Sunday, October 21, 2007
Weird things happen in my books, sometimes: people make giant dollhouses and fill them up with moth larvae, characters forgo Road Trip Alphabet in favor of a game called “My Heart is a Fart,” and little girls try to change religions by writing their new affiliations in their underpants. But I make all that stuff up.
I rarely fictionalize the even odder things that happen “really for true” down here under the Mason Dixon. When I do, either I tone them WAY down, or my editor tells me I’ve gone so far over the top I’m probably in space. Real things, unless I fold, spindle and mutilate them beyond all recognition, always sound …fake. For example, if you’ve read my first novel, gods in Alabama, then you probably remember the neighbor lady and her boon companion, Phoebe the Chicken. The narrator, Arlene, describes the fictional Phoebe this way:
“Growing up, our closest neighbor was Mrs. Weedy. She was an older lady. A widow with no kids. But she had this pet chicken named Phoebe. And she loved Phoebe insanely. I mean that literally. She was not mentally well on the subject of Phoebe. And whenever my cousin Wayne or Clarice did something great and Aunt Flo would try to brag on them, Mrs. Weedy would interrupt with a long tale of Phoebe’s latest accomplishments. According to Mrs.Weedy, Phoebe understood English, liked country music, had political opinions and a passionate personal relationship with Jesus. But all Phoebe ever did really was drop chicken poop and scratch around.”
Later you find out Mrs. Weedy had a little special carry-case that could go in the passenger seat so Phoebe could be safely buckled up on road trips, and later still, Phoebe’s strange (and, yes, entirely fictional) fate is integral to understanding some of the characters.
Phoebe the chicken is a character, but she is one of the few things in the book that I can trace back to an exact and parallel reality: There was once a set of neighbors who owned a pet Phoebe Chicken. <---Not her real name, and the owners were nothing like my pokey-nosed, fustering Mrs. Weedy. I will refrain from describing them, because they are actual people. “Phoebe” is only an actual chicken, and so therefore not likely to stumble upon this blog and feel impugned, firstly because chickens can’t read (much less google themselves), and secondly because “Phoebe” is likely now in chicken heaven. The average chickenly lifespan is a only couple of decades, and she was a grand old dame I started writing the book.
There are many things beyond a name that I changed about Phoebe, and the details of her actual, bizarre life did not translate into gods in Alabama because there is NO WAY you would be able to suspend disbelief if I had put the reality of that chicken into a work of fiction…
The real Phoebe, I shudder to tell you, had OUTFITS. Daily wear, of course, and then ‘specially festive holiday get ups. On the fourth of July, for example, Phoebe sported a spangly red, white, and blue flag dress covered in sequins. It went on like a little apron. And – hand to heaven -- she had pouffy up-do CHICKEN WIGS that strapped onto her pointy little pin-head. Blonde mostly, that looked like young-Dolly-Parton-if-Dolly-Parton-was-a-Chicken. Or, more specifically, if Dolly Parton was a chicken who REALLY did not like to wear wigs.
Another example? The owners claimed---insisted---that Phoebe was litter box trained, so Phoebe came in and out of their house at will, pooping every other minute as chickens do. There were SEVERAL litter boxes around the house, and SOMETIMES, very rarely, mind you, Phoebe happened to be standing in or near one when nature struck, at which point her owner’s would claim the event as PROOF of her refinement. Other times, when random fortune put Phoebe, say, in the front hall, they claimed accident. “You see, she was heading outside! Poor Phoebe she did not make it! Oh! See how embarrassed she is.”
Embarrassment, in a chicken, apparently looks a lot like “pooping and then trying to rip your wig off.” But hey, she MIGHT have felt embarrassed. WHAT DO I KNOW about the mysterious inner life of poultry…
The wigs, the faux litter box training, the hand-sewn twelve days of Christmas ensembles…these things are not in my novel. If they were there, you would set that novel down in a pet, your suspension of disbelief utterly ruined, and say, “That’s just ridiculous!” And you’d be right.
When I go to my writer’s crit group, no one is allowed to use the defense “BUT THAT’S WHAT REALLY HAPPENED!!!” It’s like jury nullification----you aren’t allowed to argue that. WHO CARES if it really happened? Hint: no one. What matters in a novel is, does it sound true in the world of the book. I don’t use a lot of the real stuff because the things I make up go together, and they do so because one idea spawns another, in long chains in my brain, and they cause and effect each other. The real stuff about real Southerners, even though it is true, sounds fake and strained and downright odd when slotted into a created world.
Now, I don’t claim Phoebe the Chicken proves that this is INTRISICALLY a Southern problem. After all, the phenomenon is so familiar to writers and readers that it has given birth to both a cliché and a movie starring Will Ferrell. But I will say, I think it may prove an entirely different point, and explain why I like to write books set in my native South:
We are hella weird down here.
Bestselling novelist Joshilyn Jackson was born nervous and raised high strung on the edge of the Gulf Coast. Both her SIBA award winning first novel, gods in Alabama, and her second novel, Between, Georgia, were chosen as the #1 Book Sense pick for the month of their release. Jackson read the audio version of Between herself, winning a Listen Up award from Publisher's Weekly and making Audiofile's Best of 2006 list. In 2007, she was named Georgia Author of the Year in fiction. Her third novel, The Girl Who Stopped Swimming will be published on March 4th. She lives in a small town plopped down right between Atlanta and the Alabama state line with her husband, their two children, and, at last count, seven little animals. Her own blog is called Faster Than Kudzu. Because she is.