In Joshilyn Jackson’s captivating new novel, The Almost Sisters, a successful comic book artist finds she may need some superpowers of her own. Just as Leia Birch gains the courage to tell her small-town Southern family that she’s pregnant with a biracial baby after a tequila-fueled one-night stand at a comic book convention, she discovers that her relatives have surprises too. Leia’s stepsister is in the midst of a failing marriage, her niece is having coming-of-age issues and her grandmother is literally hiding bones in the attic. Luckily, Leia has what it takes to hold it all together.
This fast-paced novel explores the power of a feminine hero, the age-old issues of the American South and the resilience of familial love. Moreover, it accomplishes all of that with ease and wit.
Jackson is the bestselling author of seven novels, including gods in Alabama, The Opposite of Everyone and Someone Else’s Love Story. A former actress, she's a compelling storyteller who writes character-driven narratives that focus on modern life, racism, motherhood and, in her latest work, sisterhood. We asked her about the process that birthed The Almost Sisters and whether she sees her own experiences reflected in its flawed and forthright characters.
Leia, the narrator of the novel, is such a great character—brassy but principled, extremely independent, willing to confront racial prejudice. Do you think she’s representative of young women in the present-day South? Or is Leia an outlier in the way she views the world?
That’s so hard to say—the South is such a wide, diverse place. I hope she is. I have certainly met many women like her. I think one thing that makes her more of an outlier is that she isn’t defensive about her own racial bias. Every human on this planet has biases and blind spots, and I am a human on this planet, so . . . fill in the syllogism. Leia is white and middle class and tries to be a good person—this describes me, too—and us middle class, white, good-leaning folks have a tendency to respond to the evidence of systemic racism as if it IS an attack. But I’m not a racist, we sometimes say, touching our hands to our heart, instead of, wow, this is a problem, and maybe I need to examine how I am complicit or unaware.
Leia is a successful comic book author, but she still feels the pressures and uncertainty of being an artist. Ultimately, she is able to bring her life experiences into her fiction. Does that trajectory reflect your own creative process?
Oh, absolutely. I always say that the best novels come from the dark and salty marshes of my own mental illness. Art in all its forms is the personal made universal; my novels are very personal; Leia’s art is very personal. At one point, faced with a difficult decision, she sits down to draw, saying her head doesn’t know what to do, but her hands might. In the same way, I think I wrestle with the big questions in my life via story. Writing through another artist’s process was like looking at a reflection inside a reflection—I was using my writing to explore how an artist uses her work to understand herself as a way of understanding myself. In other words, trying to understand my process by exploring her process via my process. #inceptioned! #turtlesallthewaydown
As evidenced by your Twitter feed, you are fascinated by comic books. How did your interest in the genre help you in crafting her character?
I am more of a gaming/geekTV kind of dork. I don’t read much epic fantasy or sci fi (anymore—I was a junkie as a kid) or very many graphic novels, but I can quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer like a pro and I roll 20-sided dices with the best of them. I married an old school comic book dork who keeps his collection in plastic sleeves, and I have some graphic novels that I love almost as much as I love Jane Austen and Haven Kimmel novels: Grant Morrison’s run on Doom Patrol, Neil Gaiman, Persepolis. So it was fun to let Leia have a strong dork ethos. It’s a small part of the novel, one that acts as a counterpoint to her stepsister Rachel’s goop-tastic and well-groomed mainstreaming, but for my fellow dorks, there are Easter Eggs hidden—little references you will only get if you have a favorite “Doctor Who” or shipped Gabbi and Xena.
“Yes to goodness. Yes to right for right’s sake. Yes, even, to manners and civil discourse, and hell yes to kindness and forthright honesty.”
Who’s your favorite superhero and why?
Oh, Wonder Woman, just like Leia! The older I get, the more I come to value earnestness. My cynical 24-year-old self, fronting in swing dresses with combat boots and mattE red MAC lipstick, got hives merely from being earnest-adjacent; now I find my former self both cute and a little sad. Wonder Woman is a True North hero—the kind with no cynicism, no murky motives; she leans hard into hope and truth and justice. I think the world needs that right now, even though it feels outdated. I think we need True North heroes because it feels outdated. Yes to goodness. Yes to right for right’s sake. Yes, even, to manners and civil discourse, and hell yes to kindness and forthright honesty. Yes to Diana Prince.
