Literary Lion: 5 Questions with Cultural Critic Margo Jefferson

March 30, 2015

Margo JeffersonProfessor Margo Jefferson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic. She has been a staff writer for The New York Times and Newsweek; her reviews and essays have appeared in New York Magazine, Grand Street, Vogue, Harper's and elsewhere. Her book, On Michael Jackson, was published in 2006. Jefferson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rockefeller Foundation/Theater Communications Group grant. She has also written and performed two theater pieces at The Cherry Lane Theatre and The Culture Project.

Q. How does the intersection of teaching and writing affect you?

Teaching is public performance and collaboration. However many voices your writing draws on, the act is a soliloquy. Your roles are different, but they're part of the same play.

Q. How important to the craft of writing is reading?

There's no point in being a writer if you're not a voracious reader. Why would you cut yourself off from your past, your present and so many future possibilities?

Q. Do you focus on one particular kind of writing or can you easily switch genres?

I've spent most of my writing life as a critic. I started with books, then moved out to theater with ventures into music, dance, fashion and even sports from time to time. I wanted to think about how arts affect each other, and how they operate on a cultural landscape that includes sociology and politics. I've also written two theater pieces, and I'd never say switching genres or forms is seamless. John Gielgud defined style as knowing what play you're in. It takes thought and work to know what genre you're in.

Q. How does living and working in New York influence your writing?

Because I'm a critic, New York has been essential to my writing. But it was the vision and history of New York as an arts mecca that made me one of millions who came here from elsewhere. I can thrive on literary cacophony because I know when and how to turn it off.

Q. What are you working on now?

I've just finished a book that I think of as a cultural autobiography. It's called Negroland: A Memoir and it'll come out in the fall.

— Interviewed by Eve Glasberg