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"I was walking away into nothing," he says, acknowledging he couldn't have taken that risk if he'd had kids to support. He chose Agate because National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward, a friend and fellow Mississippian, had published her first novel there. "I thought they'd get me," he says.
They did. Agate offered him a two-book contract.
Meanwhile, Laymon posted "How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America," a blistering personal essay on race, guns, and "being born a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi," on his blog Cold Drank. Emma Carmichael, a former student and Gawker editor, asked if she could reprint it. Before the weekend was out, it had racked up more than 100,000 hits and a trail of passionate comments. "I am guilty of being too much like my kind, which means I am one mistaken moment from being a justifiable homicide, or a few planted rocks from being incarcerated," Laymon wrote; Gawker reran the piece during George Zimmerman's trial, and his words spread like wildfire.
"The thing that feels best to me is after 'How to Kill Yourself' went viral, so many editors and agents who wouldn't touch me before came back. And I was like, 'No, man, I've got my publisher,'" Laymon says gratefully.
Both his parents were undergrads at Jackson State when he was born; his mother was 19 years old. "She was dealing with college and money and everything else. When it got to be too much, she'd send me to stay with my grandmother," Laymon says. "She worked at a chicken plant. She had to get up at 4:30am, and she'd come home really irritated and just want to take her shoes off. It was a shotgun house up on cinderblocks, a supersmall house. She'd say, "Ki, go outside and don't come back smelling like outside."
He and the other kids on the block were obsessed with an underground hole where a "humongous tree" had been uprooted. "We thought there were kids living down in that hole. Whenever we saw someone in the woods, we'd say they came out of the hole," he recalls. "That image kept haunting me, in the best way, all my life." There was also a work shed behind his grandmother's house, where he wasn't allowed to set foot; both locations are crucial to Long Division.
If real life provides jumping-off points for fiction, Laymon's essays get up close and personal. How To opens with a letter to a crack-addict uncle, "a lanky, living, breathing warning" of what could happen if young Kiese kept breaking rules and his mother's heart. The title essay details the racist provocations and gadfly responses that got him suspended from Millsaps College on trumped-up charges, and the cutting edge of his mother's tough love: At one point, she pulled a gun on her son and ordered him out of her house. Later, he turned the same gun on himself. Basketball helped. So did "telling and listening to each other's odd-shaped truths" with his best friend, and a scholarship offer from Oberlin.
"Too many people my age didn't make it out of Jackson," Laymon explains; his mother, who finished college on her own and became a political science professor, wanted to make sure he did. Throughout his childhood, she insisted he read "white classics: Treasure Island, Silas Marner, Hemingway, Faulkner, Jane Austen. This is when I'm 10 or 12. Before I could go outside, or read what I wanted to read, I had to read the book she gave me and write about it. If I didn't, I got a whupping."
Though his mother is now "really proud of me," Laymon asserts, "she and my aunt wish my writing was different—you don't have to show everyone your insides. For me, it's just a way of starting that dialogue." One of How To's most striking pieces, "Echo," is a conversation in letters, written by Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Laymon, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Examining identity politics through a deeply personal lens, it ends with an exhortation to "keep the flow going."
Laymon lives that advice, writing "two hours in the morning and two hours at night, every day of my life." One of his teachers told him that writing needs to be like running. "Nobody wants to go running, but you get better at it if you have that discipline. And then sometimes you get that runner's high and write more than you have to, just because you're in the zone."