Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

"Discovery makes the recollection worthy of being recounted": An Interview with Jerald Walker

by Jordan Charlton and Kasey Peters

Our very own Jordan Charlton and Kasey Peters recently spoke to Jerald Walker about the art of the essay. Walker is the author of the award-winning How to Make a Slave and Other Essays. He will also be judging our Summer Creative Nonfiction Contest. Click here for full details on how to submit.

Jordan Charlton and Kasey Peters: In conversation with Joy Castro, as part of the Writing Brilliant Essays series here at UNL, you said that your own essays tend to begin with something that troubles you and that you seek to understand something from multiple perspectives. Can you describe how you approach that pursuit? How do you inhabit multiple perspectives in your narratives, and why do you think that's important?

Jerald Walker: The essays I like best are ones in which the writer doesn’t dispense wisdom but seeks to acquire it. Often that means looking at or approaching the subject from a view you oppose, or have never fully considered. The essayist Philip Lopate calls this “arguing against yourself,” which is a fancy way of saying playing devil’s advocate. But whatever it’s called, the end result is a narrative with heightened tension and complexity.  

JC/KP: What can an experimental form do for an essay? What does it risk?

JW: One of my favorite short stories is Tobias Wolff’s classic “Bullet to the Brain,” the plot of which plays out, in large part, during the milliseconds it takes a man to die after being shot. It’s a wonderfully inventive story. Essayists, by contrast, too often curb their imaginations in order to prioritize content over style, facts over form. To give my students a sense of the essay’s possibilities, I’ll have them read something like Kiese Laymon’s “Hey Mama, An Essay in Emails,” or Christy Vannoy’s “A Personal Essay by a Personal Essay,” both of which, as their titles suggest, are every bit as inventive as “Bullet to the Brain.” The risk, of course, is that when essays stray too far from convention they are subject to being dismissed as gimmicks or, worse, as falsehoods. But that’s a risk worth taking.

JC/KP: What excites you as a reader of essays? Who are some of your all-time favorite or most influential writers? Why?

JW: I’m excited by essayists who don’t request my attention, but rather demand it. When I’m feeling generous, I’ll give an essay one paragraph to engage me, but usually it’s up to the first sentence. My all-time favorite writers are Albert Murray, Ralph Ellison and James Alan McPherson for teaching the importance of emphasizing the universality of the human condition. But when I feel the need for the literary comfort food, I turn to Denis Johnson, James Thurber, Lorrie Moore, Flannery O’Connor, and Raymond Carver. 

JC/KP: When does an essay move from a recollection to a story for you? What makes a nonfiction piece stick with you?

JW: When a writer moves from recounting events to discovering what they mean, which is to say discovering what makes the recollection worthy of being recounted. I like to see writers thinking on the page, making sense of some experience or idea, a process that invariably deposits them at a place different from where they started. 

JC/KP: You often write about race. In your last essay collection, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, you also write about courage and what might be a future in our racial landscape. How do you approach the challenge of mining a subject like race with such potential?

JW: Race is my favorite subject, not only because it is the abiding concern of American society, but also because it is an effective vehicle for exploring universal themes. I am particularly interested in questions of identity, and my attempt to answer one in particular, Who am I? —and, by extension, Who are we?—is a strong undercurrent of much of my work.  


Jerald Walker is the author of The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult; Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the PEN/New England Award for Nonfiction; and, How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, a Finalist for the National Book Award. His work has appeared in publications such as The Harvard Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Iowa Review, and Mother Jones, and it has been widely anthologized, including five times in The Best American Essays series and in the Pushcart Prizes. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the James A. Michener Foundation, Walker is a Professor of Creative Writing and African American Literature at Emerson College.

Jordan Charlton is a poet, Assistant Nonfiction Editor for Prairie Schooner, and Ph.D. student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he teaches in the Institute for Ethnic Studies. In addition to his academic pursuits, he works with the Nebraska Writers Collective facilitating workshops with high school and incarcerated writers through the programs Louder Than a Bomb and Writers’ Block. 

An MA student in Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Kasey Peters has been a small-scale farmer and occasional schoolteacher for a decade. She is Assistant Nonfiction Editor at Prairie Schooner, and she co-hosts a podcast with poet Katie Marya called “The Tell Don’t Show.” Her work can be found in Pinch, McNeese Review, Nashville Review, Blue Mesa Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and The Chicago Review of Books.

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