Interview with author Linda Williams Jackson

As a huge fan of Linda Williams Jackson’s previous middle-grade novels (The Lucky Ones, Midnight without a Moon, A Sky Full of Stars), her latest book, Saving Jimmy, met—and exceeded—my expectations. With a flawed-but-endearing protagonist and a cast of memorable characters, both living and dead, the story won my heart from page one.

But before we chat with Linda, first…

Saving Jimmy: A Summary

Life isn’t easy for 12-year-old Jimmy Lee Easton. People are constantly mistaking her for a boy, and her mama hovers over her like the Secret Service. Her great-aunt Millie constantly hounds her to “get it right with Jesus before it’s everlastingly and eternally too late,” and Jimmy’s not sure whether her best friend really likes her or simply lets her tag along out of pity. But when Jimmy Lee suddenly finds herself facing eternity with a life-or-death choice to make, she questions whether her life on earth was so bad after all.

MR: Welcome back to the Mixed-Up Files, Linda. I’m so glad you could join us again!

LWJ: Thanks, Melissa! It’s always a pleasure!

The Story Behind the Story

MR: As stated above, Saving Jimmy is about a young girl’s journey to the afterlife. What was the inspiration behind the book?

LWJ:  In 2012, I had a friend die from cancer. She was a mother of three. One of her children was in elementary school, and another was in preschool. We prayed diligently that she would be healed from her cancer, and when she wasn’t, I was devastated. I remember having a conversation with her one very cold winter day, and she said that she thought about how much easier it would be to just go outside in the cold and freeze to death rather than keep fighting to live.

Then, right after she seemed to be getting better, she took a turn for the worse. After she died, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she had gotten an early glimpse of an afterlife and chosen that life instead of the one she was living: “What if” people on the brink of life or death get to choose which way to go? And “what if” if they choose the afterlife rather than the current life regardless of how much they know their loved ones will miss them? I know it’s farfetched, but isn’t that what fiction is all about—imagining the “what ifs”?

All About Jimmy Lee

MR: Can you tell us about the protagonist, Jimmy Lee Easton?

LWJ: I love writing (and reading) fiction from the perspective of middle-grade children, so I chose a 12-year-old girl as the storyteller. I also chose to give her a name that was a little offbeat because I have a friend with an offbeat name, and people often get her name wrong. In Jimmy Lee’s case, people assume she’s a boy, which doesn’t really bother her since she is named after her daddy—a fact that she is quite proud of—until she isn’t (no spoilers).

MR: A related question: What drives Jimmy Lee to make the choices she makes?

LWJ: For starters, Jimmy Lee wants so badly to be like her friend Danielle; to have a cool mama who lets her wear makeup, go to movies, and hang out with friends. In general, just be a kid. But she can’t because her mama is ruled by their aunt Millie, a religious zealot. Her mama is also ruled by fear that Jimmy Lee will make the same “mistake” she made and ruin her life. So, in the opening pages, Jimmy Lee is thrilled to finally have the chance to go on a school field trip without her mama tagging along. Of course, things don’t go as smoothly as she hoped, and Jimmy Lee finds herself in a predicament that she has to grapple with throughout the story.

Character Creation

MR: Speaking of Jimmy Lee, at the beginning of the story she’s not particularly likeable; she thinks her classmate A.J. is as ugly as a “twenty-year-old bulldog,” and refers to another classmate as “Poop Boy,” due to his rancid breath. As the novel progresses, though, Jimmy Lee transforms into a kinder, gentler person. How did you accomplish this writerly feat? 

LWJ: What? You didn’t like Jimmy Lee??? Fair enough. I didn’t like Gilly Hopkins either, but I loved the story told about her. Nor did I like Katniss Everdeen, but I read all three of The Hunger Games books. But I digress. About Jimmy Lee…

Hurt people hurt people. Although Jimmy Lee thinks that A. J. looks like a twenty-year-old bulldog, she never actually says it. A. J., on the other hand, doesn’t hold back her contempt for Jimmy Lee, and she insults her figure, which is a bit on the round side. So, Jimmy Lee is only responding to the antagonism directed toward her, and in her thoughts only.

The story of Poop Boy

As for Poop Boy, well, she could have been nicer. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Poop Boy was actually supposed to smell like bacon. One day I left my laptop open while I went to take a break from writing (I don’t usually do that), and my daughter began reading what was on the page and decided to change “bacon” to “poop.” When I saw it, I burst out laughing and said, “I can’t have her say that!” Then I thought, “Why not?” So that’s why Leonard is Poop Boy instead of Bacon Boy. Besides, I doubt someone smelling like bacon would have the same impact on the reader as someone smelling like poop. Sorry!

