Joshilyn Jackson






"I knew from long experience that I only had to wait the feeling out. People say , I don't know how she lives with herself, but every single one of them was living with their own worst thing, just fine. No one walks around holding their ugliest sin in the palm of their hands, staring at it. Our hurts are heavy, and we let them sink. Every day they drift lower, settling in murky places where the light can't reach. All I had to do was wait. My bad would fall down into darkness again, because the bad things always do."

Secrets, "bad things," mysteries. We all have them. Some we sometimes share with friends, some we don't. Everyone reading this has regrets, the "what was I thinking?" moments in our lives. Most are just bad decisions, sometimes made under the influence of drugs or alcohol, sometimes made cold sober. The ones we don't share we don't share for a reason, embarrassment, shame, you name it. We'd just like to keep that little bit of information locked in that little box, thank you very much.
Amy, the protagonist of Never Have I Ever, finds she doesn't have that choice any longer; the new neighbor has somehow pried open her very private box, and is not a very nice person.

Joshilyn Jackson is a master. She has brought together the innocent and wicked in a way that pulls you through her tale with finesse and art. I was willingly led down her storytelling path sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter, needing to know who, what, where and how. It was superb. 

Below Joshilyn answers my questions about her life and her book. She also turns my "back in time" question on it's head.




Tell me about where you live and why you love it so much.

I live in Decatur, GA, a self-contained city inside Atlanta’s perimeter. I call it Urban Mayberry, because it has many cute little bungalows from the 40’s and 50’s, and farmer’s markets, and locally owned galleries and boutiques and cupcake shops, and places of worship, and many old trees, but it’s also urban and quite liberal. It’s Mayberry if Barney was allowed to declare his love for Andy and settle in a townhome.





We came because the DECATUR BOOK FEST, the country’s largest indie book festival, happens there every fall.  I visited as a speaker, and we fell in love with the town. It is currently facing the twin challenges of gentrification and overbuilding, but we are fighting hard to keep it quirky and weird, and to create more affordable housing options. 





Where were you living when you were 7 years old? Are they fond memories?

I honestly have no idea. My dad was Army. Up until I was nine, we moved around so much. I don’t really know where I was when I was seven. I grew up all over the south. Maybe Virginia? Maybe Kentucky? My childhood is a mish-mash of memories in mostly Southern states.

Love the bow

I don’t have a lot of memory attached to place or even my own actual history. My memories are tied to either taste and smell or to my own obsessions. I can tell you that around seven I had created a whole cat planet with a system of government and a religion and a huge rotating cast of characters.

That said, most of my childhood memories are happy. My dad hunted. Birds mostly, so whenever we go out and quail or dove is on the menu, I immediately order it because it tastes like my childhood. That makes me feel warm and content.

Did you have a favorite teacher and are you still in touch with him or her?

I am a person who thrives in a mentor system. I love to have a mentor, and I love to then mentor others in turn. The controlled parameters of that formal kind of relationship is very comfortable for me, and I especially love formally engaging with women who are engaging with the arts.

I met my first and arguably most important mentor in high school.  As a freshman, I was the weird theatre kid who skulked and stimmed, collecting my spit in jars I hid under the bed, sticking to the wall at school, bug-eyed and picked on. Drama club was three other weirdos and a faculty advisor who looked like Debra Harry and smelled like pot.

Sophomore year, Ruth Ann Replogle came, and changed my life. 

Ruth Ann Replogle
                                                                                


She turned drama club into one of the largest, most loved clubs in the school, and by senior year, I was president of it. I felt known and accepted and happy.

Is there a book that changed the way you look at life?

The best books are the ones that have grown up with me, and of those, I still return most often to read Harper Lee’s singular novel. I do not acknowledge the very interesting draft published when she was older and ailing as anything other than that: a rough draft.

I first read To Kill a Mockingbird when I was nine. I thought it was an adventure story about getting Boo Radley to come out. I was very impatient with all the court parts, skimming them to find out what would be in that knothole next and what Scout, Jem, and Dill would do.

I kept returning to it, and with each read, it became a different book, speaking to human empathy and illuminating via setting and pub date the time periods both before and during the civil rights movement. It has been to me a book about the black and bloody soil of my beloved, troubling, sometimes hateful homeland, about class and privilege, about race and justice, and about feminism. I thought I had wrung everything from it and stopped reading it for ten years or so. Then I taught it in a maximum security women’s prison and my students made me understand it is about rape culture in ways I had not realized. I expect it has still more to give.

