On writing

A.M. Homes on Shirley Jackson

Women’s Prize for Fiction 2013 winner A.M. Homes introduces one of her favourite authors – Shirley Jackson – and her acclaimed novels The Lottery and We Have Always Lived in the Castle

'Jackson is not an easy writer, her work can be discomfiting but she is also funny, smart and remains all these years later still ahead of the rest of us.' 

I want to introduce you to the work of Shirley Jackson, whose novels and short stories transformed my life as both a reader and writer.

The story you have before you, The Lottery, is so much an icon of American 20th century fiction, that one could argue this masterpiece from 1948 has embedded itself directly into our collective unconscious.

I remember first coming upon this story as a young girl and being terrified by it and at the same time in awe of how normal it seemed – at first. The Lottery starts off innocently enough, 

"The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green."

From this seemingly wholesome beginning the reader descends into what is simultaneously a fascinating exploration of the banality of everyday life and the inexorable strange darkness which lurks just underneath, together forming the true psychopathology of every day life. Shirley Jackson brilliantly illuminates both who we want to be seen as and who we really are – it’s that sharpness of vision that makes her so unnerving.

Shirley Jackson brilliantly illuminates both who we want to be seen as and who we really are – it’s that sharpness of vision that makes her so unnerving.

Shirley Jackson’s writing reminds me of English writers such as Iris Murdoch and Angela Carter who manage to probe politics, the psyche and contemporary culture brilliantly, all the while escaping common preconceptions of both gender and genre.

Jackson’s novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, is a magical, almost gothic family romance, populated by characters reminiscent of other American girl heroines namely, Scout Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Frankie Adams in Carson McCullers' The Member of The Wedding.

Each of these stories features a singularly strong girl – a kind of a tomboy – on the cusp of adulthood struggling with her estrangement from the rest of the world, painfully self-conscious and simultaneously and unrepentantly herself.

Jackson is not an easy writer, her work can be discomfiting but she is also funny, smart and remains all these years later still ahead of the rest of us. When thinking of Jackson’s style and her great gifts for creating characters and rich stories – I feel as though the literary world has spun in a circle and we’re finding ourselves again in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s when there was a rise in science fiction, horror and dystopian narrative much like we’re seeing today.

It is now the early part of the 21st century and we’re celebrating our love of the story across multiple platforms in books, e-books, video games and movies. It is in this world that I wish to introduce you to the work of one of the writers who continues to transform the meaning of reading and writing for me – Shirley Jackson.

A.M. Homes

Related articles

.