Interview with Joshilyn Jackson

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SLR: Where were you born and raised? Schooled?

Jackson:  I was born in the Florida panhandle, spitting distance from Alabama. My father was military, so my early years were spent all over, mostly in the South— I lived in Alabama, Oklahoma, Virginia, etc etc. When I was about 9 we settled back in the panhandle and I lived in Pensacola until I went to college.

SLR: When did you first start writing stories?  When did you know you wanted to spend you life writing?

Jackson: I can’t remember not writing. I can’t remember not reading. My mom has boxes of little books I “self-published” as a child using the stapler-and-crayon method.

SLR: I read that you were an actor.  Can you elaborate on that a bit and tell us how that has contributed to your writing, if at all?

Jackson:  It contributes hugely to the revision process.  For me, it all begins with a character—I am not Arlene, but she is mine, if that makes sense. I knew her story from writing the awful first draft of the novel.  The revisions were all about finding her voice, and that part felt the same in head as it felt to find a character when I was acting.  And I didn’t just use acting to find Arlene…as I revised, I went back through each scene at least once to get a strong feel for the characters and to be sure they were consistently themselves. Then I filtered what they were doing and saying through how Arlene would interpret their actions and through her voice.  It’s hard to explain because it’s such an internal process.

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SLR: What writers influenced you the most when you were growing up?

Jackson:  When I was maybe eight or nine, my favorite book was .  I read it so often that it irritated my then twelve year old brother. He claimed to have glued all the pages together, and told me he would get me a new copy if I read one of his books…then he handed me .  I loved it!  I grew up reading very eclectically—I would read, say, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan books, and then dive into A Little Princess.  I’d follow that up with an early Heinlein space opera like and then I’d pick up or reread for the 987th time.

I still read that way—I read everything from contemporary lit-fic to hard boiled detective books to sci fi to classic literature to chick-lit to epic fantasy to cosies… I’m the walking definition of avid. And of course I love great Southern literature—I think Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee are about perfect.

SLR:  This was your debut novel.  I bought a copy of the New Yorker at the airport a few weeks ago and when I got on the plane and thumbed through it there was a full page ad for your book.  How did you make that jump?

Jackson: I was blessed with a dynamo of an editor who fell deeply in love with the book, and she championed it at Warner.

She pretty much stormed the building with the galleys for . She sent one to every person who had a pulse, and then she placed them on the graves of former editors, and then she put some more by the toilets.

The result of her unwavering support was this:  Someone in marketing read it and really liked it.  This led to other people in marketing reading/liking, and then the other editors and some associate publishers read it and took to it, and they told two friends, and then they told two friends, and soon everyone in the entire building had read it and the reps started reading it and asking why it wasn’t the lead book for spring, and my publisher said, “Hmm, good question,” and made it the lead book, so it ended up with a marketing budget.  It was just a word of mouth thing that happened in house and then spread from the reps to booksellers, who got excited about it too, and they made it the number one Book Sense pick for April.  It was entirely outside of my control, and I nearly died of thrill.

SLR: How did you come up with the storyline of ?  Did you begin the novel with this particular storyline or did it develop, change as you went a long?

Jackson:  It developed. It started with the first line — once I had that line I knew I was hearing Arlene’s voice, and then the first thing I wrote actually became the second half of Chapter 2: Arlene Fleet, fifteen years old, with no idea that actions have consequences, creeping up to the top of Lip Smack Hill with murder in her heart.  And I think I probably spent 90% of my time on this book revising—so it changed a lot.  Just as an example, Burr started out as temperamental, loud, and passionate artist, with hundreds of little tiny braids that came down to the center of his back. By the time the book was done, he was the world’s most reserved tax attorney.  So.  And everything was like that…the characters, the plot, the thematic elements all morphed and grew organically.  The only exception — the thing I protected from the beginning — was the way the relationship between Arlene and her estranged Aunt Florence grows and changes.  That relationship is the heart of the book to me.

SLR:  I’m interested in the title. It isn’t often that I read a book where the title is repeated within the text as often as “” is in this novel.  I also know that as the author you may not have even chosen the title, but I get the impression that it was a very important phrase to you. Can you elaborate?

Jackson:  As I said, that first sentence –when I had that sentence, I knew I had a handle on Lena’s voice. Part of what it does for her is to distance her from her act; to make Jim Beverly a small god, an idol, is to take his humanity away. The repetition is her entrance into the story she so wants to tell Burr — she longs to confess, and I wanted it repeated because that’s how a confession works.

SLR:  What are you currently working on?

Jackson: I’m just finishing up the edits on a novel called that will be out next spring. [Editor:  It is now out.]  I’m very excited about this book.  Between is a small town—maybe 100 people live there, and the novel tells the story of a feud 50 years in the making.

People ask me if it is “like”, and I don’t know how to answer that. The plot, the characters are nothing like . It’s a different book, but at the same time, I think it’s pretty obvious I wrote it. It’s that same odd blend of humor and violence.

SLR:  Who do you like to read now?

Jackson: Oh lord, that’s hard to narrow down. I read so much and so eclectically, but there are names that guarantee I will buy a book without even looking at the jacket copy: Haven Kimmel, Mindy Friddle, Michael Chabon, Dennis LeHane, Ann Patchett, Neal Stephenson, Adriana Trigiani…I could probably list fifty.

SLR: Well Joshilyn Jackson, thank you for talking with Southern Literary Review.  Congratulations on the success of your first novel and we look forward to reading someday.

See SLR’s review of Between, Georgia.


  1. very nice interview… ;-)

  2. good report..

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