A Conversation with Janna McMahan, author of Anonymity, Koehler Press, by C. Hope Clark
Janna McMahan delves into the world of youth homelessness in her latest release Anonymity. This literary novel scrapes raw and exposes areas of our society we don’t care to think about, but Janna does it in a way to intrigue and draw in the reader, making him or her care and want to know more. Her previous novel The Ocean Inside was nominated as a SIBA Book of the Year, and her shorts and essays have appeared in numerous literary journals. Anonymity, however, covers a different aspect of human emotion than Janna’s other works, and may be her best work yet.
HOPE: What exactly was the genesis for Anonymity? You show us a side of homelessness beyond the stereotypical mental illness, PTSD or prostitution. These are kids who are homeless for a myriad of reasons, and their plight seems to be a fragile one, surrounded with tough edges. The research for this book had to be intense, so what drove you to delve into the world of homeless youth, particularly in Austin, Texas?.
JANNA: My story begins as Lorelei steps off the bus into the dry heat at the end of a long Texas day. She’s hungry and thirsty. Somebody has stolen her backpack, so here she is in a new town with no money and not even a sleeping bag. She moves through downtown Austin making her way through the happy hour crowd spilling into the streets. She’s looking for youth services, a sure place to find resources and a reprieve from judgment.
She’s young, but streetwise. She’s alone, but not at a loss. She’s cautious, but she knows how to get people to help her. I based her on a girl I’d seen in Austin many years ago, a street kid with dirty white-girl dreads, Doc Martins and facial tattoos. I carried a mental image of this child around with me for nearly two decades before her story came to me. Once I had the idea I had to find out why she was on the streets. What had caused her life on the move? The possibilities were many.
“Readers enjoy stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They want to relate to a character’s psychological imperative. They want a story that moves and moves them at the same time.”
The ultimate challenge as a writer was how to take a topic as troubling as homelessness and turn it into an entertaining, commercially viable story. I had a few editors who kindly rejected my book because it was so gritty and realistic. I believe readers desire socially relevant literature. People want compelling, thoughtful books about who we are today. Readers enjoy stories about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. They want to relate to a character’s psychological imperative. They want a story that moves and moves them at the same time.
A number of people have written to tell me that Anonymity gave them a new perspective on homelessness. I’m pleased if my work can cause a positive shift in public perception about these kids. I’m also thankful that my publisher, Koehler Books, offered to donate a portion of the proceeds to LifeWorks, the Austin youth shelter that helped me with research. I hope we can raise a lot of money for LifeWorks and attract new people to the cause. If only one young person is helped because of this story, if only one adult reaches out when they would have walked on by, then my efforts will have been worthwhile.
HOPE: The reality of children living on the outskirts of society woven throughout was amazing. How did you do your research into the homeless to nail the ecology of the culture?
JANNA: A lot of the details of life on the streets came directly from talking with the kids who live it every day. Details such as the need for gallon water jugs and why backpacks of darker colors are more desirable. I learned how they managed travel and how they made money. The kids were open about their dislike of being interviewed or photographed, but they were interested in telling their side of things if they thought it would be portrayed accurately. Some things were direct translations and others were purely from my imagination, such as the scene where the girls steal tampons. It was a situation I knew a girl would find herself in at least once a month, if she was lucky. I thought of how awful it would be to have cramps and nowhere to sleep and then went from there. It was something I invented, but I know to be everyday reality for homeless girls.
HOPE: Your stories are intensely character driven. I sense a flavor of Jodi Picoult. Have you been compared to Picoult and has she impacted your writing in any way?
JANNA: When my first novel came out in 2008, the Louisville Courier-Journal wrote of Calling Home, “Fans of Jodi Picoult’s work will appreciate this novel’s sparse prose, unexpected plot turns and moral complexities.” So of course I ran right out and bought my first Jodi Picoult book and loved it. I think the comparison is a good one. We both write socially relevant literature with tension-driven plots. It’s fair to say that our style is a blend of commercial and literary fiction. A reader once called me the Southern Jodi Picoult. I’m a big fan of Jodi’s, so any comparison to her I take as the highest of compliments.
HOPE: Your characters, all of them, are flawed yet you lead us to empathize with each and every one. What I loved in Anonymity is that the title seems at first blush to be indicative of Lorelei, but I soon felt that all of the characters felt anonymous in their worlds. Was that your intention?
JANNA: You’re an insightful reader. Yes, that was my intention to some degree. Don’t we all have secret sides we hide from others? Do any of us truly know ourselves that well? Do we know our children or even the person we’ve been married to for decades? People are a mystery. They do the most inexplicable things. What about those serial killers whose neighbors are in shock that evil lived so close? “Why he was just the most quiet and sweet man,” they usually say.
