I jumped at the opportunity to interview New York Times Bestselling author, Joshilyn Jackson. I’ll admit, I hadn’t heard of Joshilyn or read any of her books. What hooked me was the description of her latest book, Backseat Saints. It is the tale of Rose Mae Lolley, a woman whose past is littered with bad men – from an abusive father and bad-news boyfriends to an abusive husband whose escalating violence is sure to be the end of her. Once I picked up a copy of Backseat Saints, Jackson’s fourth book, I fell in love with her writing and her ability to capture the broken spirits, contradictory actions, and convoluted thought-process of the walking wounded that fill her books. Some of the characters bare their scars on the outside, but the worst scars are deep within. Her latest book deals with the issue of domestic violence. While it is a hard topic to digest, Jackson does an excellent job of portraying what life is like for those who are trapped in abusive relationships. Recently, Joshilyn Jackson made the time to talk with All Things Girl about her background in theater and give us a behind the scenes look at her latest book, Backseat Saints.
For many of our readers, it will be their first introduction to Joshilyn Jackson. Tell us three things you’d like us to know about you.
The H in my first name is silent; it is pronounced exactly like Jocelyn. As a mother, I know how much care and love goes into the naming of a child, so I kept the odd spelling and pronunciation my parents gave me. I don’t mind when people mispronounce my first name—how would they know, looking at it? But I purely, purely hate to be called Josh. The short version of my name has since childhood been Jos or Joss.
My background is in theatre. I started as a playwright, and I met my husband when I was a teenager working in a regional repertoire. Our poor children are genetically poisoned with theatre on both sides, God help ‘em. The upside is, I get to read my own audio books.
I’ve always thought of myself as a cat and horse person, but a couple of years ago the kids lobbied for a dog. Now I am having a mad love affair with Bagel, the stupidest hound ever born. In a lot of ways he served as the model for Fat Gretel, the dog in Backseat Saints.
Backseat Saints is your most recent book. What else have you written?
I wrote a warmhearted book I think of as a triple-stacked love story—-mother-daughter, boy-meets-girl, and the lovesong of being called home —-called Between, Georgia. Between is an actual town here with a population of less than 100, and I set a modern day Romeo and Juliette tale there, but with more gasoline bombs and fewer suicides. I also wrote The Girl Who Stopped Swimming a ghost tale about a pair of polar opposite sisters who share a haunted past; the skeleton in their family’s metaphorical closet is quite literal, and the unexplained death of a local girl reopens that old grave and brings them back together.
My debut novel was gods in Alabama, the story of a girl who makes a deal with God: She promises Him she’ll never tell another lie, she’ll stop having sex with every fella who crosses her path, and she’ll never set foot in the state of Alabama again. All God has to do is make sure no one finds the body of the man she killed. The novel opens ten years later, when a minor character called Rose Mae Lolley shows up to announce that God is about to break his end of the deal. Rose Mae is the main character in Backseat Saints, but I wouldn’t call Saints a sequel. The books cover the same time period and can be read in either order.
Thousands of women find themselves in situations much like your main character in Backseat Saints. What led to your decision to focus on the important issue of domestic violence?
Honestly? I didn’t. Books, for me, come from characters and voices. I didn’t decide to write about an issue. I felt compelled to write about Rose Mae, and I knew Rose’s history from gods in Alabama. I knew that like many real women in this situation, she had been raised thinking, “This is what men are like, this is what marriage looks like.” So 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 back down.
She was so compelling to me. We see a few flashbacks of her as young girl in my first novel, wafting about, bruised and lost, and yet somehow, when she appears ten years later, she has become God’s dirtiest messenger angel. She’s fierce, funny, pointy, and relentless. I wondered how she had managed to emerge from her own history with so much self and so much will and so much damnable, unbreakable hope. I wanted to live in her shoes and imagine her life and let her speak. I wanted her to explain a transformation we don’t see in gods in Alabama. I am always, always, as a writer, interested in people who change—in people who try to live the end results of seeking redemption.
