Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Author Interview: Joshilyn Jackson

Interviewed by Heather F.

I have thought long and hard about what to write about Joshilyn Jackson, mainly because I don't want to come off all fan-girlish and slightly insane. But I love this author and my adoration only grew after this interview. I first "met" her when her first novel, gods in Alabama, was published. It jumped out at me from the library shelf, I took it home, and I devoured it. My rave reviews got Andi to read it and she too fell for the book. Then we found the Joshilyn's blog and fell in love with her personality as well. Brilliant, warm, and wildly funny, this is definitely one author you need to check out.

HF: I read that you were a military kid growing up. How did growing up on the move affect your writing?

JJ: I have no idea. Really. I am the least self aware person alive. I almost never know what I am feeling until I see what I do, and I don't spend a lot of time looking back or trying to figure out cause and effect in my life. As an angst-filled young playwright in my early twenties, I went to therapy. Going to therapy was like wearing black or smoking clove cigarettes---everyone did these things. I was the one who dropped out after six months out of sheer, unwavering boredom.

I think I tell stories precisely because I get so bored fingering my warty little feelings as I process the events of my life. The stories I tell myself (and eventually write down) are, first and foremost, entertaining to me, but I've discovered they also very sneakily allow me to decide what I value and where I draw the line between right and wrong in the middle of all life's messy gray. It is not fiction as therapy; my books are not autobiographical and none of the characters are me. It's telling stories as a way of explaining how the world works ---the same way mythology and nursey rhymes work, but on a personal level.

As a writer, I find I am unfailingly interested by how love (and other, darker human connections) grows in a finite life span in this dangerous environment we call The World. I'm interested in grace, faith, redemption, and identity. I'm sure these abiding interests come out of my life, but I can’t draw lines from thing to thing and say AH! This character represents this phase, or that story line or idea or theme comes out of growing up as an army brat... If I could, I probably wouldn't write.

HF: What are your thoughts on Southern stereotypes in literature? How conscious are you of Southern stereotypes as you write?

JJ: Stereotypes are toys. I played with them a lot in gods in Alabama because I had the luxury of an ex-pat for a narrator. Arlene hasn't been to Alabama for close to a decade, and she presents her relatives as stereotypes. The Steel Magnolia aunt, the Belle of a cousin, the Golden Boy Quarterback…Then Arlene and Burr go to Alabama and those simple presentations begin to get twisted and turned around, because people are more than the categories we slot them into. I had a lot of fun nullifying Arlene's first simple, stereotypical presentation of the Possett people.

HF: Describe your ideal place to write?

JJ: My crocodile green office, in my house. Preferably no one is home but me and the dog and the cat. Preferably, the cat is sleeping beside me and the dog is not destroying my shoes, but I'll take what I can get.

HF: Do you have any writing habits? Rituals?

JJ: Not really! I just wrote an essay about that for the Reading Group Guide in the back of the paperback of Between, Georgia. I really don't. I just need a door that closes and a little time.

OH! I do have these things I call my Fantasy Pants. I LOVE my Fantasy Pants. They are these huge Indian print drawstring things – I have three pairs. They are very hideous and comfortable and you could climb right on in here into them with me. We could build a stage and put on a show in here. I find I work better in Fantasy Pants.

HF: What writers have influenced your work the most? What is it about those particular writers that you admire?

JJ: I'm such an eclectic reader, and I think that's where my weird brand of humor and violence comes from. As a child I loved both classic kid-lit and pulp fiction equally. I'd read A Little Princess and then Conan the Barbarian, often in a single sitting. I'd switch between Trixie Belden's gentle adventures and then head to Barsoom or Tarzan's dark jungle with Edgar Rice Burroughs.

As an adult, I read the same way. I love all the southern Gothic greats, of course: Tennessee Williams, Harper Lee, Truman Capote, Lee Smith… Flannery O'Conner is my favorite writer. I also love "Book Club" books that walk the line between lit fic and commercial fiction. I want the writing to be strong, but I DO like a great big scoop of plot, both as a writer and a reader, and yet I want characters who are multi-dimensional. Jodi Picoult and Haven Kimmel walk that line wonderfully. Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants was my favorite book last year. But I also read the heck out of Manly Gunplay books, the grittier the better, the sort of thing Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly and Lee Child write. I unabashedly love early and current Stephen King.

HF: Who is your favorite writer that most people probably haven't heard of?

JJ: Mindy Friddle. I flat out loved The Garden Angel and I am waiting for her next book with eagerness.

