During her trek from a tiny town in Alabama to a university in the big city of Chicago, Arlene Fleet makes a deal with God: If she agrees to never lie, never fornicate again, and never return to that little Alabama town, than God will agree to ensure that a certain corpse is never unearthed. Perhaps this is not the kind of deal to be made by a good southern girl, but Arlene Fleet isn't quite a good southern girl. She is, however, the central character in Joshilyn Jackson's breakthrough debut novel, Gods in Alabama.
Jackson wrote Gods in Alabama after a journey up north of her own. Much like Arlene, she was born in the South, and according to her official biography, "raised by a tribe of wild fundamentalists." Also like Arlene, Jackson eventually moved to Chicago, where she taught English at UIC. However, Arlene is no mere stand-in for the author. Although she is often asked if she based the character upon herself, Jackson is ready to admit that she does not have much in common with the promiscuous girl who may or may not be a murderer. In fact, when Arlene Fleet made her very first appearance in a short story titled "Little Dead Uglies," the narrator makes no bones about loathing her. Nevertheless, Jackson became fascinated with the character. "She wouldn't leave me alone," she explained to readersroom.com. "She's such a TINY part of that story. A few sentences. But every time I would go back to work on that story, she would kinda glitter at me... I KNEW she had a secret, and I knew she was something big, a novel waiting to happen. If only I had known what her secret was."
Jackson explored both the character and that secret in Gods in Alabama, and the results are a playful but dark dose of southern gothic humor. It also became Jackson's first published novel after two previous efforts failed to sell. Gods in Alabama more than makes up for any previous failures, though, as both a commercial and critical success and a No. 1 pick at Booksense.com.
Now Jackson, who is also an accomplished actor and playwright, is offering up her second novel, which once again finds the writer stirring up her southern heritage to create a sort of modern take on the infamous rivalry between the Hatfields and the McCoys. In Between, Georgia, Nonny Frett is caught between to feuding families: the Fretts, the family that provided her with a good southern upbringing after stealing her as a child, and the Crabtrees, the family that lost her and wants revenge. Once again, Jackson has crafted another unique and witty novel. Publishers Weekly has called Between, Georgia a "theatrical and well-paced Southern family drama" with "plenty of Southern sass." Jackson, for one, is quick to ensure those who were delighted by the one-of-a-kind voice that she established in Gods in Alabama that Between, Georgia will not disappoint. "It's a different book, but at the same time, I think it's pretty obvious I wrote it," she told southernlitreview.com. "It's that same odd blend of humor and violence."
Good to Know
Back to Top
Jackson's friends have accused her of being "dead inside" because she isn't particularly fond of music. However, that did not stop her from fronting a band and singing PJ Harvey tunes when she was a graduate student.
Before hitting pay dirt with Gods in Alabama, Jackson pursued a career in acting and even toured for a time with a dinner theater troupe.
As well as being a writer of novels and short stories, Jackson has also made a name for herself on the theater circuit, penning such plays as Another Snow White and Screwing Lazarus.
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with Jackson:
"I get depressed if I don't have a little animal or two clotting up the house. Right now we have gerbils that my kids named Hotshot and Snickers. I like to pretend I got them for the kids, but the truth is, I like the little blighters myself and am the one who plays with them and feeds them and such most often. We also have an enormous one-eyed Maine Coon cat named Schubert. I would fear for the rodents, except Schubert is entirely too massive to lumber to the top of the table where the gerbil house sits. This is a very low number of pets for me. My husband thinks it is PLENTY of pets, but I secretly want to add a dog. And a horse. And some lizards...maybe a little chinchilla."
"I've always wanted to be a writer. My mother has a box full of books I wrote and published via the ‘Crayola and stapler' method."
"I can't remember a time when I couldn't read -- I've been doing it since before I had concrete memory. I learned accidentally before preschool by thieving my older brother's books and watching Sesame Street. I think that was one of the reason's I loved To Kill a Mockingbird so much. I first read it when I was a kid, and I identified strongly with Scout when she taught herself reading by sitting on Atticus's lap and looking at his newspapers.
Back to Top
In the summer of 2006, Joshilyn Jackson took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. It's a note-perfect book. I think writers are people who process the world via story, and Harper Lee is the rarest kind of writer; she had something important to say, and she said it flawlessly in a single book. She set the bar on southern fiction.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
If you asked this next year, you'd get a different answer. I read voraciously, and I reread selectively, and while I have a few I always return to (I cycle through everything Jane Austen ever wrote about every two years, I consistently reread E. M. Forster, and my favorite author of all time is NO DOUBT Flannery O'Connor) these are the contemporary books that I am calling my favorites this year -- I know I will reread every one of these soon.
