by Laura Valeri
In September 2016 New York Times bestselling Southern author Joshilyn Jackson briefly visited Statesboro, Georgia to judge a writing contest for undergraduate majors at Georgia Southern University. Generous with her time, energetic, keenly observant, and graced with an infectious laugh, Jackson handled a packed 48 hours of classroom talks, meet-and-greet, lunch with students, readings and ceremonies while working towards meeting a tight deadline on a draft of a new manuscript, preparing for an upcoming performance in Europe, and handling a tour for the newly released The Opposite of Everyone. Through this, she managed to find time to socialize with the locals, to connect with the young writers who entered the contest, and to talk to family and friends who needed her encouragement on a new work of writing or even just reminders on how to take care of the dog.
As I tagged her from engagement to engagement, I was energized by the charge of her high creative energies, inspired by her generous spirit and sense of justice, and made just a tad wiser by the life and career experiences she freely shared with me and with the lucky students who came along. On our way to the airport, I was able to snatch some more of her time to distill some of that wisdom.
In this short interview with the celebrated writer, Joshilyn Jackson talks about her latest release, The Opposite of Everyone, a story about a divorce attorney’s journey to heal her broken family that magically weaves together Hindu mythology with Southern storytelling. When asked how she got the idea for such an unlikely mix, Jackson told her audience that it was inspired by her yoga teacher at Decatur Hot Yoga, who would begin each class by telling a story about a god or goddess in the Hindu pantheon using Southern turn of phrases and storytelling techniques.
In the interview, Jackson talks about the work on her newly released novel, the impact that volunteering in a women’s prison has had on her vision of America, the challenges and charms of living and writing about the South, the pitfalls of writing between genres, and much more.
When asked how she would characterize her writing, Jackson hits back with a characteristically witty: “Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.” Having read her books, I’d say that the definition is spot on: too bad you won’t find that section easily in a book store.
Luckily you may read an excerpt of Joshilyn Jackson’s The Opposite of Everyone by clicking here.
Valeri: Your new novel, The Opposite of Everyone, is based on a character from a previous novel. Tell us what inspired Paula, and how you came up with the title for your recently released novel.
Jackson: Paula actually was a minor character in Someone Else’s Love Story, which was the book I wrote before. She was so mighty, intense and interesting, that I don’t think that I was more than halfway through writing Someone Else’s Love Storywhen I knew that she would have to tell her own story. She’s very brave, and forward, and direct. I am none of those things, so I was very attracted to her in that way. As for the title, The Opposite of Everyone: I started out with the title Nobody’s Nothing because Paula is without a tribe: she doesn’t belong to anyone except herself. She’s a very singular person. Nobody’s Nothing can read like a contraction instead of a possessive, so I just started thinking of something that meant “not-belonging” and “singular-ness” and that’s what I came up with.
Valeri: Your main character, Paula, who also represents the Hindu Goddess Kali, calls herself “racially confusing.” She is part Asian, part white, and part African American. Was it difficult to write about race?
Jackson: It’s always difficult to write about race. It’s uncomfortable to write about race as a white person. Culturally, there is a white tendency, a defensiveness when issues of race come up. The conversation immediately becomes personal, why you personally are not a racist. I don’t think that’s necessarily helpful or the point. The point of talking about race is not to prove that you yourself are not a racist. The point of talking about race is to understand that in a much larger way, in a cultural way, we’re culturally sick on the topic of race. One person individually not being a racist isn’t going to fix the fact that we have a lot of racial bias and unfairness happening in our justice system, in every day life on the street, etc. Those are the conversations we need to be comfortable having, now.
As a white woman, my job in talking about race is to not make it personal, to look at it in a larger way as to how the people that I’m sharing the earth with are impacted by, especially here in the South, our troubled history with race, and what we can do to fix that and to create equity in our justice system, and create welcoming spaces in the world for people who don’t necessarily look or believe or act exactly the way you feel like people should act or believe.
Valeri: In talks and in other interviews you have mentioned that you don’t spend a lot of time on plot, but that you do spend sometimes as long as eight years thinking about a character. Your characters are quite complex and heartbreakingly well rendered, and you populate your novel with many of them– you have quite the range, characters of all ages, races, social backgrounds and sexual orientations. How do you do it? How are you able to get into the heads of these characters who are so different from yourself so deeply and so accurately?
