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.

Sara Gruen on writing

These quotes were gleaned from an interview I did for a story in Mountain Xpress. You can read at article on the launch of Sara Gruen‘s new novel, By the Water’s Edge, here. Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Water for Elephants.

Photo by Tasha Thomas

Photo by Tasha Thomas

• It’s an extremely intense process for me, writing a book. It takes a lot, emotionally and physically. I get almost obsessive about the characters. I can’t sleep at night, [or] I dream about them. Sometimes I wake up and I’ve been working all night on a problem in the book; sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ve solved it.

• One of the things I love about the job is I get to find something that interests me and then spend a couple of years living it, researching it and finding out more.

• If it’s possible, I’ll go and immerse myself completely [in a place]. I like to approach my research sort of like a language immersion class. When I was in the [Scottish] Highlands, after I was finished for the day I’d park in the corner of the pub with my laptop. …I would eavesdrop. I’d pick up phrases. I’d be listening, absorbing the accent and the the turns of phrase because it’s a very distinctive dialect and I really wanted to capture that.

• Obviously I can’t live in WWII, but I did extensive research. The newspaper archives were helpful but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns for reusing the material from old dresses, or what to use if you can’t find shampoo. I got copies of the [Ministry of Food] cook books. I knew the rations so [my husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month. I think we lasted two weeks.

• I try not to let anything affect how I’m writing. Then I would be writing to please an audience and if you’re doing that, you’re second-guessing everything.

• I have to lock the door of my office and close the curtains. Everyone in the family knows that unless the house is on fire, don’t knock on the door. It takes me about an hour and half to get through my creative portal. That sounds weird. But to [get to] a point where I actually feel like I’m there, as opposed to here. Then I feel like I’m recording it rather creating it. I feel like I’m not watching a movie, but in a movie. That’s when I know it’s working.AT THE WATER'S EDGE_final jacket

• Starting the book, I have a vague notion of who I want to characters to be and what sort of roles I want my characters to play. Then I write them, and eventually they come to life. And then they take over. Any idea I had for them, they throw away. They change the plot, they turn out to be different people, they have different backgrounds, they fall in love with other people. Invariably I have to go back and throw out the first third of a book. That’s absolutely a given.

• I hate when I have to throw 30,000 bleeding, screaming words on the floor. I have a leftovers file, because if I had to delete things, I would never do it. The theory is I could recycle. I’ve never recycled anything, but it allows me the freedom to get rid of things.

• When I’ve finished a book, I have what I call a springboard book. It’s my second-drawer book. I start working on that book again and eventually, so far, and idea will hit me from the blue. Clearly [the springboard book] doesn’t have the same pull on me, because I’ve never finished it.