The Solace of Leaving Early by Haven Kimmel -- I love everything Kimmel has ever written, but her first novel, about finding all kinds of love in the ruins of broken families, remains my favorite. It's hard to find a book this elegant, precise, and intelligent that has such a warm heart.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen -- The perfect evocation of a specific time and place, Gruen's Depression-era circus tale captured my imagination. I could see every scene unfolding, smell the animals and taste the close air of the train. It's a fantastic book that's also just a heck of a lot of fun to read.
Sunset and Sawdust by Joe R. Lansdale -- An oaty, earthy, bawdy western with a noir flare. Not my usual read at all, but Lansdale is such a superior stylist and Sunset is such a forthright, centered, strong female protagonist that I couldn't put this one down. The language is crude, but no more than is fitting for hobos and mill workers and out-of-work cowboys in Depression-era Texas.
Diana Lively Is Falling Down by Sheila Curran -- Who says the comedy of manners is dead? Curran revitalizes it as her Diana moves from stuffy British academia to the still-wild West of America to help a green theme park come into being. She brings a four-year-old kleptomaniac, her meticulous son, and the universe's most beastly husband along for the ride. Its intricate plot unfolds in such pleasurable, hilarious ways and with such graceful language that I can't wait to dig back into this one.
Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read -- I hope and pray this debut novel is the start of a series. The heroine, Madeline Dare, is a blue-blooded but impoverished debutante who gets caught up in a twenty-year-old murder mystery. It's a page-turner, and the voice is so sure and smart, so nuanced and blackly funny, that I can't wait for more.
The Garden Angel by Mindy Friddle -- This is a quirky, quiet, funny, big-hearted debut about an unlikely friendship between a house-haunted rebel named Cutter and a fragile faculty wife. The pitch-perfect writing, strong sense of place, and fresh turns of phrase set this book apart.
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones -- Set during the Atlanta Child Murders, Jones captures three young voices as kids continue to live out their small, focused lives in a community under tremendous stress and weighed down with fear. It's gorgeous and deep-hearted.
The God File by Frank Turner Hollan -- A wrongfully imprisoned man tries to find God in tiny moments of grace in a brutal maximum security prison. This book is not for the faint of heart, but I'll be rereading it for years to come.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel -- I resisted reading this book because of backlash from all the hype and the premise seemed so improbable. Boy spends years on tiny lifeboat with...tiger? Sure he does. But Martel pulls it off gloriously and within this highly entertaining, absorbing, fun novel is a gorgeous understanding of faith.
Eating the Cheshire Cat by Helen Ellis -- Delicious gothic fun. I picked this book up on a whim during a beach vacation one year. I've taken it on three more vacations since to re-enjoy the biting black humor and sharp writing as the mortal enmity between a sugar-mouthed viper of a belle, her obsessive best friend, and an oppressed but steel-spined caretaker's daughter culminates in explosives of all kinds.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
The joke in my family is that I will watch anything. It's sadly true. I've sat through movies that anyone with a modicum of self-respect would have walked on after ten minutes. I endured every endless minute of Howard the Duck, for the love of all that's holy. That said, I don't really love movies the way I love books. I watch them, but it's mostly disposable entertainment to me. I don't tend to talk about them or remember them and I don't want a movie to make me think too hard. That's what BOOKS are for.
My favorite kind of movies are probably big, brawly, sprawly visual films -- True Romance, Grosse Point Blank, Snatch, Serenity... that sort of thing. Purely entertaining, darkly funny, and suspenseful.
Every now and again, a really good movie will capture me, but it's usually because of its association with a book. I can't stop analyzing Capote, but in part because I read In Cold Blood right before I saw it and the film refocused my perceptions and added layers to an already phenomenal reading experience. I own Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, A&E's Pride and Prejudice, and Merchant Ivory's Room with a View and Howards End, but I usually watch those DVDs after rereading those books; I love the books so much I want to continue dwelling in the stories.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I don't like songs. My husband, a music junkie, says I may very well be dead inside. I never have music on when I am writing, although sometimes I will leave a TV on low in another room so I can hear voices talking but can't make out what they are saying. I like the lyrics to some songs, and I like some organ music, but I rarely buy CDs or even remember to turn the radio on in the car.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
The Girls by Lori Lansens. Because I'm only 75 pages into it, but I already want to pop the cork in a decent merlot and yap about it with someone.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Novels! Novels, novels, novels. Excepting Flannery O'Connor, I almost never read short fiction. I read even less nonfiction, and I scarcely ever touch poetry. The novel is my first love, and I am faithful to it, most days. I like to give friends and family the ones that I really want to talk about. I suspect The Solace of Leaving Early may have ratcheted up another notch on the best seller lists in part because I couldn't stop buying copies every time anyone I knew had a birthday or an anniversary.