Jackson: It’s not actually that I don’t spend a lot of time on plot, because I do. It’s that plot comes last. Plot is the thing I don’t know when I begin writing a book. By the time I get seriously into writing the book I know the characters very well, I know the themes I’m going to be exploring. For me the plot is the fun part, figuring out the twists and the turns of what the story will be: that’s the fun part as I use these people I love to explore the themes I really, really care about.
Thank you, by the way, for mentioning that. I do write character driven-fiction. Part of it, I think is my theater background. I went to school for that and I have been trained to get into other heads and trying to inhabit other spaces and to fully imagine those experiences in empathetic ways. There are all kinds of work that you do as an actor for that. Oddly enough, if I’m writing a play or an essay, those come from a very different part of my brain than a novel. The piece of my brain that heats up when I’m working on a novel is the same piece that heats up when I’m acting. I think there’s some relationship there.
Valeri: How do you know when a character is going to be a story for you?
Jackson: I’ve got a lot of people in my head and they begin to connect into casts. When I start to know the people who surround each other and are connected to each there, there’s a web of relationships, and one of those casts will sort of get louder. They’ll come into my head more and more often. Their connections will grow stronger. I’ll start to see the ways their lives and life choices relate to the thematic things I’m interested in, and they’ll just get very loud in my head. I always write whoever gets the loudest. The squeaky wheel always gets the oil.
Valeri: Let’s talk about plot. Once you said to me that plot for you is “like candy.” Your novels are very precise when it comes to structure. The Opposite of Everyone, for instance, has two simultaneous storylines, one taking place in the present, and the other taking place in the past. These two time periods converge and mingle at crucial moments, creating a richly textured rendition of time, of the timelessness of time, present, past and future playing against each other with every passing moment. Give us a glimpse of how you do this, how you can come up with such complex, yet seamless structures.
Jackson: I don’t know how I do it. To me is such a natural thing. I’ve always known how to do it. It’s the thing I’ve always done all my life when I was a little kid playing pretend, invent stories as I went along where there were convergences and things come to crossroads. I was a tabletop gamer, a D&D player, I was a D&D master who would create story lines with plot twists and with different paths you could go down with depending on what people wanted to do and it’s just something I’ve always, always done. To me that is fun, that is play. Making all of that happen is the candy part of writing. There are things that come very naturally to us and we don’t know how we do them. My son had the hardest time in math class. He’s very good at math and has a broad understanding of systems. He can look at a system and see the whole thing and how the pieces connect in this way that I can’t do, but he almost failed algebra. Because in algebra you have to show your work and he did not see that there were steps. He would look at it and know the answer, and he didn’t understand that there were steps. Trying to get that boy to pass algebra was like telling a duck to pass this test you have to cross this lake, but in this rowboat. I can’t really take any credit for the plots: It’s just one of those things that I can do.
Valeri: When you wrote your first novel, Gods in Alabama, your closest friends were pressuring you to be brave, to step out of your comfort zone, and it seems to suggest that this approach worked out for you. How much would you say courage plays in the writing of your novels? Are you ever scared of approaching your projects that they might be too large, or too overwhelming? Too uncomfortable to discuss?
Jackson: I know that when my characters start saying and doing things that make me profoundly uncomfortable and scared and not wanting to engage that is where the book is. I know that if I don’t follow them down into those spaces, the book will be bad, and I will throw down tens of thousands of words and waste precious hours of my life. The longer I’ve been working as a novelist, the smartest I’ve gotten about not fighting it. I still fight it. I will find myself 3,000 words into a chapter that is avoiding something that my character really wants to do… I say that a character wants to do something, and it sounds really woo woo, but it’s not woo woo. It’s really just your subconscious and your artistic self trying to tell a story, but it does feel like it’s coming from elsewhere, like it’s external. It does feel like it’s coming from the characters themselves. That’s how it is experientially even if it’s not true. The truth is that all the good novels come from way down deep in the dark and salty marshes of your own mental illness, and if you’re not willing to go down into your hurts and your history your book won’t be any good. I just try to go where the book takes me, even if it does make me profoundly uncomfortable, and if it doesn’t make me profoundly uncomfortable, then I’m not writing about the right things. Story is how I explore those spaces in the world where I’m not sure how to exist. Story is how I engage with the questions of what a good life looks like. Not answer it, just engage with the question.
Valeri: You are a Southern writer per excellence, yet you are not easily pinned into one specific category of writing. Mother/daughter relationships and social and racial divides in the South are two themes that you enjoy revisiting, which sometime frame you as a women’s lit writer, but your range is wide enough that it’s hard to cast your work in any one specific genre. Was it difficult for you to find an audience? Is the fact that you belong to multiple categories of literature a challenge?
