Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The Girlfriend's Cyber Circuit is back! Today, our guest is Joshilyn Jackson, author of the highly praised debut novel, Gods in Alabama (which happens to be the number one BookSense pick this month. Yay Joshilyn! Yay independent booksellers!) Here's a synopsis:

There are gods in Alabama: Jack Daniel's, high school quarterbacks, trucks, big tits, and also Jesus. I left one back there myself, back in Possett. I kicked it under the kudzu and left it to the roaches. So begins Joshilyn Jackson’s stunning debut novel, GODS IN ALABAMA (Warner Books Hardcover; April 13, 2005; $19.95).

When Arlene Fleet heads up north for college, she makes three promises to God: She will stop fornicating with every boy who crosses her path; never tell another lie; and never, ever go back to the "fourth rack of hell," her hometown of Possett, Alabama. All she wants from Him is one little miracle: Make sure the body is never found. Ten years later, God has broken His end of the deal. Alabama has landed on Arlene's Chicago doorstep in the form of her high school arch-enemy, a young woman who wants to find the golden-haired football hero who disappeared after their senior year.

To make matters worse, Arlene's African-American boyfriend, Burr, has given her an ultimatum -- introduce him to her lily-white family or he's gone. Arlene would rather burn up in a fire than let him meet her steel magnolia Aunt Florence; her eccentric, half-mad Mama; her sweet-as-pecan-pie Cousin Clarice; and all the rest of her deeply racist kith and kin.

But the fickle finger of fate is pointing her south. All too soon she and Burr are on their way to confront Arlene's redneck roots, the secret she ran from, and the crime that stole her peace of mind. Back in the small town of her girlhood, Arlene's demons are closing in -- and after a decade of running away, Arlene must face them all. Yet while the truth threatens to destroy the life she has built for herself, it just may open her eyes to a love powerful enough to revise her past and alter her future.

Crackling with humor, defiantly endearing characters, and plot twists that will astonish even the most jaded reader, GODS IN ALABAMA will send you careening from tears to laughter and back. Most of all, it brings a unique, rough-around-the-edges heroine to life and makes her a permanent part of your own.

I asked Joshilyn a few questions about her writing life. Here are her responses:

--You have an amazing first sentence. I was just working on first sentences with my Novel Writing I students, and I was wondering if you could tell me how this sentence came about. Was it the first thing you wrote when you sat down to write a novel, or did it come to you later in the process?

Oh, THANKS! I spend a great deal of time spent on that sentence, actually. The "gods" changed and evolved as the characters and story did, and orginally that sentence kicked off the scene that ultimately became chapter two---Arlene Fleet at fifteen, creeping up the side of Lipsmack Hill to beat a man to death with a tequila bottle---but the central idea of that sentence began the novel for me.

They'll tell you in Writing 101 that the first sentence has to suggest a conflict, and that's true, but I also want an immediate sense of voice. Even when I write in third person, it's a very CLOSE and DIRECTED third, and the thing that most interests me as a writer is voice. I want my first sentence to act as an introduction. I think people who open the book and read the first three lines get a taste of Arlene's wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It suggests conflict, and how, but it's a very Arlene way of introducing it. It's Arlene-o-centric.

--There was a recent article in Poets & Writers Magazine about the use of the word "chick lit". Chris Mazza, the editor of the feminist fiction anthologies Chick-Lit and Chick-Lit 2 (which you appear in) takes umbrage over the current connotation of the word. How would you define chick lit, and how would you categorize your own fiction?

I define Chick Lit as a book that is written for a specific demographic--- young (18 - 35) urban, educated career women. It's generally humorous and has a young, single, female protagonist with a crew of odd-all friends who help her overcome obstacles and find the right guy. Because it sells well, there's this push to call everything that has a female protag under 40 "Chick Lit" and stick a pink cover and some feet on it. That gets on my nerves--it seems to suggest that every book with a younger female protag is ONLY going to appeal to this limited (but book-buying) demographic. I read Chick Lit and I enjoy it--I love Jennifer Crusie and Lani Diane Rich, especially, and will read whatever they put out next as a matter of course. I read most books; I am voracious, avid, and eclectic...I read a book or two a week at a minimum, and I read everything from the delicious pulp fiction of the 60's to whatever nabs the Pulitzer.

