Interview: August 8, 2014
Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including GODS IN ALABAMA and A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY. Her most recent book, SOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY, is about a single mom who stumbles into the middle of a mini-mart robbery, where the actions of a stranger cause her to fall irrevocably in love with him. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Rebecca Munro, Jackson talks about her development as a strong female voice --- how she overcame her fear of “being taken too seriously” in order to write what she considers her best novel yet. She also lovingly discusses her eclectic cast of characters, the way fiction creates a safe space for readers to suspend their disbelief, and why it’s so hard for her to turn away a good metaphor.
Bookreporter.com: Full of love, faith and even a few twists, SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY is nothing less than a completely original and riveting story. What inspired you to write such a complex novel?
Joshilyn Jackson: Thank you, I am so glad you enjoyed it. I do think SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY is my “best” book (whatever that means). It is, for me, a brave book. I am a tricksy hobbit of a writer. I am funny; I do verbal backflips; I have plot twists. My books always say awful things about how brutal life is, but I sugar them with humor, and I worry that in the past I have done this a little too effectively. I think as a younger woman I was afraid of being taken seriously, so I hid behind the humor, letting my narrators use humor as a coping mechanism. For example, some readers came away thinking GODS IN ALABAMA, which is an absolute abattoir of a story, was a comedy.
The funny and the sweet are, to me, only funny and sweet if they are brave acts against the relentless terrors of mortality and human cruelty and human appetite. I have always written into this, but I am more experienced and bolder in the ways I approach this now.
SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY is definitely one of my books: funny and twisty and, ultimately, hopeful. I think you can tell I wrote it. But it’s more overt about being a novel of ideas. I said things that I deeply believe loud enough to be heard, even over this wild plot where sudden love blooms in the middle of a hold-up gone wrong in a Circle K Minimart.
BRC: In SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY you introduce many profoundly different --- yet equally strong --- women. Are these the type of characters you enjoy reading about and surrounding yourself with? What inspired you to create such unique characters?
JJ: Oh Lord. Isn’t Paula horrible? I love her. There is something utterly terrifying and enthralling about women who boldly say what they are thinking. It is not very Southern. Paula is never passive aggressive. Paula would never say, “Bless her heart.” I am very attracted to this type in books and in life, because I aspire to it. My best friend is from Detroit, and she will flat TELL you. Meanwhile, I am so Southern that I was 40 before I could ask directly for a cup of coffee instead of getting vaporous and hinting.
Shandi is a little spoiled and a little overprotected. She gets a lot of help from both parents and she leans heavily on her best friend, but I don’t think that’s weak. I think that’s young. She is only 21, and she’s already a mother. I love the fierce way she loves her son, even though she was a child herself when she had him. There’s a moment late in the book where she does this huge, brave thing, all by herself. She waffles about it and has all these places she thinks to run for help, but then she does it, all alone. I love her so much in that moment.
BRC: Shandi and Paula are full of emotion and often metaphorical in their use of language --- the very opposite of William Ashe. When writing William, was it challenging to portray both his grief and his medical condition accurately? Did you speak to people on the same spectrum as William for research?
JJ: William is on the spectrum, certainly, but so are many members of my family and my friends. I didn’t research being on the spectrum in terms of who William is in the same way I didn’t research Type A’s for Paula or extroverts for Walcott. The autism research I did was mainly focused on the science --- genetics and therapies and drug protocols.
The trickiest thing about writing William was honing the language. I do love a metaphor. I have never kicked a simile out of bed for eating crackers. William knows a metaphor when he sees one, but he thinks figurative language is inexact and exasperating.
That said, he uses a lot of comparatives, especially between human behavior and animal behavior. I had to let him draw those connecting lines while being vigilant that the comparisons never slipped into metaphor. Sometimes it did, and sometimes they were metaphors that I loved. So I had to be ruthless. It was an amplified version of that thing all novelists have to do --- we can’t keep words, or images, or scenes that do not serve the whole book. Writing William was about overwriting, paring down, rewriting, paring down. I probably kept one of every three words I wrote in his voice.
But he was also a blast to write! I was playing with the old Southern Gothic trick of taking a stereotype or archetype and then twisting it, usually to make a point about social justice. I use a lot of hero tropes for him, and then undercut them all. It was such fun to create this romance-novel-level-yummy blond sex god who is internally so broken, so sad and so very, very weird.
