Monday, May 02, 2005

Are There Gods in Alabama?

Why, yes, there are, y'all! Proof is in this brand new Southern novel, gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. By some lovely twist of fate Joshilyn is in the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit with me, so YAY! Lucky me! I got to interview her.

Thank God someone finally kneed Southern women's fiction in the balls and cracked it over the head with a tequila bottle. Fuck the Ya-Yas. Joshilyn Jackson is the real deal. Oh~and for you Yankees (or Brits) her name is pronounced JOSS-I-LYN. And do not call her "Josh." Her nickname is "Joss."

Do I like bad books? No, I do not. I can genuinely say I liked this one, VERY MUCH. It was a true page-turner. At the end I felt I'd had a lovely Southern meal of fried chicken, fried okra, black-eyed peas, cucumber salad and biscuits, topped, of course, with a healthy portion of Jack Daniels.

And I'm not the only one who thought so ~

"Joshilyn Jackson's stellar debut has all the elements of great southern fiction, a plucky heroine with a sense of humor,a gripping tale and a mysterious dead body that needs explanation. Arlene Fleet, with a crystal clear voice and purpose takes the reader on a wild ride of despair, hope and redemption that no reader is likely to ever forget. What a storyteller! What a new, original voice!"
- Adriana Trigiani, bestselling author of Big Stone Gap and Lucia, Lucia.

"Forget steel magnolias---meet titanium blossoms in Jackson's debut novel, a potent mix of humor, murder, and a dysfunctional Southern family."
- Library Journal , starred review

"This winning novel is the kind that readers crave: you can't stop turning the pages, but you wish it would never end."
- Christina Schwarz, author of Drowning Ruth and All is Vanity

"Southern heroines rarely leap off the page as full of life and trouble as Arlene Fleet, the headstrong protagonist and erstwhile alter ego of young Atlanta writer Joshilyn Jackson, whose marvelous debut, gods in Alabama, is fixing to slap some sense into modern Southern fiction.....Sweet Home Alabama meets Guess Who's Coming to Dinner as Arlene stumbles toward a redemption that even Rhett and Scarlett would never have imagined. Foulmouthed and hilariously frank, gods in Alabama is just the shot of sour to counter the diabetic-coma-inducing sweetness that seems to have overtaken Southern literature lately."
- Bookpage

Yes so now we have established that as a novel gods in Alabama KICKS ASS. But! There's more! Not only has she received all that acclaim, but Joshilyn is an incredibly nice person as well. Do you know Joss has taught me how to deal with reporters. With family members. And how to do that "target="_blank" thing on my blog. Joshilyn has a big-sisterly instinct and she has truly been a sounding board for me~always, always giving and supportive. Joss is the girl you would pass notes with in class and probably get in a little trouble with, but you'd be loyal to till the day you died. Joshilyn rocks. From Joshilyn's press release:

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.


Joshilyn Jackson is a native of the Deep South, a former actor and award-winning teacher, and now a full-time writer and mother of two. Her work has previously appeared in TriQuarterly and Calyx, as well as the anthology ChickLit II. She lives with her family outside of Atlanta, GA. You can visit her website at

Right now Joshilyn is painting the entire South red on her author tour, but thanks to the wonders of email I got to interview her on the Girlfriends' Cyber Circuit.

MO'C: How did you get started writing? Did you always want to be a writer?
JJ: Yes. Always. I've been telling stories ever since I had language. My mother has quite a few of the books I self-published using the crayon-and-stapler mothod as a child. Always, Always, Always, I wanted this.

MO'C: Sounds like you have a spectacular agent. Can you talk a little bit about him? And how did you get this great agent?
JJ: His name is Jacques and he IS a great agent. He's bigger than life in a lot of ways, very tall, stately, an older man with years and years in the industry. His mother was Austrian royalty and his father was an American Fly-Boy. The word everyone who meets him uses to describe him is "Gentleman." We've never had a contract. He told me exactly what he would do and what was expected of me, we shook hands, and that was the end of it. He's completely boutique--no secretary even. He answers his own phone. I LOVE THAT!

Short Version: I cold queried him. So, for all those writers who think that can't happen---keep querying. I live in the wilds of Georgia among cotton and kudzu and I had ZERO connections. As one woman at my church said (with absolutely NO IRONY), "Joshilyn! I thought it was impossible to break in, but if YOU can do it, I guess ANYONE can."