Jackson: There are the things that drive writers to write. I always write about the South, and I always write about women. I’m very interested in the lives of women. I’m very interested in Southern culture, and our heritage and how our landscape and our history and our own choices have shaped us. It is true that I write between genres. I think that’s because I’m a very eclectic reader. I read everything from something that’s up for Man Booker down to pulp. I love pulp. I grew up reading Conan the Barbarian. When I was ten years old I read Fitzgerald and I read Alex Hailey’s Roots, and I read Francis Hodgston Burnett A Little Princess. That’s how I was reading when I was a ten year old, and that has not changed. I’m still very eclectic.
I think I do sometimes fall between audiences. People who like more literary fiction might not try me because they’ll think this is chicklit, whereas people who like chicklit might find my book to be not as commercial and fast and simple as they would want them to be. Because I do straddle that line between commercial and literary, I sometimes think I lose audiences on both ends. People don’t know what I’m doing. They don’t understand what I’m doing. If they’ve never read me they might have preconceived notions because of my covers or because of what some reviewers say. I’ve had reviewers read me as anything from literary fiction to straight up commercial fiction just depending on what mood they’re in and how closely they’re paying attention.
I do always engage with theme. I also like a big rollicking plot that you can just enjoy with a drink if that’s what you want. I also want to do something serious and to be really careful with language. I think another reason I’m this way is that, unlike most people, I’m a re-reader. I always want a book to be able to be read very quickly and just be enjoyable for the story, for the what-happens-next. Because I’m going to go back and re-read, I want a book to have layers and unfold and open itself for me in different ways each time. I think I write for re-readers and I don’t think most people are re-readers. Sometimes I just get that one fast read and they enjoying it or not, and that’s fine. But there is always more there if you’re looking and paying attention. I really love it when I find reviewers and readers who really get what I’m doing, and I see it reflected in their letters to me or in those reviews, because then I know on some level I’ve succeeding. If I set out to do something and a certain percentage of readers and reviewers go “This is what she’s engaging with” then I feel like I’ve done my job. And if other readers say, “this was a really fun book and I had a good time,” I feel like I’ve done my job, too.
Valeri You teach in prison facilities as a volunteer. You’re on the board of Reforming Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to providing theatre infused liberal arts education to women who are serving prison sentences in Georgia. Has this experience influenced your writing?
Jackson: Hugely. Hugely. In my earlier books, before I started working with incarcerated populations, I was looking at things from a very feminist perspective. I came of age in the post-feminism era, when feminism had accomplished a great deal and where I had a huge array of delightful opportunities that my mother and certainly my grandmothers did not have. My life was very different from theirs. It’s because of feminism, obviously. I love my masters’ degree and I love my stinking job, but I didn’t have the same kinds of struggle.
It’s a different world now, it’s a different landscape. I’m not saying the world is perfect but I guess that feminism was my lens. I would say that at this point in my writing social justice is my lens. And these things are cousins. They hold hands and run in the meadow together, they’re very good friends, but it is a shift and that has come out of my understanding just by immersing myself in the system, how crazily, crazily unjust our justice system is. It is broken. I don’t think people understand what’s going on in terms of who is being incarcerated, how and why, and the disparity between the kinds of sentences that different kinds of people get. It’s insane and wrong. Also in the 80’s, when we came in with all the mandatory minimums and three strikes laws, we removed the ability of judges to exercise empathy or their own judgment in individual cases. Everybody who robs a store is this level of bad and there is no room for is this person a person who, given an opportunity, could have a sustainable, connected good life. We just call everyone who does one thing wrong bad and put them in the same bucket, and it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong.
Valeri: What advice would you give young women writers just starting out?
Jackson: Read everything you can get your hands on. Write about the things that matter to you most and don’t be afraid to go down into the dark places. Experience things. Don’t be afraid. Go out into the world. Eat weird food. Have conversations with strangers. Make out with stray cats. Experience everything you can. Pay attention. Breathe in and breathe out. See why this place smells different from that place. Decide what you call home. Decide where to go from there. Run around and experience things, and read all the time.
Joshilyn Jackson is a New York Times Bestselling author of seven novels and a novella: The Opposite of Everyone, Someone Else’s Love Story, gods in Alabama, Between, Georgia, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, Backseat Saints, A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, and the novella My Own Miraculous.
You can read an excerpt of Joshilyn Jackson’s "The Opposite of Everyone" by clicking here.