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Putting together a publishing slate is like planning “a dinner party that’s just for me,” says Chris Jackson. The recently named editor-in-chief and publisher of Random House imprint One World, and the most prominent African-American editor in publishing, casts a glance at an eclectic bookshelf in a sun-dappled conference room that includes such best-sellers he’s edited as Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside and Jay Z’s 2010 hit Decoded.
“It’s my perfect dinner party, and I like to think there are other people in the world who would like to be at the party, too,” says Jackson, 44. The Harlem-raised New Yorker — who attended Columbia, started out at textbook publisher John Wiley and spent the past decade at Spiegel and Grau — is sending out invitations to a party for One World, the once-venerated 25-year-old multicultural imprint that had strayed from its original mission to publish cutting-edge books about the black experience into such down-market fare as urban erotica and self-help guides. It now is poised for a relaunch under Jackson in fall 2017 (already lined up are former Attorney General Eric Holder’s memoir and two more books from Coates, including his first novel).
The hope is that Jackson will turn the small imprint (a staff of three; 12 books planned for 2017) into a tastemaking destination for writers of color. Just before Labor Day, Jackson, who lives in Brooklyn and shares custody of son Jasper with ex-wife Sarah McNally (owner of McNally Jackson Books), spoke with THR about a new Trayvon Martin book, whether we’ll ever see Prince’s memoir and how Hamilton and TV’s diversity influence him.
Why does the notion of a multicultural imprint matter still?
Not to overstate it, but I think current events — from ongoing issues with police violence to the election to terroristic violence — demonstrate a failure across our journalistic, storytelling and culture-making industries. In so many basic ways we still don’t understand each other — we don’t even really see each other. That’s what multicultural storytelling is about. So I think it’s more urgent than ever. To me multicultural storytelling has two key aspects: one, it allows people to see themselves, their own lives and language and struggle, in works of narrative art. It allows a broader group of people to see themselves represented in that art. But it also means that other people can see themselves in the authentic experiences of people who are nothing like them. So we see ourselves better, we see each other better, we understand the world better. It’s not just about headcount. By headcount, Driving Miss Daisy, or even Gone With the Wind were powerful blows for diversity — but they weren’t acts of intentional multicultural storytelling, in fact they only exacerbated our false understandings of each other. Which is why we’re here now, still talking past each other. So it matters because we are doing the thing that every imprint, ultimately, must do, but we’re announcing it as our intention and focus and hopefully we’ll be able to see it through. The other difference is that our multiculturalism will extend from the subjects of the books to the people writing them to the people acquiring and editing them. It won’t be what my author, the sportswriter Bill Rhoden, calls “plantation diversity,” where you have talent of color on the field and management that’s entirely white.
What current events are most influencing proposals you’re getting?
It’s hard to publish about the campaign now because it’s happening, although I think there will be a lot of books coming out trying to make sense of what this moment means. There are these books that are really successful right now, like Hillbilly Elegy
Matt Taibbi left the Obama press pass on his return from the 2008 New Hampshire primary; the hourglass was a gift from Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie. Toni Morrison edited The Black Book when she worked at Random House. Jackson calls it a good-luck “totem.”
What pitches do you reject?
The danger of a kind of book getting “hot” is that lots of people try to cash in on it and you get derivative works with diminishing returns, artistically and commercially. The other thing I reject is when I read a proposal by a writer of color where the writer clearly anticipated writing for a white editor and performs his or her identity for that gaze — “shucking and jiving” is too strong a term, but sometimes it does rise to that level. It’s embarrassing and infuriating and sad. The flip side happens, too — where a white writer assumes a white audience and says something crazy or thoughtless or patronizing about race (or ethnicity or gender or et cetera). Automatic reject, of course.
Before he died, you signed Prince for his memoir. Will we ever see anything?
That’s something I can probably say nothing about. (Laughs.) What did Esther [Newberg, Prince’s book agent] say? I’m taking Esther’s line. Whatever she said, I am seconding. That’s Esther’s special superpower. [Editor’s note: She said nothing.]
What will we see in Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime (out Nov. 15), that people may have missed about him?
Oh my God, everything. Trevor comes from an entirely different world than his viewers, certainly than Jon Stewart came from. What the book does is it puts Trevor back into the world he came from. He grew up at this turning point at the end of apartheid-era South Africa and the birth of this very tumultuous new society. As a mixed-race kid, he was the child who should not have existed in that society. And then, in the new world, he had these opportunities that never had existed in the old world. It’s infused with humor throughout, but what’s really amazing about it is it’s so moving.
Former wife Sarah McNally saw this head with “Harlem” on it and impulsively bought it for Jackson as a gift.
What else do you have coming?
I’m doing a book with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s parents [Rest in Power, out in January. Read more on the book deal here]. It’s amazing. Everyone who’s been reading the manuscript is in tears by the second chapter. It’s not just about the mournful story about losing a child, but it’s also how that moment ignited this global movement.
