In Part I of our interview with New York Times best-selling author, Joshilyn Jackson, she took us behind the scenes of her latest book, Backseat Saints. We discussed her background in theater, the motivation for some of her characters, and what compels her to write a story. In Part II we’ll discuss how her Southern upbringing defines her in many ways, why the South is so often the backdrop for her stories, and the writing group that helped develop her craft and catapult her to success.
You were raised in the Deep South and your books reflect your intimate knowledge of the peculiarities of Southern living. How would you describe your experience growing up in the South? Will the South continue to be the backdrop for future books?
I write what I know and sense of place is important to me, so yes, I often write in the South. Being Southern defines me in a lot of ways. I have a love-hate relationship with its culture and its bloody history. I am truly happy nowhere else, and yet I am angry with it, so I don’t imagine I am finished writing about it. Right now I am writing a book called The Other Mosey Slocumb, set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.
I don’t feel limited by it, though. I think my seven year exile—living as a Southern ex-pat in Illionois—gave me the distance to write about the South with an insider’s love and an outsider’s objectivity. It also broadened my sense of the country. I am not stuck writing only in this corner of the country. Although I will admit California was outside my comfort zone! Luckily it was outside Rose’s comfort zone, too, so I had the luxury of writing about California from an outsider’s perspective. “The weird go west,” Rose Mae tells her dog, and adds, “Anyone too strange for Berkeley must walk straight into the sea like a lemming to drown.”
I went out to Berkeley and moved in with my long-suffering and generous friend Jill for weeks to learn what Berkeley smells like. Culture shock, but the fun kind. I loved it there—Loved all the little cities around San Francisco, and adored San Francisco itself. I love the hills and the way the houses are stacked into them. The air has a salt-freshness to it that makes one feel all intrepid.
How did you get started as a writer? Was writing fiction always a dream of yours?
Yes. I’ve always written. My mom has books I wrote and published myself using the stapler-and-Crayola method when I was five or six yearsold. I filled up endless blank books with truly awful horror books in middle and high school (I was and I remain a dedicated Stephen King fan.) I also started writing plays right about then and got into acting. I think my acting background has had a huge effect on my writing—I think the most important tool actors and novelists share is a facility for empathy. I am not sure I had a lot of that naturally—I learned it, working in theatre.
Most writers are avid readers. What authors did you read as a child?
As a child I read very eclectically based on my own regular little-girl tastes and the influences of a much older and extremely beloved brother. So I’d read A Little Princess by Frances Hodgsen Burnett and follow that up with his copy of Conan the Barbarian by Robert E. Howard. Some of my own characters could be the unlikely children of Sara Crewe (seeking redemption with hopefulness and faith) and Conan (inexorable and often violent pragmatism), so I suppose I have never abandoned these first literary loves.
Do you have a favorite book or author? What book did you read last?
I read incessantly. Here’s a partial list of the authors I most often recommend to book clubs: Frank Turner Hollon, Haven Kimmel, Karen Abbott, Sara Gruen, Cornelia Reed, and Michelle Richmond. I just finished Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places. It’s lovely and evocative—she has such an amazing sense of place.
Tell us about your writing process. How do you write? How do you approach a book? Where you prefer to write?
Oh Lord, I wish I had a process. It would be so much more efficient. I write on three different computers and mail the updated files to my g-mail account to download the latest every time I switch. I write at home in bed on my ancient craptoposaurus, at home in my office on my desktop, and I drag my little netbook everywhere to write in coffee shops and carpool lines and while waiting on a folding chair for my youngest to finish her ballet lesson. I do not have set working hours, either. I write in seizures, disappearing to borrowed vacation homes, off season, to draft twenty thousand words in four days, and then I don’t open a single file again for two weeks, then I’ll be up at three am for nine days in a row, revising. It’s a ridiculous, stupid way to work, and I cannot recommend it. It’s also the only way that works for me.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers who hope to one day achieve their dreams of being successful authors?
Get a writing group. I LOVE my writing group. It’s fun, and a good one will make you a better writer. A good one is by definition keen eyed, supportive, honest, and made up of people whose work blows your mind — people you suspect daily of being better writers than you are. They’ll make you better, too.
Troll for prospects locally and online; Take writing workshops and visit local writer’s groups. On the web, join a bunch of writers groups and treat them like match.com, looking for people who whose work thrills you. If you can afford it, go to conferences. Partially because the craft workshops can be useful and of course it is fun to drink too much and BS with writers who have made it in the industry, but the best part is finding people that are at the same stage of their career who are writing things that blow your mind and who get and love what you write. Team up. Flog each other on. Never let each other take the easy way. You will grow exponentially together.
It took me years to build my writing group. I met one of the members at grad school, one on the internet, one at a conference, one was a friend of a friend… All of us are now publishing, and three of us have hit the NYT list. When I met these writers, none of us had published more than a poem or a short story in a journal here and there. We set high bars for each other then and we still do that now.
What question should we have asked, that we didn’t? Now is YOUR opportunity to tell us what we missed!
Oh Lord I think I got long winded on a lot of these—BLAH BLAH BLAH – but the questions were so engaging—this was a very fresh and different approach. I better STOP – thank you for such great questions, this interview was a pleasure.