Friday, September 19, 2008

Interview with bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson

Some of you may remember my reviews of Joshilyn Jackson's books: "gods in Alabama", "Between, Georgia" and "the girl who stopped swimming". Those who don't, please have a look before you read on:
Joshilyn knows how much I love her books, so she kindly agreed to be interviewed on this blog. Big mistake. Big, big, BIG! I sent her about 2 million questions, and not of the quick "what’s your favourite ice cream" kind, either.

The interview below is a compromise between Joshilyn’s satisfying my curiosity and writing a new novel, LOL.

Yvonne: Because I spent 16 years living in South Africa, what struck me most about the book was the deft way in which you wrote about inter-racial relationships and racial prejudice. A southern belle, a black boyfriend, her family's reaction... what made you choose this particular topic as a conflict-builder?

Joshilyn: Strangely enough, I didn’t choose it. It HAPPENED. Arlene and a then un-named Burr were very minor characters in a short story I wrote a good ten years before I started gods in Alabama. When I wrote the book, Burr already WAS black and had been for a decade. In the original idea for the novel, Burr was a minor character who did not go to Alabama with Arlene. He was a very different guy---artsy type with long braids.

Luckily, I never seem to stick to the original plan when I am writing a book. The characters take off in odd directions I haven’t planned, and that’s when things seem to get good. Burr became Burr and he was dern well going to go to Bama with her, and the plot grew organically from who he was as a person.
If you are interested, the short story is up on my website:

Yvonne: I’ve read it, and now the analytic in me wants to re-read “gods in alabama” to do a character comparison. But before I do that, let’s look at your second book, "Between, Georgia" (for our readers, Between is a place in Georgia). The narrator's adoptive mother is deaf and has a hearing twin who becomes her first interpreter. The setting, this foreign world of sign language, is beautifully incorporated into the plot. How did you decide to explore this particular community and how did you do your research?

Joshilyn: Once again, this was not the plan…I knew I wanted my narrator to be raised by spinster sisters in a symbiotic relationship. I wanted Stacia to be physically dependent on Ginny, and Ginny to be emotionally dependent on Stacia. Originally, I planned for Stacia to be deaf, but as Ginny’s problems became more clear (she has severe OCD), I realized the relationship was not equal. I thought then that Stacia would be born deaf and blind, but that made her highly representational art work impossible, and Stacia’s porcelain dolls were already becoming important to the story.

I asked my friend Mr. Google how a person could be born deaf and become blind later without including some sort of freak bee accident. (I already had a freak bee accident in gods in Alabama, you understand…) Mr. Google told me about Usher’s syndrome. At first I thought Stacia would only appear in the first chapter, do a little drive through baby stealing, and then retire, so my research was minimal. But like Burr, she slipped out of the noose of my plan and started taking over the book. It got to a point where I realized she was a main character, and doing things that I was not sure a person with Usher’s syndrome was capable of doing.
I realized I had to be respectful and thorough if I was going to write about something so far outside my own experience. I wanted to get it right, you know? The deaf-blind community here in Atlanta adopted me and let me hang out at their parties and come to their homes and see how they live day to day and let me test drive the technology that helps them lead more independent lives. They were awesome to me, especially a woman named Alice Turner, who was Stacia’s age and grew up in the same kind of small town Georgia where Stacia grows up.
Hanging with Alice, I came to I realized that I wasn’t letting Stacia do TOO MUCH – I was limiting her in ways real people with Usher’s syndrome are not limited. People are amazing.

Yvonne: That sentiment is apparent throughout the novel: this politically correct idea that deaf people are exactly like non-deaf people... except that it comes from the heart, not from a set of social rules. I admire the way you can write about race and physical disability without all the usual hang-ups.

I also admire the way you write about motherhood. The strength of a mother's love (not necessarily a blood mother) is the theme of all three books, though it's most noticeable in "the girl who stopped swimming". Were you already a mother when you wrote about it in "gods in alabama"?

Joshilyn: Oh yes. I wrote most of gods while pregnant with my second child. I had written two novels before that, but they did not sell.Motherhood changed me in a thousand fantastic ways, and one of those ways was, it made me a better writer. I think before my children were born, my writing was colder and less personal. I was fearless, but I suspect I also was somewhat heartless in my work. Well, maybe not fearless, but I wasn’t at all prone to the bone deep unending terror that comes with loving something so perfectly itself and separate from you and small and helpless. These days, I am driven to story telling by three parts love and one part fear---motherhood’s cocktail.

Yvonne: I know the cocktail well, and I do believe it is what makes your novels unforgettable. Which one of them is your favourite?

Joshilyn: Oh it’s always the book I am going to write NEXT. The book I am going to write NEXT is always perfect and lovely, because it is purely in my head and I do not have to actually WORK ON IT. The book I am writing NOW is always my least favorite, because I am trying to get it out of my head and on to PAPER, and that is a very long ugly fraught trip with mis-steps and frustrations. Sometimes, it goes beautifully, but never for very long, and then I have to grind and flail around until I find the path again.

Right now I am writing a companion book for gods in Alabama – A minor character from that book, Rose Mae Lolley, wanted her own book, and she was loud enough in my head to get her way. It’s not a sequel---there is very little character/plot overlap---mostly it is Rose in Texas and California, after she has graduated high school and left Alabama. She’s nuts and she’s broken in a lot of ways, but I am rooting for her, hard. We’ll see how she turns out. The NEXT book, the book after this one, that’s the book I love best right now – I think about it as a way to relax my brain when writing Rose gets too hard.

Or did you mean, which book do I think is “best?” I am most proud of THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING. I think I made a leap there, and I was writing about things I care deeply about---at its heart this is a book about poverty, both earthly poverty and poverty of spirit. Also, the character of Thalia cracks me up. I cackled like a maniac while writing every scene she’s in, and then I would begin composing apologetic notes to my mother for perpetrating her dialog.

Yvonne: Joshilyn, you’re a darling. Thank you so much for talking to us. Joshilyn’s website is and she has a cool blog going off it on where she writes about her life and family and the books she likes. It’s a great read!

BTW, you can get her books in paper on Amazon or electronically on EbookMall.


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting interview. I have never heard of this author before, but after reading this and checking out her books, this looks likes an author I need to try out!!!


Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

I enjoyed this interview so much I have just added these three books to my shopping list. I can’t wait for my next trip to the bookstore!

Jane Kennedy Sutton
Author of The Ride