Monday, June 7, 2010

Joshilyn Jackson chats with us about Backseat Saints

By Julie

New York Times Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson lives in Georgia with her husband, their two children, and way too many feckless animals. Her debut, gODS IN ALABAMA, won SIBA's 2005 Novel of the year Award and was a #1 BookSense pick. Joshilyn won Georgia Author of the Year for her second novel, BETWEEN, GEORGIA, which also a #1 BookSense pick, making her the first author in BookSense history to receive number one status in back-to-back years. Her third novel, THE GIRL WHO STOPPED SWIMMING, was a Breakout book at Target and was shortlisted for the Townsend Prize for Fiction. All three were chosen for the Books-A-Million Book Club.

Her latest, BACKSEAT SAINTS (June, 2010), tells the story of Rose Mae Lolley, a fierce, tiny ball of war wounds who was a minor character in gods in Alabama. Her life changes dramatically when she meets an airport gypsy who shares her past and knows her future. The gypsy's dire prediction: Ro's handsome, violent husband is going to kill her - unless she kills him first . . .

Booklist gave BACKSEAT SAINTS a starred review and said: “Positively breathtaking.”

Bookpage said: “Jackson has a magical way with words, injecting fearless insight throughout the novel. . . . . It's the work of a first-rate writer.”

We’re delighted to have Joshilyn Jackson as our guest here on What Women Write today. I’ve been a fan since my very first writer’s conference, when a panelist used Joshilyn’s first novel, gODS IN ALABAMA, as an example in her talk. I was riveted by the cover. I knew I had to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed. I’ve waited eagerly for each new release since, and BACKSEAT SAINTS is no exception!

www: Joss, we’re thrilled to have you as our guest today! Let’s talk first about that stunning cover for BACKSEAT SAINTS. The lopped-off braid is a very specific reference to your story. This doesn’t look like any stock photo pulled out of a hat by the publisher. Was the shot done specifically for your book or were you just exceedingly lucky? And you hunted down that dress to wear on your book tour, right?

JJ: Yes, they did a shoot, and the photographer was the amazing Cig Harvey. The whole thing makes me want to kiss Grand Central Publishing on its metaphorical (and possibly subway-train-tasting) glossy lips. Cig Harvey read the book very deeply, and responded in her own language — and she speaks light and shadow and balance and texture like a native. That image is perfect. The hair and the pose and the red-hot vintage dress that burns against all that cool green. That model has the most beautiful skin in the world, and she found about a thousand points of light in it. There’s another shot on the back cover, where we see Rose Mae’s tattered back hair in a wild ruffle, as Rose lofts her hacked off braid up to the sun in total victory. It’s like she reached into my brain and pulled Rose out and photographed her. And of course I am going to wear that dress! Just as soon as I am twenty again. And a curvy size two.

www: After reading your fourth novel, I believe I could pick up a book with no identifying marks and recognize your writer’s voice. It’s unique. It’s colorful. It’s startling. It’s over the top. (In a good way!) I’d guess your voice in “real life” is more like your casual writing in on your blog (Faster than Kudzu, which, by the way, is frequently side-splitting!). How do you prepare for stepping into character? Where does this mesmerizing voice hail from?

JJ: Oh, thank you! That’s about the nicest thing you can say to a writer, because, yes, I want all my books to have different plots and characters and be variations on the themes that drive me to write, but you always hope you have a voice, you know?

Yes, I do talk more like the blog than I talk like my fiction. The difference is revision and craft and intention. The blog is off the cuff, but when writing novels, I probably spend 80% of my time revising. I read aloud to myself. I stand up and block out scenes playing all the parts. I read through at least once for every character in the scene and make sure that, no matter what the narrator is focused on, every character in the scene has their own agenda and all are behaving like themselves. The narrator might misinterpret their motivations, but what they do and say has to come from who they are and what they want in that scene.

www: Wow, that makes sense, and those are great ideas for aspiring writers. BACKSEAT SAINTS is more “issues” related than your previous novels. (Though Usher Syndrome was a strong element in BETWEEN, GEORGIA, it was not the topic.) This novel tackles domestic abuse head on. How did you conduct research on the topic? Are you partnering with any domestic abuse agencies or organizations in the release of BACKSEAT SAINTS?