HF: Do you ever re-read your favorite books? If so, which have you re-read most often? Why does that work appeal to you so much?

JJ: Oh Lord, all I DO is reread. The first time through a book, I read like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi on crack, fastfastfast, eating up the pages, simply to see what happens next. Then I am either done with the book, or I am not. If I am done, I put it in the basement. If I am not, it goes on my reread shelf. I'll reread for character, for the beauty of the language, for the humor, for a thousand reasons. After each read through. I either put the book downstairs, or back on my reread shelf.

I don't think I will ever finish reading THE SOLACE OF LEAVING EARLY or A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY or about 50 other books I could name.

HF: If you could have three (living) authors over for coffee or a rich, red wine, whom would you chose?

JJ: Oh hrm, I don't know. I've been blessed to meet quite a few of my heroes already. It's so delightful when they turn out to be lovely, you know? They mostly do. Sometimes, they do not, and you REALLY don't want them to be grumpy or self-important or have terrible gas. You don't want them to be quite human, and yet, most of the time, they are. What's weird is, I've met a writer whose work blows me away and I could not stand the writer. A vile, rude human! And yet, I found disliking the person did not ruin the work for me at all.

I'd rather pick dead ones. Can I have dead ones? I would love to talk to Flannery O'Connor. And then I wish I could go back in time and eat with a young Harper Lee and a living Truman Capote. And since Harper Lee is very much alive, I refuse to count her as my third and instead will go get wildly drunk with Samuel Beckett. Huzzah to Mother Ireland!

HF: What are some of your favorite things to do, other than writing, reading and blogging?

JJ: I like my kids. I like to go to their soccer games and ballet recitals. My husband and I are TREMENDOUS geeks and we play online games, notably World of Warcraft. I love to travel and go see stuff---I especially like medieval things. The Cloisters is my favorite museum in the world.

HF: Your blog is among my favorites. How long have you been blogging? Why did you start and why do you continue to do so?

JJ: Thank you! I've been blogging since gods in Alabama sold. I started because novelists almost have to have a website these days, and I didn't want mine to be static. I wanted to give people a reason to bookmark the site, to come back, and to be introduced to my writing---albeit off the cuff, light writing. I also wanted to be accessible and open to talking about my work and other books and whatnot with readers and with other writers.

I've continued for a lot of reasons…Mostly because it'’s a nice wake up exercise that gets my brain ready to do my real writing. Also because a strange little community has built up on the blog. The FTK Regs, aka My Best Beloveds, and I value that community. I'm an extrovert, and I have chosen a job that puts me alone in a room for hours at a time with a host of imaginary people and no heartbeats but my own and sometimes the cat's. FTK is a way to bring real people into my office. I like feeling connected.

HF: What is one thing not many people may know about you?

JJ: It's my secret dream to own a little slice of land in some tiny southern University town where I can have goats. And chickens. And a pony! AND A MONKEY! And a red hot super fast internet connection.

HF: So, what are you currently working on now?

JJ: Less than three weeks ago, I finished a book called THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING. It's a ghost story and a mystery and what I call a love story for married people. It's about these two sisters who grew up in a family that had a very literal skeleton in the closet. The oldest, Thalia, is an actress and she is about as unconventional as they come, while Laurel has buried all the Gray family's dark strangeness in favor of a pretty and regular life—a marriage she thinks is solid, a beloved daughter, a successful career as an art quilter…

One night, Laurel wakes to find the ghost of a young neighbor, Molly Dufresne, standing by her bed. Molly was her daughter's best friend, and she leads the way to her own small body, floating lifelessly in the backyard pool. Molly can't rest, and Laurel is not equipped to decode the cryptic messages of ghosts. She has to call in her strange and estranged sister, but asking for Thalia's help is like walking into a frying pan protected only by a thin layer of Crisco. Meanwhile, Molly has opened a door, and that long buried family skeleton comes walking right through it…

I'm really proud of this book. It's a helluva ride.

I am just now beginning to peck around in a new book---it may end up being called TEXAS ROSE RED. It depends. Right now Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo are very important, but that may change.

Be sure to check out Joshilyn's latest book, Between, Georgia, out in paperback on May 2nd. And be extra special sure to read her near daily posts at her blog, Faster Than Kudzu.


iliana said...

Great interview Heather! I'm so excited I chose Gods in Alabama as one of the books for the southern reading challenge. I have to go visit her blog now :)

Heather said...

Thanks Iliana! She was so fun to interview. All her answers were so great! And I really hope you love gods in Alabama, it's a great read. And her blog is hilarious!