Long version: Oh Lord! Take me out for a glass or two of wine and settle in and I'll tell you sometime. It's a long story filled with Calumny and Lies and Magic and Coincidence and ending in Deus Ex Machina--as are most "Road to Publication" stories. If you write good books and work consistently to sell them, you are playing LOTTO. Every good book you write is another ticket, and you have to both keep writing good books and keep querying and asking and knocking on doors until the right book gets into the hands of the right editor on the right day.

MO'C: How much of yourself and your hometown are in gods in Alabama? I realize of course that you never killed anyone, but were your days in Chicago anything like Arlene's? What got you to settle down finally?

JJ: It's fiction. It is really really really fiction. As for settling down---I was the NICEST girl in high school. I was GOOD. I shone with the holy white light of goodgoodgood goodness. I dated NICE boys that I broke up with IMMEDIATELY if they tried to ease past second base and I didn't drink or smoke or even have a lot of impure thoughts. I used bad language every now and again and ONE time I borrowed ONE secret short skirt to change into when I left the house---I thought I was hot stuff for THAT.

College was a different story. Isn't it always? I was wild, but Arlene beats me by MILES. Arlene is MINE, but she isn't me. All of these people are MINE, but they are not me. They are flecked with little bits of me: Arlene has my sense of humor, Flo has my relationship with motherhood, Burr has my pragmatism and my weakness for legal thrillers. The plot is peppered with tiny details of transmuted moments in my life: My husband and I DO play versions of most of the made up games in the book, There really WAS a Phoebe the Chicken (with a much different owner and much different final fate), I did go to grad school in Chicago. And of COURSE thematically I am writing about the things that rule me: my longing for redemption, my yearning for goodness and my frequent failure to BE good, how I define myself by the people and places that make up what I call home, what love is and how it works... It's all mine. None of it is me. It's all reflective of what I think is truth. None of it is true.

MO'C: If gods in Alabama is ever made into a film, whom do you envision playing the major roles? Who, do you envision directing and doing the soundtrack?
JJ: I don't care---really. I see so many ways this book could become a film, so many ways different actors might interpret Arlene... If my film agent sells it, I am going to be FASCINATED, but I'll approach the film as an audience, not as the writer/creator. It's an attitude left over from my playwrighting and acting days. I've passed my own plays to a director and actors, and then watched them use it to make something that was more theirs than mine. As an actor, I have felt an ownership for roles I did not write; of course I was working within the framework of someone else's play, but acting a role also involves a separate creation. I am THRILLED, actually, by any prospect of the book becoming a movie, but not possessive. If Michael Cain wanted to play Arlene as a 60 year old gay man and set the whole thing in Scotland...yeah, go for it, Michael. I'll buy a ticket and a bucket of popcorn.

MO'C: I just discovered the following assessment that Ayelet Waldman made when she quit her "Bad Mother" blog: "Don't, don't start; it'll suck you into the screaming vortex of the blogosphere, and then you will never get out. …It was incredibly fun, but it's a bad thing for a
fiction writer to do, ultimately. And when you have this new medium of the web, there's no gel time — it's just all liquid. It just all comes out right away. And I was taking all these things, these moments and thoughts and experiences, and just putting them right out there. And once they're out there, once they're expressed, they're gone — I think. I think, for a writer, once you've put something down, it sort of both freezes it and expresses it, and you lose it from yourself." As an author who blogs, what do you think of this statement? Are there advantages and disadvantages to blogging?
JJ: She's right about blogging, but it has a different effect on me. It is actually good for me. I don't revise or craft my blog the way I revise fiction. I just YACK. It's a small, personal, anecdotal, friendly sort of blog. I also VERY strictly limit the time I spend blogging when I am not on the road. 20 minutes a day, unless I get tickled and begin REALLY amusing myself...then 30 minutes, tops. At the end of the time, if the entry is not finished, I hit save and finish it the next day. At that point, I have discovered, the blog has WARMED my brain, gotten the part that WRITES awake and clicking along and engaged. My writing days generally go BETTER once I have blogged.

MO'C: What has been the most surprising part of the publishing process for you? The most frustrating?

JJ: Surprising: That I am here, with a book out and another due out next spring. It does't feel real yet. Whenever I walk into a bookstore and see the physical, actual book there for sale, MY BOOK (!!!) my heart TRILLS instead of beating.

Frustrating: The waiting. Things. Move. So. Slowly.

