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Powell’s Q&A: Joshilyn Jackson

Describe your latest book.
Someone Else's Love Story begins when a young woman who claims to have experienced a virgin birth and a geneticist who is a stone-cold atheist walk into a Circle K convenience store just as it is being robbed. Shandi and William would never meet, much less bond, under normal circumstances, but their lives entwine irrevocably when the crime goes south and they are taken hostage.

Shandi calls it destiny. William calls it coincidence, but a convenient one; he lost everything he cared about to "an act of physics" exactly one year ago. He's been looking for a bullet to walk into ever since. He has no idea he is winning Shandi's heart when he puts himself between the gun and her three-year-old boy, Natty. It's absolutely a love story, but it doesn't necessarily belong to Shandi and William.

At its heart, this is a book about miracles.At its heart, this is a book about miracles. The book is full of fake miracles — huge, splashy ones: the so-called virgin birth, more than one kind of resurrection.

Meanwhile, the real miracles are very tiny and very human. They are flawed. No one notices them. They change everything.

What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
All through middle school and my freshman year of high school, I was a hand-puppeteer, both amateur and professional. Professionally, I was a mall puppeteer. There was a structure in the food court that looked like a small sheep pen if a sheep pen had a puppet theatre at one end. A mall employee let children in and stood at the gate to prevent escapes. I did a 30-minute show while harried mothers ran off to commit speed retail therapy.

I was also a member of the Son-Shine Players at my church. The church provided tapes with all the lines and songs, and so all we had to do was move the puppets around. We went to old folks' homes, daycare centers, and youth-at-risk programs to spread the word of God via fundamentalist old-school hellfire and brimstone puppetry.

My favorite show was "The Rich Man and Lazarus." I worked the puppet of the Rich Man. In the end, my puppet was in hell, popping up from behind a low pipe-and-drape curtain, colored red. Lazarus was behind a much higher blue pipe-and-drape curtain — heaven. I would make the Rich Man puppet yearn his face and thrust his little arms up to the poor man. My puppet had a song.

"Put your finger in the water, come and cool my tongue, cuz I'm tormented in the flames!" he warbled cheerily as I bobbed him back and forth in time to the bouncy music.

At the time, I didn't see the dichotomy.

Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
I cannot navigate life without a decent cat. Cats make the best noise in the world. I have a physical response to it; I hear that noise and I feel my muscles ease, my overheating brain begins an instant cooling, and my breathing slows. When I wake up in the night and can't get back to sleep, my cat Mango knows. He lies on my back and makes that amazing noise and rumbles me away.

I love my dogs and I enjoy the company of the little birds I attract to my yard with feeders, but Mango is essential.

Writers are better liars than other people: True or false?
Some of us are. I was an exceptionally good liar as a kid. Part of it was the practice of empathy. I could make myself feel what the girl in the story I was telling was feeling, so what I said rang true. Part of it was a facility for keeping an involved plot straight. I could remember the stories I had told, build on them, and not contradict myself. It's a dangerous skill; in my late teens and early 20s, I pretty much fell off the world. I was such a good liar, no one who loved me knew how desperately I needed help.

I try not to lie now.

Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.

It's very difficult to produce twin souls. It's not just a matter of double strollers and mega-diaper packs. There are subtleties and manipulations, and there are moments of distress, when it all seems like it won't work out correctly. When you think about it, how many times have twin souls been successfully created? Look at Antony and Cleopatra. Now there was a botched project.

Look at Castor and Pollux; they ate each other in the end. At least, people think they did. But maybe they sat down together on an unmade bed, and began to kiss, and covered each other's mouths with their mouths, and began to breathe, in and out, holding each other around the neck, and taking each other's carbon dioxide, until their eyes bugged out and they were gone.
– from How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky by Lydia Netzer

Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Oh, yes. I went to Flannery O'Connor's girlhood home. Did you know that as a child she wrote suggested edits in the margins of her picture books? She praised or brutally shredded word choices and plot twists. Her handwriting was deplorable, but even her baby mind was decisive and opinionated and very fine.

I took a picture of myself by the house and texted it to novelist and fellow Flannery fanatic Susan Rebecca White. "Look," I told her. "I have reached the Mother Ship."

Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
Rock bands! No doubt. Novelists practice a craft that requires our brains to see the results and the fallout from actions and events. Rock stars don't even see that humping whole slews of groupies leads to high penicillin bills.

But us? We see that fisticuffs with club bouncers leads to fractured thumbs, which leads to an inability to type, which leads to a missed deadline, which leads to no pay, to the loss of our homes, to wandering the streets, to finding solace in heroin, to an overdose, to a death in an alley where a dog will come by and pee on our corpse. We end up sniffling at the image of the child who is walking the dog. The child represents hope and possibly our own sweet lost potential, and as the dog pees on us, the child notices a dandelion is growing up between the cracks in the sidewalk, nourished by our rotting.

No writer wants his or her legacy to be nourishing a dandelion.

We do our event, we hang out with some cool readers. The end. Sometimes we have a decent, human cocktail with the booksellers after, and then we go to bed.

How do you relax?
Bourbon and hot yoga. Not together.

Five books that start with a bang (of one kind or another):
Anton Chekhov once wrote in a letter, "If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off." Here are five excellent books that can't wait for chapter two. They start blasting away near-immediately, and I love them for it.

To the Power of Three by Laura Lippman
Golden State by Michelle Richmond
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
Getting Mother's Body by Suzan-Lori Parks

÷ ÷ ÷

Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including Gods in Alabama and A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. A former actor, Jackson is also an award-winning audiobook narrator. She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband and their two children.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Gods in Alabama: A Novel
    Used Trade Paper $4.50
  2. A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  3. Someone Else's Love Story
    Used Hardcover $9.95
  4. Getting Mother's Body Used Trade Paper $8.00
  5. Paris Trout
    Used Trade Paper $3.95
  6. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (P.S.)
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  7. Golden State
    Used Trade Paper $9.95
  8. To the Power of Three
    Used Mass Market $4.95
  9. How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky
    Used Hardcover $12.95

Joshilyn Jackson is the author of Someone Else's Love Story

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