I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K. It was on a Friday afternoon at the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had all been boiled red. We were both staring down the barrel of an ancient, creaky .32 that could kill us just as dead as a really nice gun could.
The opening lines of Someone Else’s Love Story belong to Shandi Pierce, a young, virgin mother who is determined, if she can dodge bullets, to confront the secrets of her past. That choice will impact her friends and family, as well as the above-named William, currently at war with what feels like a dark destiny.
And their author is Joshilyn Jackson (pronounced JOSSilyn), a NYT-bestselling author, award-winning audiobook narrator, actor, MFA instructor, and all-round firecracker—which you’d know if you’ve ever taken time to visit her blog Faster than Kudzu. From her home in Decatur, Georgia, I’m so glad Joshilyn’s agreed to answer my questions about writing.
Jan: “Bullets” is the title of Part I of SELS, and it begins with the Emily Dickinson quote about hope being “the thing with feathers.” The dark humor and theme are familiar to those of us who’ve read your work. Why are you drawn to redemption stories? Are they inherently funny?
Joshilyn: Story is how I explain the world to myself. I have a hard time sitting still through a sermon, but I will listen to a parable all day long. I tend to engage with big questions, not to answer them, but to explore them.
Some of the questions that always interest me: What are the mechanics of redemption? How far can we go into the black, and what tiny lights can call us home? What does the imperfect, broken, sometimes ugly human modeling of perfect grace look like?
I think I touch on all these questions in every one of my books to some degree or other, and then each book has its own question, too. More on that in a second, but I don’t think redemption stories are inherently funny. I think they are inherently heartbreaking, and humor is my favorite coping mechanism. As a bonus, it can get people to read books on topics they might otherwise avoid like plague. But it has a downside, too. It can make me easy to dismiss.
Last week at a tradeshow dinner, one bookseller was recommending Someone Else’s Love Story to another. She said, “You’ll like it. It’s hilarious. A very fast-paced, light read. [pullquote]…humor is my favorite coping mechanism. As a bonus, it can get people to read books on topics they might otherwise avoid like plague. But it has a downside, too. It can make me easy to dismiss.[/pullquote]
The second bookseller asked what the book was about, and the first one began trying to explain. It was such a list of horrors: desperate grief, attempted suicide, extremely damaging sexual felonies, loneliness, terror, the willingness to trade your own life for another human being’s life.
She eventually petered out, and there was a pregnant pause. Then the second bookseller said, “That doesn’t sound hilarious.”
The one who had read it said, “It was, though. But…” She turned to me, slightly irked. “Dammit. Now I have to go back and read it again.”
Shandi grew up in a home with religious tensions, where minor decisions, such as meal choices, could ignite familial wars. For the most part, she’s learned to avoid spiritual conversations. Yet it’s her virgin birth and other “miracles” which push others into growth and accommodation. However accidental, is this a book about how America might heal its divisions?
Joshilyn: That makes me sound so ambitious! The book has no moral—I hate stories that are secretly trying to preach some noble truth—but I think you mean that it has a moral center? Yes.
It is definitely and very purposefully a story about how faith can divide us, cut us, hurt us. I am writing it as a person of faith. I’m not an angry lady jabbing at religion because a mean church hurt me once, or a naughty baby poking sacred subjects to get a rise out of earnest people. My faith is central to my life, and I recognize that since faith is so powerful, it can be exploited.
I was just telling you about how the book’s themes are an exploration of questions. Well, this was a huge one, and a new one for me. This book explores the ways faith can bring people together or divide them in harmful, hateful ways. At how it can be used as a weapon or a balm.
The big flamboyant miracles you mention, they are all fake. They are all explained away by science and facts. Every single one gets undercut. They are dust.
The real miracles are smaller. There are at least two in this book, so tiny it is easy to miss them. They are very true and very frail. They spark and pop for only a moment before they begin to diffuse and spread themselves like mist into the story. They change everything.
Someone Else’s Love Story is your first to employ a male point of view—that of the “autastic” Dr. William Ashe, who is a broken man as the story begins. When writing of his grief, his maleness or his medical condition, which was most difficult to render authentically? How did you overcome the challenges?
Joshilyn: The trickiest thing about writing William was that I could not use figurative language. If you’ve read me, you know I am more than passing-fond of a good simile. William is a very smart man—he knows a metaphor when he sees one. He understands them. He just doesn’t like them. They do not occur naturally to him as they do to me and you.
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. [pullquote]…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.[/pullquote]Sometimes it did, and sometimes they were, excuse me, apt and gorgeous.