MO'C: What advice do you have for someone who wants to write and publish a book?
JJ: Love the act of writing SO MUCH that it doesn't matter if it ever sells or not. Only pursue publication if you KNOW you'd be writing anyway because you can't imagine your life without the pleasures of it. Enjoy the work even when you are getting your umpty-teenth rejection letter and are frustrated and angry and afraid and that side of it is just a misery, because there will be moments when that side of it IS a misery, and you can't let that infect the writing. You have to accept that rejection and criticism will come, and it will hurt and be awful, but hold the writing somewhere seperate and safe and personal. Remember, some philistine somewhere turned HAVEN KIMMEL down.

I WRITE for me, because I love it. I pursued publication to be READ, which is WONDERFUL, but that also has to stay separate. It typically takes years and multiple manuscripts to break in, so you keep the rejection seperate, and when you win the lotto and get published, you STILL have to keep it separate so you don't get the big-head and become unable to see where you can get better. Don't let success OR rejection or anything that happens in the world touch the closed relationship between you and the writing. It hurts to be rejected, but that's just dues paying, and it's wonderful to be published, but that's just gravy.

The writing will sustain you.

And that's all she wrote. Thank you so much, Joshilyn! You can buy gods in Alabama at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, BooksAMillion or MY PERSONAL RECOMMENDATION, your local independent bookseller through Booksense.

*FOOTNOTE ABOUT THE BOOKPAGE SILLINESS: I had to put all of my commentary about this review in a footnote because it was distracting from Joss's KICKASS NOVEL, which deserves better than this silly review.

The way this BookPage reviewer gave such a cavalier mention to a serious, chronic, incurable and lifethreatening disease, upset me so badly. BUT~this person probably has no idea what it is like to deal with the disease called DIABETES every day, and never lived through the crisis moments at the hospital when we did not know if our son was going to fall into a coma or not. Diabetic comas ARE NOT FUNNY.

I know BookPage is reviewing me so I'm prolly gonna piss them off, but I can't let this insensitive idiocy go without comment (COS I'M A BIGMOUTH, THAT'S WHY I WAS IN DETENTION ALL THE TIME.) Bookpage, listen, AND LISTEN CAREFULLY. DO NOT~I REPEAT, DO NOT~JOKE ABOUT A DIABETIC COMA UNLESS YOU HAVE HAD TO DEAL WITH, OR BEEN CLOSE TO DEALING WITH ONE YOURSELF.

Diabetic comas? Try watching your son teetering at the edge of one, wondering whether he would live or die. NOT FUNNY NOT FUNNY NOT FUNNY.

Joss's book? FUNNY FUNNY FUNNY. God, she deserves better than this absurd comparison, and that's really part of why I'm so pissed off.

I don't want to be reminded of diabetic comas because we were an hour or so away from experiencing one, and as a reader I find mentions of them incredibly distracting, when you could just say something lovely about the book AND BE DONE WITH IT.

Love Joss's book, but this review PISSED ME OFF. Again, her book deserves intelligent commentary, not a think-they-are-funny-person joking about a serious, chronic and lifethreatening medical condition.

Think about seeing an 8-year-old boy hooked up to an oxygen tank and three IVs, including a potassium IV which burns so much he cries all night in pain. Think about wondering whether your son is going to make it and watching a team of doctors trying to save him from falling into a diabetic coma.

Diabetic comas. Lori dealt with one and it's a miracle she's alive much less blogging about it. And a young man named Jonathan Cooper nearly died in diabetic coma after suffering a stroke. He may have permanent brain damage. His parents were told he was going to die for sure, so they're just so grateful for the miracle Jonathan is even alive and showing so many signs of cognition and mental processing.

I do not know Jonathan but I do know people who are visiting him and are in correspondence with his family. And I do know his family is grateful for each moment with him. Each puzzle piece he fits together in therapy. Each expression he gives to his family. Each word he speaks.

Long-term, will Jonathan be able to think, read, write? No one knows for sure, though Jonathan is fighting hard. He is only 8. Is this funny? Are you laughing?

Would someone joke about AIDS this way? I don't think so.

Dear Bookpage Reviewer, Please just shut up about diabetic comas, and give Joshilyn Jackson the accolades she deserves, without being a big stupid insensitive jerk about it. I'm sure you didn't know you were being a jerk but now you know. The End.

I am so sorry everyone, but I couldn't leave that unsaid. {OFF SOAPBOX}]

So, buy gods in Alabama. You will not be sorry. One thing is for sure. You will receive a more intelligent novel than might be indicated by a remark saying that it, or any novel, is the antidote to a diabetic coma, which is only alleviated by insulin, potassium and some grace from God.

Read this book.