Talking Backseat Saints, storytelling and being a Southern writer.
New York Times bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Georgia with her husband, their two children and way too many feckless animals. Her first novel, gods in Alabama, debuted in 2005, winning the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Novel of the Year Award that year. Jackson won Georgia Author of the Year for her second novel, Between, Georgia, and her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, was a Break Out book at Target and was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction.
Her latest, Backseat Saints, tells the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a fierce, tiny ball of war wounds who was a minor character in gods in Alabama. Her life changes dramatically when she meets an airport gypsy who shares her past and knows her future. The gypsy’s dire prediction: Ro’s handsome, violent husband is going to kill her-unless she kills him first.
We were thrilled when Jackson agreed to answer a few questions and even more delighted with her honest, often humorous, answers. Her books are some of the best we’ve read in a long time, and their depth, attention to detail and ability to capture both the good and bad sides of the South ensure there’s a little something for everyone. Read on to find out how long characters live in her head before she puts them down on paper, her thoughts on the homogenization of the South and how a game from her childhood helps her books come to life. Also, check back with us for a special giveaway of Backseat Saintsjust for Deep South readers!
The themes of family dysfunction, ghosts, secrets and coming home run through your writing. Can we expect to see more of this in Backseat Saints, and can you tell us which of these themes are rooted in experiences from your own life?
Oh well, I can only write what I know. At the same time, I do make this stuff up. It’s fiction. If all the things that happen in my books had happened to me, I’d be dead or in a very special kind of hospital with soft, soft walls. None of the characters are me. That said, they are all mine. In Saints, just as much as in every other book I’ve written.
I learned to tell stories from my mother, who read to me out loud when I was a babe in arms, and who practically raised me in the library. As for plot – it is what comes last. I usually start with a few key characters and then I build other characters around them. I give them spouses and children and old enemies. Then place comes. I start to see them interacting where they live. I’ll imagine what it smells like there, how the streets intersect, what spring is like. I’ll think about characters and place for years before I ever sit down to write. I have all sorts of casts and locations I’ve been thinking about for years, and at a certain point, one group of people will get louder and I know I am going to write about them next.
I have had characters in my head as long as 18 years before writing their stories. Usually, though, it takes about seven years for a group to get loud. By the time I start writing, I know these people so well that I wade in among them and blow their lives up in some way, and then I see what they do. I imagine their reactions and try to guess what the consequences will be, and figuring out how to get from my opening scene to a vague idea of where I should leave them – that’s what makes the writing part fun instead of work. If I knew the whole plot, I wouldn’t have to write the book. I would be content to play with my imaginary friends in my own brain.
What does it mean to you to be a “Southern writer?” Do you feel a responsibility to make a statement about the South?
Well certainly Southern Gothic writers are a huge influence on me. Flannery O’Connor in particular. I hope to God that shows …
Responsibility? In some ways, yes. I’m in love with this piece of country, in spite of my anger with its bloody history. I love the idea of the New South, but I worry about what babies we are throwing out with the abominable bathwater. The culture, for good and ill, is being washed away and homogenized. Technology is making the world so much smaller. I want to catalog this place, these people, truthfully, with all our glory and grace and all our awfulness intact before it’s gone.
Not to sound “woo woo,” but Rose Mae decided that all on her own. When I was drafting gods, she was a minor character named “Jim Beverly’s Girlfriend” who appeared in chapter eight. Before I got through the chapter, she had bloomed into her name and her history and she was instigating all kinds of mess. Trouble loved Rose, and Rose seemed to love trouble right back.
Then, in revisions, she spread through the whole book, showing up first in chapter one and kick starting the action. I never forgot her. Partly it was because she was so loud in my head, from the first day I started writing about her and partly because readers always asked me about her. I’d get Rose questions on just about every library visit or book club call I had done for gods in Alabama.
You were born in Florida and went to college in Georgia, but also include Alabama in your writing and now Texas in Backseat Saints. Do you travel for research, and when did you become interested in the poorer, more rural areas of the South?
Oh, yes, certainly I travel. To write Backseat Saints, I went and lived in my friend Jill’s Bay area basement for a few weeks, mostly taking pictures of houses and churches and talking to people and smelling the air and eating things. Best kind of research. Also, my dad was military, so I spent my early years all over the South. Alabama, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida, Virginia …and yes, a year in California.
I grew up mostly in the panhandle of Florida, and that is the rural South. My grandparents are interesting, and probably explain my interest in the wide, wild range of Southern culture. My mom’s dad was an itinerant Baptist preacher who married a 15-year-old sharecropper. My other grampa was a blue collar factory worker who came from old money Mississippi Jacksons. His family lost everything when they dammed the river, and his mom used to take him to see the submerged columns of what was once their plantation home. He married a woman whose own mother was a former slave who was pale enough to “pass.”
So that might explain my interest in all the levels of Southern culture I have explored in my books, everything from the gated community in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming to Rose’s upbringing underneath the poverty line inBackseat Saints.
Can you explain your “Fic Facts,” and tell us if we can expect any to result from Backseat Saints?
When I was little, whenever we played the “Three Wishes” game, I would say I only needed one. I always wished for the ability to reach into books and pull things out into the real world. I could pull out dresses made of spiders silk, and aliens, and talking cats, and friends like Trixie Belden, who was always stumbling across mysteries and whose life was so much more interesting than mine. I especially wanted to pull out this loyal and big-hearted horse named Galileo from my favorite pony book. (I pronounced the name GAH-lilly-oh, having not yet heard of the astronomer.)
Fic-Facts [short for Fictional Factuals] is my family’s pet name for an odd version of this wish that I have found myself doing in recent years. It is short for objects that I make up in my books and that we then commission artists to actually create. My brother, who makes his living as a sculptor, made one of the animal dolls that are important inBetween Georgia. And the main character in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is an art quilter. I commissioned brilliant fabric artist Pamela Allen to make one of the quilts in that book. I did not have a Fic-Fact made for gods in Alabama. I just bought a bottle of Jack. And drank it.
I doubt I will have one for Backseat Saints … in a way, the cover photographer Cig Harvey shot has filled up that need for me. That girl with her braid – that’s as if a picture of Rose Mae was pulled straight out of my brain. Also, I have the gun. It’s a .32, not a .45, but the pin is broken and it belonged to my grandfather, just like Pawpy’s in the book.
Since we’re coinciding this interview with the debut of our Southern Summer Reading List, who are some of your favorite Southern writers?
I’m writer crushing hard on Susan Rebecca White. Her second novel just came out – A Soft Place to Land. I loved it, unabashedly, maybe even more than I loved her stellar debut, Bound South.
I adore all the works of Frank Turner Hollon. He is hard to quantify – his books are so eclectic. Some read like literary legal thrillers, some like Southern gothic lit, some like black, broad comedy, some like all these things. My favorite of his rotates between The God Files, A Thin Difference and The Wait. Depends on which one I have reread most recently. I think everyone on the planet has read Katherine Stockett’s amazing debut, The Help, but if you are the last holdout, allow me to recommend you stop waiting and go for it.
Photo of Joshilyn Jackson by Herman Estevez.