I have this really spiritual poet friend who told me that all writing has to be contrition. It’s totally worthless if it doesn’t prepare you to embrace and love the world again. That’s really intense, but I think it was true for me. Those letters were really contrition.
I was always anxious about calling it a book, because that makes it feel instrumental, and I didn’t want it to feel like that. So I don’t think I acknowledged that it was a book until now. It’s uncomfortable that there’s a price on it. I don’t want to say defensively to everyone that I’m sharing the royalties with Patrick and his daughter, but I do. Trying to transform these feelings of guilt was all selfishly part of my own spiritual thing — “journey” sounds cheesy, but it was. The book feels too much like an object to capture that journey. It’s just a vessel for contrition. It could have been a song, except I can’t sing.
What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing it?
I really didn’t expect how quick and extraordinary Patrick’s growth would be, without much help at all. I gave him pen and paper, and a lot of books, and a lot of personal attention. When he first started out, his letters to his daughter were just a repeated apology: “I’m sorry I’m not there for you. I’m sorry I messed up.” But by the end of those seven months, he was writing these intricate and complex poems to her. They became prose poems, where he’s picturing her listening to the sound of trees and canoeing down the Mississippi. He would tell her lines of poems he really loved.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
It’s embarrassing for me to talk about contrition, because it’s self-focused, as if the thing that really matters is my sense of responsibility and not who Patrick is. But the book was going to be this rousing exposé of conditions of inequality in the Delta, about education and criminal justice and all these things that are wrong. I wasn’t going to write so personally about Patrick and me; that was going to be almost an aside. But then I realized that I would just be hiding myself, and hiding behind the analysis. And if you hang out with me, you know I don’t do that. I wanted to place myself directly in this relationship that is very unequal, in which one person can leave…