J. Nicole Jones, LOW COUNTRY

J. Nicole Jones, LOW COUNTRY

“I started writing just to remember her stories and her voice in this world that doesn’t exist anymore.” Zibby is joined by fellow memoir enthusiast J. Nicole Jones to discuss her upcoming memoir, Low Country, and the family secrets that it reveals. Nicole tells Zibby about the process of rewriting her grandmother’s stories after her first draft was stolen, how her South Carolina hometown became its own character, and what it’s like to hear your life told through your father’s songs.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Nicole. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Low Country, technically by J. Nicole Jones, but we’re calling you Nicole.

J. Nicole Jones: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here. I love your podcast.

Zibby: I’m so glad. Thanks for listening. Low Country: A Southern Memoir, can you please tell listeners what your book is about? What inspired you to write a memoir to begin with?

Nicole: My book is about my life growing up in South Carolina, but I feel like my family is more the main character, and the place itself and the history. I have always loved memoirs and reading anything. I heard you call yourself a memoir addict with Cheryl Strayed and another of yours. I was like, me too, that’s me. I think we often tend to read a lot of what maybe we are thinking about, always turning it into something bigger or little stories. I grew up surrounded by people telling stories all the time. My dad is a songwriter and often was turning anything in our day into songs and then trying to make bigger stories into something memorable. South Carolina itself has such an interesting and rich and often dark history. I felt like a lot of things that you know are around always, especially in the land and the history of the land, you learn about it, and they’re not talked about. There’s a lot of hidden violence around all the time down there, is how it felt to me growing up. Especially in my family, I saw my grandfather be violent with my grandmother. I was always sorting out what was okay to talk about and what was not okay to talk about. Then you get older and you think, what was actually happening? Why shouldn’t I have been talking about that? That’s what we need to be talking about. Reading lots of memoirs and essays, and novels of course too, you just start to organize things in your head and say, yes, that’s what was happening here. No, no, something else is going on with that. I just started putting my own stories together having grown up in that framework of connection.

Zibby: Awesome. There was a scene in the book where you’re listening to a song on the radio with your dad. Then you have a fast-forward years ahead when your dad has now written a song performed by the son of the artist who you had been listening to. I’m not telling the story — you did it beautifully in a sentence. I just messed it up. In the book, we go along the journey of your dad trying to make it over and over. Then you give us this little sneak peek into the fact that he does sell a song and it is — tell me a little bit about that part and even the effect on you of watching your dad’s repeated trips to Memphis and trying to make it and going along with the success when it eventually comes. Tell me a little more about that if you don’t mind.

Nicole: Music was always, country music — he’s a country music singer and songwriter — always around. The radio was always on. He had turned our garage when I was growing up into a makeshift recording studio. This is Elvis. This is Hank Williams and George Jones. Those were very much in our vocabulary growing up as kids. When you’re not in charge of the radio, you just have to listen to what’s on. We grew up on the coast of South Carolina in Myrtle Beach, which is where he grew up. He would take periodic trips to Nashville, Tennessee, which is a long way away, and would try —

Zibby: — I knew it wasn’t Memphis. Did I say Memphis? I knew it wasn’t Memphis. I’m sorry. Okay, Nashville. Sorry.

Nicole: — try and sell songs to music houses. Back then, you made demo cassettes and left them in baskets on music row. All the publishing houses were in these old houses. That’s not how they do it anymore. He was a bartender often in the evening and waited tables in the morning sometimes. In the daytime, he was home with us a lot and would write. He’d be working on a turn of phrase or something on his guitar and would be, “Listen to this. Which do you like better? Bring me the rhyming dictionary or the thesaurus.” It’s a big moment to realize that someone that you’ve really idolized or someone who was a big deal — he was a big deal in country music. Not to give too much away, but he goes to Nashville repeatedly and ends up there when I’m an adult and makes it and sells a song to Hank Williams Jr. That ends up on the radio. We have a relationship that’s sort of on and off in the book. It’s very interesting to hear tidbits of your life in songs. I know that you’re supposed to be singing about my mom right now. I remember when that happened. That’s the truck in that verse. It’s kind of funny, very surreal.

