A versatile writer finds success in multiple genres.
Jeremy Jackson can’t recall a time when he didn’t want to be a writer.
“It was something I always sort of had in my mind,” says Jackson, a 1997 graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. “By high school it was something I was pretty interested in and started pursuing pretty strongly.”
He was on the staff of the school paper, spent a lot of time reading and learning about different writing styles, experimented with his novel writing—constantly developing characters and starting new stories—and corresponded regularly with a friend.
“We wrote dozens upon dozens of letters back and forth. I probably didn’t realize it at the time, but writing informal letters to a peer was a great way of developing my voice and just getting comfortable with prose in general,” Jackson says.
Still, when he told his advisor at Vassar College that he wanted to be a fiction writer, “it seemed like a pretty bold thing to say. I knew it was a pretty difficult thing to achieve.”
Seventeen years later, though, Jackson, 35, is a full-time writer with seven books under his belt and an eighth on the way. He’s traveled the country promoting his books with signings and readings, and his writing has also appeared in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.
He credits a combination of hard work and talent for his success, but there’s another factor: his willingness to take a risk in order to achieve his goals.
After graduating from the Workshop, Jackson landed a position teaching creative writing at Vassar. The job was good, Jackson says, but he realized he didn’t want to teach others how to write; he wanted to be the one writing. Teaching didn’t leave him enough time to do that. So he gave up the job—and the steady income it brought—and pursued writing full time.
A year later, he’d finished his first novel, Life at These Speeds, about a teenager who becomes a track prodigy after his teammates die in a tragic bus accident. The book was chosen as a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection.
“That first book was a labor of love,” Jackson says. “It was a project I really wanted to write, and I was pleased with the result.”
He decided to move back to Iowa City, a place he chose for its cultural activities and reputation as a literary hotspot, to continue his writing career.
Over the next five years, he churned out six more books—three works of fiction, including two young adults novels written under the pseudonym Alex Bradley; and three cookbooks, including The Cornbread Book, which was nominated for a James Beard Award.
“I like jumping around and trying these different things,” Jackson says. “My career has been varied and I really enjoy that.”
That ability and desire to write in multiple genres has also helped make a full-time writing career possible. That’s partly because each new project comes with a new set of challenges and possibilities.
“I think I would get tired of writing the same book over and over again,” Jackson says.
Working in more than one genre also means that he can work on more than one project at a time. During the years that he was developing cookbooks, he’d split up his day: write fiction in the morning, develop recipes in the afternoon.
It was a good pairing, he says, because writing is solitary, internal, and quiet. Developing and testing recipes, however, is analytical, hands-on, and social.
Working at such a rapid pace, however, was exhausting. So for the last few years Jackson has been concentrating on only one writing project—a family memoir about the year he was 10—and spending the rest of his time renovating the Johnson County farmhouse he owns with his wife.
“The memoir is a story about a year in my family’s life,” Jeremy says. “My grandmother got sick and died. My older sister, who I kind of idolized, went away to college, sort of left the family. It’s normal family things, nothing sensational.”
Yet the book has, again, challenged him in a new way: “It’s been very hard because these people are real and most of them are still alive and I want to be true to them, and I want to be honest, and I don’t want to hurt them.”
The yet-untitled memoir is a move toward more personal, more literary writing, Jackson says.
“If it goes well,” he adds, “I’m on my way to the second stage of my career.”
Story by Anne Kapler; Photo by Tim Schoon
Jan. 26, 2009