Joshilyn Jackson's characters tell lies. They lie to their mamas, they lie to their husbands, they lie to themselves. They even lie to Jackson! Indeed, Backseat Saints was born from a walloping pack of lies told by a secondary character in Jackson's debut novel, gods in Alabama.
"I never stopped thinking about Rose Mae Lolley after she appeared as a minor character in gods," Jackson says. "I couldn't figure out why she'd stuck with me until it hit me. I woke my husband up in the middle of the night and said, 'Baby, I got it! Everything Rose Mae told me before was a lie.' "
Jackson's husband--the "really really really nice" best friend/boy-next-door whom she married following a brief foray into traveling-troupe acting and atheism--hushed her back to sleep, but Jackson's storytelling spark had been ignited. Soon Rose Mae Lolley was telling her true history in rollicking, terrifying and hilarious scenes that take her on a breathtaking odyssey from Alabama to Berkeley, toting along her daddy's old gun pieces in her purse.
"She's an unreliable narrator, but she doesn't know she's lying," Jackson muses. "She's not deceitful. She doesn't tell the truth to herself."
A funny, fierce writer who hails from the Deep South and lives with her husband, children and a slew of pets in rural Georgia, Jackson has written four novels featuring heroines who find themselves in sticky or even dangerous situations that require resilience, intelligence, ferocity and sometimes less-than-ladylike grit to survive.
Speaking quickly and with lots of parenthetical asides that always loop back to her original point, Jackson describes her writing process as one in which her characters often live in her imagination for years before she writes about them.
"I pull those people out and play with them and after a while they get really solid in my head," she says. "At some point one of them will become louder and that's when I know I'm ready to start."
Jackson is gifted at writing opening lines that pack a wallop. Her debut novel begins, "There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus"--a sentence that paved the way for a five-house auction and ultimately landed her at Warner Books with editor Caryn Karmatz Rudy.
Backseat Saints also starts with a bang: "It was an airport gypsy who told me I had to kill my husband."
"I want the opening to say something about the person and to set me off running," Jackson says. "I want to go in and set something on fire; I blow something up and the fallout from that begins a trajectory that ends up with change. I'm not interested in people who don't change, I'm interested in people who change and grow."
Rose Mae Lolley has a lot of growing to do in this book as she flees from an abusive marriage back into a past that's also painful and damaging. Domestic violence is pivotal to the plot and to the character's growth, but Jackson is not an issue writer, and she's clear that this is not an issue book. Rather, Backseat Saints uses a simultaneously weak-yet-strong woman to explore universal questions of identity, self-discovery and the parent-child bond.
Perhaps fueled by her own escape from a fundamentalist church upbringing (eventually replaced by a "less rules-based faith") Jackson finds her writing frequently returns to the subject of homecoming.
"Homecoming--to me, homecoming is almost always tied to the idea of redemption. Sometimes home isn't there for you and sometimes it's not what you think it was... but I'm interested in traveling back through your past in order to find out who you are."
While Jackson cites Flannery O'Connor as a major influence; adores Barbara Kingsolver; and calls Faulkner "my boyfriend," she both resists and defies categorization as a Southern writer.
"I just want to tell the stories that I want to tell in the way I want to tell them," she says. "I am a Southerner; it's way deep down in me. I have really passionate and ambivalent feelings about the South, and that has come through in my books. I like to take Southern tropes and open them up into people."
Jackson's network of good friends and cohorts in the book world spans the continent and includes bestselling authors as well as a number of booksellers, most notably Jake Reiss at Alabama Booksmith in Birmingham, Ala., and Calvin Crosby, manager of the Books, Inc. store in Berkeley, Calif.
Of longtime friends Sara Gruen, Karen Abbott and Lily James, with whom she holes up several times a year for writing retreats, Jackson says, "Those crazy ladies, they're my posse." For her long-time editor, Karmatz Rudy, and agent, Jacques de Spoelberch, she's full of praise and admiration. And on booksellers and librarians, she's positively evangelical.
"I can't even tell you the gratitude and universal, unabated love I feel for librarians and handsellers," Jackson says. "They have given me this job I always wanted. I always wanted to be a novelist. I got to keep this job because people put my books into other people's hands. That's the only thing that builds readership."
That, and maybe the unwrapping of a good, solid lie to set off a bomb on the first page of a novel.