Do you have a favorite children’s book?

Watership Down. I realize it is not a children’s book, but I read it when I was eight, and it remains a favorite. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it changed as I grew up, moving from a story about rabbits and community to one of the best condemnations of fascism and materialism I have ever come across.  


  


But if that won’t do, there is a picture book called I WANT MY HAT BACK I discovered a few years ago at a local SIBA children’s bookstore—Little Shop of Stories. Now, when people who have small children visit Decatur I often take them to this store and read it to them, aloud. I have sold many copies of this book in this way. Everything about the story brings me such joy.

Is there any message you want to give to or anything you want to say to your great-great-great grandchildren when they read this?

Quit reading this. If you want to know who I was, pick one of my novels. The closest to my personal history is probably SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY. The one that engages most directly with exploring your family history is THE ALMOST SISTERS.

                     




How did you meet your husband Scott? How did your first date go?

When I was nineteen, I was cast in a local regional repertory theatre’s summer stock shows. It was my first paid job as an actor. He was cast as well.

We became best friends, and we stayed best friends for seven years, but we never dated. He was a lifeline for me during a very troubled time. By the last three years, he lived in Chicago, doing grad school, and I was in Atlanta.  We had no money, so we wrote letters back and forth that might have saved my life. He and I were both very seriously dating other people when we were called back to our small town, me to a wedding, him to a funeral. It was an emotional time.

 Scott and Joss at 19, when they were "just friends".


By the end of those two days, I finally understood I loved him; if he married someone else, I would be devastated. At three in the morning, sitting in a ratty gazebo behind my childhood home, I said, “I don’t want you to marry her. In fact, you are not allowed to marry her. You are only allowed to marry me.

He shrugged and said, “Well, ok. I’ve been waiting for you to say that for seven years.”

We sat blinking at each other and then I said, “Well. We should kiss.”

Reader, it was a great kiss.

Then we broke apart because we didn’t want to begin our life together by betraying people we cared about. We each went home to our cities, broke up, and we’ve been together ever since.

All of the best adventures of my life came from this decision. He’s also been my mainstay through the worst times. He makes good things excellent and bad things bearable. The day we decided to be an us happened before we ever went on a date, and all my other happiest days grew from that one.


How would you say you are different now than you were in your 20’s.

So. Different. I am an autist, and like many people growing up undiagnosed and on the spectrum, my early twenties were almost impossible for me to navigate. I am often surprised to find I am alive, considering. I had zero executive function, so when I left the excellent support of my parents, I failed spectacularly out of college and was unable to hold a job. I ended up working illegally in a bar and legally as a bartender for caterers.

My facilities to empathize or to understand my own feelings were underdeveloped; Women are under great social pressure to be empathetic, so like many female autists, I had turned to theatre and creative writing to manually teach myself how to recognize and manage emotions in myself and others. I didn’t have a leg over it yet, though, so I wasn’t sure how to ask for or get help as my life spiraled out of control.

I had deep shame about my failure to thrive. I had always been an A student in gifted programs, and I had an early and very serious case of imposter syndrome, so I hid from and lied to my family.  I was one step up from homeless, self-medicating  in dangerous ways, paying week to week cash rent on a room with a sofa and a desk in a gang-controlled part of Atlanta.

Now? People who meet me seldom know I am on the spectrum. When I tell them I am an autist, they think I am being “funny” or glomming onto a trend. The truth is, I am 51. I have learned ways to work around my weaknesses and to exploit the strengths that came with my weird brain chemistry. 




And I did get some gifts. I have an incredible memory for storyline, I can write whole novels without ever taking notes.  Because I tend to get obsessed and stay obsessed, I complete novels mostly on deadline. Because I manually learned empathy,  my novels tend to be deeply character driven.

I have stayed fascinated by people, feeling often that I am in them but not of them. I love people, but they are weird and in trying to understand them, books come out of me.  I have very few close relationships, but the ones I do have are very deep and tend to be lifelong.


What would constitute a “perfect” evening” for you?

It varies. I never turn down play tickets, or a night out at a restaurant with interesting food and/or dear friends, or a night in bed with a book, my husband, and my cats and dog piled around my legs.

Tell me about Reforming Arts and teaching creative writing classes inside women’s prisons?

It’s my heart-work. I love it, even though it is almost never comfortable.

The way we incarcerate people in this country is obscene. We incarcerate more people than the strictest, least “free” dictatorships you could name. We must reform the system.