Your portrayal of Rose Mae Lolley is so authentic and all too familiar to anyone who has lived with domestic violence; uncomfortably so, at some points in the book. How were you able to create the life, experiences, thoughts, and emotions of a woman enduring the atrocity of domestic abuse so accurately?
I think in a lot of ways that when I was drafting the bones of those scenes, I was trying to explain a phenomenon that is very foreign to me and very frightening to me from a position of empathy. I think before this book, I felt only a kind of distancing pity. I looked at women in that situation, unable to fathom it: Battered women can otherwise seem so strong! Rose is smart and funny and sexy and rowdy and strong, certainly. And yet they and she “let” this terrible thing keep happening by staying, by going back. I was asking myself why they did that, and then trying to write my way to an answer I could understand.
I hope this book can communicate to readers who can’t imagine why these women “don’t just leave.” I hope they will see how complex the relationships can be, how deep the history goes, because writing it, doing the research for it, I certainly had that experience. And when you truly understand a thing, you can work to change it. No one wants to be approached with pity…pity implies looking down from a place of smug superiority. Women who are trying to get out of deadly marriages don’t need pity, they need empathy and admiration, because what they are doing is so damn hard and brave.
Rose Mae finds herself in a cycle of abuse. She experiences physical abuse throughout her childhood. She flees her abusive father, yet finds herself constantly attracted to men who are very much like him. What is it that makes these men so appealing to her?
It’s the devil she knows. And we all, to varying degrees, love the devil we know, even when it is self destructive. I have not smoked in years, but I still carry a torch that hopes to one day again ignite some delicious cigarettes. Oh, Camel Special Lights! You kill a solid third of the people who indulge in you, and yet, and yet, if I knew the world would end tomorrow, I would go immediately to the 7-11 and buy you and smoke you right the hell up. Yum. I think the character of Mirabelle gets this best in Backseat Saints—She pitches a righteous
“…What’s wrong with you, all you young women.” She is pacing up and down her parlor, one chunk of the broken down gun in each of her waving, angry hands. “My friend’s daughter, she cuts open her own skin to let the bad out. She’s a child, barely in high school. What bad can she have in her? Half her little friends are starving themselves, or puking up all their food. It’s the same thing, but the starvers say, ‘Oh I could never cut myself like that,’ and the cutters say, ‘I’d never marry a man who hit me,’ but it’s all the same thing. You are all killing your stupid, stupid selves.”
I stay slumped on the stairs with no answer for her. I am so tired now. She is still ranting, her voice shaking with anger, as righteous as Ezekiel.
“My ten o’clock today? Bette? You saw her. She can’t be more than twenty-five and she’s wider than most walls. She brought cookies with her, for me, she says, and sets the plate between us. She never took a whole cookie, but she sat there pinching bits off one cookie til it was gone, then another, pinch by pinch, until half the plate had been moused away.
“Then she points through the window, to Lilah mooning on the fence outside, and says, ‘I don’t understand how she can go back to him when he beats her. She might as well put a gun to her own head.’ Meanwhile, Bette is so trapped and hemmed by all the fat on her that she can’t breathe. She’s killing herself, same as my friend’s daughter with her razors. Same as Lilah.” She pauses to point at me with one accusing finger, the rest of her hand wrapped around the barrel. “Same as you.”
You’ve created very real characters that many of us can relate to. Do any of them have basis in real people and experiences?
Sure. But not in any one-to-one, easily quantifiable way. None of my characters are me, but they are, all of them, absolutely mine. It’s a small distinction, but an important one. When I say all of them are mine, I do not mean the narrators or main characters. I mean Rose’s abusive husband, Thom Grandee, is as much “mine” as Rose Mae is. I tried to get in his skin and present him with as much empathy as I gave her. I understand his selfishness and his self-deluding justifications, and there but for the grace of God go I. He’s not a good man by any measure, but he also isn’t purely evil. He’s just a guy who has justified his actions, baby step by step, until he is entrenched in his awfulest self. I’m not interested in Mustache Twirlers; I am much more interested in understanding how regular folks get comfortable enough to live on and on and perpetrate the sometimes hellishly evil things they do.
