Author Interview: Joshilyn Jackson

by Lisa Yanaky

joshilynjackson.jpgJoshilyn Jackson is the author of gods in Alabama (reviewed here), a work of fiction about a girl, Arlene, who tries to strike a bargain with God so that a body will never be found in the Alabama town she left behind, but Arlene finds her life unraveling years later when God no longer feels obliged to keep her dark secret. I’ve been brooding on this one for months (hello, Top Ten Fiction list for 2005!) and could no longer resist asking for an interview, and Joshilyn ever-so-fantastically agreed to answer some questions from Book Brothel about her writing process, overcoming the stereotypes of the Southern U.S., and – oh yes – what her book has to do with hot monkey love. 

What inspired you to write Gods in Alabama?

Arlene Fleet (and an early and unnamed version of her boyfriend, Burr) first appeared in a short story I wrote years and years ago called Little Dead Uglies. You can read it online on my site, and it was in TriQuarterly Magazine 103, back in 1998. I never forgot her, and I always knew that when I found her voice and knew her secrets, I would probably write a book about her. I just didn’t realize it would take me the better part of ten years to figure her out. When I had the first sentence for gods in Alabama, I knew I was finally hearing Arlene’s voice, and the whole book grew out of that voice.

Arlene strikes a deal with God – no sex, no swearing, and a promise to never return to Alabama, in exchange for the body never being found. What do you think of this idea of trying to bargain with God?

I think it’s spiritually immature. But then, Arlene is spiritually immature. Stunted, really, but I think she grows a little before it’s all over. That’s one of the things I like best about this book, those moments when Arlene takes baby steps toward grace. I don’t think she understands grace by the end of the novel, but she understands unconditional love, so she’s on a good path toward it.

What’s it been like to receive so much attention in the media for a first novel?

Amazing. Because it’s been good, mostly. And it certainly helped get the word about the book, and people are reading it. That means the world. It’s what you hope will happen. Of course, I had and have absolutely no control over any of that. Very few authors do. How (and if) a book is marketed is up to the house. I was blessed with a dynamo of an editor who fell deeply in love with the book, and she championed it at Warner. When I say she championed it – I mean she strapped 50 pounds of armor onto her little tiny 5’2″ frame and leapt on a white horse and went running up and down the halls of Warner threatening people with a lance if they didn’t read the book. She pretty much stormed the building with the galleys for gods in Alabama. She sent one to every person who had a pulse, and then she placed them on the graves of former editors, and then she put some more by the toilets. She went by personally and asked every person to read the galleys, employing a medium to ask the dead folks. Since asking the toilets seemed a bit over the top, she simply left graffiti: YOU + THIS BOOK = 2GETHER 4EVER and FOR HOT MONKEY LOVE, READ THIS BOOK.

The result of her unwavering support was this: Someone in marketing read it and really liked it. This led to other people in marketing reading/liking, and then the other editors and some associate publishers read it and took to it, and they told two friends, and thenthey told two friends, and soon everyone in the entire building had read it and the reps started reading it and asking why it wasn’t the lead book for spring, and my publisher said, ‘Hmm, good question,’ and made it the lead book, so it ended up with a marketing budget. It was just a word of mouth thing that happened in house and then spread from the reps to booksellers, who got excited about it too, and they made it the number one Book Sense pick for April. It was entirely outside of my control, and I nearly died of thrill.

Is the writing process for your second novel any different than it was for gods in Alabama?

No. At this point I have a solid process. gods in Alabama was not the first novel I ever wrote. It’s my third. I don’t think people realize how often the first in “first novel” refers to “first published.” A lot of novelists have earlier books tucked away in drawers. I think in most cases, it takes about five to ten years to learn to write a novel. So you can take the Donna Tartt/Elizabeth Kostova path and work on one book for the better part of a decade, or you can go my way and write multiple books in that same span. It’s still going to take you the same amount of time to get it right. What’s weird is, now I intellectually understand what will happen as I write a book, but knowing it doesn’t change the emotional experience. I’ll slog through the work of drafting the first chapter and prance about all pleased with myself, feeling smug and in love with my people. A couple of days later (sometimes only a couple of hours later) I’ll start to see the gaps, and I will realize how little of what I am imagining has made it from my brain to my page. And then comes despair and hopelessness and the wailing and the husbandly administration of chocolate, and then I wake up the next day with ideas about how to get things closer, and I go back to the MS and start wooing the story to actually get onto the page. That is the pleasure part – the revisions. That’s fun.

So I know this is how I work, and yet I still always feel that foolish elation when the draft is done, followed by surprise and despair, and then my brain is ready to actually work. And I can sit back and say, “Oh look, now the despair is coming” but knowing doesn’t stop me from genuinely feeling it. I can’t skip that part, even though I know intellectually it isn’t real. And at this point, I know a day will come – about two thirds of the way into the whole book draft – where I will find myself weeping and wrecking my best friend’s shirt by blowing my nose on it, and I will wail that I can’t write this book, what was I thinking, it can’t be done, plot-wise I’m in too big a snarl to ever get my characters out, and I am going to go to Jamaica and become a fish-monger. Now, even as I feel it, I know it isn’t true, and I know if I wait and sleep on it for a few days the book will resolve itself and I will go back to it with renewed purpose and love and drive. But the feelings are valid in the moment, even though my brain is very bored with it already, and it hasn’t even happened yet with my WIP.

You regularly update your blog. Do you find it’s a way to clear your head before settling in to work on your books, or is it simply one of life’s irresistible distractions?