Going back to the saying, “Hurt people hurt people,” Jimmy Lee is frustrated by the close relationship that her best friend Danielle has with A. J. Plus, A. J. had tricked her. So how did she respond to being hurt? She dished out pain to someone else. This is not a good response, unfortunately, but she does learn her lesson. I am constantly around children of this age group. Some of them wear a permanent frown and are not friendly toward anyone. My first thought about these children is, “Who (or what) is hurting them?”

Imperfect but Lovable

MR: As a follow-up, is there a secret to creating flawed-but-lovable characters?

LWJ: How do you make a flawed character lovable? Why do we like Gilly Hopkins even though she’s meaner than a rattlesnake? Because Gilly Hopkins has been hurt. Why do we like Katniss Everdeen even though she treats her own mom with contempt? Because Katniss has been hurt. A flawed character has to have a reason for the flaws, and that reason is usually that they’ve been hurt by someone close to them, or by society as a whole.

MR: A central character in the book is Aunt Evangeline, Jimmy Lee’s flamboyant, Shakespeare-quoting guide in Paradise. Can you tell us about the significance of this character? What purpose does Aunt Evangeline serve in Jimmy Lee’s journey?

LWJ: Aunt Evangeline is the antithesis of Aunt Millie. Her purpose—besides ushering Jimmy Lee to Eternity—is to show Jimmy Lee that not every woman in her family is a lost cause. Aunt Evangeline had lived a fabulous life—unlike Aunt Millie and Jimmy Lee’s mama, Darlynn—and she gives Jimmy Lee hope that she can have a fabulous life too, if she chooses.

Shakespeare in Love

MR: In addition to Aunt Evangeline’s penchant for quoting Shakespeare, each chapter in the book begins with a Shakespeare quote from such plays as Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, As You Like It, King Lear, and more. What was your thinking behind this? Why Shakespeare? And why these particular plays?

LWJ: The story opens with Jimmy Lee telling the reader how she got her name. The “What’s in a name?” quote suddenly popped in my head as I was writing the chapter, and from there the idea formulated and stuck. After I knew what each chapter would entail, I searched for a Shakespeare quote to match. And, of course, Jimmy Lee’s parents almost have a Romeo and Juliet kind of thing going on. I wasn’t really choosing particular plays. I chose quotes to match the story. I found it interesting that there was a Shakespeare quote to match every situation each chapter presented. It was also a lot of fun, especially when the characters themselves began quoting Shakespeare.

Matters of Life and Death

MR: Let’s talk about the main theme of the book: life versus death. Death is a heavy topic for most adults, and perhaps more so for children. What was your approach when handling the subject with a young audience in mind? Also, what were you trying to say about death? About life?

LWJ: To quote Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life, “You may feel it’s morbid to think about death, but actually it’s unhealthy to live in denial of death and not consider what is inevitable.” I’m not saying you, in particular, Melissa; I’m speaking generally. We don’t like to talk about, nor think about, death. And we are especially shaken when someone dies suddenly. But children seem to be more resilient.

From a very young age I thought about death often. I remember at age five or six when I received the news that my grandfather had died. It didn’t bother me much because he was old, and it seemed natural that old people should die. But when I told my brother (who is two years older than I), he began to cry. I didn’t understand why he cried. To me it felt normal. Papa was old. Papa died. The end.

Live, Laugh, Love

Then a few years later, my neighbor—a young mother in her twenties—died suddenly. I bawled, because that was a death that wasn’t supposed to happen. I was also about the age my brother was when our grandfather died. I now understood death a bit more. But I also come from an environment where people believe strongly in an afterlife, and they claim to have been visited by deceased relatives. So belief in an afterlife feels as natural to me as death. It also feels hopeful. In fact, I have had my own experiences with deceased loved ones, which definitely gives me hope that life goes on and that what’s on the other side of death is a beautiful place. I want readers of Saving Jimmy to have that same hope. But I also want readers to take responsibility for their own happiness while living. Live, laugh, and love!

Indie Inspiration

MR: Turning our attention to the publishing side of things, unlike your previous MG novels, Saving Jimmy was published independently. What was the impetus behind going indie?

LWJ: Saving Jimmy is not my first self-published novel. I got into the self-publishing game twenty-two years ago, so I already knew the ups and downs of going that route. The choice to self-publish Saving Jimmy was for multiple reasons. One, I honestly wanted to create a book from start to finish—writing, formatting, and publishing it myself (minus printing and distribution, of course). Two, I was between literary agents, so I felt like I had the freedom to try something different after having been traditionally published for nearly seven years. I considered my completed manuscripts and chose this one because I felt like it didn’t fit neatly into a kidlit publishing box.