In the same way, nothing that happens in these books ever happened to me. I lie for a living. I make it all up. But the plots and the themes all come out of my experiences of how the world works. In my mind, the big questions are best answered by story. I am riveted by parables and sleep through sermons. Story is how I explain the world to myself. The exceptions are children and dogs. All my kid and canine characters are directly based on my actual experiences and family; children and dogs are too weird to make up.
Backseat Saints is filled with powerful scenes and memorable lines, including the first line: “It was an airport gypsy who told me that I had to kill my husband.” That line nicely sets the scene for what is to come. Are there any lines or scenes in the book of which you are especially fond?
Oh wow this is the nicest possible question to ask any writer. Of course! Of course! It’s those teeny throw away lines we slave over or chortle about—not huge pivotal moments but just those wonderful times when you find the words to make what you see in your head go down onto the page exactly.
I will try to restrain myself to only three…In an early chapter we meet Thom’s family, his father Joe, his mother Charlotte, and his brother Larry. I spent probably hours trying catch the essence of each of them in a few quick words, using a physical image or anecdote.
Back in Kingsville, where we got engaged, my Catholicism hadn’t seemed like such a big thing to Thom. At college, he’d had the whole of Texas stretched between him and his stick-up-the-butt protestant family.
Charlotte, who’d been born and raised in a border town, believed it was the excessive Catholic breeding of Mexicans that was wrecking Texas. Joe was a more practical racist, who understood that without illegal immigrants he might have to pay a decent wage to get his yard done. But he agreed that it wasn’t a religion for upright, gun-store-owning white folk. Things had looked a lot different to Thom once we were in Amarillo with his daddy sitting across the dinner table, asking, “Are you a practicing Catholic?” in the same tone he might use to ask if I was a practicing cannibal.
Charlotte’s spiky fingers flexed on her knees. She somehow managed to look down her short peck of a nose at me, even though she was seated. “You could have left a note,” she said in her needle-thin voice. Charlotte was made entirely of angles. Even her small boobies were pointy, so sharp it was mystery to me how none of her boys had lost an eye while trying to breastfeed.
And the worthless brother:
He had a broad forehead and a Roman nose, but under that, his face waffled away in a chinless slide. He was an accountant, and he kept the books for the stores. Joe must have folded him up like the luggage he was and brought him in the cramped back seat of the big black truck.
Your use of both the third and first person deftly illustrates how the main character views herself and allows us access to the brutal internal war she is waging against herself. Did you plan to use this device from the beginning or was it something you layered into the story during the editing process? Why do you think it works so successfully in this story?
It was definitely an immediate choice and the hardest craft issue in the book. I knew the book would have three parts, one for each of the cards in the tarot reading the gypsy does for Rose in Chapter Two. A three card read shows your past, your present and hints at your future. In the same way, this woman used to be Rose Mae Lolley, is now Ro Grandee, and hopes to become a different person, one who can escape her life, or at least survive it.
I wanted each of those Roses to have a separate voice. I used first and third person as well as past and present tense and gave each incarnation a slightly different vocabulary and sentence structure. Of course, it isn’t tidy – we don’t go from one voice to the other. It all mixes in together as Rose tells her story, and I wanted the transitions to be seamless and not interfere with the pacing. This was my hope and goal from the first line. I can’t tell you how pleased I am that it worked for you. Thank you.
Be sure to check back on June 1st for Part II of our interview with Joshilyn Jackson. She tells us how she is defined by her Southern upbringing, how her love-hate relationship with its history and culture influences her books, the writing group that helped her grow as a writer and why every aspiring writer should be part of one, too. In the meantime, visit Joshilyn at JoshilynJackson.com or get a copy of Backseat Saints at Amazon.com.