I am always buying books for my husband and stuffing them into his hands and saying, "Hurry, read this. I HAVE to talk about it with you!" That's the kind of book I want to get, too. One that the giver wants me to read so we can go talk about it.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I have two little kids, one still a year and change away from going to school. I don't have time for the luxury of ritual. Oh how I wish I did! It would be romantic and fun to say, "I can only write a pink room..." or "I can't work if there's a cat within a mile of me..." But the truth is much more pragmatic and dull: If I get an hour or more with no kids in the house, I work.
I do like a messy office. I have peaceful trash piles growing in slow heaps all over and my desk is a wasteland of water glasses and pens and cards and spoons and 15 differently scented lotions I stole from hotels and endless wrappers from bitter black chocolate bars. It makes me feel safe and happy, like I am in a cave or a burrow, to sit surrounded on all sides by walls of junk with the blinds down. I don't like sunshine getting in and touching me when I am trying to work. Does that count?
What are you working on now?
I'm writing a novel called The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. It's the story of LeeAnne Rainwater, a securely married, work-at-home mom whose placid life seems comfortable enough, until the night she wakes up to find a dead girl standing at the foot of her bed. The girl is Molly Dufresne, a 14-year-old neighborhood girl who has stumbled into LeeAnne's pool and drowned. Her death is ruled accidental. But LeeAnne's daughter, Shelby, is only a year younger than the drowned girl, and her life is eerily echoing Molly's. Afraid for her child, LeeAnne begins to investigate what really happened the night Molly died.
LeeAnne has some baggage of her own, family matters that she has faithfully kept buried for almost two decades. As she follows the chain of choices and secrets that led Molly to her backyard pool, LeeAnne begins to lose track of what she is investigating -- Molly's death, or her own life. She must decide if she will trade the truth for peace and silence, or risk everything she loves to confront her past and protect her daughter.
If you could choose one new writer to be "discovered," who would it be?
Small-press experimental fiction writer Lily James. Her novel, High Times in Fabulous Toledo is dense with ideas and thick with humor. So entertaining. She's brilliant but very young. I think the books she writes in her 30s and 40s will be what my great-grandkids and their great-grandkids study in college -- she's Samuel Beckett's intellectual heir apparent.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
The industry is hideously competitive and can eat you up from the inside out. Choose to not compete. Don't be small-minded or a slotty thinker. Decide that the only person who can fill your slot is you, and to fill it, all you have to do is write the book that only you can write.
I'm not saying don't try to publish. I'm saying that shouldn't be the main goal. Of course you look for an agent, a publisher, you submit and query, but think of it as a boring job, like litter box cleaning. Try to forget your queries exist the second after you put the flag up on your mailbox and invest absolutely nothing but time in that part of it. Don't put even the smallest piece of your heart there. You won't get that piece back.
Save your love and your hopes and your empathies for the actual work. Write to entertain yourself, to explain the world to yourself, to tell the stories that are pounding around in your chest cavity, yelling to get out. The writing is all that matters. That other stuff, being published and what not, that's just business. Money and/or recognition are perks that may or may not come, even after you have published. Writing will always be there.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
It took seven years and three manuscripts from the day I grew enough of a spine to take a serious run at a career in fiction to the day I sold my first book. Before I grew the spine, I spent probably another seven years working on craft for the sheer pleasure of it -- writing stories, having them read, revising them, taking classes, and of course, reading every book, especially contemporary books, that I could get my grubby little paws on.
When I did "break in," I did it exactly the way all the Writer's Digest books tell you to: I sent out umpty-million queries until I found the right agent, and now he sells my books. It's a myth that you have to live in New York and have connections. I live way out in the cotton-soaked wilds of Georgia, and I didn't know a single person who was actually in the industry when I started. It can be done.
Write well. Never say die.
Back to Top