Our students are very diverse in terms of age and race and orientation. The one thing they all have in common is that they were raised in grinding poverty by disordered (and often abusive) families. We punish the poor much more quickly and more severely; sometimes it feels as if being poor is itself a crime. And, of course, race is a huge factor as well.

I didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but I had excellent, loving parents, enough to eat, a safe home. I also (eventually) completed a great education, and education creates opportunity.

RA is interested in lowering recidivism and helping our students create livable lives post-incarceration, but we also believe in the value of artistic expression. We use our agency to make a space where incarcerated women can express themselves freely. To express yourself via theatre or writing ---your anger, your hopes, your fears--- is to access your own narrative. And if you can control your narrative, you can change it.

Art matters. Education matters. All people matter.

Were there parts in Never Have I Ever that your editor cut that you hated to see go? If so, what were they?

I am so blessed. We don’t really have that kind of relationship, where she would cut something. She has never cut a sentence, even. She responds, we talk, I revise. It’s creative and fecund and it pushes me to stretch and be better.

I think the editorial relationship is so undervalued and under siege. We need to protect it. Editors must now be so engaged in marketing and fighting for your book in house. If you get editors who truly edit, as I have---what a gift!

One of the main and most fascinating characters in your story is Tig. Is he based on someone you know or met?

All my male romantic leads are my husband. I cut a tiny clipping off of him, and then grow a person out of it. Davis, the husband in that same book, is a both totally different human being from Tig who is also grown out of a different, tiny piece of Scott.

Davis is Scott’s stalwartness, his ethics, his serious side. I LOVE Davis.

Tig is teenage Scott. Scott plays multiple instruments (currently bass guitar is his passion), and he really did own a car with all the pre-set radio buttons programmed to the only rock-n-roll station in town. I really did sneakily change those buttons to bubble-gum pop, and because he never punched them, he never noticed. Just like in the book.


If I ever get my certification renewed can we go diving together sometime?

Sure – Hurry. We leave for Cozumel in two weeks!

And in a short essay…………………………

IF YOU COULD GO BACK IN TIME


to any period from before recorded history to yesterday,



be safe from harm, be rich, poor or in-between, if appropriate to your choice,



actually experience what it was like to live in that time, anywhere at all,



meet anyone, if you desire, speak with them, listen to them, be with them.


When would you go?


Where would you go?


Who would you want to meet?


And most importantly, why do you think you chose this time?

I want you to know I really struggled with this one. I tried to think or pick or decide, but the bedrock truthful truth is, I wouldn’t go.

First, I can’t find a time when it was better to be a woman---especially a woman in the arts. And yes, we have a long way to go, my God, but I have a career I love and portions of the population even read my work as if my double X chromosomes didn’t render it instantly silly and less-than.

Portions.

I am also a devout, very progressive Baptist. As a person of faith, I am tempted to go back and meet Jesus, and Mary, maybe ask Paul to calm down, but it almost speaks against my faith to do so. It’s a Thomas move. Do I really need to put my finger in the nail holes? I do not. Not to mention, I am also a Universalist. By which I mean I see myself as being on the path to The Great I Am that I am culturally best able to understand. The Christian narrative resonates with me. But my faith does not require me to judge or invalidate other faith narratives. In fact, my community finds that kind of single-minded faith to be both blind and damaging. So in the end? I would not go back.

Instead? If I had a time machine? I would crank that knob forward, and forward again, and forward again. I am a novelist. I believe in story arc and endings. The worst part of mortality is that I will die before the end. (I assume and hope, anyway!)

I want to know if we find a way to stop destroying this little blue ball that we all live on---if we can save ourselves from this current climate crisis. If we do, I want to see if we ever get off this rock and onto others, colonizing and changing into something less or more or different from what I know as human. I want to see if we ever meet strange pilgrims who evolved on other worlds, and if that brings us together or creates new ways to be afraid or makes us just a different kind of genocidal oppressor or if we are then oppressed. I want to know if there will ever be the promised restoration of all things, and what that will look like, and if not, then I want to know, and witness, how we end. Should we go out in a crash of fire and then ice, like dinosaurs, I want to see what strange lifeforms  will use us up as fuel and pick through our fossils, telling stories about what we must have been like.

Give me the machine, let me go and see all that, and then, Uncle Vanya, I shall rest.


Thank you Joshilyn, I loved your book and your interview answers. Now I am seriously considering diving again and reading re-reading Chekhov!

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