In some ways, this novel seems especially timely, especially in the way it contrasts urban and small-town values. Did you have any hesitation about dealing with controversial issues—like class privilege and racial bias—in your fiction?
Well, sure. I am such a coward. I never want to go down into the places that hurt, or might make me look bad, or where I confront my ugliest self. But my characters always seem to want to, and I have learned that if I fight them, I end up with 30,000 words of drivel I have to throw away.
I have a lot of privilege. I was raised small-town South, and I live urban. I try to be cognizant of my biases—we all have them—but I am imperfect. I try to write my way into a better understanding of myself and the world around me. That’s never comfortable. I think I write page turners—I like plot twists and kissing and shooting and bodies in the attic and humor—because these things are the sugar-spoons that lets me look at all the issues of social justice and sexual power-politics, all the dark bits. It does kinda trap me between genres, though.
People ask me what kind of books I write, and I used to waffle around, but now I have an answer: I write Weirdo Fiction with a Shot of Southern Gothic Influence for Smart People Who Can Catch the Nuances but Who Like Narrative Drive, and Who Have a Sense of Humor but Who Are Willing to Go Down to Dark Places.
Do you think the desire to hide the ugly parts of our lives is a particularly Southern thing?
I think it is a particularly human thing.
The title didn’t seem central to the book until its conclusion. Then I began to recognize how it informs the theme of sisterhood and familial love. As the book ended, I thought back and saw the characters in a new light—just as Leia does. Was that intentional?
It went the other way. The book was called Origin Story the whole time I was writing it. I still like that title. In this book, history is alive, all the ends are present in the beginnings, and any past they try to bury rises into the now. But only Leia-Style dorks would get the joke—an Origin Story is how a superhero comes to have powers. For Team Rachel readers (Or Team Birchie or Team Wattie), it doesn’t resonate.
I named it The Almost Sisters after the book was finished, and yes, it was partially because I had found my way to that end—a lot of it I hadn’t expected. I also meant it to refer to the trio of symbiotic, sister-ish relationships in the book: Leia and Rachel (stepsisters), Birchie and Wattie (best friends from the cradle on), Violence and Violet (comic book characters with a powerful, mysterious connection).
Combining the elements of an unexpected pregnancy, a collapsing marriage, a coming-of-age teen, a grandma with dementia and a small-town murder mystery into one novel is an incredible task. You did it, though! How did you keep all those narratives under control?
Yes—people keep saying that! You and many reviewers and beta readers have said this book feels like it has all these threads and then they say nice things about how I manage to make them come together in a cohesive story—but to me it feels organic and all of a piece. It is one single thing: a small span of time in a life. Lives are this way. They have many pieces, and all the pieces touch. Of course, since this is a book, all the pieces of Leia’s life converge to light up the main themes, but even so, to me it feels very much like a single storyline.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever gotten?
You often read the audiobook versions of your novels. Do hear the characters' voices in your mind or even speak them aloud as you write?
Oh yes. Sometimes I am not even aware I am doing it. I have whole conversations between imaginary people when I am bored and am working out a scene. It’s important to be bored—it makes your creative brain-monkey wake up and start doing tricks. So I do housework, which I hate, or drive, which I loathe. Sometimes I will be at a traffic light and notice the people in the car next to me are looking at me with concerned faces, and I will realize I am having a passionate argument between two characters. Out loud. At that point I try to pretend I am singing.
What’s next for you?
I am working on a book that came out of The Almost Sisters, actually. One of my favorite characters, an 89-year-old woman named Wattie Price tells Leia, “You can’t go around holding the worst thing you ever did in your hand, staring at it. You gotta cook supper, put gas in the car. You gotta plant more zinnias.”
It came out of her mouth—I heard her say it in my head—and it surprised me. It is related to the work I do with Reforming Arts, a nonprofit with whom I teach creative writing and lit courses in Georgia’s maximum security women’s prison. I think about my students, many of whom I have had for multiple classes, many of whom I have come to know and care for, and one of their most common, shared fears is that that after they serve their time, they will still be seen only as their worst moments. They did something destructive, they were punished for it, but they fear the punishment will continue—that they will be cut off from opportunity and community. So I am writing a novel about a woman who did a very, very bad thing indeed, years ago, and has now reinvented herself as a children’s piano teacher, a stepmother and mother, a wife, a pillar of her neighborhood. I want to explore the mechanics of forgiveness.