Jo Hackl was born and raised in Mississippi, now lives in South Carolina and is the embodiment of southern hospitality. Once, while attending a reading association conference in South Carolina, I was taken under Jo’s wing, and treated like visiting royalty. So when I was sent an advance copy of her debut novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe (Random House), I was nervous. She’d been sweet as tea nice to me; what if I didn’t like the book?
Well, I didn’t like Cricket’s story: I loved it! And mine is one of a kajillion positive blurbs her novel has garnered. Since it was an eleven year process for Jo, getting this book to readers, her story is one for all of us to take to heart. So now, sit back on that rocker on your front porch and spend a few precious moments with the wonderful Jo Hackl.
Bringing the Great Outdoors to the Page
I grew up in a ghost town in the piney woods of Mississippi and spent much of my childhood exploring. I walked the thick concrete sidewalks through overgrown woods, looking for signs of animals and trying to identify every plant I could find. I camped out and played at living off the land. I’m also a life-long fan of the work of the artist Walter Inglis Anderson and I was intrigued by the secret room he left behind when he died. I thought that it would be the perfect inspiration for a clue trail someday. When I set out to write my novel, I wanted to combine those two elements- outdoor survival and an art mystery clue trail.
During my time outdoors, I experienced the “nature effect” of how time outside changes your perspective. I wanted to allow my main character, Cricket, to experience that effect as she struggles in the woods to survive on her own and solve the clue trail.
My goal in writing was to create an immersive experience for the reader. I began keeping a daily journal of things that I could see, smell, taste, touch and hear outdoors. I paid attention to what plants were edible at each time of year, what smells were in the air, what animals could be seen and heard, and what plants were dormant, sprouting, and in bud, bloom or in seed head.
I also began to take classes in outdoor survival. I learned how to make a fire using things I found in the woods, how to harvest water from tree leaves, how to make rope out of honeysuckle, how to make a shelter in the woods, and how to forage for edible and medicinal plants. I created a back-story where Cricket had learned some of these things from her father and had to figure others out on her own. To keep the pace moving quickly, I tied the things she learned in outdoor survival to Cricket’s quest to solve the clue trail. The “nature effect” helped give Cricket the perspective she needed as she worked to solve the increasingly baffling clue trail and to come to terms with her family.
I committed all these things to the page and revised, revised, revised. At each stage I asked myself if the things that Cricket observed would likely be things that she would notice in real time, if the details were accurate, and if description incorporated all the senses to make the scene come alive for the reader. I hope that readers will enjoy the book as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I view the book as an invitation to enter the physical landscape of my childhood and I hope that they will come right on in.
Jo was born near Ocean Springs, Mississippi, where her favorite artist, Walter Anderson, painted a secret room. Jo later moved to a ghost town, Electric Mills, Mississippi. Anderson’s secret room and the ghost town inspired Jo’s novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe (Random House). Today Jo lives in Greenville, South Carolina with her husband, children, and her dog Pupper, who just happens to closely resemble the character of Percy in the book. Jo founded www.outdoorosity.org, a free resource for educators and families celebrating the treasures and curiosities of nature with stories, know-how and inspiration to get readers outside. You can find Jo online and watch the trailer for her book there. You can also connect with Jo through Twitter and Facebook.