Zibby: It’s so neat. I’ve never spoken to anyone who that’s happened to before. That’s very neat. Unique experience. You introduce us to you in the book and explain how you had been in Myrtle Beach. Then you end up at this more prestigious prep school, and so your life takes on a different trajectory than a lot of your original classmates, some of whom have ended up in prison or who are still in Myrtle Beach and all the rest. Tell me a little bit about that fork in the road and how your life veered towards a different direction when you moved to Charlotte.

Nicole: You know about my whole life. We moved from Myrtle Beach to Charlotte when I was starting high school. I decided that I wanted to unilaterally go to a college prep school and from my middle school in Myrtle Beach, wrote and asked for all these applications and materials and things. Then I actually started to get in. It was one of those double-edged things. I was very excited and very, very, very lucky and of immense privilege to be able to do that. I was surrounded by books. I had wonderful teachers who gave us — I was very aware that in South Carolina I was starting to feel like I was not being taught things that I wanted to be aware of. I was aware that there was more that I wanted to know. I was very lucky to be able to go to a fancy school that gave long, long I feel like I don’t belong here, kind of a first experience of, I sound different. I think I look different. My clothes are different. There was a lot of catching up to do. I think that was my first real introduction to class differences that as a kid you don’t realize are there. I was just like, I’m going to read with people who love books too. Then there’s a lot of, we don’t wear overalls here. Your accent is thicker than ours.

Zibby: Interesting. Tell me a little more about what the writing process did for you, especially, as you describe it, with going through some of the secrets in your family’s, I want to say treasure chest, but that’s the wrong analogy. The things you keep under wraps that you explore in the book and what it felt like to write about it and to get it out there into the world now.

Nicole: It’s something that I’ve been writing for sort of my whole life just listening to people tell stories. Especially, the women in my life tell stories, my grandmother in particular. I was always writing down things that she was saying or stories that I couldn’t believe it happened to her. At one point, she decides to leave my violent grandfather. She gets as far as a few hours away. She gets stopped for no reason in her car. A police officer tells her she’s going home and follows her all the way back to her house. Just things like that that you hear and you think, how can that happen? I just started, at some point, writing things like that down. I actually wrote a whole draft of this book and had it stolen from my car a couple of years ago.

Zibby: What?

Nicole: I know. I went to an Ikea for twenty minutes, and our car was broken into when we got back. My computer and my legal pads and notebooks were all gone. I kind of stopped writing for a few months.

Zibby: You didn’t have a backup or a copy? Nothing?

Nicole: No.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Did that break your heart? How did you handle that?

Nicole: Back up your work, folks. It’s not a drill. It was devastating. I stopped writing for months. I felt like I was really, really close, and then had nothing. Then my grandmother died kind of suddenly. I just found myself writing and writing and writing. It was like, I need to get her voice down. I need to get these things down that I remember. I had little snippets. I had things that I had written in grad school. Some were in my Gmail. Some were not. It was a lot of piecing together very, very old things and starting over from there. I thought I would let the book go for a long time. Then I lost her and just really needed to hear her voice again. I started writing just to remember her stories and her voice in this world that doesn’t exist anymore. I think that was the real turning point in thinking that this book is going to be how it is now and I need to actually get it out there and save everything in the cloud and backup hard drive, all of that.

Zibby: Wow. I guess in a way, getting the chance to rewrite history, literally, can be a bonus. You could experiment with the material and then remember what you really want to include. I don’t know. It’s a tough love writing exercise or something.

Nicole: I don’t recommend it. I think it really helped me to figure out why I was telling the story. I grew up with these fantastical tales that felt very close to me. My family has a lot of interesting, weird, unusual experiences. Then growing up in South Carolina, you are surrounded by, this is where this pirate landed. History feels very near but also very hushed up sometimes. You’re not sure what is real sometimes and what is just a story and what part of a story might have been real and what might have been kind of made up or altered just through people telling things over and over again. I had always been writing those down because it was interesting to me and fun for me as a reader to think of those things. Then when I had to start over, it really was, like you said, I’m choosing to rewrite some of this history. I felt really focused on why I was writing.

