introducing readers to writers since 1995

April 12, 2005

Author2Author: Helen Ellis & Joshilyn Jackson, pt. 1

by Ron Hogan

Pretty soon after the ARC for gods in Alabama showed up in my mailbox, I figured I had to set Joshilyn Jackson up with Helen Ellis. It turned out Joshilyn had already read (and was crazy about) Helen's Eating the Cheshire Cat, so she was excited to hear how Helen might react to her debut novel, which you can find in bookstores this week.

helenellis.jpgHelen Ellis (left): I loved gods in Alabama. While reading, I laughed (intro to Lipsmack Hill) and gasped (most embarrassing high school cafeteria moment ever) out loud in public places. The last time a book had me doing this was Empire Falls by Richard Russo, which I read several years ago. So, bravo! Now, tell me, being that this is your first novel and you were clearly born to write books, what prompted you to sit down and do it?

joshilyn.jpgJoshilyn Jackson (right): My agent.

I've wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. My mother has a humiliating number of "books" I created via Crayon-and-Staple-on-Demand Publishing, and I was four when I told her I wanted to "write the great American novel." Yes, God help me, in those exact words. But it's such a tough world. When I got an agent, I was dewy and hapless and my ear-fronds were still damp. I didn't know I needed to grow a thick, horned callous over all my soft bits. I got a little bit broken.

I didn't want to have a weepy dramatic break-up scene with my agent. I thought, "Well, I just won't call him, the relationship will peter out, and I can concentrate on writing. Remember writing? The part you really really like?" So that's what I did. I was working on a play, a couple of stories. After months of silence, he sent me a letter. "When am I going to see your next novel?" it read. "You know you really are one of my favorite writers."

That was so compelling, to have this man--and you know agents are supposed to be half shark--treat me with respect and interest, as if I were an established writer when all I had done at that point was cost him a lot of copying fees. And maybe I had grown up a little. I'd had a novel brewing in the back of my head for quite some time. The main characters, Arlene and Burr, first appeared in a short story I'd written at least seven years earlier. There was something about Arlene that caught my eye whenever I looked back at that story, even though she only appears in about ten lines and the narrator of the story hates her guts. After I got his note, I sat down and started writing about her, and her story grew into gods in Alabama.

photo of Helen Ellis by John Anderson

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