I had figured out a way to avoid saying his name for fear that I’d mispronounce it. I had heard his name in an NPR interview but I kept tripping up on it. By the time he answered the phone I had already forgotten the script. “This is Key-es-ay Laymon,” he said, gently correcting me. Damn it.
Kiese played it off for me. He got our conversation going by asking me a bunch of questions: Where was my family from, did I like my job, what was Toronto like. We chatted for almost 2 hours and by its end, I starting wondering how I could take an English class with him. But since they say no one reads on the Internet, I’ve edited down our chat for you, below.
How did you get into writing?
Kiese: My mother had me when she was 19 and my father was like 21 or something. She was a student, and when she had me, she was really into books. She ended up becoming a teacher and she made me read before I could do anything. She’d make me write responses to what I read. It’s cool now, I can talk about it and laugh, but at the time it was so brutal because she would make me read and write essays before I could read what I wanted to read. She was all into me reading canonical stuff that she read coming up – and I’m talking about like when I was a kid. If I wanted to read a nice little autobiography for kids about Langston Hughes, she’d make me read Treasure Island for like the 13th time, first. And I definitely had to read before I could go outside and play.
I realize it’s such a privilege to grow up surrounded by books because it made me not fear books. I didn’t fear chapters, I didn’t fear paragraphs, I didn’t fear sentences, I didn’t fear words.
I started writing really early. And because there were so many books around, I wasn’t intimidated by it and I always wanted to do it better. Unlike you, I didn’t read a lot of stuff I liked. But the few things I read that I liked, I cherished, and read them and reread them. I think that’s when I really started to become a writer – it’s when you start to look at the things you like and check out how it’s constructed on the page. Then I just started writing and investing in revision. Man, I just feel so lucky about that.
Is there a Black, southern writing community – one that you’re part of or can identify?
Oh yeah. The reason I went with Agate Bolden [to publish Long Division] is because they published Jesmyn Ward’s first book, Where the Line Bleeds and they also published Leonard Pitts. In my mind, I was always in conversation with those people even though I had not met them. But I had read Where the Line Bleeds, I had read Salvage the Bones, I had read everything Leonard Pitts wrote, so I felt like those people were in my writing community. I felt like they were imagining me as a reader as they wrote.
Beyond that, there are people like Charlie Braxton. There people that I read before, who know me just from my online presence, and I write to them and I think they write to me. Mychal Denzel Smith is another.
Is it important for you to self-identify as a Black southern writer? Because I noticed it’s in various iterations of that bio that’s floating around.
And publishers and them keep taking that out to not alienate readers. But you know, I wouldn’t write, I wouldn’t want to write, I wouldn’t feel written to, were it not for Black and southern – and even from Mississippi – writers.
It sounds cliché, but I feel completely responsible for that tradition and I feel completely responsible to that tradition. And, I think I’m writing things now that younger people might read and I want them to be able to call it, to be able to name it. To say, “Kiese Laymon wrote this, that and that,” and that he’s a Black southern writer. And I want them to be able to call themselves Black southern writers. But that’s me – that’s the tradition I’m responsible to the most and I’m not going to run away from that.
Do you have a writing process?
I have a schedule that I don’t break except on Saturdays. I write for two hours before I go to bed and for two hours when I wake up.
Wait, this is every day?
Everyday. Because I’m not good enough to not do it. I’m not good enough to write when I want to write. Two hours goes quickly if I’m revising. But two hours goes really slow for me if I’m creating and I’m one-on-one with that white space.
Yeah, tell me about that white space…
Wheeeeew. It’s the first thing I do in the morning because it’s like the screen to my consciousness is widened in the morning. And I do it at night because especially with fiction, I want the last thing that I do before I sleep is to be interacting with my characters and places. I love to write before I go to bed, especially if I am exploring and finding the characters and conversations and psychologies that I hadn’t thought of before, because then the shit just bleeds into my sleep and those people actually become people in my dreams.
When I was reading Long Division, one of the thoughts that stuck in my head was that the writing felt easy.
That’s like the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about something I’ve written. I’m so thankful that you said that because it was the complete opposite. If you feel that way then I’ve done at least one of the 12 things I wanted to do. Because, you know, those two characters, they’re writing too. The point is that the orality and the writing are so intertwined it was really hard to read. Actually, some people have told me that it is hard to read – particularly people who aren’t versed in this kind of lit and those kinds of characters and slang. So I hear that a lot more than I hear that it “seemed easy.”
Where do you get the courage to speak openly about race?
You know, I’m from Mississippi and –
I love that you started with that.
That’s the first thing. Our state is filled with people who taught us that you have to be willing to say it if you want to reckon with it. The other thing is, I’m afraid of a lot of things. I’m afraid of flying, I’m scared to ask a woman out. I’m scared of a lot of things, but I ain’t scared of White people. I ain’t scared to talk about race, and I ain’t scared to talk about how race has fucked them up and how it’s fucking us up. And I think that’s because, well, my grandmama love me, I know my Aunt Sue love me, and I know my mom and my father put a lot of work into me. And I know they think I’m beautiful. So I’m not going to be messing around and writing around shit when I know I’ve got to get this shit out and try to deal with it – especially with essays. And again, being from Mississippi, so many people have tried to do this work I just don’t know how I would look calling the color pink the color blue. I got to call it what and how I see. I might be wrong, but I know if I’m sitting around lying, we ain’t got no hope. That question’s easy.
So, how do you teach writing?
Who’s your favourite writer?
Okay, so think about who Gloria Naylor is. Gloria Naylor practices, she practices writing. So if your favourite writer has to practice, you got to practice. Because we aren’t anywhere near as good at writing as our favourite writers are.
Some say you can’t teach writing – you can’t teach talent, you can’t teach vision. But I do know that you can teach people healthy and imaginative techniques. And I know you can teach people to read as writers. And that’s the main thing – you got to read everything, every book in your hand, you got to read it as a writer. Yes, that means the reading experience can become a little less pleasurable in the way that we want it to be. You have to start thinking about the way sentences and paragraphs are constructed.
I have kids who read a lot, and yet the first story or essay that they write, they won’t even indent the shit right because they read a lot but they haven’t thought about how indentation, quotations, and description work. And then the other part is the harder part, which is convincing them that the stuff in their mind – the stuff that they’re most afraid of – is probably the stuff they should try to write through. That’s how I feel – the places you least want to go, the characters that you are most afraid of allowing to talk, you got to start there. And so if I finish my class and my kids haven’t created The Great American Story, I’m good. I want them to be better people though. I want them to be more thoughtful and more passionate and compassionate and I want them to need writing in order to understand the world more. And if they need writing and reading to understand the world more, and they can write at least a dope paragraph that probes, I think that’s pretty successful.
If you had to put together a bucketlist of five books for other people, what would be on it?
The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward