By Brian Knight and Ellie Knight
Jonathan Stiles is a fourteen-year-old atheist who is coping with his first day of ninth grade at the fervently religious St. Soren’s Academy when his idolized older brother Ryan is found dead at the bottom of a ravine behind the school. As his world crumbles, Jonathan meets an eccentric stranger who bears an uncanny resemblance to Jesus Christ (except for his white linen leisure suit and sparkling gold chains). Jesus Jackson, as he calls himself, offers to provide faith to Jonathan. He also suggests that Ryan’s death may not have been an accident after all.
Jonathan teams up with Henry, his new best friend at St. Soren’s, to investigate. The two boys find footprints leading to the ravine that match Ryan’s sneakers. They are assisted by Ryan’s grieving girlfriend, Tristan, who also thinks the accident theory is bunk. The police, however, will not listen. But Jonathan knows something the police do not know: Shortly before his death, Ryan was doing cocaine with fellow footballer and number one suspect Alistair not far from the ravine where his body was found.
An inspired Jonathan battles sanctimonious school psychologists, overzealous administrators, and a cavalry of Christian classmates on his quest to discover the truth about Ryan’s death—and about God, high school, and the meaning of life, while he’s at it. But he keeps getting distracted by Cassie—Alistair’s quirky younger sister—who holds the keys to the answers Jonathan is searching for, but who also makes him wonder if he should be searching for them at all.
Welcome James, and thanks for stopping by to chat with us.
Brian: Faith seems to be an important theme, or at least ingredient, in JESUS JACKSON. Putting an atheist teen in an environment where faith is the rule promises to produce a lot of tension. May I ask where you stand on the subject of faith?
Well that is an awesome and difficult question. Ultimately, I think faith is a wonderful thing, as long as it isn’t blind faith. Personally, I like to detach the word faith from its strict religious connotations, and generally define it as “trust in something that you cannot know for certain.” Now for me, while I don’t happen to have faith in any particular god or religion, I do try to have faith in lots of other things that I cannot know for certain. I have faith in the love of my wife and the support of my family. I have faith in my own intuitive sense of ethics and morality. I have faith that my hard work will pay off and that as long as I make the best decisions I can every day, my life will ultimately work out pretty well. That’s the kind of faith that I try to explore in JESUS JACKSON.
Ellie: How do you come up with such an interesting storyline? Did you have to think a lot about it, or did it come all at once?
I played around with the overall themes and characters for a long time—years, probably. I knew I wanted write about a kid struggling with faith and searching for meaning, but I didn’t really have a “story” to place him in. Then at some point it just dawned on me: my character’s thematic search for a philosophical truth should mirror an actual search for a physical truth (in this case, a murder mystery). Once I had that idea, the entire story fell into place rather quickly.
Brian: Were your personal beliefs a driving force behind the writing of JESUS JACKSON?
Absolutely. My personal beliefs (or more accurately, lack of beliefs) were really the starting point for the whole novel. I wanted to tell a story about what it’s like to deal with the difficult and painful parts of life when you don’t have a ready-made belief system or religion to turn to for answers.
Ellie: Were any of the situations in this novel drawn from your own life?
Well, the protagonist’s personality and character are very much based on my own inner-struggles from adolescence, but the actual situation he finds himself in (beginning his freshman year at a Catholic high school as an atheist with a recently deceased brother) is entirely fictional.
Brian: Are you a YA fiction writer, or a writer who had an idea for a YA novel?
You know, I think I’m still figuring that out. I didn’t set out to write a Young Adult novel with JESUS JACKSON, but that’s what I did. I also didn’t set out to write a Young Adult novel with the book I’m working on at the moment, but it’s looking like it’s going to turn out that way again. Certainly, if the next book is YA, it would be safe to call me a YA fiction writer….
Ellie: Have you written since you were young?
My mom likes to point out that I wrote my first short story in third grade. While this is technically true (it was a blatant Mickey Spillane knock-off called “The Bullet”), I didn’t really start to write with any purpose or consistency until college.
Brian: I’ve read reviews for JESUS JACKSON and am very impressed by the amount of good ink you’re getting already. Were you surprised by how well your first release has been received?
I’ve been incredibly surprised and humbled by the amount of attention JESUS JACKSON has received. Honestly, I thought that the subject matter would stir up a bit of controversy, but I never imagined all of the great press it would get. What has amazed me the most, though, is the feedback I’ve gotten from actual teenagers who really connected with the protagonist’s struggles and ideas. Hearing from kids who have seen some of their own lives in my characters’ journey has been far more meaningful than any book review or newspaper article.
Ellie: When I write, I like to emulate the styles of my favorite authors. Have you ever done that?
My goal is always to find a unique voice for every story, so I don’t know that I emulate any specific authors. That said, when I’m actively working on a novel, I’m very particular about reading books that speak to the subject matter or voice of what I’m writing. That way, if any emulation happens unconsciously (which it inevitably does), it will push the book in a productive direction.
Brian: Who are some of your literary heroes or heroines?
When I was younger, I really looked up to the capital-G-Great writers of the early twentieth century—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Woolf—but now I find myself more impressed with the writers who managed to come up with consistently entertaining and unique stories over a long career: LeCarre, Updike, and Chandler come most readily to mind.
Ellie: Who is your all-time favorite author?
If I have to pick one all-time favourite author, then it has to be Kurt Vonnegut. No one else could explore the big themes and deep questions with as much humour and poignancy as he did.
Brian: Do you have anything new and exciting in the works?
I am working on a new YA novel, that is (I hope) very close to completion, but I’d rather not say too much until I at least have the first draft done. Stay tuned, though….
Ellie: What is your favorite genre as a reader, and what is your favorite book in that genre?
You know, I don’t really stick to one genre as a reader very often, but when I do, it tends to be Hard Boiled Crime, and in that genre, I’ll always pick The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Mr. Daley. Best of luck with JESUS JACKSON.
James Ryan Daley is a writer, editor, and designer of various paper-based and digital things. Since finishing his MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004, he has been spending most of his time teaching writing to college students, creating websites about video games, and writing mystery novels about pensive young ne’erdowells. When he’s not obsessively poring over pixels and pronouns, he can usually be found arguing with strangers on the Internet or seeking out adventure with his indomitable wife and venturesome daughters.
To learn more about James, please visit his website.