BRC: Shandi’s miracle son, Natty Bumppo, though a definitive genius, still maintains the cuteness and misunderstandings we expect from a three-year-old --- ending his verbs in “ed” after the shooting, for example. Was it difficult to find this balance and keep him believable as a three-year-old?
JJ: I don’t directly base my characters on real people, not in any one-to-one, recognizable way. You can find phrases my Aunt Susan used in the mouths of about 15 characters spread through all my books, but there is no character who is Aunt Susan.
Kids are the exception. You can’t make up babies and toddlers. They are too weird. Almost everything Natty says and does is a thing my son said or did when he was three. Writing Natty felt like writing a love letter to Sam, who is now this giant hairy man-thing of 17. He is still just as smart and dear and funny and odd and wonderful as Natty.
BRC: We learn slowly about the details behind Natty’s parentage. Shandi’s fear, anger and denial are perfectly normal responses to the situation, though her explanation for Natty’s birth is unconventional, to say the least. Why do you think it was so easy for her to accept the birth of Natty as a miracle, given her issues with religion? Did you expect the reader to accept it?
JJ: To be fair, she’s not wrong. Do you know about 35 women a year claim to have experienced a virgin birth in this country alone? I imagine their claims are greeted with a certain amount of skepticism. Shandi is an unreliable narrator, but some readers do initially believe her. I think that has a lot to do with the suspension of disbelief we bring in with us as readers, and very little to do with actual life experience. Those readers would have a very different reaction if their niece or their sister made the same claim.
BRC: Through William’s investigation into Natty’s father, we gain some insight into genetics and the various traits Natty may have inherited. The clue about Natty’s earlobes, for example, was particularly interesting. How did you do your research for the scientific details?
JJ: I prefer interviews and direct experiences to musty tomes and even the Omnipresent Helpfulness of Google. I would rather go, see, touch, smell, feel, hear and do than read about something second hand. For example, I found a woman who had worked as a chemist for years and who is now a professor of Chemistry. I asked her, “How could a science nerd fella use chemistry to make a girl fall in love with him? Literal, science-y chemistry --- not pheromones.” She helped me map out William’s courtship of Bridget.
BRC: William lost his entire family in a tragic accident a year ago, but we see his love story with his wife, Bridget, played out in flashbacks. I found that she jumped right off the page even when she was not directly present in the story. Where did you get your inspiration for her?
JJ: I think it’s very common in my novels for the past to be alive and working as an active agent in the present storyline. I try to write whole people with complex histories who are living with the consequences of past choices. Bridget may be my favorite character in the novel. I was interested in both her earthiness and her hunger for goodness. I am hungry for goodness, myself, though I seek it less rigorously and perhaps with less success. There are little bits of my mother in Bridget.
BRC: Shandi’s best friend, Walcott, spends a great deal of time reciting various poems and making cracks about poets. How did you choose the passages and writers he would favor?
JJ: Oh, he likes a lot of the poets I like. I am sure this is purely coincidental. *grin*
When I began the novel, and Shandi’s best friend was a girl named CeeCee. Then I went to a poetry reading where Robin Behn read a piece called “It is Not Always Possible to Fall in Love in Blackberry Season.” It’s so earthy and so vested in female sexuality. I tried to imagine a young man who could write this poem, and the result was CeeCee’s boyfriend, Walcott. I was so interested in him that he took over and became Shandi’s best friend. I wanted him to say a few lines of one of his own poems in a scene, but my attempts were...well. Let’s just say that I am not a poet.
I bought the rights to the poem that had spawned him, and Behn kindly let me put a few lines of it into Walcott’s mouth. But it is hers, and you can read the whole thing here. Read it aloud, slowly, to someone you really, really like. The air will charge between you, I swear.
BRC: What can you tell us about your next book?
JJ: The working title is NOBODY’S NOTHING, and it is narrated by Paula, the mouthy divorce lawyer form SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY. I was too interested in her to stop writing about her; she’s so fierce and bold, and yet she has this huge soft patch for the underdog. She is always on the side of the little guy. This is not a female character who waits for things to happen. She is what’s happening, always. She’s a self-invented creature who came out of nothing --- you see glimpses of this, like her childhood apartment and her wild and free-spirited hippie wanderer mother, Kai, in SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY.
She believes Kai is dead, but the story begins when she finds out it isn’t that simple. It is never that simple when your mother is Kai. Independent, unconnected and a natural loner, Paula discovers she has family she never knew existed. To save them, she has to team up with an old flame and unravel Kai’s very twisted past.