Zibby: I guess that’s one piece of advice. Well, back up, but sort through the material of your life. Figure out what gets through the strainer, twice if you will. Tell me about your publication journey. How did this sell? What was that like for you?

Nicole: It took a while. It took a while to find the right agent. Once I had a draft that I had rewritten and felt more strongly about, I just had this need to get it out there, to share and have people telling me what needs fixing. I started sending it out. I got such wonderful notes from agents who didn’t feel it was right for them to take on. I can’t say enough nice things about how kind and generous people that you don’t know, that you’re just cold-emailing, were with me and this book. It took me about a year and half to find the right agent. That’s really hard even if you’re getting nice, kind words from back people who don’t have to send you anything at all. My agent and I went through — she’s very hands-on and wonderful — and did an edit and sent that out. I ended up with Catapult and my editor, Megha Majumdar, who is herself a star novelist too. I, again, can’t say enough nice things about Catapult and Megha and just how generous people have been in the publishing world. It’s been lots and lots of really kind people who like books and have been so helpful. It felt like it was taking a long time when you’re in it and you’re like, I want this to happen. If I could go back in time, that would be something I would tell myself as a grad student writing a thesis that was sort of this. I would say that it takes the time that it takes. I’m really happy that I didn’t sell something right out of school. With memoir in particular, I think time might be better to really get that perspective. People talk a lot about the double perspective with memoir. You talk about what’s happening and then reflect on what it means or why or the consequences. There’s so many more. There’s so many meanings. It’s more than just two. I’m very, very glad that the book took the journey that it did to publication.

Zibby: You mentioned how much you love reading memoir. Are there one or two or three that you have as your favorite memoirs or that you’re reading or just something that stuck with you?

Nicole: Oh, my gosh, there’s so many. I could just list and list. From the past year, The Dragons, the Giant, the Women, the Wayétu Moore book, is just, wow. Wandering in Strange Lands I read thinking about my book and the history, just beautiful. Justin Taylor had a memoir last year called Riding with the Ghost that was just wonderful. In terms of favorites, I read The Woman Warrior, the Maxine Hong Kingston one, a lot. I give it a lot as a gift. I hand that out a lot. Cheryl Strayed is such a classic. So, so many. My Father and Myself, the J.R. Ackerley book, the New York Review of Classics put that out about a decade ago. That’s wonderful. So many.

Zibby: Excellent. Awesome. Any parting advice for aspiring authors? I know you’ve already included a bunch.

Nicole: Keep going. Really, just keep going. Sometimes it’s the time in your life to have a day job and to just take care of yourself. Just know that it’s always there. Carve out that twenty minutes in the morning, or don’t. If you need to take more time and really come back to something in a more focused period, then that’s fine too. I think every book takes the right journey that it’s supposed to have to where it ends up. Don’t give up. Also, back up your work.

Zibby: Number-one lesson.

Nicole: What about you? Do you have memoirs that you’ve been reading that have really stayed with you lately?

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so many. I always reference Dani Shapiro because I love her as one of the best memoirists. I just love how she writes. I hate to even pick. I know that’s a cop-out of an answer. I am actually reading now, this other book because I’m about to interview her. It’s called You’re Leaving When?: Adventures in Downward Mobility by Annabelle Gurwitch. It’s hilarious, although also sad. Right now, I’m just in the mood for some funny stuff as well. I like to mix sad and deep and emotional with some lighter. I just appreciate a sense of humor as well. It’s a funny look at a sad situation, is how I would say it. I’ve been reading her books for a long time. I was excited that she had a new one coming out. I’d say that. Anyway, thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you. I’m excited for your publication journey with Low Country to come to the finish line where it actually starts over with a new journey. Congratulations.

Nicole: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I’ve been listening to you a lot in the pandemic. I feel like you’ve been in the zone already here with me, so thank you.

Zibby: I’m glad I could accompany you. It’s my pleasure.

Nicole: Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care, Nicole. Buh-bye.

J. Nicole Jones, LOW COUNTRY

Low Country by J. Nicole Jones

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