We are delighted to have our very own Marybeth Whalen in conversation with New York Times bestselling author, Joshilyn Jackson today. Joshilyn’s new novel, THE ALMOST SISTERS, is one of our summer book club selections and, we believe, her best novel yet. So grab that second cup of coffee and get comfy.
Marybeth: What was the spark that ignited this book for you?
Joshilyn: History—my own, and the South’s. I’ve spent a lot of time writing about ideas and issues that came out of my mother’s side of the family. Those folks are straight out of a Flannery O’Connor short story: sharecroppers, A Baptist preacher who was flat in love with Hell, snake handlers, North Alabama mountain folk, Lampers…It was a rich trove.
This was the first book in which I spent time thinking about the other side of my family. On the Jackson side, my grandfather came from a large slave holding family out of Mississippi. That was never comfortable—it still isn’t. Meanwhile, my grandmother came from slaves. These two people loved each other beautifully for more than 60 years—this is the book that grew out of that love, becoming a family story that contains a murder mystery with roots that go all the way back to the Civil War; I do believe our past stays alive inside the present. History breathes.
If you want to read about my grandparents and their marriage, I just wrote a huge essay about it for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Marybeth: There is a story within the story in this novel. Which story was the easier one to tell– Leia’s or Violet’s?
Joshilyn: To me, they are the same story. I love story within a story structure, and I wanted the comic book to act as a fairy-tale—-for the images and themes to echo and light up Leia’s journey. As a female artist, it was also a way for me to explore my own process. The way Leia’s art influences her life choices—the way she finds her answers in the art—that’s very true for me. I write my way to a better understanding of how the world works and the space I want to occupy inside it very much in the way she draws her way to clarity.
Also, I am a HUGE nerd, so it was fun hiding little Buffy and Dr. Who references for fellow nerds! It’s a small piece of the book, but my fellow nerds and my more literary readers have been writing me letters about it—they enjoyed these small parts best for very different reasons, which I find SO interesting. A few of my more commercially-inclined, non-nerd readers felt impatient with those sections, but most said they just skimmed those bits and moved on to the larger story. You don’t have to like literary fiction or comic books to like this book. I write between genres—I love commercial fiction, and you see that in the kind of twisty plots I like, but I also love literary fiction, so I do a lot to support theme via imagery; I wish I had a vin diagram of overlapping kinds of readers for this book!
Marybeth: Are comic books an interest you already had, or one you developed as you wrote this novel? How much research about the world of comic books and illustrators did you have to do?
Joshilyn: Not a lot. I married the kind of guy who keeps his comic books in plastic sleeves, and my brother is an Ultra-Nerd, who, like Leia, is a rock star at the cons. He is a sculptor who makes his living off of gaming figurines, sculpting miniatures that nerds collect, game with, paint, and love. So it is a world I visit often. I maybe even own a small vacation house there…
(if you want to show one of my brother’s sculptures, here are some images – the GATE KEPPER and fairy hunter both are spectacular.)
Marybeth: A lot people are saying this book is your best yet. Why do you think this one is so special?
Joshilyn: I don’t know, but I love that I keep hearing this and seeing it in reviews. As a writer, that’s the hope—that you keep growing, getting better. Part of it is Leia—I just like her so much. She is flawed and peppery and funny, and I would love to be best friends with her. Many readers say they feel the same. Also, maybe the book connects with readers because, for me, writing it was very, very uncomfortable. I had to really look honestly at my own flaws and failings, and the flaws and failings of this land I love. I wanted to be realistic about the South, and yet not stop loving it. I think people respond to that kind of emotional honesty? I hope so. I know I do, as a reader. And this relates to your next question.
Marybeth: As an author, why was it important to talk about racial perceptions through this story?
Joshilyn: Because it does make me uncomfortable. As a middle class, educated, white person, I have to work to not get defensive in conversations about race. But if I get defensive, then I am making a large, systemic problem tiny and personal. I can’t respond by putting my hand on my heart and say, But I’m not racist! It’s not about me.
So… Instead I try to tell stories where people are allowed to be imperfect and still worth loving, always able to grow. I am SO tired of nihilism and despair. I am hungry for stories about good people with real struggles and challenges trying to do the right thing in a broken world. Maybe this will read as naïve to some, but I disagree. I am not saying that hugging a puppy will fix America—I am just saying it makes that one, single puppy have a better moment, and that this matters. I believe this broken world is still a place even the smallest kindnesses matter—and so I wrote a book where love ripples out in small, imperfect, hopeful ways.