Titles and Book Covers. They go together like bearded ladies and clowns at a crowded circus. It’s what catches your eye when you’re browsing through the library and Barnes & Noble or scrolling on Amazon and Kobo. It’s what first caught my eye when I came across gods of Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Don’t you just love that title (with the small g for gods), and the cover, which showed a retro photo of a woman driving down the road in a convertible.
But, the writing in-between the covers is what made me a fan of this author. It soon becomes obvious to the reader that this is a writer who enjoys her own stories!
Joshilyn Jackson is a New York Times bestselling novelist of five books, and gods of Alabama was her first. According to the Library Journal in their starred review of her first book: “Forget steel magnolias—meet titanium blossoms in Jackson’s debut novel, a potent mix of humor, murder, and a dysfunctional Southern family.”
But, she didn’t stop there, and she has kept on producing novels that exhibit wit, warmth, stories of love and betrayal. Everything you want in a book. Her latest is A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty (pub. 2012), which has recently come out in paperback. The Atlanta Magazine calls it… “her latest Southern Gothic joyride, Joshilyn Jackson creates an unforgettable story…brilliant.”
Her books have been translated into a dozen languages, won SIBA’s novel of the year, twice been a #1 Book Sense Pick, and twice been shortlisted for the Townsend prize.
Below is the interview.
1) You were on the February 2011 cover of Vanity Fair with other Southern authors such as Kathryn Stockett (The Help), Susan Rebecca White (Bound South), Karin Slaughter (Best selling Crime writer), and Natasha Trethewey, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, as well as others. What do you believe sets this group apart as a literary group? Do you feel there is an influence from previous Southern writers like Katherine Porter, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker?
I’m not sure we are a literary group. I mean, you’re looking at the Poet Laureate of the United Freakin’ States right there. And, you know, me. So. That’s quite a spectrum already when you look at just TWO of us.
I think it’s a hugely diverse group, and the ONLY thing that makes us a group is location. We all have our own IT we need to say, and we are trying to say our it in exactly our own ways. But, yeah, Atlanta is chock full of talented women doing a vast array of fascinating things with words right now. That’s true in music and visual arts, too—-Atlanta has a pulsing, living, visceral female art scene. I don’t say this to discount major talents like David Bottoms or Joseph Skibell just because they have outies instead of innies. But Atlanta is FAT AND GLORIOUS with women writers who are blowing my mind in a variety of ways—I think the point of the Vanity Fair piece was to show a small selection of us that represented the broadness of female interests, styles, themes, and voices happening right here, right now.
As for the history of Southern women writers—well that’s a rich, loamy patch of earth to come of age in, for all of us.
2) Do your books come out the way you intended them? Or do they get away from you during the creative process the character goes one way when you thought they should have gone the other way?
They never come out as I intend. That illusion happens, yes, where I feel the book has its own life and is now haring off in new direction without bothering to inform me first so I could pack the proper footwear for the climate… I’m a straight up organic writer, and it is an inefficient and ridiculous way to try and make a book. It’s also the only that works for me.
3) You’ve indicated your first novel is still under your bed, and never to be published. How do you think working your way through that unpublished work led you to your first published book, gods in Alabama?
Two of ‘em, actually. I may at some point make them available for DL on my website, if people are interested. I don’t want to take a year or two to revise them into something more like what I write now—I have too many books I want to write to go backwards and try to re-care about these. They are what they are. They are not perfect, but I love them, and I am grateful to them. Writing them let me learn how to write a book. The only way to learn to write a book is to read a million of them and then sit down and write one. But the learning curve is big. It takes years. Some people write and rewrite the same book for five or ten years and at the end of that time, they know how. I chose to write one book after another, and it took the same amount of time.
4) Writing dialogue is hard enough for writers, but you manage to get that “Southern” voice into your characters so well. Do you have suggestions to others on how to do this in their writing (whether Southern, Northern or Japanese, Cuban, etc) ?
Read aloud! I read everything aloud multiple times. If you want to catch your own regional voice, listen to yourself reading it. Some people can’t hear themselves, so if it doesn’t work for you, get someone ELSE to read it to you. If you are writing in your native tongue, you can hear where it goes wrong much more quickly than you can see it.
5) Your characters are quirky, likable, intelligent and usually go against the norm of society. When you are starting out on an idea for a book, do you come up with a character first, or the idea of a plot? For instance, the character, Ro Grandee in Backseat Saints was a minor character in gods in Alabama so how did Ro come about as a fully developed person hightailing it out of Texas with her trusty dog, Fat Gretel? (Loved that cover btw!)
