Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, was longlisted for the National Book Award in fiction in 2017. This year, she returns with a second novel, The Revisioners, which, like her first, is set in the South, where she’s from.
She never expected the nomination, saying she didn’t even know her book was eligible. Then she woke up one morning in her childhood home in New Orleans and discovered her Twitter was blowing up. This, she says, was unusual as she doesn’t tweet. She read one of the articles referencing her nomination to her husband, observing it as if it were an interesting possibility. The next thing she knew, her agent had called and the nomination became real to her.
Wilkerson Sexton was an attorney before she became a writer, always wanting to have something stable to fall back on financially. She was working at a law firm during the height of the recession when they began offering something called “Pursuits.” The program was intended to allow associates to leave without bringing on the stigma of massive layoffs. The idea, she explains, was that you’d take a year off, receive a portion of your salary, and pursue your real dreams. Wilkerson Sexton “sat on that offer for almost a year” before taking it, when her work morale was at its lowest, and she calls the decision the best thing she’s ever done.
Wilkerson Sexton’s new book tells of the connections between generations of women, and she notes that people are drawn to Josephine, one of the main characters. The author describes Josephine as someone sturdy, dependable, and spiritually sound–and she expresses a longing for someone with these qualities in her own life. Thinking about the character she created reminded her of her great grandmother, Margaret Miller, whom she never met but has heard stories about her whole life. “She is the one person I can point to who is most similar to this character I created. I wonder if subconsciously I based Josephine on her,” Wilkerson Sexton muses. In her own life, it’s her mother, aunts, and grandmothers who are the women who have shaped her.
As a mother, she takes her own children to the library every week and is fascinated by what they bring home, what books speak to them, and how each book represents facets of their personality. “I love that they’re able to explore other worlds for a moment and then return the book, but that the world still lives with them,” she says. Growing up in New Orleans, she spent summers anywhere she could go within walking distance. One of the places she chose was the library across the street: “I always felt such a thrill walking in like so much promise lay ahead of me, like I could leave the place a different person almost, depending on what book I chose, what story I chose to inhabit. I still feel that way when I walk into a library.”
Wilkerson Sexton’s influences are many and diverse; Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Edward P. Jones, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eudora Welty, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Octavia Butler, Jesmyn Ward, Yaa Gyasi, and Tayari Jones have all inspired her. Despite her books being set in the American South, she says that so far she hasn’t brought much of her own experiences to bear on the plots and characters of her novels. The plot points, she says, are in most cases drastically different, but that’s changing with a book she is working on now that draws heavily on her life.
The author advises readers to chase a dream. “There’s a reason it calls to you and there’s a reason you can’t stop thinking about it,” she says. For her, that dream was writing, which she explains saved her from herself: “All the issues that used to cause me so much angst, I feel like I can wrap inside a story now, and that gives it a life independent of mine, a purpose if you will; it takes so much of the charge off of my personal relationship with the problem. I think there’s something like that for everyone, some calling that will take the edge off and make the pain we go through in life somehow manageable and worthwhile.”
The Revisioners and A Kind of Freedom are both available now at Queens Public Library.
Top photo of Margaret Wilkerson Sexton by Melissa Schmidt; center photo by Ben Krantz.