But they were wrong. He would never. So I had to be ruthless. It was an amplified version of that thing we all have to do every time we write: We must never let any word or image or sentence or scene, no matter how we love it, stay in the book if it does not serve the whole. 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! William is a layered human character, but 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 all that. That was the most fun, writing this romance-novel-level-yummy blond sex god who is internally so broken, so sad, and so very, very ODD.
William’s point of view is written in third person present tense, which is an atypical choice for you. While it could have led to emotional distancing, my experience was exactly the opposite. Tell me about the decision and any tips you have on technique.
Joshilyn: I am so glad to hear it felt intimate to you, because I was working very hard to try and achieve this exact effect. Yay!
It’s closer than “on his shoulder.” It’s third person seated right in the middle of his brain, peering out his left eyeball. This kind of third is subject to all the limits and strictures of first. I could never for a second let it be omniscient or know things or say things William doesn’t know or observe. That also took a lot of clean-up in revisions, because anytime the POV stepped even an inch back from his eyeball, it became too remote and stopped working.
From reading your blog, I’d guess that a say a crucial part of your writing life belongs to the 4 Fs of family, friends, fitness and faith. Would you agree?
Joshilyn: Absolutely, but I’d change the order: Faith, Family, Friends, Fitness. Oh and I would definitely add an F. FOOD. I mitigate the Fitness F by eating all the things. Food can leap higher on the chain than I would like. Some days Food claims the third spot, and I feel like I might kill my besty for a macaroon.
You can find a lot of communion images in my novels, and this is because the two most fraught, complicated, wracking, passionate, angry relationships of my life have been with God and Food. Communion is where those things sit together at a table.
I’m not sure I’d want to be an adolescent character in your novels. That time of blossoming sexuality is also one of derailment and danger—one reason your fiction is often called Southern Gothic. As your children mature, has your writing or interest in this theme changed in any way?
Joshilyn: I wouldn’t want to be an adolescent character in any novel, or in the world—Lord, what a miserable decade 13 – 23 is! My interest hasn’t changed; I like to write young characters. They have such an immediate point of view.
What a gift, a character whose frontal lobe has not finished developing! Teenagers don’t fully see the consequences of their actions. That’s Christmas for a novelist who likes blowing things up—both relationships and buildings—as much as I do.
Let’s end on a theme we’re both drawn to: hope. By all accounts, you’ve been a generous and wise writing teacher, both with peers and at the graduate level. Based upon your experience, if you were to pinpoint one or two difficulties which, if surmounted, could grow most rapidly grow a writer’s skill, what would they be?
Joshilyn: I think solid learning is based on relationships.
I remember one of my mentors telling me in grad school, “No one ever heard of ‘The Romantic Poet.’ No one talks about ‘The Modernist.’ Literature is a conversation that happens in movements. Make friends with writers who set your brain and heart and loins on fire. Read all they do. Let them read you. Set high and higher bars for each other. Break-outs happen in pods and groups.” I listened, and I started forming a posse.
I have a great writing group that has had my back for years now, and all those relationships began before any of us were publishing. They never let me skip steps. They read my crappy drafts and told me why they were crappy. I did the same for them. We pushed each other. In a lot of ways I write for that small audience, and am so pleased when I write a scene or line that I know will make them laugh or cry or rage.
We are all publishing now. We have all been on bestseller lists and won awards. We made each other better, and we didn’t eat our own hearts when one of our group was getting a lot of spotlight. [pullquote]…worry if someone in [your crit] group whips their literary street cred out of their pants and thumps it down on the table, calling for a ruler.[/pullquote]
That’s a decision. That’s a learned skill. Decide and learn to be genuinely delighted for your posse, and demand the same of them. Schadenfreude has no place in a crit group.
You have to be careful, because those relationships can be toxic if you aren’t in a group that has genuine respect for your talent. Guard against groups with members who secretly worry that you might surpass them. They are out there—small-crabbed, soul-sucking monster-people, sickly green and unfulfilled. If you find yourself in a group like that, run. Run, run!
You know to worry if someone in the group whips their literary street cred out of their pants and thumps it down on the table, calling for a ruler. They will want to measure yours then. It’s a poison. You see it at conferences and fests, writers desperate to know who is the most important one in the room, who is the real up-and-comer, so they know who to suck up to and who to treat with disdain. Are we chickens? Do we need a pecking order to be comfortable?
Be bigger than chickens! Engage with hope and sincerity and, yes, dammit, love. Love the work, Love your work, and love the good, strong work of others.
Jan here again: Joshilyn is making herself available today, Unboxeders, so carpe the diem! Have a question or comment for her? Take it to the space below.
Releasing tomorrow, Someone Else’s Love Story is the independent booksellers’ top pick on the December Indie Next List , an Amazon Best Book of the Month and is getting glowing reviews from Kirkus, Publisher’s weekly, and others. (It’s my favorite JJ read.)