Joshilyn Jackson is an Atlanta-based writer who has penned four beautiful novels that are at once delicate, gracious, canny and boisterous, and very cool. All four of the novels possess an antebellum hipness that resides side by side with great storytelling, not an easy feat. The characters in Gods In Alabama, Between, Georgia, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and her latest novel due out in June 2010 Backseat Saints are all humanly familiar in the most universal sense, but anchored with a southern-ness that is fascinatingly refreshing, because it goes against stereotype. Non-Southerners that spend any significant time in the South are often struck by the quirky multiculturalism, gothic weirdness, and nuance of manners which can define social behavior. They are struck by it because the image of the South and Southerners that has become stuck in the national consciousness is often one of backwardness, entrenchment, and myopic bigotry. Jackson’s rollicking stories with their rich characterization go a long way towards shattering this image of southern character, while exposing another culture that is hypnotically engaging. Joshilyn was kind enough to let me ask her some questions about this dynamic, as well as query her about her process and motivation as a writer.
PH Joshilyn, you seem to have taken a circuitous path to full-time novelist. Please do tell the tale.
JJ. Oh, I’ve always been a writer. As a little kid I wrote and illustrated my own picture books. As a teenager and young woman, I filled reams of blank books with poetry, short stories and horror novels (I was and remain a huge Stephen King fan). I love theatre, and did quite a bit of acting, so it may seem externally circuitous, but it was a pretty straight shot. Even during my Black Box days, I was writing plays. Now my theatre background lets me read my own audio books, and for me, writing and acting are connected—they seem to come from the same place in my brain.
PH I just have to say that the character of Ro Grandee/Rose Mae Lolley in Backseat Saints is, in my opinion, the most resonant character you have created as of yet. Do you feel similarly about her?
JJ Thank you! I hope so. I was completely obsessed with her. Rose Mae was such a cipher to me. I felt like a lunatic detective, stalking my own creation. I hope I have done her justice on the page. It was a challenge to write such a self-deceptive and multi-layered creature; she had to speak in three voices to mirror the Tarot card reading in Chapter 2: her rowdy past voice is Rose Mae Lolley, her complicit present voice is Ro Grandee, and finally she speaks as Ivy Rose, the woman she hopes to become. But they all had to be the same person, in transition. At the same time, I wanted her to be relatable and human…It was hugely challenging and both exhausting and fulfilling to write. I always say my books have a Broadway cast of thousands, but Rose was so loud and strong in my head that there wasn’t room for much else. BACKSEAT SAINTS is a one woman show, which is a very different kind of book for me. It’s all Rose Mae.
PH The dyad that victim and batterer make is an essential component of the story of Backseat Saints. What was your inspiration to tell this particular story, and why the close examination of the cycle of abuse?
JJ I didn’t decide to write about an issue. It was the character. I wanted to know Rose, how the drifty, long haired ballerina girl in gods in Alabama becomes the pointy, bobbed fierce-eyed creature who torments that book’s narrator. That said, Rose’s family history is laid out in Gods in Alabama, so I knew she came with a lot of baggage. That was an obstacle more than an incentive. Her history is very different from my own. I began researching and trying to inhabit Rose’s life, but at the start, I admit I couldn’t truly empathize. Battered women can seem so strong! Rose is smart and funny and sexy and rowdy and strong, certainly. And yet they and she “let” this terrible keep happening by staying, by going back. I knew if I wanted to write her well, I had to understand this mindset. I knew that like many real women in this situation, Rose’s history had taught her that this is how men behave and how marriage is. I had to find a parallel to the things I understand, to my own self destructive tendencies, and then she opened up for me in new ways. That’s what I hope this book will do; I want readers who can’t imagine why these women “don’t just leave,” to come to see how complex the relationships can be, how deep the history goes, because writing it, doing the research for it, I certainly had that experience. And when you truly understand a thing, you can work to change it. No one wants to be approached with pity…pity implies looking down from a place of smug superiority. Women who are trying to get out of deadly marriages don’t need or deserve pity; they need empathy and admiration, because what they are doing is so damn hard and brave.
PH There are novelists, playwrights, and musicians that use a rootedness of location in such a way that the location, i.e., NYC in Sex In the City, Billy Friedkin’s hazy, sleazy emotionally bankrupt LA in To Live and Die In LA, John R. Power’s very Catholic Chicago in Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really reflect up, becomes a character itself. I feel that the Deep South has taken on this significance in your novels. To what degree is this personality of regionality inescapable for you, and to what degree is it a finely tuned vehicle to tell the story?
JJ A sense of place matters to me so much. I love it and need it to be satisfied as a reader, and as a writer, I have a hard time writing scenes in any place I do not know well—down to what the air smells like in different seasons. That said, I haven’t always lived in the South, and a third of this book is set in Berkeley, so clearly I don’t feel stuck in my native land. I couldn’t write the Cali scenes until I went and lived in a Bay Area friend’s basement, though. I spent my days wandering the city to get a feel for it. I think place is a thing you can learn, so I think I could escape the South if I wanted to…I don’t want to. Maybe because home is so important in all my books—-and this is home to me, no matter where I wander. Maybe because I am so ambivalent about it. We have a bloody ugly history, and I hate the way things can be here, and yet I love it here.
