A mysterious letter from an erstwhile parent plunges a daughter on a journey of discovery in Joshilyn Jackson's latest, The Opposite of Everyone. Here, best-selling author Laura Lippman talks with Ms. Jackson about the inspiration for the book, and how ultimately it's a homage to stories, and the power they have to transform our lives.
LL: This is such a strange novelist to novelist question and I hope it doesn't make you groan, but I honestly have to wonder, where DO you get your ideas? Or, more precisely, where do your books start? My hunch is that you start with characters.
JJ: Your hunch is dead on. I definitely explore theme and I delight in twisty plotting, but my novels are driven by character. This book happened because I was so interested in Paula.
She's so far outside my comfort zone. I am southern, female, and "of a certain age," as we say down here, so of course I am passive-aggressive---I think they must put something in the water. I am a people pleaser, a peacemaker, an over-smiler. Paula is almost pathologically direct and she thrives on conflict, which made her very freeing and fun to write.
I had an The Opposite of Everyone Pandora station while I was drafting, very heavy on The Kongos and Regina Spectre. Now, when I am feeling mealy-mouthed and helpless, I play one of those songs, and I get an immediate boost of confidence. I feel my shoulders going back and down"”I think I even get a little taller.
LL: And in this case, you started with a character who had a minor role in a previous book right? Is Paula one of those characters who just insisted she had to have her own book? Or did you have to persuade her? (Sorry if that sounds crazy, but I have a hunch it won't sound so crazy to you.)
JJ: Paula tried to take over every scene she was in in Someone Else's Love Story. I started saving her cut scenes in a file for the book I knew she would eventually demand.
And I agree that when writer's talk about process, we often sound either woo-woo or deranged, even though experientially it is not at all mystical or crazy; when my characters begin to do and say things that challenge me, that scare me, that seem to come from them and not me, that's when I know the book is going to work. All that stuff oozes up from the dark and salty reaches of the undermind. If I try to stay wholly in control, my ego and my self-doubt get in the way. When I feel as if the characters are making their own decisions, I think it's just my subconscious getting me out of my own way.
LL: Is this the most research-centric book you've ever written? I know you mentioned in the acknowledgments how difficult it was to get the law right.
JJ: Probably. I think the farther I get from my own experience, the more careful I have to be. I always want to be respectful. Paula is tri-racial; she came through the foster system; she defines herself using images from Hindu epic poetry and god stories; she is a lawyer. That's pretty far away from white, middle-class, progressive evangelical Christian, liberal arts educated me.
The character I had to research the least was 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.
LL: This is a story about stories -- about folklore and mythology, but also about how stories can save/change/define our lives. Why are stories so darn important? Or are they only important to storytellers such as us?
JJ: Oh, no. I think they are important to humans. Story is how we explain the world to ourselves and create meaning in a reality that is so large, we only have faith and/or math to tell us there is a pattern. Probably. Or not. I think this is why memory is so flexible "“ we misremember things in ways that speak to the themes that drive our lives.
LL: Do you think about Paula, wonder where she is, how her life is progressing?
JJ: Yes, near obsessively, and this is very new to me"”but I imagine very familiar to you, since you write both stand alones and a series. I always loudly and publicly said I would never write a series. I felt that a character who arrives whole and in a state of grace or peace at the end of one of my tumultuous novels has earned the right to be left there. Sequels require turmoil.
Well, Paula loves turmoil. Paula eats strife and licks her fingers. I already have the hazy outlines of two, maybe three more Paula stories. I hope I get to write them.