Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen on writing

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Meeting Joshilyn Jackson at Malaprop’s

New life goal(s): Write an incredible novel. Make a superstar friend who is also a fantastic novelist. Go on tour together so we can mostly hangout, share stories, crack jokes and be mindblowingly awesome — in a very down-to-earth and relatable way.

This isn’t just a pipe dream, it’s a performance model. On Saturday, Feb. 20, contemporary authors/critique partners Joshilyn Jackson and Sara Gruen discussed the writing process, business, their newest novels and their friendship in a delightful event at Malaprop’s.

Joshilyn and Sara met on an online writers forum before either were successful authors. (For what it’s worth, they revealed that both sent their first published manuscripts to more than 130 agents each before securing representation.) With Karen Abbott, they formed a critique group that provides support, brainstorming, beta reading, and writing retreats. But as professional (and ingenious) as that sounds, Joshilyn and Sara have this enviable best-friend known-eachother-forever camaraderie in person.

On writing style

Sara: I’m a Northerner in attitude.
Joshilyn: I call her Canada. She calls me passive-aggressive.
Sara: But Paula, the main character [in Joshilyn’s new novel, The Opposite of Everyone] is very Northern, and Maddie [in Sara’s most recent book, At the Water’s Edge] is very —
Joshilyn: — passive aggressive.

On archetypes

Paula, a feisty divorce lawyer, was a minor character in Joshilyn’s previous novel, Someone Else’s Love Story. “I’d try to write a Paula chapter, and it would go on and on,” she says. “I realized she’d have to have a book of her own.” Paula’s backstory, which unfolds organically in the opening chapters of The Opposite of Everyone, includes an unconventional childhood during which her hippie mother frequently moved them and changed their names, while also raising Paula (then known as Kali) on Hindu mythology.

Joshilyn: I sink in a lot of Christ figures. … I feel like if you’re leaning into a mythology, you’re going to be telling story that will resonate because it’s bigger than itself.
Sara: I’m fascinated with oral tradition and folklore. … The oldest written account of the Loch Ness Monster [who plays a major role in At the Water’s Edge] is more than 600 years old.

On outlining

Sara: For my first couple of books I was dumb enough to outline until I realized once the characters come alive, they throw the outline out the window and set it on fire.
Joshilyn: You want them to. The good books live in the dark and salty reaches of your mental illness. Your characters want to go there.

On their critique group

Joshilyn: You want to keep at least one member of the group to read your whole manuscript [with fresh eyes] before it goes to your agent.
Sara: I probably don’t send anything out until I’ve gotten a third [written].
Joshilyn: One of the nicest things we’ve done over the years is go on retreats. On the first night you set a lofty goal, and as soon as your goal is met, you can play with the other writers.
Sara: Then we have fancy dinners and read to each other what we’ve written that day.
Joshilyn: None of us ever wants to write anything you can set down. Our goal is for none of you [readers] to get any sleep for the rest of your lives.

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