Be Bigger Than Chickens: an Interview with Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn JacksonI 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. 

…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.

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.

…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.

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!

Someone Else's Love StoryIt was an easy organic choice given that form follows function; William lives in third person present tense. He does not reflect. He rarely regrets. He observes, analyzes, catalogues, decides, acts.

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. 

…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.

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.)

You can catch up with Joshilyn at www.joshilynjackson.com, Facebook, or Twitter (@JoshilynJackson).

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About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.

Comments

    • says

      Thanks CG, Madeline, and LynDee

      With release tomorrow I am a little scattereed smothered and covered, and your kind words about my work are deeply appreciated. I am going to eat them INSTEAD of my feelings. (RIght now my feelings look a LOT like a WHOLE dark chocolate Christmas orange from Trader Joe’s….)

      LynDee, SELS is the thing I am proudest of writing. Period. I do think it is my best work to date. I feel brave about it.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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  1. says

    Fangirl moment coming in 3…2… :)

    Jan, you know how much I adore your interviews, and thank you, THANK YOU for bringing Joshilyn to WU today.

    Joshilyn, I have loved your books since the first time I read gods in Alabama (it’s still my favorite, but Jan tells me SELS will give Arlene a run for her money). I hope it doesn’t sound cheesy to call you a role model, because I’m going to. I started reading your work before I knew I could (or wanted to) write a book, and you’ve been one of my writer role models since I started my first rough draft.

    I couldn’t agree more with your comments about surrounding yourself with other writers who lift you up, and how valuable that circle can be. Thanks for sharing with us today, and best of luck and safe travels on your launch and tour. I can’t wait to read this book!

    OK, I’ll stop gushing now. :)
    LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS launch at the Virginia Literary Festival

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  2. says

    What a fabulous interview! The insights about writing from the point of view of William were very interesting. The process of overwriting and paring down and rewriting came alive for me. We can learn so much by writing a difficult character.

    Can’t wait to read the book. Best of luck with the launch and tour!
    Marialena´s last blog post ..Wordless weekend: Rugby à Toulouse, one and two

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  3. says

    I am somewhat new to the WU blog. I have not read any of your work, but am intrigued to read this new release because the characters sound so interesting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on being a writer and specifically about writing the characters in this book. It sounds as though you have challenged yourself with these characters. Good luck with the book release. Do you have a website with a book tour schedule?
    amy´s last blog post ..New Theme: Typo

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  4. Tanis Mallow says

    I’m intrigued by your SELS character descriptions.

    Quick question: what genre category have you (or the publishing powers that be) bestowed upon SELS?

    Best wishes for a succesful launch.

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    • says

      Tanis I am a little cross genre-y so I am hard to market.

      I am too literary to be commercial fiction, and I like narrative drive and (dark) humor too much to be super literary. I object to Women’s Fiction because women read 90% of all novels. ALL fiction is women’s fiction, and the term tends to be used in a derogatory way, to mean THIS IS ALL ABOUT KISSING AND FEELINGS. The men who read my novels tend to like them. Maybe just because I put a lot of shooting in? :) Which is as reductive as saying women like them because I put a lot of kissing and feelings in….but you get my point.

      UP MARKET is a good term for what I do, and I am HEAVILY influenced by Southern Gothic writers, so you see a lot of the tropes and themes and devices that categorize that movement in my stuff.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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  5. says

    jan, very much enjoyed reading your thoughts about exploring themes in a fiction piece, rather than a specific agenda or viewpoint

    i tend to write that way, and have, at times, worried i wasn’t “taking a stand” or “being too unambiguous” – so this was a very welcome article for me, thank you ;-)

    also found it interesting re your description about your own more typical writing vs william’s characterization, “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 just doesn’t like them. They do not occur naturally to him….” –

    mostly because, from the excerpt at the beginning of the article: “…the tail end of a Georgia summer so ungodly hot the air felt like it had all been boiled red….” it’s evident how really good you are with imagery, so it should be really interesting how you’ve done this character!

    i know nice it will be to relinquish being the voice of the unpublished author, but thank you for being there as that for us (in similar circumstance) :-)

    all the best wishes, jan
    Felipe Adan Lerma´s last blog post ..Processing My Fiction – Promoting My Promotions, Listing Future Sales

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    • says

      Hey Stacy — I tend to think of it in terms of character—very often my characters feel “wrongly” — I think it is more interesting—and VERY MUCH MORE HUMAN— when a character does not respond the expected way to circumstances. How they respond has to come out of who they are…I often act out scenes or read them aloud and see how my face contorts or what shape my body takes and this gives me a read on the emotional response. This is an outside-in actory approach, but it works for me.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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      • says

        Thank you so much for answering my question! That is a great approach. Really enjoying your comments, and I love how you mentioned SELS is your best work yet. It’s good to know that even NYTBS authors feel they get better with each book, and even more importantly, that they continue to strive to do so.
        Stacy Green´s last blog post ..Stacy’s Killer Thrillers

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  6. says

    Great article, Joshilyn and Jan! I particularly love your insights into both the power and potential dangers of groups. How cool that your whole group has achieved so much! I’m feeling pretty positive that the rest of my group will do the same, so my calling will be to keep up without envy.

