Constructing a Nervous System

Margo Jefferson


The Judges said:

Life as a living art. A joyous, moving and inventive read.



In Constructing a Nervous System, Margo Jefferson shatters herself into pieces to examine each influence, love and passion that has thrilled and troubled her and made up her sense of self as a person and as a writer – her family, jazz luminaries, dancers, writers, lovers, artists, athletes and stars. Infused with the criticism that she is known for, Jefferson interrogates race, class, family, art and identity as well as the act of writing memoir, and probes fissures at the centre of American cultural life.

Published by Granta

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The winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson was a theatre and book critic for Newsweek and the New York Times. She is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts and the author of Negroland – which was shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize and winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award – and On Michael Jackson. She lives in New York City.

Margo Jefferson’s acceptance speech for Rathbones Folio Prize Book of the Year 2023

A Brief Q&A with Margo Jefferson


At what age did you know you wanted to become a writer?

I always knew that writing mattered to me and excited me, but I didn’t decide I wanted to be a writer until I was 20 and seriously thinking about things like “lifelong passion,” “destiny” and “a voice in the world.”


What was your favourite childhood book?

I had four ongoing favourites: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass; Loretta Mason Potts; Little Women.

Which is your favourite book of recent years?

My years of reviewing have made me aware of how fickle I can be about recent favourites. But I loved Posthumous Memoirs by Machado De Assis, written two centuries ago, but newly translated and invigorated in 2020.


What three books would you take to your Desert Island?

The Collected Essays of James Baldwin, Mrs. Dalloway and a still- to-be-chosen anthology of world poetry.


Who or what have been your most important influences?

Songs and song lyrics; arts criticism from any century or culture that feels as intimate as poetry.


Which of the other Rathbones Folio Prize shortlisted titles are you most excited to read?

Amy Bloom’s In Love and Zaffar Kunial’s England’s Green.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be doing?

I used to fantasize that I’d be a jazz singer. But I don’t have a serious answer because I don’t want to imagine a life without writing.