It’s like stretching out. I keep a strict timer on it, and stop after 20 minutes. I find my brain is oiled up and running smoothly with the writing part activated and ready to get to work. If I blog longer than that, it turns into work-writing, and it uses up my energy for the day. Of course, most entries take longer than 20 minutes to write, so that’s why I blog about 3-4 times a week instead of daily. I’ll hit save and finish the next day.

Do you relate well to Arlene, the main character in Gods in Alabama? Did your opinions of the characters change as you wrote about them?

Relate well? Hmm. I don’t know. I love her. I’m interested in her. I’m not her, but she is mine. I wouldn’t want to be her, but I would hang out with her.

Yes, hugely, because the characters changed. The plot changed. The important images changed as themes emerged and I figured out what it was I was writing about. I didn’t sit down and say, “Now I am going to write a book that looks at redemption, at how forgiveness works, at non-traditional mother-daughter relationships, at unconditional love…” I had a character I was interested in and a compelling story that was running through my head – a story that was driving me to write it even as it reinvented itself. As i told the story I figured out what it meant to me, and characters and events changed to serve that.

Previously, you’ve done some acting. Did that help you with writing dialogue or with other aspects of your book?

Oh yes, hugely. It feels like the same place in my brain. That sounds subjective and crazy. Oops. Oh well, it’s true though. I write and act from the same place.

In gods in Alabama, Arlene dreads bringing home Burr, her black boyfriend, to meet her very white, very prejudiced family. Do you think it’s fair that much of the Southern U.S. still gets slapped with the ‘racist redneck’ stereotype?

No, and I don’t think gods in Alabama feeds into this either. I wanted to look at racism as a generational problem in this book – because it is becoming a generational problem – and not only in the South. Arlene and Clarice and Bud, the younger characters in this book, are what I consider to be part of the New South. But their older relatives are Old South. And their grandparents are hardcore Old South. I think that’s realistic. I hope I don’t have to say, “not every Southerner over 50 is a racist. Not every Southerner under 40 is free of prejudice.” I was looking at one family who, like many families all over the country, have racist parents who are in conflict with their children. Their kids grew up in a time when “separate-but-equal” had been thrown joyfully out the window, and so they didn’t get poisoned by what was in their homes.

In a way I think this is a wonderful problem to have, because it means we are getting better, generation by generation. Obviously we haven’t conquered racism. Not just in the South – all over this melting pot of a country. But I hope it won’t be nearly as large an issue for my children, and even less of a problem for my children’s children.

What’s the reaction of fellow Alabamians been to your depiction of the state and its citizens?

Well, the book is selling like crazy there, and at this point, that means word of mouth sales. I get letters from Alabama every week from people saying they know these people, that they have an Aunt Florence, a Cousin Clarice, or (god help them) a Mama. I get letters from folks who say they are these people. And why not? These are my people I am writing about. I am one of these people, too. I see our flaws and our amazing strengths, and I love the South, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.

Every now and again I’ll get a reaction I don’t understand – a defensive reaction. Someone will say “I grew up in the deep south and I am not a racist.” And I’ll nod and say, “Um. Yeah. Me too.” Or someone will say, “You know we don’t ALL spend every freaking weekend in the Wal-Mart?” And I will say, “Okay, neither do I. I almost always spend my weekends at Target. But go to Wal-Mart on a Saturday and you will see about 5,000 people who do.” Anyone who thinks I am making fun of Southerners with this book…wow. No. Never my intent. And I wonder if they read the book I wrote.

I think a book is a conversation between a writer and a reader. The reader brings a lot to the table. Sometimes they bring so much to the table that the book can’t get a word in edgewise. But hey, that’s how some conversations go. I know there have been some books I have treated that way because of what I brought to the conversation. It just wasn’t the book for me. I am sure some readers have had this experience with my work, too. That’s just normal.

Also, I did use some stereotypes, mostly so I could somewhere in the book play with them and turn them on their heads. My favorite example of this is Clarice. A cursory reading, and you’ll walk away from the book thinking she is EveryBelle. But there is another Clarice. Arlene, my narrator, doesn’t realize it, but there are four or five tiny moments on the book when Clarice reveals herself. Arlene witnesses these moments and reports them without pausing or commenting on them, because she misses their import, so therefore it’s easy for a reader to miss them too. That was fun for me, and a challenge, looking for little places where I could let Clarice peek out from behind a first person narrator who has a very biased view of her.

What are some books you find yourself recommending over and over again?

All of Haven Kimmel’s books, but especially The Solace of Leaving Early.
The Garden Angel, Mindy Friddle.
The Dogs of Babel, Carolyn Parkhurst
Eating the Cheshire Cat, Helen Ellis
Anything by Cassandra King, but I have an especial pet fondness for her first book, Making Waves. It may not even be her strongest book—that’s probably The Same Sweet Girls…but I love it.

Which author would you love to be favorably compared to?
Any of the above, and when people have said my black humor reminds them in some small way of Flannery O’Connor, or my sense of place reminds them of Harper Lee, I have had a very hard time not kissing them on the mouth.

What’s up next for you?

I just finished the edits on my new novel, Between, Georgia, that will come out next spring/summer, also from Warner. I’m excited about it. It’s nothing like gods, but I think it’s pretty obvious I wrote it, if that makes sense. It’s my odd salad of humor and violence. It’s the story of two families who live in a very small Georgia town named Between. It’s a real place, so named because it sits directly between Atlanta and Athens. In my fictional version of the town, these families have been rubbing each other the wrong way for generations, and my protagonist is a woman who is biologically a member of one family, but gets stolen as a baby and raised by the other. There’s a little bit of a Romeo and Juliet love story going on, but then an act of random violence ignites the kindling that these families have been piling around a powder keg of their intertwined histories and secrets.

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