Jerald Walker spent years trying to publish his short stories, to no avail. When his wife suggested he write essays, he wrote one, he says, mostly to get her off his back. Within two weeks it was accepted for publication. Now his essay collection, “How to Make a Slave and Other Essays,” was named a finalist for this year’s National Book Award in nonfiction. He is also the author of “The World in Flames: A Black Boyhood in a White Supremacist Doomsday Cult” and “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption.” Walker, a Chicago native, is a professor of creative writing at Emerson College.
BOOKS: Has the pandemonium of current events influenced your reading?
WALKER: I’ve leaned to lighter and humorous reads, as in books not about race riots or the world ending. This summer I knocked off Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less,” which I loved. I followed that with “The Nix,” by Nathan Hill and then “Wow, No Thank You,” an essay collection by Samantha Irby.
BOOKS: Is it hard to find well-written, funny reads?
WALKER: Yes. If I want to read completely hysterical novels I turn to Jane Smiley’s “Moo,” Richard Russo’s “Straight Man,” David Lodge’s “Small Word,” and even Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” If I’m hungry for a subtly funny read, I’d pick up Dickens’s “The Pickwick Papers.” The books that turn me on are the ones that make me laugh.
BOOKS: What do you like for funny nonfiction?
WALKER: David Sedaris is a favorite. Nora Ephron’s “I Feel Bad About My Neck” is great, and Sloane Crosley’s “I Was Told There’d Be Cake” is a fun read. Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, “Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal,” is a favorite because it’s about a cult, and I grew up in a religious cult.
BOOKS: Are there books that do a good job of conveying what life is like in a cult?
WALKER: I honestly stay as far away from the subject as I possibly can. I only read Winterson’s book because it’s funny.
BOOKS: What was your last best read?
WALKER: Kiese Laymon’s memoir, “Heavy.” It’s serious but also one of the funniest books I’ve read. Also the essay collection “Thick,” by the brilliant social critic Tressie McMillan Cottom, which was a National Book Award finalist last year.
BOOKS: When did you start reading essays?
WALKER: Probably when I took my first creative writing class. We read James Baldwin’s “The Fire the Next Time.” But I started off as a fiction writer, so I read mostly fiction then. It wasn’t until my short-story career came to a natural death that I turned to essays.
BOOKS: Who are your top essayists?
WALKER: Ralph Ellison, Baldwin, Joan Didion, Stanley Crouch, Albert Murray, who is probably my favorite, and Zadie Smith. For humorous writers, Twain, James Thurber, and a favorite from college, H.L. Mencken.
BOOKS: Who are your favorite fiction writers?
WALKER: I like short-story writers more than novelists. Denis Johnson’s “Jesus' Son” had a tremendous impact on me. I love James Alan McPherson’s two collections, “Elbow Room” and “Hue and Cry.” I loved Charles Johnson’s recent short-story collection, “Night Hawks.”
BOOKS: When did you become an avid reader?
WALKER: By my mid-teens, after I decided that the cult wasn’t for me, and the world didn’t end. I needed another hobby. Then my life got derailed when I became a juvenile delinquent. I spent a lot of years not reading until I went to college at 24.
BOOKS: What kind of books did your family have?
WALKER: My parents were blind so we had a ton of Braille books. I never learned to read those but my brother did. One of my sisters was obsessed with Harlequin romances. I am not ashamed to say that I probably read all of them.
BOOKS: What are your reading habits now?
WALKER: I’m a notorious insomniac. My wife turned me on to audio books, so now when I’m awake from 2 to 5 a.m. I put on my headphones. I’ve been working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography “Alexander Hamilton,” because I saw the musical four times, and Rachel Maddow’s “Blowout.” That is making me nervous because after my wife read it she sold her car and bought a Tesla. Now she wants to get solar panels. Maddow’s book might change my life in ways I might not be ready for.