Interview with Margaret Wilkerson Sexton

MSW photoBy Marian Kaufman

Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, (Counterpoint Press, 2017) was published  to wide acclaim. The novel follows the interwoven paths of three members of the same New Orleans family in 1944, 1986 and 2010 as they each struggle to claim their own definition of family and success. A New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice selection, Sexton’s standout debut went on to become a 2017 National Book Award Longlist Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book of 2017. Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, born and raised in New Orleans, studied creative writing at Dartmouth and law at UC Berkeley. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in The New York Times Book Review, Oprah.com, Lenny Letter, The Massachusetts Review, Grey Sparrow Journal and others. She lives with her family in the Bay Area of San Francisco . 

We spoke to Sexton about using setting to form narrative, the significance of hope in the reading experience, and what has shaped her most as a writer.

Your debut novel A Kind of Freedom follows three characters from different generations of a New Orleans family. You intersperse each of their timelines set in 1944, 1986 and 2010 in a way that informs your readers of other characters’ trajectories at pivotal moments in the plot. How did you create this structure and what effect did you intend for it to have on your readers?

Before I knew what the individual plot points of each storyline would be, I knew the book would end with the grandparents’ wedding. I considered writing each narrative in a block instead of alternating between them, and even then I would have put the chronologically oldest story last. An editor told me the stories worked better interwoven though, and I came to agree with that. My intention with the structure was to create a false sense of hope for readers. In many cases the reader should know how major aspects of the story turn out because they are privy to future generations’ perspectives so early on, but still there’s hope despite itself, and I thought that experience might demonstrate on a visceral level what it would feel like to be in the circumstances that inhibit my characters’ lives.

Your reader could draw a map of New Orleans solely from reading A Kind of Freedom. Neighborhoods and street names are integral parts of the story, and you include an incredible amount of physical detail. What did your research process look like? Did you know from the beginning you wanted to set the novel in New Orleans or did it come to you later?

I always knew I wanted to set the novel in New Orleans. I’m from there, and I know the city better than I know any other part of the world. Also, there aren’t too many other cities where the economic and social decline of an African American family would have been credible. Though I’m from there, I still needed to do extensive research. I read a lot about the effects of World War II, the particulars of the Jim Crow South, Hurricane Katrina’s effect on the geography of the city, and how the city’s landscape shifted over time. I talked to people too, family members, friends. Much of my research on T.C.’s character was anecdotal. I have cousins who are that character’s age and who live similar lifestyles, and talking with them about their language and experiences contributed indispensably to the book’s authenticity.

Who or what has shaped you as a writer most? An experience, a place, another writer?

I would say the experience of writing my first novel, which was never published, but which I worked on for four years, transformed the quality of my work and really solidified my resilience, dedication, and commitment as an artist.  Through that four-year period, I played around with various forms, perspectives, and styles. I read, I went to conferences, I worked with editors, and, though that was an unbearably frustrating period, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because all the revisions and rejections were teaching me how to tell a story, not only that but how to be patient and wait for the right story to come along.

What are you working on now?

I’m hesitant to talk too much about it because it’s ever changing, but it will explore themes of assimilation, mother-daughter bonds, and relationships between black and white women. Like A Kind of Freedom, it will also be multigenerational.