In her latest Southern Gothic joyride, Joshilyn Jackson creates an unforgettable story of generational dysfunction and sloppily buried secrets. “A Grown-up Kind of Pretty” (Grand Central Publishing) finds the Slocumb women—matriarch Ginny (aka Big), daughter Liza, and granddaughter Mosey—resigned to living under a cosmic curse that returns every fifteen years. “I was turning forty-five, and that meant it was a trouble year,” Big hints calmly. Recovering addict Liza, victim of a stroke that left her unable to speak, narrates her chapters in brilliant third person: “She can see the word she wants to say shining in her head, clear and hard and empty and sparkling. She knows exactly how its cool rim would feel against her lip if she lifted it to her mouth and drank, but her mouth can’t find the shape of the word that is this thing.” When a grave is unearthed in the backyard, fifteen-year-old Mosey wants to solve the mystery, even as her grandmother Big is hell-bent on keeping the past buried—though it may cost her the love of her life. “Here’s this woman who has lost her girlhood to her own child,” author Jackson, forty-three, explains. “And she’s lost her young womanhood to raising her child’s child. I wanted this forty-five-year-old to get that fifteen-year-old first-love thing.”
Photograph by Elizabeth Osborne
After recording the last few chapters of the audiobook version of her latest novel, Joshilyn Jackson stopped in at Octane on Atlanta’s Westside to talk about life and “A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty.”
Your books are such a curious blend of dark and light. Thank you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. [Laughs]
How did this one start? With a character, a plot idea, what? You know, I think about books for a really long time before I write them. I had sort of an idea for Liza right after I finished “Between,Georgia,” but I wasn’t ready to write it yet. But what happened was, I was sitting in an airport and I overheard this conversation—I do that a lot. There was this woman walking past me and she was of a certain age and she was not going gently into that good night. Very resort wear, very put together. Beautiful forehead, you know? I like to sit in airport bars and pretend I’m doing something and listen. It’s one of the best places, because people go past you talking and you can only hear that much. This woman was on the phone with somebody and she’s really mad. So she says, “So, we’re on the phone and she’s promising me she’s not gonna do it anymore, and right there, while she’s on the phone with me, SHE’S DOING IT.” [Laughs] And I thought, “What could she be on the phone doing, swearing that she wasn’t going to do anymore?” The nicest thing I could think of was smoking, but I don’t think it was smoking. So I thought about that, and I decided it was a girl who’s a virgin who has a neurosis that causes her to pee on pregnancy tests. What grew out of that woman was Claire Richardson, but the girl I thought of was Mosey. So I guess it started with Mosey.
For a while now, I’ve been very interested in writing about male-female friendships. Not a romantic relationship, but a male-female friendship. I knew I didn’t want Mosey to have any kind of a romance. I wasn’t interested in writing a teen romance. But it felt like her story would be a springtime story. And it would be a story about burgeoning. But later I realized it would be her grandmother who would have this love story and burgeon. Here’s this woman who has lost her girlhood to her own child. And she’s lost her young womanhood to raising her child’s child. While this fifteen-year-old deals with things you shouldn’t have to deal with until you’re at least forty-five, I wanted this forty-five-year-old to get that fifteen-year-old first love thing. I just wanted to give her that.
Which character do you feel closest to? Liza. I have a good distance from Big and Mosey. The more distant I feel from a character, the easier it is for me to see inside them. The more connected I feel to a character, the harder they are to write. Liza was very hard to write. I gave her a stroke specifically so that she couldn’t talk. The first 80 percent of the book I wrote was just Big and Mosey. And my best friend and writing partner of many years kept saying, “You all but killed Liza to shut her up. You know you’re gonna have to let her talk.” I kept saying, “She can’t talk, she had a stroke, she doesn’t have anything to say. Shut up.” I was about 80 percent done with the book, about three months from turning it in, and I realized she was right. So I had to go through and rip the whole thing open and take parts away from Big and Mosey and let Liza have a voice. The parts that you’re closer to and feel connected to in some more personal way, they’re the hardest to write, but they’re also my favorite. Liza is my favorite now, even though I hated every second of writing her.
Why did you set it on the Mississippi Gulf Coast? I grew up on the Gulf Coast, and I love the Gulf Coast all the way across. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is more verdant than the Florida part, and I wanted that. This is a verdant book. [Laughs] I wanted that green Mississippi-ness to it. I love Mississippi—especially coastal Mississippi.
Do you consider this a mystery? For all my books, I [borrow] structure from genres that I read. And I read murder mysteries. I freakin’ love Laura Lippman, like wrongfully. “Backseat Saints” was built on the bones of a thriller. I structured that by reading Jack Reacher novels. So I would say it’s a Southern Gothic family drama that’s built on the bones of a mystery. I write weird crap. I don’t know what I’m doing. [Laughs]
How important is a great first line to you? To me, the first line has to contain the ending and set voice. The end of the book has to be in the first line in some way. A lot of times, I don’t write the first line last. And a lot of times I won’t even see how it connects. And then I’ll get to the end and see.
So you don’t know the ending when you start? I don’t know crap. [Laughs] I know the characters, to the bone. I think about these people for years and know how they’re related to each other and what their inner workings are and what their history is. In my novels, the backstory is really thick. That I know. Everything that happened before the book starts, I know.
I had a very different idea of who Mosey was when I started the book. That happened. That developed. The plot for me comes last. I love plot, but plot is how I entertain myself enough to do the hideous work of getting the words right. If I knew the plot, I would never write the book, because then it would just be the hideous work of getting the words right. Whereas now it’s the hideous work of trying to get the words right while finding out what happens next.
