An interview with Joshilyn Jackson upon the release of her new book, “A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty.”
by Joe Mayes
New York Times bestselling author Joshilyn Jackson visited Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, on February 12 to talk about her latest book, “A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty” (released January 25 by Grand Central Publishing). Before she met with more than 30 ardent fans in the bookstore’s café to read passages from and sign copies of her new book, Jackson sat down for a conversation that covered everything from writing and publishing to boyfriends, Krispy Kreme donuts and selling babies.
Jackson’s fifth (published) novel is the latest in her growing collection of engaging, character-driven stories in the Southern Gothic tradition. “Grown-Up” is the story of three abbreviated generations of Southern women facing the consequences of the literal unearthing of a dark family secret that wouldn’t stay buried in the fecund Mississippi earth. As of February 5, her latest work had risen to No. 3 on the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance (SIBA) bestseller list and had been selected as a SIBA 2012 Spring Okra Picks —“great southern books, fresh off the vine.”
But while many readers view Jackson’s works as light-hearted romps featuring engaging characters with quirky family members, all set in familiar, small Southern towns (some complete with creatively placed Krispy Kreme shops), all of Jackson’s stories deal with deeper, darker questions.
“I like black, chewy-hearted, wicked books,” she says. “The fact that my books are funny means some people come through the depths untouched.”
Other readers, however, find her books heavier and more difficult to navigate without having visceral reactions to the deeper questions. While Jackson calls 2010’s “Backseat Saints” her “most overtly dark book,” different readers have reacted to each of her books this way. As Jackson says, “I think it depends on where your bruises are.”
“I don’t think anyone has ever read the book that I wrote,” Jackson adds, referring to the personal nature of the relationship between her, her books, and the readers who seemingly can’t get enough of them.
“Every book that I wrote was a conversation between me and the material,” she says. “When I’m finished writing it, I don’t get to be in that conversation anymore. It’s now a conversation between [the reader] and the book.”
But when asked if she ever felt defensive of “her babies,” the conversation took a swift and abrupt left turn.
“No! It’s not ‘my baby.’ I hate it when people call their books their ‘baby.’ You know why? You don’t sell your babies,” she said.
When it comes to describing the relationship Jackson has with her books, she prefers a different analogy:
“I like to think of my books as my boyfriends. The ‘boyfriend’ that I’m with at the moment is the one I love and am protective of and the one you better not talk bad about. Right now, my boyfriend is called “Someone Else’s Love Story” [her current work in progress] and if you talk bad about him, I’ll cut you ‘cause he’s my boy.”
“A Grown Up Kind of Pretty” is my ex-boyfriend, and it was a really good breakup. I think we both came out of it bigger people. I want this ex-boyfriend to go on to have a great life and relationships with a lot of readers … and bestseller lists.”
Jackson laughs at this — she laughs easily and often — but when it comes to what she calls the “separation of church and state, of writing and publishing,” she is deadly serious.
Asked which of three writer super powers she would choose as her writing legacy — a single enduring work like Harper Lee’s, literary brilliance like Flannery O’Connor, or virtually infinite commercial success like Stephen King — Jackson visibly bristled.
“Don’t care. Wouldn’t pick one. Would say ‘no thank you.’”
Asked why, she explained, “I just want to write the book that I want to write in that moment, then whatever happens, happens. I don’t want to control that. It’s not my problem. That’s me abdicating publishing. I can’t invest in what people think of me or of the books. You have to fight and keep them separated and if I ever lose that fight, I’ll quit publishing.”
Notice she said publishing, not writing.
Jackson will keep writing, continuing to explore the questions that interest her and the characters percolating in her head.
Her fans just hope that she can maintain this separation so they can continue to enjoy the layered, Southern-rich ex-boyfriends that make the reader think at least as much as they laugh.
Author photo by Elizabeth Osborne.
Joe Mayes is an award-winning freelance writer and aspiring novelist. He lives in Orlando, Florida, with his wife, Lisa, their three Cocker Spaniels, and about forty-leven (a saying he credits to his mama) squirrels who own the back yard. Follow Joe on Twitter @TheSmokeyJoe.