JJ: Yes, I sort of got “backed into” writing about domestic abuse. Books, for me, come from characters and voices, not issues or ideas. I felt compelled to write about Rose Mae, and I knew from gODS IN ALABAMA that Rose’s daddy was a violent man and that her mother had lit out and left her to him when she was little. Rose’d been raised thinking, “This is what men are like, this is what marriage looks like,” and she was carrying that baggage long before I started writing this book. I knew in order to write about her, I had to deal with Rose’s long standing and extremely self-destructive love affair with violence. I was, quite frankly, intimidated by the subject matter, but I loved her too much to let a difficult topic scare me off.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Dr. Liz Nickels and the organization she works with, Building Futures with Women and Children in San Leandro, California. Liza gave me her time and her knowledge, took me around to see her organization’s offices, took me to a safe house to speak to the residents and volunteers, and gave me all kinds of literature to read. She was fantastic to me.

I’m delighted that Books, Inc in nearby Berkeley is hosting a party to benefit this particular organization. I’ll be there on Saturday, June 19th, at 7 PM, and 15% of all proceeds will go to BFWC.

A wonderful independent store called The Alabama Booksmith will be hosting parties in Birmingham on June 16th and in Tuscaloosa on June 26th to benefit local shelters. If you live in those areas, you can contact the store about tickets (

www: Joss, the manipulation cycle in the story felt so real. It was difficult for me to read in spots, but I was glued because you did it so well. I reacted viscerally at times. How did you manage to write these scenes? What did you draw upon to understand Thom’s actions and Ro’s reactions?

JJ: I think it was coming to understand that it’s just one of the thousand ways we package self-destructive tendencies. Which I have. In spades. I’ve spent time flirting with eating disorders, let’s just say I made some bad chemical choices in my youth, and I’m an ex-smoker. Mmmm, Smokey Death tastes so delicious first thing in the morning with a cuppa coffee. It was killing me; I couldn’t stop.

How is that different from Rose Mae loving Thom? Finding places in my life, the beams in my own eyes, instead of judging the beams in hers made a big difference. I didn’t start the research and the interviews until I could approach women who were trying to escape marriages like Rose’s with empathy and respect for their courage instead of pity and self-protective distancing. Pity is insulting, sympathy is just good manners.

I learned to approach experiences well outside my own in this way while doing the research for BETWEEN, because when I started, Usher Syndrome was very frightening to me. I had to get past that and see how much my own fear was limiting Mama as a character. I was limiting her in ways real deaf-blind people who live full, happy lives are not limited.

No matter how far someone’s experiences are from your own life, to write respectfully you have to empathize. Otherwise its voyeurism, it feels creepy and mean, and it rings false.

www: I love that answer. It really speaks to me as an aspiring author. Now . . . I heard a rumor you learned to shoot a gun as part of your research for BACKSEAT SAINTS. Care to elaborate?

JJ: Yes, I did learn to shoot. I tried out rifles first, hunting guns, and even went to a skeet shooting range to try blasting away with a shotgun. I thought it would be distasteful, but I really, really dug it. I am surprisingly good shooting things.

My brother took me to a meadow and let me shoot plastic Pepsi bottles with my grandfather’s old .32. Its pin is broken off, just like a smaller caliber version of Rose’s pistol. I knew that day Rose was a pistol girl, and I had been wasting my time with the rifles.

www: Wow. Don’t you love how random little experiences like that can speak to you, then make their way into the writing, showing up in both characterization and plot? That’s perfect. So . . . how does it feel to release your fourth novel? Does the swing of things get any different/easier/harder this far along in the game?

JJ: I always freak out, and say, “I have never been this excited, horrified, nervous, and vomit-level hopeful in my whole life. My heart is going to pop. My brain is going to come out my ears. I am going to lie in the road and die of joy and fervent horror. I have never felt this way before.”

At this point, my husband just rolls his eyes and gently says, “Well, not since the last book released, anyway. So.”

Apparently I do not learn.

www: Well, maybe not, but we’re glad you keep going and all of these things do not come to pass. I know about some of your unique writing processes from reading your blog. Can you share about some of the unusual methods you use to get the job done?

JJ: I write in huge spurts, disappearing to the homes of like-minded friends who are also writing for four or five days at a time. If none of my posse is drafting, I beg and borrow cabins and off-season vacation condos, or rent cheap business class hotels I can get with my points and go alone. I will then spend months revising the hideously bad mess of text I generate into large polished pieces of an actual novel. Then I have to creep away from my family and home for another big word push. I have no real schedule. I don’t outline. I sometimes go 10 or 20 or 30 thousand words off track and have to throw it all away and go back. It is a hideous and inefficient way to write novels and I cannot recommend it.

I also can’t seem to do it any other way.

