Born and raised in New Orleans, Margaret Wilkerson Sexton ’04 was a recipient of the Lombard Fellowship and spent a year in the Dominican Republic working for a civil rights organization and writing. Her debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, was long-listed for the National Book Award, and her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Sexton, who majored in creative writing, has written work that has been published or is forthcoming in The New York Times Book Review, Oprah.com, Lenny Letter, The Massachusetts Review, Grey Sparrow Journal, and other publications. She lives in the Bay Area with her family.
In your debut novel, A Kind of Freedom, you write vivid and poetic descriptions of the tastes and sounds of New Orleans, where the book takes place. What are some of the things you remember most vividly about Dartmouth and being on campus?
The people and the food! My friends and I joke that we haven’t had Indian food as good as Jewel of India. We’d always congregate around some eating establishment, whether it was Collis or Homeplate or Lou’s or Molly’s and have the best conversations, rich grown-ish conversations, and I remember the year after I graduated from Dartmouth yearning for those moments. Since I left I don’t think I’ve experienced such a sense of safety or removal from the world. We ate and drank and laughed with abandon, with the feeling that the world was ours for the taking.
After graduating, you studied law at UC Berkeley. Does your knowledge of the law inform your work as a writer, and vice versa?
My training in legal writing informs my work more than my knowledge of the law does. Legal writing requires such organization and compartmentalization and I find that that style extends into the way I structure novels. When I begin writing books now, I have a thesis, and my storyline is going to prove it, and each scene is furthering that storyline and ultimately that argument. As with a legal argument, I try not to include too much superfluous material.
What book or books would you say everyone should read?
Edward P. Jones’s The Known World; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster’s Place; Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter; Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped; and Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible.