Author: Joe Jackson


by Janine Latus
photography by Stephen Katz 

Joe Jackson picks through canyons of books, stacking and restacking. Literature over here, true crime there, history and science and religion and popular culture all in their own piles. He and his wife, Kathy, have added a library onto the back of their house – floor-to-ceiling shelves with one of those cool rolling ladders – and now it’s time to organize the books.

This is how Joe Jackson writes, too, picking through details, putting them in order, moving this here and that there and then moving it all back. Jackson, 57, is a former reporter for The Virginian-Pilot who persevered in spite of the naysayers intent on telling him and any other writer wannabe that there was no way he could support himself as a writer. Instead he has written seven books and is in the midst of an eighth, each of which has taken him on huge intellectual and sometimes physical adventures.

He’s come within one false step of death in the Amazon, watched tanks speed toward him in Lithuania, and flown in a crop duster over the bays of the Eastern Shore to be able to better describe what it was like when Lindbergh and his competitors raced across the Atlantic.

Joe Jackson cracked into mainstream publishing from Virginia Beach and now supports himself as a writer.
Jonathan Galassi, one of his editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, says, “He writes with tremendous art and naturalness.”

He’s written about the men whose quest for an understanding of oxygen ruined their lives, and of the clumsy daring and perfidy of the Englishman who stole 70,000 rubber tree seeds from the Amazon, forever changing the rubber trade. He’s written about delirious shipwrecked men eating shoe leather to survive 43 days in a single lifeboat in 1866, and of the struggles and near-starvation of the only man ever to escape Leavenworth and survive.

“Joe has done what so many dream of – made a career of writing serious books for major publishers – while living here in Tidewater, not in a literary center like New York or London,” says Kathy. “So many people are told that they can’t support themselves doing what they love and are good at that they give up, but Joe, through sheer determination, disproved it.”

Each book has required him to organize mountains of material, so facing down these stacks of books should be easy, but it’s not.

Literature alone takes up one long wall, a foot-wide, eye-level section dedicated to works by the Jackson family – Joe’s books and their translations – Dutch, South Korean, German, and Brazilian Portuguese, plus the Queen’s English – next to Kathy’s books, next to portfolios of art by their son, Nick. He alphabetizes the literary works, stacking A’s with A’s and B’s with B’s, then alphabetizing within each letter and then climbing up and down that ladder, aligning each book just so.

A shorter wall is all religion – Bibles and Korans and analyses of each and their roles in history. The long wall of his office is given over to reference, science and history, organized not by alphabet but by chronology or discipline. Kathy is a professor of popular culture and film and communications at Virginia Wesleyan College, so the books in her office are all about film. The bedroom shelves bulge with just plain fun reading, like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Track of the Cat, which are two of the “absolute creepiest books” Joe has ever read.

“Two of my goals in life,” he quips, “are to write a novel as absolutely chilling as either one of those, and to be a shambling extra in a zombie movie.”

Nick’s room has the art and art history and “weird graphic novels,” to quote his dad, and the walls and half the ceiling are covered with his own and others’ art.

“It’s like being inside his head in there,” Joe says.

Joe Jackson’s own head is a constantly churning factory of ideas, a place of intense curiosity, of mysteries discovered and solved. His father was a mathematician with NASA, so he spent his first 10 years in Alabama before moving to Florida.

“I don’t remember years, I remember space programs,” he says, “so I was in Huntsville all of Mercury and half of Gemini, then in Cocoa Beach the other half of Gemini and all of Apollo.”

In college he majored in English and psychology, and if he’d known the job existed he might have become a psychological profiler. Instead he became an
author, exploring the mysteries of what makes people tick.

He co-wrote his first book, Dead Run: The Untold Story of Dennis Stockton and America’s Only Mass Escape from Death Row, with his editor then, Bill Burke.

It sprang from a two-year investigation they had done during Jackson’s 12 years covering cops and courts at The Pilot.  He got to know the protagonist, Dennis Stockton, through a glass wall, his voice scratchy through the cheap phone of the prison at Mecklenburg. The book got rejected and they sent it back out. It got rejected again and they sent it out again, and then again. One day, though, they got the call. It would be published by Times Books, with an introduction by William Styron.

“That’s what happens when you’re starting out,” Jackson says. “You’re unlucky a million times and then finally it happens.”

The key might be in re-trying a million times.

“The thing I’ve always admired about Joe, besides his elegant use of the language, is his willingness to go where the story is,” says Earl Swift, himself a former Pilot reporter and author of four books. “He’s persistent and tenacious. Back when he was a reporter at the paper I think he drove some city officials completely nuts with his tenacity, which is what makes him such a top notch reporter and now a top notch author. He really reports the hell out of everything.”

He also writes the hell out of it. Here’s an excerpt from the opening of his second book, Leavenworth Train (Carroll & Graf), about the only man to escape Leavenworth and survive.

The prison riding on the sea of lovegrass was built to transform men. Legions of prisoners swarmed about its unfinished base like ants; it rose from the prairie soil like a stone island. For its planners, it was the stuff of dreams. For the prisoners, it formed the core of nightmares.

As a kid Jackson read Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe. He is comfortable with the macabre,
describing the men’s cages, the chains and the shackle called the Oregon boot that tore some prisoners’ bones from their sockets. He writes of other escapees freezing on the Kansas plain, and of his protagonist, Frank Grigware, hiding in a hole in the ground for days, until he was finally fed and warmed by a woman homesteader, alone on the plain in the winter of 1909.

