Three Questions and A Quote: Novelist and Nonfiction Writer Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson, award-winning novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer

Mitchell S. Jackson has become a force in U. S. literature and journalism, as well as an outspoken advocate for, and critic of, his hometown of Portland, Oregon. His evocations of Portland’s Black community life, in both fiction and nonfiction, have garnered national attention and numerous awards. In recent years, he has become a major figure in magazine writing, winning both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Magazine Award for his profile of Ahmaud Arbery in Runner’s World and, more recently, profiling other important Black figures and writing about vital national issues as a columnist for Esquire.

For a full bio, see below.

Mitchell S. Jackson

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing yet?

MSJ: Good question. I don’t know if I’m qualified to answer that question, but for me, I love writing about the Black experience in Oregon. It was something I didn’t read about growing up. I’m interested in recording the history of Black people. In revealing or reifying the value of our experiences. I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that much of the writing about Oregon reflects its demographics, which are overwhelmingly white. We need voices that aren’t represented in the area in great numbers. We need stories about groups that get pushed to the margins, silenced, forgotten. Not just Black people but any group that fits that description. I’m interested in pushing against the master narratives.

Martin Luther King Jr. mural in N. Portland, image from The Guardian

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

MSJ: At least ostensibly, my writing is narrow in scope. Mostly, I’ve written about Portland. Not Oregon at large. Not the Northwest. And to be more specific, I’ve mostly written about the Black community in Portland. That said, I believe in that microcosm I am able to write about things that are universal or at least not limited to Black people in Portland. We aren’t the only ones who’ve faced housing discrimination. Aren’t the only ones who’ve had to deal with a problem of youth violence. We aren’t the only ones whose community has been wracked by mass incarceration. We aren’t the only ones who created culture out of our oppression.

WNW: What is your favorite book about the Northwest and why do you like it?

MSJ: My favorite book about the Northwest is Fight Club. I love what Chuck [Palahniuk] does with voice. Love how he captures the anxiety of a generation, captures men’s fascination with violence. I love love love those Tyler Durden monologues. And then there’s the surprise at the end, which testifies to how well it’s plotted. That book is so good. So, so good. And the fact that he wrote that book while in Tom Spanbauer’s Portland-area workshop makes it more special to me. That book is a tie with Jesus’ Son. Among other strengths, the poetry of that book’s prose is unrivaled. I read it every year or so just to be reminded of what prose can do. That book is magic.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

MSJ: It’s the opening of Survival Math. It’s written as a letter to Marcus Lopius, the first Black man on record to step foot in what became the state of Oregon. Writing that essay pushed me to research more of my home state’s history, and let me tell you, it was revelatory. Something else: I can’t talk about that essay without mentioning Dr. Darrell Miller of Portland State (Go Vikings!) to whom I’m indebted for making me aware of Lopius and other important elements of Oregon’s history. In the essay, which is titled “Dear Marcus,” there’s a point at which I write about the beginning of whatever significant Black population Portland has:

“Scores of us can trace our roots in this city, the Rose City, to the 1940s, when one of our kinfolk from down South peeped a Help Wanted ad in their hometown paper, packed their life into bags and-or suitcases, and caught boxcars called the Magic Carpet Special or the Kaiser Caravan into Portland for a chance to build a new life working in one of Henry Kaiser’s shipyards. Those relatives locomoted into the City of Roses and found a hovel or shacked up with friends or relatives or in some cases slept on the pool table of a tavern and washed their private parts in a squalid bathroom. Or else moved to a slapdash development dubbed Kaiserville and renamed Vanport City. No matter the shelter they found, they could feel gratified building Liberty ships that would help the Allies beat the Nazis while clocking more dough for work than they ever did where they came from.”

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Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award in Feature Writing. Jackson’s debut novel The Residue Years won a Whiting Award and The Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. His essay collection Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family was named a best book of 2019 by fifteen publications. Jackson’s other honors include fellowships, grants, and awards from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, Creative Capital, the Cullman Center of the NYPL, the Lannan Foundation, PEN, and TED. His writing has been featured on the cover of the New York Times Magazine, the New York Times Book ReviewTime, and Esquire, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Guardian, and elsewhere. Jackson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Esquire. He holds the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professorship in the English Department of Arizona State University.