My own fiction? I would call gods in Alabama, "Southern Fiction layered over the kind of suspense-powered engine you would find in a literary murder mystery." It's an odd blend of humor and violence. I wouldn't call it Chick-Lit because so far about a third of the letters I am getting about the book have been from men---men really like this book, too. I read a lot of muscular sorts of books---I adore Dennis Lehane and Robert E. Howard and and Hemingway and Heinlein---and they have probably as much influence on me as Flannery O'Conner, Rebecca Wells, Christina Schwarz and Fanny Flagg have. My editor says, "gods in Alabama is what would happen if Fried Green Tomatoes and HBO's Six Feet Under had a baby."

--What was the initial seed of inspiration for this novel?

Arlene Fleet. She appeared YEARS ago in short story that was published in TriQuarterly--it's up on my site here:
She's only in a couple of sentences, a throw away character, really, but I couldn't stop thinking about her. Every time I revised the story, my eye was pulled to her. She seemed so intense and vivid and full of secrets, but I had no idea what they were. It took me eight years to figure her out, figure out what was driving her and making her tick like a bomb, and once I knew, her voice became so strong and sure in my head I couldn't NOT write the book. She was so LOUD. She insisted.

--What is your writing process like? What are you working on now?

I spend a little time drafting and am miserable and hate it. SO EMBARRASING. You are writing sentences that you KNOW are bad even as you take them down. The part I like is REVISING. I spend 90% of my time toying and changing and refining my drafts -- that's the part that makes my heart go piterr-pitter-pat-pat. That's the fun part. I only write, do the actual drafting, to generate material so that I'll have some new word toys to play with.

I just finished a book called Between, Georgia that will be out next April.
I. Love. It.
It's about a feud in a tiny, tiny (population 100 or so) Georgia town. Between is a real place that lies at the exact midpoint between Atlanta and Athens. I've never been there. I used to make that drive all the time over a dozen years ago, and I became obsessed with the town when I noticed that they changed the POPULATION sign by the exit every time someone died or was born. So one day it said 111, and then two weeks later it would it said 110.

Imagining what Between must be like kept me entertained on my frequent drives. I mapped it and figured out its economy and I gave it a matriarch, this orderly, iron-willed Southern Lady who makes sure the sign gets changed and the whole town runs around her schedule and money and ideas. Bernese Frett is her name. I've waited years as the rest of the people in this book trickled into my brain and took up residence in my version of the town. The Matriarch got two sisters... one mentally ill, one deaf-blind, all three absolutely dependent on each other, and the town absolutely dependent on them. They steal a baby from a dangerously violent and extremely trashy family, and get away with it for thirty years. The novel opens just as all hell breaks loose in this tiny, isolated place.

It' odd blend of humor and violence. I think that must be my genre!

--Also, it wouldn't be a Fruitful interview if I didn't ask you what your favorite fruit is and why.

I am not much of a fruit person. I prefer veggies. If I am going to eat sweets, I want CHOCOLATE. Is an avocado a fruit? I like them because they are meat-like and that makes them both delicious and little creepy.


And I appreciate you stopping by, Joshilyn! Thanks so much! Have a great time on your book tour!


David said...

Great interview. I'm one of the 'guy' readers Joshilyn mentioned, and I have to agree that "gods" is not chick lit. It's a wonderful read for those of you who haven't yet. But I warn you, you'll be hooked forever. Great to hear some more inside details about "Between," too. I can't wait!

gayle said...

Thanks, david! I can't wait for Between, either!