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Interview: February 16, 2016

Joshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of seven novels, as well as an award-winning audiobook narrator (something we have a great appreciation for at The Book Report Network). In her latest book, THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYONE, former foster kid and tough-as-nails attorney Paula Vauss discovers that her estranged mother has another daughter and, with the help of her ex-lover, must figure out how to put her family back together. In this interview with The Book Report Network’s Bronwyn Miller, Jackson talks about why she decided to give scene-stealing Paula --- a minor character in SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY --- her own story, the unique genre she would assign her eclectic bibliography, and why this might not be the last readers will see of Paula.

The Book Report Network: In the acknowledgments of THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYONE, you mention that your hot yoga instructor started you off on the path to inspiration for this novel by utilizing the stories of the Hindu gods in her classes. What was the first story that struck you?

Joshilyn Jackson: It was actually the story that Kai tells first. In the real version, the elephant-headed god Ganesha, bloated from a huge feast, is riding home on the back of a little mouse in a red saddle. In the real story, his mouse is frightened by a snake, Ganesha falls, and the moon laughs at him. He is so angry that he pulls off his tusk and hurls it at her, and she shatters; this is why the moon has phases.

Kai’s version is of course very different, as she blends in a little Southern folklore and a piece of a Stephen King novel.

TBRN: Where did the character of Paula Vauss come from?

JJ: Paula is a minor character in SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY. She started taking over every scene she was in, early on. She has all the best lines of dialogue in that book. She is a difficult person --- edgy, tough, guarded, combative --- but loyal to a fault. I knew early on I wanted to keep writing her. I had to cut about 10,000 words of Paula out before I could turn SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY in, and some of those favorite bits ended up in OPPOSITE.

TBRN: Paula has had quite the nomadic upbringing: “We’ve been tambourine players and yoga teachers and Ren Faire workers. We were vegans with Eddie, then spent the next winter squatting in Tick’s deer blind. We’ve read palms and tarot on the street near Anthony’s tiny New Orleans apartment… I was somehow all those incarnations --- an amalgamated girl who felt like me.” Was your childhood a roaming one like Paula’s?

JJ: To some extent. My dad was Army, and we moved every year. When I was about nine, he retired, and we went to live on the Florida panhandle (or, as I like to call it, Lower Alabama). I remember weeping helplessly when I understood we were not going to move again, because I was used to being able to reinvent myself every year. I was scared I would get stuck with a version of myself I didn’t like.

I also have a few things in common with Paula’s mother, Kai. As a young woman, I failed out of college rather spectacularly and wandered around in Kai’s faux-hippie, Gen X subculture for several years before going back to school.

TBRN: Kai is shown through flashbacks and memories. Did this make her character more difficult to write because we’re seeing young Paula’s perspective of her?

JJ: No, I actually really enjoy writing from the POV of adolescent and tween characters. Their frontal lobes are barely little nubbins, so they can act without understanding or fearing the consequences. They live very immediately, and they have huge feelings and are growing into themselves in such interesting ways.

TBRN: What made you choose the quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Stafford as the epigrams for the book?

JJ: Oh, that Stafford poem breaks my heart and delights me and makes me want to be a better person all at the same time. It’s about human connections, and in this book, Paula, a dedicated loner, is dragged kicking into “the parade of our mutual life.” I think that’s a glorious thing.

“Heartily know, when half-gods go, the gods arrive” is the end of a poem about being brave enough to release the shadows of things to make room for what is real and true. That speaks to the thematic heart of the book, and Emerson’s metaphor is phrased particularly well for a book full of stories about gods and half gods.

TBRN: What is the significance of the book’s title?

JJ: The opposite of the word everyone is no one, and Paula is about as lone a wolf as they come. She’s almost tribe-free.

She doesn’t have her identity tied up in family. She is a former foster kid with a string of lovers instead of a spouse, and she doesn’t have or want kids. Genetically she is at least tri-racial, and she was raised so nomadically that she doesn’t culturally identify with any one race or socio-economic group, either. This is an anomaly; race and class are huge parts of identity, and while I would not say “especially in the South,” I would say “more overtly in the South.”

She is decidedly female, and she takes a lot of identity from her career, because no one can live fully in a vacuum. She tries, though.

Her erstwhile lover, Birdwine, explains the title another way, but it comes very late in the book, and I don’t want to answer with a spoiler. 

TBRN: What would you like readers to take away from THE OPPOSITE OF EVERYONE?

JJ: OPPOSITE is a book that doesn’t have a takeaway in terms of a conclusion or an agenda. I think of it as a book that wants to have a conversation about the mechanics of forgiveness and the powerful ways the stories we tell and believe can break us, define us, or save us.

What I would really like people to come away with is a desire to read more of my books…

That sounds glib, but I am very serious. I write odd books that are hard to pigeonhole, and that makes finding my readership trickier than if I was writing in a single genre. I’ve been shelved with literary fiction, romance, mystery, chick lit and Southern fiction, and all of that makes sense, but my books don’t truly belong in any of those places.

Here is my best shot at defining the kinds of books I write: Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.

Upside: Accurate.

Downsides: Long. No dedicated section in the bookstore.

TBRN: You narrate your own audiobooks. How did this come about, and what do you enjoy about the experience. Are there challenges?

JJ: Early on, I was told that it was a bad idea, because authors who are not Neil Gaiman are almost universally bad at it. But I had a secret: I had worked as a voice actor as a young woman. So I sent in an audition tape, and they hired me. Since then, I’ve won awards for my readings, and I even got hired to read a couple of audiobooks I did not write. I love that I get to do this --- it is such a pleasure!

TBRN: Which writers, if any, inspired you to pursue writing as a career?

JJ: Growing up, I read near constantly and eclectically: Harper Lee and H. P. Lovecraft. Frances Hodgson Burnett and Robert E. Howard. Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen. 

When I was about 10, I read a book called DREAMSNAKE by Vonda N. McIntyre. I loved it so much that I wrote her a long, heartfelt letter and mailed it to her publisher, telling her what it had meant to me. Near the end, I shyly confessed that I wanted to be a novelist when I grew up.

She wrote me back! She thanked me and told me if I wanted to write novels, I should. I never forgot that --- and I still think DREAMSNAKE is excellent.

TBRN: What has been one of your favorite interactions with a reader?

JJ: Oh! A professor at a small liberal arts college had her students read one of my books, and then they all did art projects based on the images and ideas. She invited me to come down and see the resulting show. I was so intrigued I drove four hours and crossed state lines. It was so neat to walk this hall and see all the tangible responses to the ideas in the book. Paintings, sculptures, mixed media projects, and even a piece of fabric art. They weren’t so much art pieces about my novel as responses to it. It was like a conversation. I will never forget it.

TBRN: What are you working on now? Do you have any plans to write another novel featuring Paula Vauss?

JJ: I’ve talked about this quite a bit, publicly and emphatically. I have said I will never write a sequel, because if you are a character who arrives whole at the end of one of my novels, you have earned the right for me to leave you alone. My characters shoot each other and whang each other in the head with tequila bottles and blow up whole, small towns. While I don’t have perfectly happy endings, I strive for hopeful ones, and I don’t want to break whatever peace I have crafted by going back into these character’s lives and setting them on fire all over again. Sequels require turmoil; no one wants to read a sequel about happy people who pet the cat and plant a garden and smile at each other over a nice baked chicken supper. A good life and a good book are not the same thing.

Well, never say never….turns out, Paula loves turmoil. Paula eats strife and licks her fingers. I have no problem going back into her life, because she seems to be daring me to Bring It. I already have the hazy outlines of two, maybe three more Paula stories. I hope I get to write them.