Ten Questions for James W. Jennings

by Staff

This week’s installment of Ten Questions features James W. Jennings, whose novel Wings of Red is out now from Soft Skull Press. In this autofictional tale, a substitute teacher, writer, and artist named June Papers finds himself homeless in “New City,” a version of New York City. Despite his “half-a-million-dollar education” and immense talent, socioeconomic circumstances—including a felony record that frustrates his ability to find steady work—have left him with “no real next move except walking and wishing.” Readers follow the loquacious June as he navigates New City’s streets and the characters he encounters there. Some of those characters are students and faculty at the schools where he continues to teach on a substitute basis, the truth of his dire circumstances largely invisible. All the while, June is recording his journey, jotting down his observations and reflections, offering a running, metafictional commentary that at times evokes Beat narratives like On the Road. “Living is quite the adventure, the moon’s whipping around us, we’re ripping around the sun, and we hardly feel a thing,” June writes early in the novel as he cruises through New City’s subway. June’s voyage, however, is no madcap cross-country trip but rather an exercise in survival, one that exposes the flimsiness of American ideals like meritocracy, the value of higher education, and bootstraps individualism. Kirkus praises Wings of Red: “Jennings’ distinct style can be jarring at first, but the reader will quickly sink into his rhythm and appreciate the lively nature of his present-tense verbiage and his quick syntax.” The author of the novel Strays, James W. Jennings holds an MFA from Brooklyn College in New York City and works as a high school English teacher in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts.

James W. Jennings, author of Wings of Red.   (Credit: Rose Margetson)

1. How long did it take you to write Wings of Red
The core of Wings took a little less than a year to write. I’d been training to write a book a year since I was seventeen or eighteen, and Wings was my real go at it. Most of Wings was written in one long, maniacal block of time. I did not know I’d spend thirteen years molding and sculpting it.

2. What was the most challenging thing about writing the book? 
I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately. I have different responses. At first I thought the most difficult part about writing Wings was living through the life I had to live while writing it. This much is true and expressed in the work itself, but the more I feel through it now, and think about those last few edits, the more I’m made aware that the writing itself was also difficult. I struggled with the urge to tame my voice in order to appease America-at-large as the publication date approached, and it felt pretty nasty. There’s nothing worse to me than that feeling you have when you know you’re being fake. I try to avoid that at all costs. Writing is like running to me; I enjoy neither, really, but I need to do both every day to feel healthy and know where I stand.

3. Where, when, and how often do you write?
I write every day. Religiously. My literature isn’t too far from my journaling, stylistically, so I’m always on. I wake up, pray, write my dreams down, go running, run errands, write, create, eat, blah, blah, blah. Repeat.

4. What are you reading right now? 
I am not reading. I’m busy running and writing and trying to be nice to people while folks around me seem to be losing their minds; 2023 has been rough. To be honest, I haven’t found many books lately which speak truth to light the way Wings—or even Strays, my first novel—does for me. As arrogant as it may sound, I’d one-hundred-percent rather reread my own work. Or The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I always reread The Alchemist.

5. Which author or authors have been influential for you, in your writing of this book in particular or as a writer in general?
I love Toni Morrison. Ousmane Sembène, the Senegalese filmmaker, inspired me with his courage and collaborative spirit. Bob Marley. I was born the day following his death, on Mother’s Day in 1981. Lynne Tillman wriiites. Alex Garland, the English novelist and filmmaker, inspired me because he was so young and successful, and I had similar ambitions. Initially I thought he was kind of old, being published at twenty-seven. The Sun Also Rises left quite an impact on me. The Biblical character Solomon and Ecclesiastes. I love Paulo Coelho. I love Amiri Baraka for writing Blues People (now known as Black Music). I got to interview his son Mayor Ras J. Baraka of Newark, New Jersey, and he’s just as dope as his father. I’m inspired by anyone who’s putting pen to page these days. It takes a lot of courage to care enough about what you think and feel to put it down permanently and watch it have to stand the test of time.

6. What is one thing that surprised you during the writing of Wings of Red?
The whole experience still feels otherworldly. I grew so used to writing Wings that Wings being published is perhaps the biggest surprise. It’s hard to remember what was surprising before it was published. Oh, I have it. What was surprising while writing Wings was how much I worried about other people’s opinions and how liberating it was to feel free to be me. The writing when I was in between leases and scraping for every penny felt oddly euphoric and grounding at the same time.

7. Would you recommend writers pursue an MFA?
If it’s free, sure. Why not? If not, tens of thousands of dollars in loans for a fine arts degree in a capitalistic society is not a humane recommendation. Whenever I come across a writer at that stage, I try to gauge if they can’t not write. If they’re obsessed, like most of us writers, it doesn’t matter either way. Otherwise I give them grace and space and hope they have a kid in time to sidetrack them from putting another half-hearted work of literature into the world.

8. If you could go back in time and talk to the earlier you, before you started Wings of Red, what would you say?
I would say, “Everything you’re ashamed of now will become your superpower in the future. Experience is your inheritance. You’re one of the richest people in the world. Everything you’re embarrassed by now will become a gem of honor once you see how powerful truth really is. You are royalty. Learn to love your story. You’re the living dream of your ancestors.”

9. What forms of work, other than writing, did you have to do to complete this book?
I created a nonprofit, 49th Hour Workshop, to publish Wings. I invested thousands of dollars into Wings of Red merchandise (including ethically made clothing, postcards, stickers, shades with little wings on them, and other things). I created worlds and ecosystems for Wings to exist well before I was finished with the first draft; then I had to pivot, knowing it wasn’t time for the book yet and had to find another way to execute the novel. I knew Wings had the potential to change the world because every idea that came from trying to create a safe and nurturing environment for it ended up being somewhat successful. With Wings I was initially a decade too early, but I learned invaluable lessons while working on it. And I still have a lot of the Wings merchandise—which I have a lot of fun giving away.

10. What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 
Ecclesiastes. All of Ecclesiastes is great advice—jaded but true. Also, one day in workshop at the conference organized by the journal Callaloo, Percival Everett told us that we were treating writing like karate or kung fu, and warned us against sticking to so many rules: “Writing is a street fight,” he said. You do what you have to do, basically.