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Interview: July 31, 2019

Joshilyn Jackson’s latest book, NEVER HAVE I EVER, is a twisting novel of domestic suspense in which a group of women play a harmless drinking game that escalates into a war of dark pasts. In this interview, conducted by reviewer Rebecca Munro, Jackson talks about the seductive, manipulative beauty at the heart of the story and what makes her so intriguing to the people with whom she comes into contact; explains her decision to have scuba diving be a major passion of her protagonist, small-town housewife Amy Whey; discusses why themes of class, redemption and paying dues to the universe figure so prominently in the plot; and gives us a sneak peek at her next book, TWO TRUTHS AND A LIAR, which is currently in the works.

The Book Report Network: Your new book, NEVER HAVE I EVER, is it about truth, hidden histories and blackmail. Although it features the same layered, complex characters you are known for writing, this novel is somewhat of a departure for you, genre-wise, as it veers into the suspense/thriller realm more than any of your previous books. Why did you choose to go in a different direction? Did you plan to write a thriller, or did the story lead the way?

Joshilyn Jackson: It wasn’t a deliberate choice. I was just writing the book I wanted to write. It began in my head the way all my books do: with the characters. I was so interested in a clash between Amy and Roux, two strong-willed women who are more alike than either wants to admit.

Three chapters in, I knew that NEVER HAVE I EVER felt different. Twistier. A little darker. More invested in narrative drive. I felt I had to show it to my editor and my agent, which I never do before a book is complete. Luckily they were excited about it and encouraged me to lean in. From that moment on, I got deliberate about it. I started thinking of it as domestic noir and structuring it as such.

TBRN: Amy Whey, a small-town housewife, has her life rocked by the arrival of a seductive, manipulative beauty, Angelica Roux, who seems to know all of her secrets. Can you describe Roux for us? What makes her so appealing (or disturbing) to Amy and her fellow housewife friends?

JJ: She has some intriguing dichotomies. She’s rented out the cheap, eyesore Air BnB house that the whole cul-de-sac hates, but her clothes are divinely cut and obviously high end. She’s a mom to a teenager, but she dresses like a model and drives a very high-end sports car. She’s beautiful --- Amy calls her “the kind of pretty that’s on television” --- but it’s more than that. She has natural charisma. She’s the kind of person who walks in a room and your gaze goes to them, naturally.

I think Amy says it best: “We were just regular women living near a college in a midsize seaside town. We were wives and moms, adjuncts and administrators, professors and librarians... Roux looked so interesting, like a woman with a passport full of stamps, who would know how to make pâté from scratch, who’d probably had sex in a moving vehicle. Maybe on the way here.”

TBRN: When Roux arrives, Amy and her best friend, Charlotte, are hosting a book club (which is a great nod to your bookish fans!). But the seemingly innocent act that is the catalyst for all the drama is an activity similar to the popular slumber party game, “Never Have I Ever.” Can you tell us about the game that kicks off your book and how it relates to “Never Have I Ever”?

JJ: I think of “Never Have I Ever” as a drinking game, which doesn’t speak well for my moral probity, I suppose! But yes, my teenage daughter has played it at school, using fingers instead of shots to keep score. Roux’s game is a variation, and much like the classic college version, it’s designed to get you to drink too much so your inhibitions drop and you say too much.

TBRN: Although NEVER HAVE I EVER is full of suspense and secrets, we do get some calming moments, particularly when Amy goes scuba diving, which is a major passion of hers. At one point, another character remarks that only 1% of the population considers themselves divers. So what made you include this unusual hobby in your book? Did you have to dive yourself as research?

JJ: I learned to scuba dive in order to write the book. I tried interviewing divers and watching YouTube, but the book’s underwater scenes didn’t feel as alive or as true as I wanted them to feel. So I took lessons. My husband took them with me, and now we are addicted. We still dive regularly, even though our trips are no longer tax deductions. It’s our favorite thing; everything Amy says about diving is how I feel about it, too. It is like super-yoga. It puts you in your body and makes your mind quiet. It is also so crazy beautiful and fun, the closest I think human beings can understand what flying feels like. If you get the chance, try it!

TBRN: Amy is ashamed of her past, but she also believes that she has earned her present. This idea of redemption and paying dues to the universe is common in your books. Why are you so drawn to this theme?

JJ: I have long called myself a “redemption-obsessed novelist.” What’s different about this book is that this is the first time I have approached these questions through the lens of a thriller.

In part, it’s personal. I’m a person who reinvented herself. I had six or seven lost years, and I am a little surprised to be alive at all.