All of his books are studies in psychology at the outer edge of normal.

Each requires travel and interviewing and searching through archives for the tiniest scrap of a clue about a life, an era. For his book The Thief at the End of the World (Viking), Time magazine’s No. 2 pick for the best nonfiction books of 2008, he traveled deep in the Amazon, gathering the details of the jungle and of the rubber trade. One day he headed down a path, looking for a house where three famous Victorian botanists had spent time. He left behind his guide, his water and his hat, and thus became light-headed in the suffocating heat. He found the house, though, and after his companions had joined him he moved closer, camera shutter clicking.

“I was looking at this old house through my viewfinder at what looked like
giant spots of mold on the old adobe,” he says. “They seemed to move and I thought, ‘Oh, I must still be a little bit woozy.’ I was on the first steps of the house and I looked up from the viewfinder, and all of the sudden all these wasps rose up around me – I could see one just staring at me – and I realized that the house was a giant nest and the moving spots of mold were actually hundreds of wasps, and if I had gotten inside there would have been thousands.” He laughs. “How embarrassing if I had died in the Amazon because I was stung to death by wasps.”

Jackson came home exhausted but with mounds of material. For a year he did research, spreading books and papers across the dining room table, scribbling in the margins, drawing arrows where this will follow that. He does it for all of his books.

“When I’m writing the first draft,” he says, “it’s like I’m pulling it out of the side of my head.”

He wrote most of his most recent book, Atlantic Fever: Lindbergh, His
Competitors, and the Race to Cross the Atlantic
(FSG), by hand on the backs of used paper, revising it the next morning as he typed it into the computer. It’s in the revision that he gets to really play with the words, to shape them into beautiful sentences, to create images in readers’ minds.

“That’s really the fun part, the literary moment there, when I can get into the words,” he says, “but just getting it down in the first place is really hard.”

The idea for this book came to him in 2008, during the presidential elections and summer Olympics, when there was constant talk about whether our country is the most competitive culture on Earth. The debate made him think about the most famous races of the 20th century, and that brought him up against Lindbergh.

“Everybody had written about Lindbergh and I thought, ‘What about the losers?’ and then I started thinking about celebrity, which got me thinking about the way we kind of construct celebrity within our culture.”

He made readers care – even though they knew the outcome of the race – by focusing on the characters. The losers risked their lives just like Lindbergh had on an unreliable technology. They had the charisma to raise money and to get the media’s attention, but they made mistakes, and Lindbergh succeeded because he paid attention.

“In the American myth of success, the winner rises from obscurity and prevails,” Jackson has written. “In reality, he climbs over the bodies of those who preceded him. If he doesn’t pay heed to their lessons, the next guy will climb over him.”

The book was acquired by the president of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Jonathan Galassi, considered to be one of the top editors in the industry.

“I was very taken with his last book and I was delighted by the idea for this one,” Galassi says. “It deepened our understanding of aviation in a really fun way.”

Jackson sets tight deadlines for himself so he doesn’t wander off and empty the dishwasher or change the laundry load. He does his real writing in the afternoon, when he’s sharpest and the house is empty, and his rewriting, organizing, emailing and phone calling in the morning.

His book A World on Fire: A Heretic, an Aristocrat, and the Race to Discover Oxygen (Viking) is thick with science and history, but also poetry and literature. He writes:


Symbol of nothing, symbol of everything, a circle encompassing all. In logic, a negative stance; in alchemy, the Worm Ouroboros, mystic symbol of the world. In serology, the most common blood type, defined by what it lacks: the agglutinogen A or B. The shape of the lips and sound of the voice in moments of awe or sadness. “Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem,” declaimed the psalmist. “O, for the touch of a vanished hand,” lamented Tennyson.

He writes like that but in talking you’d never find out he is an author.

“He is the least self-absorbed, egotistical, great talent I know,” says Swift. “It’s just so nice that he’s got an outsized talent and an undersized ego.”

Jackson is now working on a book about Black Elk, a Lakota holy man who had a vision when he was 9 that he was to save his people and who spent his entire life trying to figure out how. The working title – The Sacred Tree is Dead – comes from the book Black Elk Speaks. Jackson’s deadline is May 2014; the book will likely be released in 2015.

“I find really interesting his trying one thing, not giving up and going from one thing to another,” Jackson says. “He was always on this quest, and when he came against a shut door he tried something else.”

Jackson just finished collaborating on a history of blacks in Norfolk and is now working on one with a Scottish photographer. Called Megalomania,  it’s a blend of photos and words about seven or eight architectural examples of the concept, starting with Henry Ford’s South American rubber plantation, which he named Fordlandia.

“Joe pivots from one subject to another with admirable ease,” says Galassi, the editor at FSG. “He can dive into a subject and just
immerse himself and make it his own, and he writes with tremendous art and naturalness.”

Jackson often says he wants to write a hundred books. For each he will no doubt over-report and over-write, going off on little riffs, side essays that detail the history of an event or the science behind a discovery, that he then has to painfully cut back.

“Sometimes I go off on one of those tangents that I find kind of interesting,” he says, “but if it slows down the story I have to get rid of it. There are a lot more tangents originally than what you see in the final product.”

Indeed, for Atlantic Fever he cut between 50 and 75 carefully researched and artfully written pages. On any of his books, by the time he’s turned in the last footnotes, the last pages of the index, he’s exhausted.

“I always go into a coma for a week, maybe two weeks after a book’s done,”
he says, “but I’m always looking for the next one.

“That’s what makes life interesting.”


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