Friday, February 24, 2017

Author Interview: Linda Williams Jackson!

It's a real honor and privilege to be interviewing author Linda Williams Jackson for today's blog post. Linda is the author of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, a book that I recently devoured and absolutely loved. It's a stunner of a debut: gripping, emotional, nuanced, unforgettable. Here's the book's official description:

    It’s Mississippi in the summer of 1955, and Rose Lee Carter can’t wait to move north. But for now, she’s living with her sharecropper grandparents on a white man’s cotton plantation.
    Then, one town over, an African American boy, Emmett Till, is killed for allegedly whistling at a white woman. When Till’s murderers are unjustly acquitted, Rose realizes that the South needs a change . . . and that she should be part of the movement.  
    Linda Jackson’s moving debut seamlessly blends a fictional portrait of an African American family and factual events from a famous trial that provoked change in race relations in the United States.

Trust me, this is a book you'll want to read. Linda Williams Jackson was kind enough to answer a few questions about her book and her writing...enjoy!

DG: MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON deals with, among other things, the murder of young Emmett Till - a crime that still resonates and haunts us today. What gave you the idea to weave in that historical tragedy, and how did you approach blending historical fact with your fictional story?

LWJ: I was born and raised in a small town in the Mississippi Delta, about 50 miles from Money, the town where Emmett Till was visiting that tragic summer. When I decided to write a piece of historical fiction centered around my own family’s experiences as sharecroppers, I knew that the Emmett Till story was an important part of the story. So I purposely set the time of the story in 1955, and the place within a few miles of the town where the tragedy occurred. Since Emmett Till’s great-uncle, Mose Wright, was a tenant farmer, it was a natural fit that the grandfather in MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON could possibly know him. Hence, the fictional and the factual meet.

DG: The setting of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON - rural Mississippi in 1955 - is so important to the story (and so vividly drawn) that is really almost another character in the story. How familiar were you with that setting before beginning the story? Do you have personal connections to that setting, or did you have to do a lot of research?

LWJ: I had to do a lot of research on the Emmett Till story, what life was like in 1955, and what was happening as far as the pre-civil rights era, specifically the events occurring after the Supreme Court decision in Brown versus Board of Education in Topeka, Kansas. On the other hand, I did not have to do a ton of research for the setting. The house that Rose lives in, the cotton fields, the dialect, the church scenes, the whole atmosphere surrounding the setting—these are things in which I was already familiar due to my own upbringing on cotton plantations in the 1970s. Not much had changed from 1955 to 1975 in rural Mississippi as far as living conditions were concerned, so the setting came naturally.

DG:. I read somewhere that every writer, whether they know it or not, makes themselves the main character of their books. Your main character, Rose Lee Carter, is such an unforgettable heroine. I absolutely fell in love with her, and I know she'll stick with me for a long time. In what ways are you and Rose Lee alike, and in what ways are you different?

LWJ: Thank you for saying that. I will note that I did not become Rose, but I did try to put myself in her shoes. One thing I did do, however, was take many of my own experiences and give them to Rose in order to add authenticity to her story. Without giving away spoilers, here are a few of those experiences: dreaming with the Sears catalog, the opening lines of the funeral scene, the northern visitors, the outhouse incident, chopping cotton, the mourners’ bench, the baptism, the skin lightening, and, as I have already stated, the setting itself. One of the biggest differences between Rose and me is that I was raised by my mother, not by my grandparents. I also have eleven siblings (not including the “half’s”). Rose only has one sibling.

DG: We talk about books being "mirrors" (showing readers a reflection of their own lives) and "windows" (giving readers a view into a life very different from their own). As you were writing MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, did you ever think about that idea? Did you ever think about a young reader seeing a bit of themselves in your story, or learning about perspectives and experiences different from their own? Did this have any impact on your writing?

LWJ: The only thing I had in mind as I was writing MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON was to give readers an authentic portrayal of the life of a sharecropping family in the Mississippi Delta based on my own experiences and based on the stories I had heard growing up. I also wanted to give readers a bird’s eye view of the type of environment young Emmett Till came into the last summer of his life. Keep in mind, too, that this all happened one month after his fourteenth birthday. So, basically, he was just shy of being a thirteen-year-old when he was lynched. I also wanted to show the fear that the Jim Crow system had instilled in a majority of African Americans living in the Delta during that time.

DG: How was your path to publication? Did you spend years in the querying (and rejection) trenches? What advice would you give to writers who are still on that journey to getting published?

LWJ: My path to publication was unnecessarily long and treacherous. Six years. But I say to writers on the journey: “Yours doesn’t have to be.” For me, I got stuck on one manuscript. I queried and rewrote that thing to death. I should have moved on after the first year. Instead, I spent five years trying to make someone love my ugly baby. If a manuscript doesn’t land you an agent or an editor after a year, move on. Please. You can always go back to it. Just don’t get stuck on it.

DG: So, your debut novel came out less than two months ago. How have these two months been? Does having your book published feel like you expected it to, or have there been some surprises?

LWJ: Um, not sure what I expected. But I do know that I was nervous. I think the biggest surprise for me is seeing the book in so many libraries. It’s also a delight to randomly come across an article where someone mentions the book. That’s totally cool.

DG: For now you should definitely enjoy and bask in the glow of the success of MIDNIGHT WITHOUT A MOON, but I can't wait to read more and I'm dying to know: what's up next for you? Any more books on the horizon, anything exciting you're working on right now?
LWJ: Well, the sequel, A SKY FULL OF STARS, is coming out on January 2, 2018! But, right now I’m trying to focus on promotion for MIDNIGHT and taking care of my family. Hopefully, by the time spring officially rolls around, I’ll be on to writing something new. I’m ready to write again.

Thanks so much, Ms. Jackson. I can't wait to read A SKY FULL OF STARS!


Amy said...

Thanks for sharing your story here, Ms. Jackson. I am definitely adding this to my list of must-reads. And thanks for the publishing insights, too!

BookMurmuration said...

Great interview. When you speak of 13 year-olds being lynched, I think of 'Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry'. As a young person that book opened my eyes to a whole new side to the world. Like Amy, I have added this to my wishlist.