I write each chapter from one character’s point-of-view, which makes it so straightforward to explain their thoughts and feelings and actions. People always have reasons why they do the things they do. We just don’t always understand or appreciate what those reasons are. Writing multiple POVs allows us inside the heads of key players and while we may not agree with their actions at least we understand them.
HOPE: Your work is generally Southern based. Are you a native? Do you call yourself a Southern writer? Did you grow up surrounded by writers or are you the one to strike out and tell stories?
JANNA: I’m from a small farming community in Central Kentucky. I’ve lived in South Carolina for the past 25 years, so I’m about as Southern as you can get. I’ve set books all over the South. I have no need for more material. We have some of the most interesting places, customs and people in the world, so why would I look elsewhere for material?
My first novel was recently translated into Turkish. I learned through that exchange that Europeans consider the South the last pure American culture. You can actually major in Southern American studies at university. I’m talking with someone about another translation, this time into French. It’s such a lovely experience to see my own culture through a fresh perspective.
“That’s why I write—to see if I can make you so entertained you’re sleep deprived.”
HOPE: What is your goal with your stories? In other words, what's your writing mission?
JANNA: Entertainment is my highest goal. I always ask readers, “If you got stuck in the airport and you randomly picked one of my novels to pass the time, would you be inclined to buy another book by me?” If the answer is yes, then I’ve achieved my goal. My stories are family-oriented psychological thrillers. I love it when people say they stayed up until three a.m. to finish or that they read it in a weekend. That’s why I write—to see if I can make you so entertained you’re sleep deprived.
HOPE: I sense a strong woman behind this body of work. Your messages are strong, and I'm sure they are an extension of you. How would you describe yourself, and how would you like your daughter to remember you?
JANNA: I once asked my daughter what she thought about my work and she said, “You write about what’s important even if it’s something people don’t particularly want to think about.” I find that writing about things people are hesitant to talk about tends to develop the best plots. I’ve always told my daughter the truth as I saw it—that life isn’t fair, that bad things happen to good people, that people will do things that make no sense.
I’m a cancer survivor, so I don’t cotton to nonsense. I believe that old adage that life is 5% what happens to you and 95% how you react to it. Believe in yourself. Help other people. Do the right thing. Do what you love, set high goals and then work your butt off. Don’t expect the world to hand you success. You have to make your own success. Just see if you can give a few other people a hand on your way up.
“When I was eleven I volunteered at our local library and that was when I started reading adult literature. I wanted more than anything to see my name on the spine of a book on those humble shelves.”
HOPE: Your degrees are in communication. What or who promoted you to cross into creative fiction and creative nonfiction that isn’t so commercially driven?
JANNA: I’m just a writer. I’ve always have been a writer. I started writing short stories in fifth grade. When I was eleven I volunteered at our local library and that was when I started reading adult literature. I wanted more than anything to see my name on the spine of a book on those humble shelves.
When I went to college I didn’t think of fiction as a career. I didn’t know creative writing programs existed, so I got a Master’s in journalism. I worked in PR and loved it. I enjoy figuring out the angle of a story, interviewing people, the actual writing, working with the media. It’s all the same talent. I spent some time as a television announcer, but I quickly decided that being the one deciding what was important appealed to me more than being on camera. I wanted to shape the stories, not just read them.
HOPE: You've done well with your short stories as well as your novels, having published in journals such as Wind, Limestone, Yamassee and Alimentum. You also enjoy essays. In which writing form do you consider your voice the strongest and which do you prefer?
JANNA: My father once quipped that writing was the perfect profession for me because, “Janna has an opinion on everything.” I’ve scattered a number of essays and articles around the country over the years. My essays tend to either be personal or political. My articles are generally about culture of some sort—visual or literary art usually. My next novel is about culinary art, so I’m hoping to write a number of magazine articles about food in the next few years.
I always write short stories. I can’t help myself. An idea will just jump into my head and I’ll write a story in a weekend. Then I’ll tinker with it for a year sometimes before I’m completely happy. The only way I can stop working on a story is to have it published. Then I can move on. I have a collection of short stories that was recently a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Awards. I wish I could get that published so I could stop agonizing over it.
HOPE: What is your next project?
JANNA: My next book revolves around a chef, his botanist brother and the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina. This one is more of a love story than I usually write, but it also has a crime novel vibe. I’m so impressed with all the people I’ve met while doing research—internationally acclaimed chefs and horticulturists and people who own mills and organic farms. I love all parts of a writing career, but gaining firsthand exposure about a new subject from key players in a particular field is always exciting for me. That’s the journalist in me. I love the beginning stages of a new project when anything can happen.
C. Hope Clark is the author of LowCountry Bribe and lives on the bank of Lake Murray near Chapin, SC.