Up Close: Joshilyn Jackson

Grown-up Games, Redemption,
and Diving the Deep

By K. L. Romo

“We were grown-up women, so we packed our worsts away in hidden boxes. We were mothers, so we sank those boxes under jobs and mortgages and meal plans. Mothers have to sink those boxes deep.”

We all harbor secrets, but some are more dangerous than others. How far would a wife and mother go to protect hers? That’s the premise in Joshilyn Jackson’s new psychological thriller, NEVER HAVE I EVER.

Amy Whey has a perfect life—a husband she loves, a 15-year-old stepdaughter she adores, an infant boy she dotes on, and the nicest best friend anyone could want. No one knows about her past. But when the new neighbor renting the house down the street crashes the neighborhood book club get-together, Amy fears her prior sins may have come back to destroy her.

When Amy opens her front door for book club that night, the woman on the porch mesmerizes her. Angelica Roux is sultry and intoxicating, exactly the opposite of the other women in their group. Although feigning interest in the book club, Roux (as she’s called) hijacks the meeting with liquor and a game. But it isn’t just a game, it’s a plan.

“It’s like Never Have I Ever, but for grown-ups. We skip the coy denials and go right to confession. You start by telling everyone the worst thing you did today,” she tells the girls. And then the worst thing last week, and last month.

Amy suspects Roux’s intentions with the game are devious: She packed it tight with salt and metal, counting on collateral damage, too, but she aimed it straight at me.

Jackson with the ATL chapter of Sisters in Crime.

It’s so easy for Roux to coax secrets from the others. Although Amy revealed nothing, she knew Roux wanted her confession and would stop at nothing to get it: She’d cracked open the past. I could feel it leaking into my bloodstream, spreading like a toxin through me. But Roux doesn’t realize how talented Amy is at pushing her secrets way down deep.

Amy had never told her husband Davis about the fatal mistake she’d made as a teenager, how her family had to move away after. How she’d ruined the lives of both her family and the family who was doomed on the road that night. And the wrong person went to prison for it.

Amy has learned to bury her past sins in the ocean during scuba dives. The sea is so good at hiding things: It was prayer. It was meditation. It was a stillness and a silence… I practiced letting any thought about the past sink out of my brain, slide down my spine, and disappear into my own deeps. Scuba diving saved her from her disgraceful past.

Jackson diving under the salt pier on Bonaire.

Now, Amy has two choices: she can tell her husband Davis and best friend Char about her past and hope they forgive her, or she can beat Roux with her own dangerous scheme. She’s surprised to discover she’s an expert game-player, but will she be able to outsmart Roux and save the perfect family life she’s worked so hard to create? How much of herself must she compromise to do it? (And the ending might just blow your mind.)

Although Jackson is a New York Times bestselling author, this is her first on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller, complete with dark closet skeletons, frayed nerves, and a shocking end. “My books have always used the engine of a thriller or a mystery, but with this book I stopped flirting with the genre and leaned in, hard. And I loved it,” Jackson says.

The narrative focuses on our need for redemption for past wrongs. “I have long called myself a ‘redemption obsessed novelist.’ All my books look with varying degrees of hope and cynicism at how far we can walk into the black and still be saved,” she says. “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? This book is different because it’s the first time I approached these questions through the lens of a thriller.”

Jackson showing her husband a puffer fish she found in the ocean—one of her favorite underwater creatures.

Scuba diving is Amy’s method of meditation, searching for peace with turbulent emotions. The ocean swallowing secrets is intriguing. Why did Jackson choose this setting, and scuba diving, for the novel?

“Scuba seemed like such a perfect metaphor,” she says. “As anyone who has ever dropped their sunglasses off a boat can attest, the ocean is large enough to hide anything. I was not a diver, but I thought I could learn enough via interviews and YouTube videos to make it work. About three months in, I realized I had to learn to dive if I wanted to write this book properly.

“My husband and I started taking lessons, and now I’m addicted. I realized I had scuba all wrong. It’s very close to yoga. It’s so much about breath and being present in your body. Everything Amy says about scuba in the book is my experience. It is prayer, it is meditation, it is peace.

Jackson signing advance readers of NEVER HAVE I EVER at a library association event in Texas.

“It is also an unearthly level of beautiful and so much fun. If you can learn, you should.”

Amy decides she must defend herself against Roux with a good offence, and she finds she’s very good at designing a strategy by digging into private lives. Jackson explores how people handle the moral dilemmas facing them every day.

“I hope readers will engage with the kinds of questions that made me want to write [the book],” she says. “Story is how I explain the world to myself, and with this story I was asking, what makes a person ‘good’? Roux and Amy are, at their cores, very much alike. But their choices have been wildly different. That said, to fight Roux effectively, Amy must lean in to all the things that make Roux’s game a fair match. She could win the game and yet lose the self she’s tried to become.

“There are concrete stakes in terms of Amy’s life, her marriage, her child—but there is also a more subtle layer of moral stakes.

“I love, love, love the fact that Amy is an imperfect heroine,” Jackson says. “And I love the dark part of the novel.”

Obsessed with redemption in her novels, Jackson extends that thread into everyday life with her work at Reforming Arts, “a nonprofit that runs education-in-prison and reentry programs.” Jackson has taught creative writing, composition, and literature inside Georgia’s maximum-security facility for women.

Jackson and her husband at Hemingway House while on a dive trip in the Florida Keys.

“It’s my heart-work. The way we incarcerate people is obscene,” she says. “Our students are very diverse in age, race, and orientation. The one thing they all have in common is that they were raised in grinding poverty by disordered (often abusive) families—women who have had almost no opportunities, no breaks. I didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but I had excellent, loving parents, enough to eat, a safe home. I also got a great education, and I think education makes opportunity.

“Our goal at Reforming Arts is to provide those opportunities to our students and to make space for them to express themselves freely. To express yourself—your anger, your hopes, your fears via theatre or writing—lets you access your own narrative. You can control your narrative, and you can change it.

“Art matters. Education matters.”

Jackson uses her acting skills to bring authenticity to her characters.

Joshilyn Jackson
Photo credit: Wes Browning

“I think like an actor when I write novels,” she says. “Most of my novels are first person, and they are all character driven.

“After I draft a scene with, say, five people in it, I do one more revision per character. I work my way through the scene through each point of view, so even if a character has only one line, it comes out of an arc and a train of thought and a motivation that I understand completely. It makes a difference. Even if each character’s motivation is not explained to the reader, if I know the arc, if their reasoning and their individual desires are clear to me, that character’s actions feel more authentic.

“I learned to do this working in summer stock theatre. I did a scene where my character sat silent on stage and watched actions unfold for 15 minutes and then said one line. But to deliver that line authentically, I had to feel every feeling and think every thought, and react to every moment that happened. I try to do the same in novels.

“Writing novels is a power trip for an actor; I get to cast myself as everyone.”

 

K. L. Romo

K. L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues, loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets, but HATES the word normal. Visit her website or @klromo.
K. L. Romo

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