More links:

Mitchell S. Jackson website

Pulitzer Prize webpage about Mitchell S. Jackson’s award

Review of The Residue Years in The Guardian

Review of Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family on the NPR website

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Three Questions and a Quote: Novelist and Screenwriter Jon Raymond

Northwest author and screenwriter Jon Raymond

After a brief break over the holidays, Writing the Northwest is back, and I’m pleased to start the new year with a new feature and one of my favorite Northwest writers, Jon Raymond. Raymond is the author of an award-winning story collection, an essay collection, and four novels, including Denial (2022), a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award in Fiction. He has also coauthored several films, including the HBO mini-series “Mildred Pierce” and the remarkable “First Cow.” Most of his work is set in the Northwest. See below for a full bio and links to his books and films.

Three Questions and a Quote is a new, occasional feature focused on the thoughts and work of prominent Northwest writers.

Jon Raymond

WNW: What aspect of the Northwest do you feel hasn’t been adequately addressed in writing (or film) yet?

Aerial shot of Hanford’s 100-D Area along the Columbia River (Image courtesy of

JR: Well, I don’t entirely want to let this one out of the bag because I hope someday to get there myself, but I think the life of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation is something worth addressing in fiction. The people and culture of Richland, Washington—the scene of American’s Cold War plutonium production—could be turned into a gigantic story of secrecy, intrigue, little league baseball, PTA politics, etc., etc. I have some ideas, though the atomic science part is very intimidating. In general, the high plains desert of the NW is pretty under-imagined. 

WNW: How would you characterize your approach to the Northwest in your own writing?

JR: I’ve always thought of my approach, if you could call it that, as a kind of earth art. I’ve mentally roved around the region and tried to divine what kind of stories would be appropriate to different landscapes. It’s partly a geological thing, but also socio-historical. What kind of story turns the scene of Ashland inside out? What kind of story could only happen in La Grande? I’ve really been guided by this dowsing method to the point where I’ve started to exhaust the main reservoirs, I think. 

WNW: What is your favorite book (or film) about the Northwest and why do you like it?

Atop Seattle’s Space Needle (scene from Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula and starring Warren Beaty)

JR: I’ve heard Charlie D’Ambrosio call Ken Kesey’s Sometimes A Great Notion the Odyssey of Northwest fiction, and I’d totally agree with that. Charlie’s books aren’t too shabby, either. I also love The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin, which captures a very different but also very Northwestern mood. “Mala Noche,” the film by Gus Van Sant, based on the story by Walt Curtis, is pure poetry. And then, as far as catching the subtleties of Northwestern light, I’d put the “Parallax View,” shot by the great Gordon Willis, way up top.

WNW: What is one of your favorite passages about the Northwest from your own writing?

I don’t think I could answer that. None come to mind, anyway. There might be some passages early in The Half-Life, my first book, that name certain impressions that’ve stuck with me. I sometimes feel myself repeating them and I have to find other ways to get the feelings across. 

Photo by Eberhard Grossgasteiger, courtesy of

(Since Jon has demurred here, let me offer a brief passage from one of his Northwest-set novels, Rain Dragon, to give you a sense of his sharp and lovely prose: “Off in the distance, a fir-covered ridge was resolving into view, mist caught in the black trees like torn cotton. The fog kept thinning. In the still-dark basin of a valley, a river of headlights became visible. The highway.”

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Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-Life, Rain DragonFreebird, and Denial, and the story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He also published a collection of essays called The Community: Writings About Art In and Around Portland, 1997 – 2016. His screenwriting credits include Old JoyWendy and LucyMeek’s Cutoff, Night MovesFirst Cow, and Showing Up, as well as the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. He was the editor of Plazm Magazine, associate and contributing editor at Tin House magazine, and served on the Board of Directors at Literary Arts. He lives in Portland, Oregon with his partner, the writer Emily Chenoweth, and their kids, Eliza and Josephine.

More links:

Newsweek review of Jon Raymond’s new book, Denial (“[A]n enthralling new novel that reimagines the current climate crisis and questions the moral obligation that humans have to each other in a future dog-eat-dog world.”

2023 Oregon Book Award finalists

Trailer for “First Cow” (“A wondrous origin story of the American dream.”–Indiewire)

Kelly Reichardt (director and co-writer with Raymond of several films, including “First Cow”)

Note: I am an affiliate of, where your purchases support local bookstores. If you purchase a book through a click on this website, I will earn a small commission that helps defray the costs of maintaining