What are you like when you’re writing a novel? A little crazed? I hope not, because I’m always writing. [Laughs] If so, everyone in my life is screwed, because I’m never not writing.
Your kids are how old now? Nine and fourteen. You know, I married the right man. Those children were born happy. My son is the easiest teenager on the planet. He’d be embarrassed to hear me say that. It’s really fun to have conversations with him now, because he’s turned into this person with ideas about philosophy, and he watches a lot of the movies that I watch. And he likes Jack Reacher books. It’s really kind of cool.
Do either of the kids show any writer tendencies? Sam is very much math and science. But he’s also a huge reader. What he wants to do is be a game designer, which has a lot of plot in it. Maisy Jane is hugely creative, but she’s very performance-based. She takes acting lessons and dance, and she sings. She’s a huge reader, too, and she writes. She’s written several books and they’re brilliant, I’m here to tell you. She’s even illustrated them herself.
Are you doing any teaching nowadays? No. I love to teach, but the same semester I was teaching at Vermont College of Fine Arts, Susan Rebecca White also asked me to take her class at Emory. So I had a book deadline, two children, and I’m teaching graduate students and undergraduates. I can do two full-time jobs. I can be a novelist and do the publicity and raise my children. And I probably could have taught one class and really enjoyed it. But teaching a class and mentoring five graduate students was too much. It was really fulfilling but exhausting.
Do you write every day? No. I write most days. But some days I just don’t. Here’s the thing I do that’s really weird. I go away for a week or two at a time and generate 20,000 words, writing twelve hours a day. It’s awful. And then I’ll spend five or six days a week—maybe four hours, certainly no more than six—fixing. That’s the fun part! And then the rest of my working day I do all the other things you have to do—work on the website, do all the prepub and postpub interview stuff, blog, keep up with email. I probably spend three hours a day on just office crap.
And then I play MMORPG, which is very time-consuming. I like to kill things. It makes me calm. My husband and I do that. Instead of watching television, we kill things together.
You still live in Powder Springs? We’ll be there till we die. Our house is paid for.
You still get lost when you come into Atlanta? Yeah, but to be fair, I get lost in Powder Springs too. I just push OnStar. If it’s not the grocery store or my church, I push OnStar. And I have the service where a real human being will come on and talk to you. For fifteen bucks a month I can push a button and have a man tell me where I am and how to go to the next place. It’s awesome. When my momtastic van died—I drive cars until they fall in chunks on the road—my husband asked what kind of car I wanted and I said, “I want it to be orange and I want it to have OnStar.”
Orange? Because it’s my favorite color and you can find it in the parking lot. Because the other thing I do is always lose my car.
What’s your next book about? It’s called “Someone Else’s Love Story,” and it’s set in North Georgia and Atlanta. A lot of it is set in [author] Karen Abbott’s old condo on Piedmont Avenue. It is a book about miracles, but they’re all fake. It’s got two narrators: a twenty-one-year-old woman named Shandi, who has experienced a virgin birth, sort of, and a thirty-something conservationist named William who works with the North Georgia mollusks that are disappearing out of all the streams. He has Asperger’s syndrome. They meet in a holdup at a Circle K up in the North Georgia mountains. He is broken. When he goes into that Circle K, he is at a place where there is no reason for him to take another breath. Shandi is a mess, and she’s very funny. Her chapters are in first person; his chapters are much shorter, and in third person. They tell the story in an alternating way, where their lives intersect. When she goes into the Circle K, she has a four-year-old son, and the first thing that happens is, William moves between the gunman and her child. Partially because he doesn’t care if he lives or dies, but she doesn’t know that. So she just falls in love with him right there. She says, “Someone should have told me that morning that I was walking into bullets and a love story, especially since it isn’t and wasn’t and could never be my love story.” So it’s the love story of William and his wife.
You’ve put a lot of thought into this! I’m so in love with William, it’s gross. I’ve been wanting to write about William for probably ten years now. But he’s so bleak and miserable and wanting to die, he needs Shandi. Shandi’s like this hammer and he’s this gray rock, and she’s gonna smash him open and he’s all diamonds in there. I’m gonna bust his life open and I’m gonna make him see miracles. But they’re all fake—a virgin birth, a resurrection from the dead. They’re not true. There is an explanation for all of them. But she just relentlessly overwhelms his life with miracles. And then when the real miracle happens, it’s the tiniest thing. I think it involves mollusks. It’s tiny and it changes the world.
Does anybody read your novels in progress? Lydia Netzer, Karen Abbott, and Sara Gruen are my writing group. Lydia’s first novel just sold. She and I went to grad school together, and I dedicated “Backseat Saints” to her. Her novel’s called “Shine, Shine, Shine,” and it’s the best book I’ve ever read in my f-ing life. She’s been working on it for twelve years.
What else have you read lately that you love? Carolyn Parkhurst’s latest, “The Nobodies Album.” I’ve loved her since “The Dogs of Babel.” My favorite three books I’ve read so far this year are “The Nobodies Album,” “A Good Hard Look,” and “Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.”
I’ve gotten to the point where I only read things that I love. I mean, I am going to die eventually. And when I die there’s a finite number of things I could have read. And sometimes I think, maybe this book isn’t one of them.
*EXTENDED VERSION OF THE INTERVIEW THAT RAN IN OUR FEBRUARY 2012 ISSUE