    My question for Joshilyn: Were you aware that WU’s own writing mentor extraordinaire Don Maass cites gods in Alabama in his latest craft book, Writing 21st Century Fiction? In case the answer is no, you are his example in the section titled Inner Conflict and Downward Descent. I’d never read you, but it made me want to–as does this interview. I’ll get on that now… Promise.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Fatherly Inspiration

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    • says

      Vaugn I did nto know. I met Mr. Maass a couple months back at BEA this year — he came by my signing to get a copy of SELS and I was very flattered

      THANKS!!!! If I had my way, this would be the book to start with—. In terms of craft and ESPECIALLY in terms of being deliberate and controlled in the thematic underpinnings, SELS is my best work.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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  7. says

    Joshilyn, I’m continually amazed by how much better you get with each and every book. It’s so inspiring to read your novels and see the craftsmanship that goes into them — I think of them when I’m pushing myself to do yet another revision.

    Jan, great questions, as always. You bring out the best in your interviewees!

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  8. says

    Wonderful interview! Joshilyn, add me to the list of people who love gods in Alabama. I think I’m going to have to pick up SELS, too!

    Out of curiosity, since you mentioned that you love revision but hate drafting–how much time would you say you spend on the first draft, and then how long revising?

    (As I work on finding the best system for me, I’ve discovered that the thought of revision can actually petrify me, so I’ve begun to wonder if I might need to try slower first drafts to help eliminate numerous wrong directions…)
    Amanda Helms´s last blog post ..Another year of no NaNo

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  9. says

    My question is about a trap writers fall into: publishing too soon, in my case after 3 years when I tired of reviewing and revising. I published on Createspace, paid for reviews on Kirkus and ForeWord Clarion. They gave it 3 stars and said enough good things to use. “Enthralling . . . convincing . . . a well told coming of age story” is on the cover. I felt good about my chances of selling the book until the customer reviews came in. 2 stars, choppy language, one of them said, jarring, another. Oh, and typos. I hired an editor and worked with him for 7 months, adding scenes, correcting typos, and republished. Six weeks ago, since then I’ve sold 3 books. The 2 customer reviews appear on my sales page, and that’s what potential buyers see, two negative reviews, they don’t scroll down to the favorable reviews of Kirkus and ForeWord Clarion. I’ve tried to give my book to anyone willing to write a review. So far none have. Is there any way out of this box I’m in?

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    • says

      I would say….write another book.

      Put your WHOLE heart and soul into the new book—you have learned SO much from writing the other one. This one will be stronger, and you won’t make the same mistakes.

      Also, a new release lights up the backlist, ALWAYS, as people who like the book go looking for more by you. SO the new book can REALLY help the first book finally find its readership.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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  10. says

    What a wonderful interview! I just ordered Someone Else’s Love Story and cannot wait to get it.

    Thank you Jan and Joshilyn! I just sent a copy of this article to my writers group (where thankfully no one even owns a ruler).

    Best wishes!
    Ellen´s last blog post ..Grammarly….

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    • says

      Thank you so much for ordering the book; new books live and die on the sales in the first 6 weeks, esp in terms of what kind of legs and support the paperback has. I am ALWAYS happy when reader finds one of my books–even years after it was pubbed, of course, but this book—I love it so — I want it to get a GOOD launch.

      I APPRECIATE YOU.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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      • says

        I really can’t wait to read it – your first paragraph is fabulous and I so enjoyed hearing the “story behind the story”. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights with the newbies who still haven’t figured this whole novel writing thing out yet. ;-)
        Ellen´s last blog post ..Grammarly….

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  11. Marilyn says

    Joshilyn….What a wonderful Post I will definitely find this Book and read it. I am fascinated with Southern Gothic. I love the richness of description.

    When you add descriptive passage do you weigh it out… measure each word for the sentence to come together or does it flow naturally from your subconscious so to speak? Is your normal bent towards Gothic from your first manuscript or it is a choice because you love that type of writing. I am trying to add rich textural elements to my writing and it seems much harder than I thought. I too am Southern.
    Thank you..

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    • says

      Hey Marilyn—it is a matter of influence, I think, more than choice. I READ a lot of Southern Gothic, so it gets up in there, you know? I read into what I want to write. I think people who worry abotu voice bleed is silly. Just read great things. If THE WORST anyone can say about your work is, “Goodness She sounds so much like FLannery O’Conner” That is a GREAT worst thing LOL.

      I also feel like narrative drive is currency. The more relentless a story, the more room I have to tell you what the little porcelain cat (OR WHATEVER) that is so important to me looks like.

      Counter intuitive, but true.
      Joshilyn´s last blog post ..RECREATIONAL ROBOTS and PS You Are Invited

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  12. says

    Thanks for a great interview. You made me laugh and think, and I am going to trust my gut and go with the wrongness of my character’s choices … because that is who she is. I need to work on making those actions inevitable.

    Congratulations on Love Story. I look forward to reading it.

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