish that more people knew about Shay Youngblood’s Soul Kiss and Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold. Both of these books were so important to my early formation as a writer and a person, and I don’t think that they are read or celebrated nearly enough.
Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process?
I usually pray before I write to open myself to the best writing possible. I put my phone away in a drawer that I’d be too embarrassed to open before my writing time is up.