Joshilyn Jackson exploded onto the literary scene in 2005 with her debut novel, Gods in Alabama, a dark, insightful story of a Southern ex-pat who returns to her old stomping grounds when a decade-old murder won't be put to rest. Her second novel, Between, Georgia, is set around the backdrop of a longtime family feud and the girl caught between two families, two men and two lives. Gods in Alabama was named the Best Novel in 2005 by the Southern Independent Bookseller's Alliance, and Gods in Alabama and Between, Georgia were back-to-back No. 1 BookSense picks. Having donned the hat of actress before discovering her passion for writing, Jackson read the audio version for Between, Georgia and won a Publishers Weekly Listen Up Award for her dramatic reading.
"This is my culture and my geographical area that I know, and so I can write from it with authority," Jackson says over the phone from her Powder Springs home, squeezing in time to chat between returning from a trip to New York and leaving again in the afternoon to pick up her children from school. "This is where I grew up and these are the people who I think of as my people ... so they're who I write about."
Her latest venture into the world where sweet tea is served in the kitchen and skeletons are shoved into china cabinets takes place in the suburbs of the Florida panhandle, in a gated community outside of Pensacola. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (released this week) opens with Laurel, a thirtysomething wife and mother living a peaceful existence in an upscale gated community, who wakes up one summer evening to find the ghost of her daughter's best friend, pointing to the pool, where the ghost's dead body floats in the water. Laurel enlists her estranged actress sister, Thalia, to help her with the aftermath, and what follows is one part mystery, one part ghost story and eight parts family interaction.
Which is exactly the point, according to Jackson. Her self-described "E.M. Forrester worldview" contributes to her recurring theme of family being the meat and potatoes of all her novels. Her focus is completely on relationships and interactions with characters. Even though she's a huge fan of Khaled Hosseini's first novel, she's not looking to write the next Kite Runner – a book with archetypal, epic characters, where the culture and country are characters themselves.
"I think of myself as a small writer," she says. "What really interests me are relationships. I don't think anything else matters in the world. Politics don't matter; power struggles don't matter. What matters, when you get down to it, when you look back on your life and you're trying to decide if your life has been successful, to me, that's what matters: How am I in relationship with the people that I love, who make up the world to me?"
Jackson's tendency toward relationally driven plot has never been so apparent as it is in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. What it lacks in Gods in Alabama's dark mystery or Between, Georgia's quirky humor it maintains in its focus on the human connection. Characters' decisions may seem a little irrational and some plot points a little hastily thought-out, but that's probably because most of the 300 pages focus on Laurel's relationship with her sister, husband, daughter and parents. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is essentially a family fable.
"I use a really commercial engine, but that's not where the heart of the book is," Jackson stresses. "The heart of the book is always in characters. What actually drives the book is these people, their relationship with each other and how their motivations intersect and are in conflict."
While Jackson says the South isn't a better setting than anywhere else in the country for novels about families, she uses the region as a backdrop because it's what she knows and loves.
"I am in love with it, and I don't have the sort of Pat Conroy love/hate relationship with it," Jackson says. "I unabashedly love it. I see its flaws, I see its warts, but I still love it."
Even with her affinity for the South, Jackson's latest novel is slightly "less Southern" than the previous deep-fried, small-town novels. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming feels a bit more like store-bought pecan pie than a homemade one. Jackson says she created a suburbanized life for Laurel and her family to show the similar lifestyles of people living in any suburban area around the country.
"There's the Gap, there's Starbucks, there's 'Gossip Girl.' On television you're watching the same shows, you're shopping at the same stores, you're listening to the same music," Jackson points out. "There's sort of a homogenizing effect that you don't get when you're living more rurally."
"One of the things I wanted to do in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming was to write about homogenized Southerners," she says. "Laurel, the main character, is pretty much an American woman. I don't think she thinks of herself as a Southerner too much."
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