Surprisingly, I’ve been getting feedback from readers who, even though they own my other books, have never read them—and yet here they are, having conversations with me about this one. Also, I did it to supplement my meager author income. It’s my side gig, so to speak. 😊

MR: As a follow-up, what advice would you give to authors—established and newbies alike—who are thinking about going indie? What did you do right? And what do you wish you had done differently?

LWJ: To go indie, you need a thick skin. Since you will have to do your own marketing and publicity, you will have to be a shameless self-promoter. You’ll have to knock on doors and ask for reviews and support. Also, some of the doors that were open to you as a traditionally published author will be closed to you as a self-published author. To that I say, “Grin and bear it.” That’s just how the ball bounces. But there are still a few doors open to self-publishers. Walk through those doors instead of lamenting the ones that are closed. If you plan to go indie, go indie proudly or you won’t have the guts to promote your book.

It’s All in the Research

As far as doing it right or “wrong,” I say do your research and find indie authors (like Darcy Pattison) who are blogging about it and take their advice. I jumped back into the waters after more than twenty years, so I might not be the best person to take advice from. 😊

MR: What are you working on now, Linda? Enquiring Mixed-Up Files readers want to know!

LWJ: I don’t want to jinx myself, so I’ll keep quiet about that for now. Whenever I speak publicly about what I’m currently working on, I always seem to switch gears and work on something else. ☹

Lightning Round!

MR: No MUF interview is complete without a lightning round, so…

Coffee or tea?

Coffee, but occasionally tea

Heaven or Earth?

Heaven, when it’s time 😊

Zombie apocalypse: Yea or nay?

Yea. Haven’t you noticed? We’re already in it.


X-ray vision. I can see right through most people. 😊

Favorite place on earth?

My house.

If you were stranded on a desert island with only three things, what would they be?

A magic coffee maker, an endless supply of coffee, and a cup

MR: Thank you for chatting with us, Linda—and congratulations on the publication of Saving Jimmy. I absolutely loved it, and I know MUF readers will too!

LWJ: You’re welcome, Melissa! And thank you for reading Saving Jimmy!

Bio: Linda Williams Jackson

Linda Williams Jackson is the author of award-winning middle grade novels centered around some of Mississippi’s most important historical moments. Her first book, Midnight Without a Moon, which is centered around the Emmett Till murder, was an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, a Jane Addams Honor Book for Peace and Social Justice, and a Washington Post Summer Book Club Selection. Her second book, A Sky Full of Stars, the sequel to Midnight Without a Moon, received a Malka Penn Honor for an outstanding children’s book addressing human rights issues and was a Bank Street College Best Book of the Year.

Linda’s most recent novel, The Lucky Ones, was inspired by Robert Kennedy’s 1967 Poverty Tour of the Mississippi Delta and is loosely based on her own family’s experiences. The Lucky Ones was recently recognized by Good Housekeeping magazine as one of the best 50 kids’ books of all time. Additional accolades for The Lucky Ones include Mississippi Institute of Arts & Letters Youth Book Award Winner, Foreword Reviews Indies Award Winner, New-York Historical Society Children’s History Book Prize Finalist, Common Sense Media’s Best Six Kids’ Books of 2022, Week Junior Magazine Best Seven Kids’ Books of 2022, Cooperative Children’s Book Center Best Books of the Year, and a Bank Street College Best Books of the Year. Linda Williams Jackson is proud to still call Mississippi home. To connect with her online, visit her website at

(For more on Linda Williams Jackson, check out my previous Mixed-Up Files interview here.)

Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for Just Seventeen magazine. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman). Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on  TwitterFacebook, and Instagram.

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Melissa Roske
Melissa Roske is a writer of middle-grade fiction. Before spending her days with imaginary people, she interviewed real ones as a journalist in Europe. In London she landed a job as an advice columnist for J17 magazine, where she answered hundreds of letters from readers each week. Upon returning to her native New York, Melissa contributed to several books and magazines, selected jokes for Reader’s Digest (just the funny ones), and received certification as a life coach from NYU. In addition to her debut novel Kat Greene Comes Clean (Charlesbridge), Melissa’s short story “Grandma Merle’s Last Wish” appears in the Jewish middle-grade anthology, Coming of Age: 13 B’Nai Mitzvah Stories (Albert Whitman & Company). Melissa lives in Manhattan with her husband, daughter, and the occasional dust bunny. Learn more about Melissa on her Website and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.