Author of the Month
Joshilyn Jackson
[Feb 2008]
Chosen by reviewer Jennifer Akers, MyShelf.Com

    Off to an impressive start in her writing career, Joshilyn Jackson is the author of two best-selling novels: gods in Alabama (2005) and Between, Georgia (2006). Her newest novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming will be released March 2008. Jackson’s novel gods in Alabama, SIBA's 2005 Novel of the Year Award winner, was a #1 BookSense pick. Between, Georgia, also became a #1 BookSense pick, pushing Jackson into the unprecedented position as the first author in BookSense history to earn #1 status in back- to- back years. Jackson read the audio book version of Between, which won Publisher’s Week’s Listen Up award and made Audiofile's Best of 2006 list. Both gods and Between were chosen for the Books-A-Million Book Club.

I first read Jackson’s work after hearing rave reviews in my writers’ group, MomWriters. Don’t we all want to read a good story rather than just another book? Jackson hooked me from page one of Between, Georgia. After finding gods, I discovered her blog Faster than Kudzu, and the life musings to her “Best Beloveds” filled my between-novel withdrawals.

I chose Jackson for MyShelf’s author of the month for a single reason: She is a gifted storyteller. She creates a virtual story circle for rich tales of love, family, abandonment, and the South. Her descriptive narrative and dialogue unwraps eccentric, well-developed characters that jump off the pages. Readers will talk about her vivid stories, just like a recent traveler does about newly made friends. Jackson’s characters will linger in your heart and mind so long, you’ll write them in your address book.


Joshilyn Jackson graciously answered questions for MyShelf via email.

Jennifer Akers: Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?

Joshilyn Jackson: I live in quasi-rural Georgia with my husband, our two kids, a hound dog, two cats who hate each other, and four rapidly aging spinster gerbils. I say quasi-rural because we are in the process of being eaten by Wal-Mart and other doom-y harbingers of Urban Sprawl. If I could stand to pack, we'd be moving someplace with more chickens.

Jen: You started in theatre before graduating with honors in English Lit at Georgia State. How does your performing arts background contribute to your writing?

Joshilyn: Hugely and in several ways. If, for example, I have a fight scene or a big group scene, I'll use my husband (who also has a theatre background --- we met doing summer stock) or my friends and physically block the scene out, so I can get a good sense of everyone's place in the room. At a recent writer's retreat, novelists Sara Gruen and Renee Rosen walked into the den and found non-fiction author Karen Abbott pinning me to the wall by my head and pretending to hit me, so I could see exactly where my character would be bruised after a fight scene. They are used to me; they just said hey and went on through to the kitchen, leaving me to take the beating.

It also helps in terms of building character. I draft quickly, and then probably spend 75 to 80% of my writing time on revisions. When I am working through a scene, I usually do at least one revision per character, looking at the scene through their eyes. In acting terms, I cast myself as each character in turn, try to figure out what’s going on internally with them at that moment, and decide how that should be reflected in their behavior. Then I revise again through the main character's eyes and try to see how he or she would interpret (or misinterpret) those actions.


Jen: Your books are described as Southern Gothic. What authors of that genre have influenced your writing?

Flannery O'Connor is probably my favorite author. I don't dare to touch the hem of her garment, much less say she influenced me, but my admiration for her is boundless and I hope a little of that admiration is reflected in my work.


Jen: It’s obvious you do a lot of research for your books. How do you balance your energies between research and writing?

Joshilyn: I don't think of myself as doing a lot of research. Research to me means musty tomes chock of full of dry information and meticulous note taking and boredom. I do very little of that. I prefer to research by finding people who do the things I want to write about and then asking them if I can tag along on their lives for a little. It's fun, not work. And revising is fun. The only part I have to physically MAKE myself do is the drafting. Researching Between, Georgia, for example, gave me the opportunity to make friends in Atlanta's deaf-blind community, friends who were indescribably generous with their time and patient with my horrifically bad fingerspelling. For The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, I got to talk to a lot of cops. It's cool to hang out with cops.


