Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Q&A with Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson, photo by Wes Browning
Joshilyn Jackson is the author of the new suspense novel Never Have I Ever. Her other books include the novels gods in Alabama and The Opposite of Everyone. She lives in Decatur, Georgia.

Q: Your new novel marks something of a departure from your past work. How did you come up with the idea for Never Have I Ever and for your characters Amy and Roux?

A: I didn’t realize I was departing. Not at first. I didn’t wake up one morning and proclaim, And now I shall write a thrillahhhh. I was just writing the book I wanted to write. It began in my head the way all my books do, with the characters. I was so interested in a clash between Amy and Roux, two strong-willed women who are more alike than either wants to admit.

Three chapters in, I knew Never Have I Ever felt different. Twistier. A little darker. More invested in narrative drive. I felt I had to show it to my editor and my agent–a thing I never do before a book is done.

Luckily they were excited about it and encouraged me to lean in. From that moment on, I got deliberate about it. I started thinking of it as a suspense book and structuring it as such.

It wasn’t a hard transition. First, because most of my up-market, book club fic titles are built over the engines of mysteries or suspense stories. I have always had plot twists, and dark secrets, and crime. This book just moves those always present elements to front and center.

Second, I read all kinds of fiction, and I love suspense. It is probably the kind of book I read most, so I was already very familiar with the conventions of the genre. 

All this said?  It’s still my book. My kind of fierce, female characters who act instead of reacting. My weird sense of humor. My themes. The changes are mostly in terms of structure. I think if you like my other books, especially the darker ones that dabble in murder, like gods in Alabama or The Opposite of Everyone, then you are going to love this.

Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?

A: I thought I knew how it ended. I always think I know it ends. I don’t use outlines or storyboards, but I am always walking towards something.

But Amy had a mind of her own. I have learned that when a character begins doing things that don’t feel as if they come from me, especially things that make me feel very uncomfortable, I should follow the character. It saves time, because fighting it only means I will write a bunch of bad, flat pages I will have to trash.

When characters take off in their own directions, it means I have written my way down into the dark and salty marshes of my undermind, where all my mental illnesses and primal fears and secret hopes and dearest loves dwell unseen. That’s where the good stories are.  

So Amy wanted to do things, and then, yikes, Roux began having ideas–that woman is a font of wicked ideas! I followed them, and it changed both the arc of the book and the end.

Q: The novel is set in Pensacola, Florida. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: Well, I was raised on fried chicken and Eudora Welty, so. Very important.

This is my second novel set in Pensacola. I spent the second half of my childhood there. It’s where I met my husband and graduated from high school; my mother-in-law still lives there. So I know it intimately. I don’t think I could write well about a place if I didn’t know it that way. I have to know how a place smells.  

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?

A: I believe a novel is a conversation between a book and a reader, and the reader brings at least half of the ideas and thoughts and images to the table. I know what I set out to do in terms of theme and character and plot, and I hope these things shine through, but I have learned that absolutely no one ever reads the exact book I wrote.

What I hope is that the reader has a good conversation. I have done my best to make the book an interesting dinner companion.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Another suspense novel; I love this genre! It is called Two Truths and a Liar and the first line is, “The day my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.”

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: I learned to scuba dive in order to write the book. I tried interviewing divers and watching You Tube, but the book’s underwater scenes didn’t feel as alive or as true as I wanted them to feel. 

So I took lessons. My husband took them with me, and now we are addicted. We still dive regularly, even though our trips are no longer tax deductions. It’s our favorite thing; everything Amy says about diving is how I feel about it, too. If you get the chance---try it!

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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