In her debut novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe, Greenville’s own Jo Watson Hackl builds a story of resilience, ingenuity, and powerful independence in the form of a girl named Cricket.
When we meet her, Cricket is facing down some difficult straits in her young life. Her mother disappeared, and her father passed away. She sets out for the woods alone, bolstered by some peanut butter, beef jerky, and Little Debbie snack cakes lifted from the Cash ‘n’ Carry to wait out her mother’s return. Her father taught her how to forage, to start a fire, to fend for herself. She’s following clues in search of a legendary secret room painted by a mysterious artist, in hopes that what she finds will anchor her mother to home. But in her journey, we begin to see the ways Cricket’s fundamental resilience brings new confidence, and the strength to seek her own way. To paraphrase Walt Whitman (whose poems are read to a loveable dog in the book), we contain multitudes.
With her upcoming book launch this month, we sat with Jo to discuss Cricket, the writing process, and the makings of her story.
Cricket is such a resourceful character, in the midst of loss, change, and some tough challenges. How did she first appear to you? >> Cricket’s voice came first. I grew up in deep-woods Mississippi, and I love the rhythm and cadence of the dialect. I wanted Cricket to have that voice and her own way of seeing the world. From the beginning, Cricket talked directly to the reader and she wasn’t afraid to tell the truth, even when it hurt. Her character grew from there.
Where did you draw your knowledge for Cricket’s survival skills? >> I trained for writing the survival parts of the book the way you’d train for a marathon. I drew on memories of camping as a child. I studied everything from starting a fire from scratch, building a shelter, finding water, food, and medicinal plants, to making rope out of honeysuckle. I camped out in our children’s tree house and foraged for food.
What was your biggest foraging success? >>
Finding ripe, wild native oranges. Tart but delicious.
Cricket’s mother is a wonderfully made character. She abandons Cricket in some disappointing ways, and yet she also provides such access to magic. What inspired her for you? >> I wanted Cricket’s mother to have a sense of childlike wonder even as she dealt with the pressures of being a wife and mother and coping with her own mental health challenges. She’s fierce and determined and curious and creative and scared and scarred, and I tried to wrap up those qualities all into one person. It took over a dozen character sketches to try to get the balance right.
You offer some other powerful voices to guide Cricket. Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and the Mississippi artist Walter Anderson all offer significant inspirations to the book. Are there challenges to making art accessible to this audience? >> I love how art is such a personal experience. Cricket never becomes an expert on Emily Dickinson’s or Walt Whitman’s poetry or the art theory behind Walter Anderson’s work. She just knows what she likes and that’s the way I tried to approach it in the book. Readers are smart, and my hope is that they’ll find things that speak to them in the work of these wonderful, complex artists.
A really fun aspect of the book is the trail of clues that leads to the secret room Cricket’s mother told her about, and from there to a buried treasure. How did you develop it? >> One of the many great things about being a writer is that you can find a bunch of random things that interest you and fit them together. I love da Vinci’s Codex on the Flight of Birds. I love poetry, science, physics, and the natural world. I was fascinated by dowsers, puzzle boxes, and the stories of the currency used in the ghost town—the doogaloo. I must have done around 25 different variations of the clue trail before I found a way to fit all the pieces together.
One of the fabulous settings for the novel is a ghost town, Electric City, Mississippi, based on the town you lived near as a child. I keep thinking what an effect that would have on a growing imagination. What were you like at Cricket’s age? >> I was mostly quiet and mightily curious, taking everything in. I had plenty of friends my age, of course, but one of my best friends was older than my grandmother and one of the smartest people I’ve known. She was a great lover of poetry, wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, and had a great fondness for rose bushes, tall pine trees, and Coca-Colas in those little glass bottles. I had some of the best conversations of my life over those little bottles of Coca-Cola, and I think those conversations helped turn me into a writer.
Jo Hackl is an attorney at Wyche Law Firm. Her debut novel, Smack Dab in the Middle of Maybe, launches this month. Hear more of Jo’s story on July 10 at M. Judson Booksellers. More information can be found at mjudsonbooks.com.