What’s a dream book for you?
If Beyonce was going to write a book, a real book, I would maybe sacrifice a body part for that. When I knew Beyonce — knew, meaning I hung out with her three times when I was working with Jay — the stories she told, and the kind of things she was interested in, and the kind of ideas she was exploring I found really fascinating.
Your friend Rachel Klayman edited Barack Obama’s last book [2006’s The Audacity of Hope]. Would you bid on Michelle’s memoir?
Heck, yeah. Obviously I’m not going to say it would be more interesting than Barack’s book, but it would be a book of equal interest. Michelle’s story is in some ways the opposite of this sort of exotic Indonesia, Hawaii, Kenya, Kansas life of Barack. You have the Michelle who is steeped in the story of migrating African-Americans, of black Chicago, and then ends up in the White House.
Would you be interested in a Colin Kaepernick book?
Yeah. I love stories of people who have awakenings, you know? That’s so much of what African-American memoir tradition is, this moment when the scales fall off of your eyes and you’re like, “Oh my God, I have to do something.” And you change.
Has the growth in African-American-centered TV shows affected your work?
In very literal ways, people from these shows are writing books, right? I’m not always comfortable with the phrase “transcend race” because it’s packed with all kinds of things, but it shows that some stories are just important enough that we don’t have to see them as quote-unquote “black” stories. There was a week last year when I remember looking at all of the number ones: Straight Outta Compton was the No. 1 movie, Ta-Nehisi had the No. 1 book, Hamilton was No. 1 on Broadway.
After dropping son Jasper off at school, Jackson brought the scooter to work “just at the moment he outgrew it. So here it remains, another reminder of time’s passage.”
Do you think there’s a Hamilton effect on books?
I’m publishing a book by Quiara Hudes, who is a collaborator with Lin-Manuel Miranda. She wrote In the Heights and is working with Lin-Manuel on an animated movie. I have a lot of mixed feelings about [Hamilton]. I saw it, loved it in a lot of ways, and in some ways I thought it was problematic in the way it handled race. I thought it was a little bit of a strange whitewashing of American history through brown people, ironically. But at the same time, I saw David Brooks quoting it in his column. When we published Decoded, we heard, “People don’t buy rap books.” At a certain point, the levee breaks and the force comes through, and I feel like Hamilton‘s one of those things where you cannot deny the genius and the brilliance of this form and idiom and these people.
Where are you looking for new voices?
A lot of the writing you find on the internet has been influenced by people I’ve worked with — Ta-Nehisi, Matt Taibbi, people like that. A lot of the writing is in this personal narrative style but also with some kind of polemical agenda. There’s a lot of sameness to that writing, Which is why I try to stay open to things I read in other form. And I think there’s still magazines that are relevant. I think you can find surprisingly good writing everywhere. I read a piece about Flint, Michigan, the other day that was sent to me by — I’m doing a book with this woman, Mona Hanna-Attisha, who was one of the whistleblowers in the Flint water crisis. She sent me this piece by this writer Mattie Kahn, who’s 25 years old, she writes for Elle magazine. And I don’t read Elle, because I didn’t know Elle published long-form journalism. She sent me this piece and it’s just an incredibly reported, beautifully written piece. I mean, they’re everywhere, you have to just keep your eyes and antenna open.
What did you read when you were younger that made an impact on you?
I would say the first literature that meant a lot to me was probably hip-hop. It was my first kind of exposure in a really intense way to a kind of literature. And when I was coming up, rap was in one of its golden ages, and it was just the language and the creativity of the language and the sort of weaving together of memoir and political polemic, and fantasy and, you know, portage, all of that happening in these really dense sort of poetic works. That was probably one of the most dramatic transformative literary experiences of my life, was just being 13 years old and 15 years old and being completely immersed in that.
Books, too, I read some books (Laughs.). I loved reading fantasy and I would read the books that my mother brought home from the library, which were, trashy romance thrillers like Jackie Collins. Not trashy — I completely meant it as an honorific, because I loved those books. When I read Native Son in seventh grade, I felt like there was this kind of merger of the kinds of things I already loved. There was pulp, there was adventure and violence, and suspense and excitement, but then it had these other layers — literary ambition, and a political message, somewhat heavy, but whatever (Laughs.). I was in seventh grade, I didn’t care. That was such a really magical, transformative thing, seeing myself, even crudely represented, in a work of literature, that was the first time that had happened for me.
What is something you’ve read that people would be surprised to find you’re a fan of?
There weren’t a lot of bookstores in Harlem, there were card tables that sold books on 125th Street, so I read a lot of books published by this company Holloway House — Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim. Street literature before street literature was called street literature. And my favorite writer, though, when I was a kid, to be honest, was Kurt Vonnegut.
A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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