All Southerners believe in ghosts,” says Joshilyn Jackson, whose third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, out this March from Grand Central, opens with a middle-of-the-night visit from the ghost of a teenage girl. The novel's protagonist, Laurel Hamilton, is used to haunting (her dead uncle appears regularly), but this ghost is unfamiliar and leads Laurel to the dead body of Laurel's teenage daughter's friend, Molly, floating in the pool. The ensuing story could be called “Suburban Gothic,” filled with both real and spectral figures coming to haunt her gated community in Pensacola, Fla.
Jackson, 39, began her writing career after years of struggling as an actress in regional theater; both her previous novels, Gods in Alabama (Warner Books, 2005) and Between, Georgia (Warner Books, 2007), were #1 Book Sense picks, making Jackson the first author to have back-to-back top picks. Gods has more than 200,000 copies in print; Between, Georgia, 150,000.
Still, the Georgia author's renown as a novelist remains primarily Southern. Jackson lives in Powder Springs, Ga., with her husband and two children, 10-year-old Sam (named for Samuel Beckett) and five year-old Maisey (named for the Henry James novel What Maisie Knew). But Grand Central Publishing believes The Girl Who Stopped Swimming will be her breakout book, banking on the gated suburban setting resonating with readers across the country. The plan is a 75,000 first printing, with two more novels contracted for.
In person, Jackson exudes the charisma of a stage actress, with a speaking voice that won her a PW Listen Up award for the audiobook version of Between, Georgia. Acting also surfaces in the character of Thalia, Laurel's loose-cannon older sister in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, who runs a black boxtheater in Birmingham, Ala. After Laurel finds the dead girl in her pool, she turns to Thalia for help.
“Laurel and Thalia is that virgin/whore thing that all Southern girls have,” she says, admitting that her “strong sense of decorum” was difficult to overcome early on. “Now I've learned to set a character on fire and see what happens.”
Though there are literal ghosts in Jackson's latest novel, she acknowedges that: “The real ghost in the book is poverty,” adding that it's a very personal topic to her.
Jackson's maternal grandmother grew up in a town very much like the fictional DeLop in Girl. “The book,” says Jackson, “was an effort to empathize with the grandmother with whom I have not spoken in 20 years. My grandmother was a sharecropper. I remember driving through the town with her when I was a child and her saying things like 'that's my corn, those are my trees, that's my house.' But none of it was hers—she just felt the way she did because of the work she put into that land.” Living in such grinding poverty left her grandmother obsessed with social propriety, but emotionally aloof.
In the novel, Laurel's mother—who is obsessed with propriety—is a stand-in for Jackson's grandmother. DeLop represents the shameful past Laurel is trying to outrun—she never lets her husband, Dave, or daughter, Shelby, visit it—but she inadvertently invites the past into her life in the form of Bet, an at-risk teenage girl from DeLop who starts as Shelby's pen pal and ends up as a house guest.
In the same way that her family's history has been injected into her fiction, Jackson has started taking elements from her fiction and turning them into reality. To mark the publication of Between, Georgia, Jackson took a totem that appears in the book—a statue of a little fox—and gave versions of it as gifts to bookstores where she toured. This time, she commissioned a quilt based on a design that Laurel, a fabric artist herself, is working on in The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. That quilt, called The Bride, will accompany Jackson when she sets off on her 17-city book tour, which for the first time will extend beyond the South to include cities from San Francisco to Albany, N.Y.
“I guess I always wished, as a little girl, that I could reach into books and pull things out of them,” says Jackson, “Now, I can.” The thing she couldn't conjure through her writing, though, was a real ghost. “I'm probably too much of a pragmatist to see ghosts,” she says. “But I do believe in quantum physics and the idea that there is not lost energy—just energy that reconfigures itself. Who hasn't walked into a room at one time or another and felt the hairs rise on the back of their neck?”