I think all those books on how to write novels actually only tell you how that guy writes novels, not how you need to write them. Some of them, you read anyway because they are gorgeous books. (BIRD BY BIRD, for example). Some you read because learning how that guy writes novels will give you things to try and adapt and bend to your own method, which will develop as you go along.

www: That is some priceless advice you’ve just given our readers for free! Thank you. Joss, Your stories are not for the faint of heart – sometimes profane, often graphic, frequently violent, and always heartbreaking. I love them, but I’m not easily shocked. As writers, we must be true to ourselves and to the writing, which you seem to do well and without much self-censoring. How do you deal with readers or friends and family who might be offended by the gritty honesty in your writing?

JJ: Oh Lord, I have HUGE issues with self censoring. I muffle things and leave things out – out of cowardice – and have to work to give myself permission to put in the things I know must be in there for the story to say what I want it to say. It is a constant struggle.

But we live in a broken world, and so I write about broken people. I am a person of faith, so I am hopeful in my brokenness, but make no mistake, I’m broken as hell. I have to accept that the kind of stories I have it in me to tell are all those things you say. I push myself out of my comfort zone precisely because I try to be truthful, and I feel okay with it because I try hard to never write anything gratuitous.

Yes, some of my characters have colorful vocabularies, yes my scenes are often visceral or overtly sexual or violent, but all these things are serving a purpose, and I think my purpose is good. I am interested in grace and redemption as a writer, and you can’t write about redemption if you are afraid to write about sin. You can’t write about grace if you write about perfect people who do not need any. (Also? Those people do not exist.)

I’ve gotten a little flack here and there, sure, but not in any of the places I call home. My family is so proud of me. My writing group calls me out for holding back and worrying people won’t think I am nice . . . they have never told me to hold back and write things that are more ladylike. Folks at my home church are more focused on hope and mission than worrying about if one of my characters says the eff word. We belong to a motley, dirty hippie kind of a church with a very diverse group of weirdos who all accept each other because we agree on the important things. Hope matters. Grace is free. Love wins.

www: Once again, I am awed by your response here. We should all be so lucky – or blessed! – to be surrounded by folks like that. I blogged recently about characters doing the unexpected. Your characters get into some ridiculous predicaments. In BACKSEAT SAINTS, Ro Grandee, AKA Rose Mae Lolley, is no exception. I literally held my breath while she crawled out of these situations little by little and rarely the way I expected her to. Any thoughts on this process?

JJ: No. None. They do that on their own. I know a novel is working when my characters begin surprising the hell out of me. I say a mental apology to my mother and try to roll with whatever weird or awful thing they want to do.

www: Funny how those folks who live inside our heads can do that, isn’t it? I love it. And I’ve loved having you as our guest here. Thank you SO much for taking the time to talk with us at What Women Write. We wish you nothing but really big things for BACKSEAT SAINTS! One last question . . .

You’re a southern girl to the bone. What southern comfort food would you require if you were stranded on a desert island? Where can we get some of that?

JJ: Shrimp and grits. This is the best recipe I know.

Thick cut Bacon baked in brown sugar, Southern Living Style, served with grits; my husband makes this once a year, on our vacation. He does the grits Frank Stitt style.

Grit Fritters, which you can get at Miller Union, my new favorite Atlanta eatery.

Are you sensing a theme here? It’s because grits are nature’s perfect vehicle for delicious fat. There is not an amount of fat you can put in grits to over-fat them. They expand and welcome more. If you want to be comforted, you can take whatever fatty deliciousness you have and pair it perfectly with grits. Also, on the desert island, you don’t have to wear pants, so it won’t matter that after a few days of this diet you will have no hope of fitting in yours . . .

Readers, get your copy of BACKSEAT SAINTS, available Tuesday, June 8! Why not look for it at your local independent bookseller?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. I am making this statement in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. SQUEEEEE, I LOVE this interview. You know I'm a huge Joss fan and read her blog faithfully, snorting with laughter. And this interview really captures her wonderful rebel spirit - she doesn't do it like anyone else, and is unapologetic about that. Great interview, great questions. Fun, and yet informative. Some author interviews can be a bit, er, dry and highbrow, if you knowwhutahmean . . . This one was delightful. Can't wait to read Backseat Saints. :)

  2. I came to your blog from Twitter and LOVE the photo of all of you at the top. So real and powerful. As if the six of you could do anything.

    I enjoyed this interview in particular because I just finished Between, Georgia. My favorite part was what Joss had to say about her writing process and revision in particular.

  3. Thank you, Cynthia! Your comment somehow got stuck in the moderation file and I didn't see if until just now to approve it. So glad you found the blog and enjoyed the interview.


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