PH The South is hitting a place in the cultural zeitgeist in which it is, well, cool. Outkast was able to channel the energy, verve, funkiness, and crunkiness of the south into a pop phenomenon on their last two recordings. Shows like Justified and True Blood are finding a place with wide audiences who seem to be fascinated with the language, culture, contradictions, nuanced graces and tensions of the south. I’d like to hear your analysis of why this might be happening now, and how you see your Novels surfing this wave of interest.
JJ Because it’s dying. The south is becoming more and more homogenized. All of America’s regional cultures are getting sanded down because of the internet and cable television and the way modern life has made us all nomads. The melting pot has heated up again and is re-melting us all into smoother things. I think strong regional cultures speak to us now because we are losing them, and losing some of our identity in this process.
PH I have to ask….is your religious background Church of Christ? There are some telling references in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming that might lead one to that conclusion. I grew up in the C.O.C myself, went to Harding U, etc, and that is a whole kettle of weird…
PH My first exposure to your work was Gods In Alabama, and I was struck by the combination of very lyrical prose, strong characterizations, and you’re willing to take risks with the story. Having Arlene Fleet have a Black boyfriend seemed at first to me to be a bit farfetched, considering from which she came. What was your reasoning for making this such a central element of the novel?
JJ Well I was writing about a very specific phenomenon—I call it generational racism. That’s why the book is set in the 80’s instead of in the present. Arlene and I were born about the same time; and my parents were a bridge generation. My grandparents were share croppers, in direct competition for survival with black sharecroppers, all of them desperately, starvation-level poor in the lingering wake of the Depression. They hated each other.
A lot of people in my parent’s generation, coming of age in the fifties and sixties, were smart enough to realize this was toxic, and they protected their kids from it. My grandparents had a pretty raw vocabulary and some abhorrent ideologies but they were forbidden to express those ideas or use those words in front of me and my brother. We grew up never knowing they were racists, raised by parents who deliberately worked to keep that poison from getting into us.
As an adult, that protection fell away, and I saw that these people, some of whom I loved very dearly, had some ideas that I found repulsive. I wasn’t alone—neither is Arlene. Clarice, who stayed in Alabama is also not a racist. In the same way, my friends were not racists, but they had grandparents and great aunties that they loved who came from a different era and who had this poisonous mindset. I wanted to write about how my generation struggled to compromise between their love for family members who kissed their skinned knees and made them cookies and the grown up understanding that these beloved people are racists. Do you compromise with that? Who bends and how? I’m not sure Arlene and Florence and Burr come to the “right” solution—is there a right solution?—but all of them bend for each other.
PH I’m forever trying to explain the calm, Wiley, acerbic grace of Southern women. Your characters reek of this. This beautiful way of taking on adversity and keeping their shit together, not tipping their hand, not caving to histrionics. I grew up watching my mother make an art of it. Talk to me about this!
JJ I don’t think I can! I can’t quantify it, but I know it to the bone. It isn’t something I set out to make my characters be, they just are that way, because that’s how the women I love most are.
PH There is a phenomenally rich tradition of southern writing which includes Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, and William Faulkner, but also Zora Neal Hurston, Sterling Allen Brown and Eudora Welty, not to mention your contemporaries like Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy, and Barbara Kingsolver. How do you see yourself slotting into this “tradition”, if you feel you do at all?
JJ Well those people you named—they are all writers I love. O’Connor is my favorite writer ever to put pen to paper. Certainly they have all influenced me, and I hope to God that influence shows.
PH Your novels strike me as being extremely cinematic. Are there any plans for any of them to be adapted to film?
JJ Well, sure. I mean, we’ve sold film rights several times. Maybe one day one of them will actually make it into production. That would be a lot of fun! But it is like Lotto in a lot of ways, and I try to stay out of it.
PH In your bio you talk about your Church community, and how they are a big source of strength, support, and family to you. Your work can be quite raw at times, sexual, human, and fleshly. This would draw judgment and criticism in many spiritual communities. Can you tell us a little bit about this dynamic in your experience?
JJ We live in a broken world, and so I write about broken people. The key for me, as a Christian writer, is to try my best not to write anything gratuitous. Some of my characters have…colorful vocabularies and my scenes are often visceral or overtly sexual or violent, but all these things are serving a purpose, and I think my purpose is good. I am interested in grace and redemption as a writer, and you can’t write about redemption if you are afraid to write about sin. You can’t write about grace if you write about perfect people who do not need any. (Also, those people do not exist.)
I’ve gotten a little flack here and there, but not from my church. The folks at my church are more focused on grace and hope and mission then worrying about if one of my characters says the eff word. They all are too busy wrestling with the beams in their own eyes to try and pick other people’s motes. I am struggling with my beams, too, with their help and support. In my church community, we struggle to be kinder better gentler more tolerant people every day, and we practice on each other. We fail, of course. We are human. But we just get up and try again.
PH What are you working on next?
JJ Oh Lord! After THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING and BACKSEAT SAINTS, ghosts and murder and violence and darkness, I wanted to write a comedy. Of course, since it is my idea of a comedy, it begins with a fifteen year old skeleton being dug up in the backyard when the Slocumb family has a pool put in….