Joshilyn Jackson spills secrets about her new book, which represents a change in genre for her and is sure to shake up your neighborhood book club.
Never have I ever cheated on my husband. Never have I ever lied to my best friend. Never have I ever killed someone.
Georgia author Joshilyn Jackson is a big fan of playing games. “It’s one of the first things we learn to do as humans, one of the first ways we learn to interact,” she says. A few lucky fans who meet her on book tour will receive a board game version of Never Have I Ever (complete with a bottle of gin), the title of her latest book and a weapon for her main character and villain Angelica Roux.
New in the neighborhood, Roux shows up at Amy Whey and Charlotte Baxter’s Florida book club unannounced and without a bottle of wine, snack or bra. She sits in Charlotte’s spot and then starts pouring drinks before initiating a version of Never Have I Ever that skips the “coy denials” and goes right to the confessions.
About opening with a book club meeting, Jackson says, “What I wanted was a place that most people know the vibe and that’s really comfortable and safe. There’s hardly anything more comfortable in the world than your neighborhood book club at your house with your husband upstairs. For Roux to come into that scenario is such a power move.”
Roux quickly zeroes in on Amy, telling her she could win the game by revealing the worst thing she ever did. Amy tells her to get out, but Roux threateningly suggests Amy come by her house to discuss a few things real soon. The game is on, as Jackson blends her own brand of suspense with the humor, humanity and complex characters she’s become known for.
She says the idea for her tenth book began with Roux and Amy, two women with similar personality types living radically different lives. She wasn’t planning on deviating too far from her former books, but about three chapters in, she realized this one was different. She was writing a mystery novel and decided to channel Sheryl Sandberg and lean in.
Roux is far from a likable character, but Jackson didn’t write her as a straight villain either. “I kind of would love to have a drink with Roux if I could pour it myself,” she says. “I wanted her to have a narrative that I understood in which she’s not the bad guy. She’s doing really bad things and she’s not unaware, but she has a story in which she’s a hero.”
Amy is no saint either. Despite reinventing herself as an ordinary housewife, mother and scuba instructor, she has a past that Roux is determined to use against her. To beat Roux at her own game, Amy must unearth secrets at the same rate as her nemesis. She has a lot to lose if she doesn’t.
The Game was Roux’s idea. More than an idea. A plan. She made it up herself, this shotgun of a game. She packed it tight with salt and metal, counting on collateral damage, too, but she aimed it straight at me.” – Chapter 1
Jackson says the idea was to write about whether we can be defined by the worst things we’ve ever done. It’s a question that the students in prison she works with on a volunteer basis through Reforming Arts struggle with all the time—and it applies to Amy as well. Amy has been running from her past since she was a teenager, and it’s finally caught up with her.
A water theme also runs throughout this book, and Jackson learned to scuba dive so that she could write the character of Amy. “Anybody who’s just dropped their sunglasses over a boat knows you can hide anything in the ocean,” Jackson explains. A pivotal scene in the novel takes place when Amy, Roux and their children dive down to explore the wreck of an English freighter.
Jackson went to Destin, Florida, for her advanced open water and shipwreck dives but says she didn’t use a real site for this scene in the book. “It’s polite to blur the line between reality and fiction when things get bad,” she explains.
She did channel her own experience of learning to control everything through her breath and being completely calm through Amy’s character though. “I thought it was a place to hide secrets, but I didn’t realize it was unearthly peaceful and beautiful, like going to another world,” she says.
One of the ways Amy is able to outsmart Roux is by controlling her body language and facial expressions during their combative encounters. “You descend to the level of your training,” explains Jackson. “Amy has practice controlling her breathing and her body, so it gives her a road into being a match for Roux.”
Both Amy and Roux surprised Jackson throughout the course of the novel, and she admits she didn’t know how it was going to end. “To me, that’s when I know a book is working. I think I know what’s going to happen and I’m walking toward something, but the characters want to do things that make me uncomfortable.”
Fans can plan on staying uncomfortable for Jackson’s next book too, as she’s sticking with the suspense genre for now. “The first line is ‘The morning that my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch staring at my bedroom window,'” Jackson reveals. And the title is Two Truths and a Liar, proof that Joshilyn Jackson is far from done playing games with her readers.
Never Have I Ever is one of our 2019 summer reads. View the entire Summer Reading List here.