Oh thank you — That’s so kind. Rose was a pushy little object from the very beginning. When I was first writing gods in Alabama, I planned her as “Jim’s Girlfriend” and felt she would be a very minor character. She did not appear in the draft until chapter 6, but as I wrote what I thought would be her single scene, it kept streeeeetching until the whole chapter was riddled with her. She is such an instigator! Big Trouble loves Rose and Rose loves Big Trouble right back. I realized I needed her energy and drive to start off the action in chapter 1; I went back and revised to make Rose Mae be the push that sends Arlene careening home to Alabama.
By the time I finished gods, Rose had insinuated herself all through the book, and I suspected even then that I wasn’t finished with her—or perhaps she wasn’t finished with me. About two years before I wrote BACKSEAT SAINTS, I woke up in the middle of the night. I had been dreaming about her. I shook my sleeping husband and said, “Honey! I just realized, everything Rose Mae Lolley says in gods in Alabama is a lie, and now I know why she is really looking for Jim Beverly.” He said, “Hi! It is 3 AM!” He passed out again, but I stayed up the rest of the night writing little snatches of what would become this book, trying to catch her voice.
6) Do you think your background in theater was an influence on your writing style, and if so, how?
I think my acting background has had a huge effect on my writing. The only thing that has influenced my writing more was becoming a mother. I think the most important tool actors and novelists share is a facility for empathy. Some people are born with a huge facility for empathy, but I was not. I learned it, working as an actor, and I learned it more deeply when I had babies.
7) Your most recent book, A Grown Up Kind Of Pretty, is a mystery with the discovery of a backyard burial and involves the complex relationship of a family of women, the Slocumbs. How do see yourself as evolving as a writer with this fifth book? Does writing get any easier for you?
No, never. It gets harder, in fact, as I want to make sure I am not obsessing and worry warting my same tropes into nubs. Of course, as a writer, I have areas that continue to interest me thematically—redemption, motherhood, brokenness, the mechanics of grace…These are the things I explore, but I want to make sure it is progressive. The questions I try to explore with story have to be the ones driving me now, not the ones that drove me five years ago.
I tell you what, I am more interested in MEN all of a sudden. I have been writing about women, mostly female characters, female relationships, for 5 books now. The last male narrator I wrote was in one of my “under the bed” books.
But in A GROWN UP KIND OF PRETTY there is a male/female best friendship between a weedy little big-headed kid named Roger and the youngest Slocumb, Mosey. I got so obsessed with them. I LOVE all their scenes together, all their dialogue and their interplay makes me SO happy. They crack me up and they break my heart. I think I wrote the whole book, in some ways, for a scene near the end involving Roger and Mosey’s left booby. If you read the book, you know the line I mean. I wrote more than 94 thousand words to get to write that line, writing toward it, waiting for it, hoping it would happen. I still shamelessly adore it.
8: What are you working on now?
The book I am writing now has two narrators who meet when they are caught in a hostage situation. Both are inside a Circle K when a man comes in to rob it. One is a 21 year old college student raising a three year old son; she has experienced a Virgin birth. The other is 30 something geneticist who recently lost his family. He emphatically does not believe in miracles. The girl, Shandi, begins their story, by saying, “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.”
Now, each of them has a close friend. Shandi’s is a poet named Walcott. William’s is a divorce attorney named Paula. In a lot of ways, the Shandi/ Walcott, and William/ Paula relationships grew OUT of Mosey and Roger, because I was not finished exploring the mechanics of this kind of friendship. They are possible versions of Mosey and Roger, one pair in their twenties, one pair in their thirties. So this book came out of that book, but A GROWN UP KIND OF PRETTY is really about the search for identity, which is something I have not really looked at since BETWEEN. Meanwhile, this new book, SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY is about the nature of faith. But the relationships definitely came out of PRETTY, in a “next step” way.
9) What was the best advice you ever got on your writing? The worst advice?
BICHOC is the best advice. Butt in Chair, Hands on keyboard. This is how books happen. By writing them.
The worst advice I ever heard, and I have heard it MULTIPLE times! “Oh, writers should not READ! If I READ I could have VOICE LEAK and be INFLUENCED!” My answer: Go read Flannery O’Connor and PRAY TO GOD that she influences you. You should BE so lucky.
Every writer I know who is producing interesting things, they are all huge huge huge readers. Addicts. Real writers read. The end.
10) Please give us an Eight Word Description of Your Life.
YARRRRRRRG This is nearly impossible. Everything I write sounds flippant or pretentious or both. I think this is the kind of question only a poet can answer. Lord, but I SUCK at poetry. BUT OKAY! Here we go:
God, kids, husband, dogs, write, yoga, eat. Repeat.
Check out Joshilyn Jackson’s website HERE.