All my books, in some way or another, look with varying degrees of hope and cynicism at how far we can walk into the black and still be saved. What are the tiny lights that turn us and call us home, and why do some people see those faint, glowing calls, while others walk straight off the edge of the world and are lost? Many of my dearest people from my lost years are dead, or went into the prison system or disappeared. And me? I have this lovely life, much like Amy’s, where I go to book club, make lasagna and walk the dog.

TBRN: When Roux makes it clear that she knows Amy’s secret and is willing to destroy her for it if she does not submit to her demands, Amy decides she will stop at nothing to avoid losing her family, friends and calm, quiet life. Can you describe this drive? Is it something you feel exists in all of us, or does it arise from extreme situations and backgrounds only?

JJ: I think a lot of it in this case is tied to Amy’s motherhood. The most dangerous animal is “a mother anything.” And motherhood was transformative for me in this way. I felt I became a more dangerous animal once my heart was living and breathing and toddling around on little fat legs outside of me, out in the dangerous world.

TBRN: As Amy plays Roux’s “game,” she has to teach herself to manipulate and lie, but one thing I found really interesting was the way she teaches herself to lie with her body --- not only saying the words, but delivering them in a relaxed, confident way. Can you unpack this idea a bit? Did you have to do any research on body language to get it just right on the page?

JJ: I think it came out of my theater background. Actors lie with their whole bodies, and the best actors believe the lies as they say them. This was an interesting thing for me, too, when it happened. Not something I planned. I was so interested in it that in the book I am writing now, I gave the narrator a theater background. I wanted to keep exploring the idea that lies begin in the body.

TBRN: Your book draws a clear line between the haves and the have-nots. Amy, who comes from a privileged background, was able to bury her past and emerge relatively unscathed, but her childhood friend was not. Was the inclusion of this theme of class an intentional choice, or one that came naturally from your characters?

JJ: A very deliberate choice. I serve on the board of a small non-profit, Reforming Arts ( We teach college-level liberal arts classes to people incarcerated in Georgia’s women’s prisons. I try to teach one semester a year, and so far, all my classes have been in the maximum security facility.

Our students are diverse in terms of age and race and orientation. The one thing they almost universally have in common is that they were raised in grinding poverty, often by disordered or abusive families. We punish the poor more quickly and more severely; sometimes it feels as if being poor is itself a crime. Race is also a factor. This is not just. This is morally repulsive. It must change.

TBRN: In a similar vein, Roux is seemingly the villain of the book, but she, too, has a complicated past, and she and Amy actually end up having a lot in common. Would you consider them two sides of the same coin, or is their connection different than that?

JJ: Oh no, you nailed it. If Roux and Amy took Myers-Briggs or Enneagram, they would get very similar results. The sorting hat would stuff them both directly into Slytherin. (I don’t think that’s always a bad thing; I am Slytherin.)

TBRN: In addition to her dark past, Amy has another secret: she was overweight as a teen and still struggles with food control issues --- disordered eating. You weave in this issue elegantly while still giving it the appropriate gravity. Was this a conscious choice as something you wanted to include? If not, what brought it in to your novel?

JJ: Thank you. I don’t know an America woman who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with food. Our beauty standards work hand-in-hand with Photoshop to make us hate ourselves. I have struggled with disordered eating my whole life; I have long wanted to write about it. Those personal things, the things that have driven you, they sneak into the story. I think it’s what gives a story its heartbeat. I believe that all the best stories I have to tell are buried way down in the black and salty marshes of my own history and mental illness. It’s the filter through which I see the world. I think that’s true for all writers; the best books are deeply personal, though often not in literal ways.

TBRN: Speaking of writing, did you come across any difficulties penning your first thriller? Were there certain parts you discovered that you loved?

JJ: It wasn’t a hard transition. First, because most of my up-market, book club fic titles are built over the engines of mysteries or suspense stories. I have always had plot twists, dark secrets and crime. This book just moves those elements front and center.

Second, I read all kinds of fiction, and I love suspense. It is probably the kind of book I read most, so I was already very familiar with the conventions of the genre.

All this said? NEVER HAVE I EVER is still my book. My kind of fierce, female characters who act instead of reacting. My weird sense of humor. My themes. The changes are mostly in terms of structure. I think if you like my other books, especially the darker ones that dabble in murder, like GODS IN ALABAMA or THE OPPOSITY OF EVERYONE, then you are going to love this.

TBRN: Can you give us any hints about what you are working on next? Can we expect more thrillers from you in the future?

JJ: Oh, yes. I had so much fun! I love plot twists, and I have always had a dark side buried under my weird sense of humor. I’m working on a book called TWO TRUTHS AND A LIAR right now. The first line is: “The day my baby disappeared, I woke up to see a witch peering in my bedroom window.”