James W. Jennings’ Wings of Red Flips the MFA Novel on Its Head

James W. Jennings

Photo courtesy of the author James W. Jennings.

This is OPEN BOOK, a monthly column in which we ask debut authors about their reading and writing habits. For this iteration we spoke with James W. Jennings about his debut novel Wings of Red, an auto-fictional account of his life spent circling the institution, both as an MFA student and a substitute teacher. But this novel is not your typical bildungsroman by any measure. The narrator June is homeless and has a felony, and as a result finds himself in constant flux. Seeking rest between 24-hour cafes, couches, trains, and showers at public libraries, June confronts hard-hitting questions about his future and his aspirations to become a writer. To mark his first novel, we asked Jennings about where he likes to write, when he likes to write, and the books on his nightstand as he worked on Wings of Red.


Where do you like to write?

One of my favorite places to write is Saturday open gyms at School of the Future. Was Saturday open gyms at School of the Future. (As of November 3rd, 2023 ) I’m no longer employed at SOF nor coaching basketball. Long story. There was this indestructible mid-century public school chair-desk thing near the door I liked to sit in and journal as alumni, players, and other coaches arrived. There’s something super refreshing about writing in an environment where absolutely no one cares about literature. Eventually everyone is yelling and going nuts about a game with an orange ball and it’s just as valid if not more so than the world of words because there’s so much life force involved. So many lessons. So much truth being tested. It’s a game but it’s not a game at all. As we speak I’m writing this in the Oak Bluffs elementary gym with no reception and a bunch of middle school ballers going insane. I’m about to stretch and play in our Wednesday adult run.

When do you like to write?

I like to write in the late night, early morning window when everything’s quiet, 2:00am to 5:00am, and I know I have time to just be. I don’t like that time so much as that’s usually when I get summoned. I like to write when I’m in Paris or Mexico City or in the sun.

What’s the first thing you did after you turned in a draft of your book?

I would have to look at my journals for that one. To be honest, I’m not sure. I feel like the last draft I turned in I was living in a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn just across the Pulaski bridge. I remember finishing just before sunrise and saying a little gratitude prayer before a candle in my bedroom… ( I search my email and photos and find the draft submission )… Yup. It was a Friday night which bled into a Saturday morning. I finished the edits as the sun rose, sent them along, prayed, blew out the candle, got dressed for Saturday open gym, and walked across the Pulaski bridge to the 7 train. The 7 train was out of service so I Ubered to the gym, hooped, coached, and a gang of us walked the city afterwards before going our separate ways.

Tell us about three to five books you read while writing your own, and why?

The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot. I read that when I need to be reminded of the center. I read a dope book, Raising Free People by Akilah S. Richardson, about the journey to home schooling and liberation written with the same urgency and literary voice I like to channel in my work. I reread The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho because it makes magic seem so mundane. I love that. I reread my first novel, United Strays of America, to make sure I wasn’t lying to myself. Oh, I read Langston Hughe’s collection of essays, I Wonder as I Wander. It’s just dope to imagine a Black poet with so much courage out in the world and to read the journey in as close to non-poetic terms as a poet can get. I don’t look for inspiration as much as clarity so in today’s literary climate I lean more towards non-fiction.

What made you want to set your novel at an MFA program?

I write my life. I live it, I journal it, and I craft it into whatever people want to call it. The easy answer is the last time I almost died I was fresh off my MFA. The closer the possibility of death the better the chance I’m going to memorialize it, hence the setting of Wings of Red.

Tell us about a formative early reading experience.

I would say watching my grandmother and my great Uncle Butch read their newspapers. They would always have these newspaper exchanges. Either Uncle Butch would come over and give Nana his or he would borrow hers or they’d talk about what happened when to who. They had a whole other world within those newspapers. (I’ve since left the gym. I walked about a mile home under a clear night sky with constellations lit up like Christmas trees, showered, ate, slept, arose with the sun, and came back to these questions). My previous answer was reading Maniac McGee but I think seeing my loved ones read was a far more formative early reading experience. Those mirror neurons are powerful. Reading Miles Davis biographies was pivotal also. It allowed me to anchor into the power of history which most of my teachers ended up pushing me away from. I can’t tell you how many times I said I hated history only to realize I hated a history with no bearings nor no sign of me in it. Turns out I love history.

The last book you loved, and why?

Raising Free People by Akilah S. Richards. I love when I come across work where it’s clear the story needs to be told, it has exponential value, and the writer is humble enough to submit to duty. I don’t need literature to escape life or be dazzling with brilliance or tackling the latest social trend. I love stories that need to be told.

The last book that disappointed you, and why?

I honestly can’t say. If the first sentence doesn’t resonate with me I let it go from my consciousness and there have been a lot. I love being proven wrong but my intuition is pretty good. I don’t give many books long enough to be disappointed. Most popular stories aren’t for me.

Wings of Red could be called a New York City novel. What’s your favorite book in the subgenre?

Tooough question. My favorite New York City novel is a tie between Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and 25th Hour by David Benioff.

Hardcover or paperback? Why?

Hardcover. It holds up in a backpack.

A book you think should be in the canon, but isn’t:

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi. It’s in the business-y canon but it really should be in the literary canon. While Shakespeare was being all Shakespearian on the other side of the globe this undefeated samurai decided to put his sword down, climb a mountain, and discover the meaning of life.

A book you think shouldn’t be in the canon, but is:

Lolita by Nabokov. That’s just wild to me.

What’s your favorite bookstore(s)?

Strand, Bunch of Grapes, McNally Jackson, B&N, etc… I loooove bookstores.

What do you look for in a reading experience?

In a reading experience, I look for a few things which can be narrowed down to authentic perspective. To expand it out would be to talk about voice, story, humility, power, and relevance.

How do you arrange your bookshelf?

I don’t have a bookshelf. I’m not that mature yet. I have stacks of books here and there. I try to give away more books than I collect so I’m going in the opposite direction.