Jen: Your books deal with similar themes of family ties, nature versus nurture, and class dynamics, to name a few. Do you begin your stories with a theme in mind? How do your story nuggets begin?

Joshilyn: No, I never know what the books are about when I start them. I think if I did, I might get heavy handed. I start with a character, and then I build up all that character’s family and relationships, and then when I know the people really well, I metaphorically set one of them on fire and see what happens. After a bit, I see themes emerging, and I realize these things are what drew me to write about this person or family in the first place.


Jen: I’ve read you downplayed some of your characters’ behaviors in your first novel, gods in Alabama, before you allowed your characters to blossom in their own words or scenes that could be described as “unladylike”. Do you still struggle with the internal push-pull with your characters?

Joshilyn: Yes, the first draft of gods was a much more LADYLIKE book than the finished animal. I think I was scared people wouldn't think I was "a nice girl" if I let Arlene be Arlene and do and say all the things she needed to do and say to make that story work. Lydia, my best friend and writing partner for over 15 years, told me I was being a coward and that gods was almost the best thing I had ever written. She said I had to let myself write it the way I wanted to in my secret black heart. So I did.
And yes, it's a constant struggle for me. I had to throw away an entire draft of The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, too, because of cowardice. I have a wild-child character named Thalia in there who is SUCH a mess, and I kept cutting away from scenes of debauched Thalia-inspired mayhem to browse around blamelessly in more gentle (and hugely less interesting) pastures. It took a whole draft in the trash and a shot of tequila to give myself permission to let the story unfold...truthfully.


Jen: Your characters are quirky and believable with secrets masked by deep-down southern charm – warts and sunshine. As a nod to 3Qs on your FTK blog, do you think location plays a vital role to your stories? Or could your characters live in California, for example?

Joshilyn: If I had grown up in California, I would be writing stories about people who grew up in California. It's character, more than location. In the book I am writing now, an Alabama girl is an ex-pat living in Berkeley. To me, writing about the south means writing about its people more than its places---a good bit of gods in Alabama was set in Chicago, after all.

At the same time, whether my setting is southern or not, a sense of place is hugely important to me. I have a hard time writing scenes set in places I don't know. I just went and spent a couple of weeks in Berkeley because I couldn't write scenes there, even through a non-native's eyes, without knowing what it smelled like.

Also, for me, the south is home, and the concept of HOME is important---homecomings are another thing that crops up in my work, book after book.


Jen: You have a gift for describing heart-breaking, heart-pumping scenes, like in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming when Laura races downstairs and prays that her child is not the child in the bottom of her pool. Do you find those scenes difficult to write?

Joshilyn: Yes. Hugely. I'm a mother. Every time one of my kids trit-trots out the door to play, I pray that all the drivers will be sober and paying attention when my children inevitably go gamboling like mindless goats into the road after a ball. I think I write those scenes because I, like every mother, live constantly with the fear that comes with huge, unwavering love. From the moment you birth them, they are themselves, and separate from you, and in peril.


Jen: Describe your favorite character that is the most unlike you, from your third book, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming.

Joshilyn: My favorite may well be Thalia, my erstwhile actress with a capitol A, who has no filter on her mouth --- or her behavior. I'd like to say that she is also the least like me, because she is the devil in pants and I, of course, am a blameless lambkin, chock full of delightful virtues. *cough* Okay. I may have a little Thalia in me. Tiny piece. Hardly worth mentioning.


Jen: You have a wonderful sense of humor as readers know from your stories and your FTK blog. What has been something unexpected you’ve experienced as an author-blogger?

Joshilyn: How amazing it would be to have readers write to me, and to hear from people who talk about my characters with the same fondness and interest that I feel. It's such a pleasure.


Jen: Thank you for your time. Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Joshilyn: Yes! I'll be touring all over the country in March for The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. My tour schedule is here. If I'm coming to a bookstore near you, please come on out! We'll have a good time.


Between Georgia - Book -- Audio

Gods in Alabama - Book -- Audio



2008's Honorary List

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