Interview with Kiese Laymon

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Kiese Laymon 2017 Fiction Contest Judge

By Marian Kaufman and Nora Seilheimer

Kiese Laymon is the author of the award-winning novel, Long Division and a collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. He has written essays, stories, and reviews for numerous publications, including Esquire, McSweeney’s, The New York Times, NPR, LitHub, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, PEN Journal, Ebony, Guernica, and he is a contributing editor at Oxford American. His memoir, Heavy, and a novel, And So On, both from Scribner, are set for publication in 2017 and 2018, respectively. Kiese Laymon earned an MFA in Fiction from Indiana University and is currently a Professor of English and African American Studies at the University of Mississippi as well as a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Nonfiction at the University of Iowa.

We spoke with Mr. Laymon about what it means to embody a character and to write to a specific audience.

In Long Division the characters’ unique voices jump off the page, and the narrative of time travel is both complex and thrilling. Would you talk some about the most difficult and enjoyable aspects of writing this novel? 

Thanks for this question. It feels so long ago. The most fun and terrifying parts of writing that book were really sitting in the bodies of those young black children. I had to sit there and look behind their eyes, feel behind their skin. They’re funny kids, but they’re tough kids with huge imaginations. So I had to really see what they were hiding, and why they were hiding. That was fun but really scary. They’re so young, and so unaccepting, in a way, of death and destruction. They just refuse to believe the world is how it has to be. The books were never meant to be read smashed together. There were three books meant to be read one another after another, so when I was asked to smash them together, it got hard and strange.

In your essay “You Are the Second Person,” in the collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, you write about the difficult process of publishing your debut novel, Long Division. Could you talk about your commitment to the ideas in Long Division, and why you refused to compromise its message? 

Well, I compromised a lot, but I wouldn’t compromise when an editor told me to take the racial politics out of the book. That really was the end for me. I realized the editor didn’t respect me or my vision, though I understand why they made such suggestions. I wasn’t going to write a book based in Mississippi about black children being written off the face of the earth with no racial politics. That would be like writing a book based in the forests of Montana with no trees. It’s a cool concept, but it’s bullshit. With all these other books being written with little to no racial politics, I couldn’t figure out why I’d imitate one of the biggest failures of American literature.

In How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, you used actual letters, emails, and eulogies from your real-life relatives and friends, messages originally intended for a small audience. Will you talk about the process of putting those voices into a larger, cohesive work?

That’s a great question. I wanted my book of essays to come out first, and I wanted it to be filled with voices. Kanye’s The College Dropout was really an inspiration because of all the voices he uses in that text to create one piece of seamless work. I wanted to do that with my first book. Aunt Sue’s pieces came as one huge letter. I broke it up. Kai, Mychal, Darnell, Marlon and I wrote letters to each other, too. I also think all humans are made up of a ton of voices, and I wanted to get a lot of my own voices in the piece.

What audiences did you consider while writing your essay collection, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America? How did thinking of these different audiences influence the final product? How do you continue to consider audience while writing?

I wrote to the people or characters who are actually in the book. Sometimes some of those characters are on the front row. Other times, they’re in the balcony. White men never got the front row of any of those pieces. That was necessary if I wanted to tell the truth, and tell the truth how I wanted the truth to the sound.

When I think of audience, I think of who I most want to respond to a piece. That person or group of people is the audience for me. In the Uncle Jimmy, I most wanted to hear him respond. In the essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others,” I most wanted to hear how all those murdered black kids would respond. Often, like in my new work, I flip up audiences within a piece, too. That’s a lot harder, I think.

You have two books forthcoming from Scribner, a memoir, Heavy, and a novel, And So On. How do they converse with your previous work? Are you exploring any new territories in content or style?

Yeah, they are really new. Heavy is the hardest thing I’ve ever written in style, context, expectation, genre, everything. It’s a memoir, but it’s a whole lot more. That book scares me. It’s scary to write about what’s been done to your body, but scarier to write about what your body has done to make others vulnerable. And So On owes a lot to Long Division for what it taught me. It’s far less ambitious in form, but far more ambitious in terms of character and subtext.