“Somebody once gave me a T-shirt that said, Be careful. You might end up in my novel,” writer Joan Lindstedt Jackson laughs. Judging from her brand-new novel Just in Time, that’d be less a threat than an honor. The novel is a deeply affecting chronicle of mental illness that’s both inexplicably funny and heartbreakingly true. Jackson’s writing is all at once delicate, barbed and beautiful—a style that lends itself perfectly to the story of Steve, a former college track star struggling with schizophrenia in adulthood. And while it’s a work of fiction, Jackson has clearly tapped into the first-hand experience of growing up with her similarly afflicted brother. She visits him a few weeks out of the year in their hometown of Silver Lake, Ohio, though the novel isn’t merely a thinly disguised account of their relationship. In fact, she’s gone out of her way to challenge herself as a writer as much as what the reader expects. “It’s challenging in that I fabricate and fictionalize a lot of what’s happened, but I really don’t see myself as wanting to write a memoir,” she notes. “There are the facts of my brother’s illness but that’s all I’m restricted to. [Writing] the book was more about me understanding—really deeply understanding—what daily life is for him.”
As the L.A.-based Jackson describes it, the genesis of her novel (her second) came together fairly organically. In fact, she even knew the title before she put any words to screen. “Throughout my years of visiting [my brother], heal ways asked me, ‘How come you always get here just in time?’” she says, practically smiling through the phone as she recounts it. In the novel, Jackson doesn’t paint herself as heroic, though she manages to color Steve’s life—and everyone in it—with achingly honest brushstrokes. In turn, Just in Time becomes precise, thoughtful and bracingly authentic. It’s impossible to not draw comparisons between the book’s characters and their real-life counterparts, though the differences reveal just how much artistry Jackson put into it all. For every liberty she takes with Steve’s story (there’s a sister-in-law, yes, but the novel’s version is markedly different), Jackson expertly weaves in dozens of actual details from life.
Interestingly, while the novel doesn’t particularly set out to be a meditation on parenthood and addiction, Just in Time unflinchingly captures the difficulty of raising a child struggling with substance abuse. Even Jackson seems surprised by including her son’s real-life struggles, let alone just how effective their inclusion ends up being. “I didn’t plan on putting it in this book,” she admits, noting that her mother felt the same “despair” toward Steve as Jackson did with her own son. “[Dealing with addiction] is a learning curve and many people don’t know what it’s like to live with it,” she says. “My son has been clean and sober for 18 years, which is a miracle.” Still, she’s comfortable plunging the reader right in the center of the struggle. As she calls it in the novel, the book details “a series of yets,” wherein there’s a calm before the inevitable insanity of detox. Also, that Jackson’s son is only a subplot is remarkable, given how indelible his problems are. It also shows just how effortlessly commanding her writing is.
Still, the novel gains its most strength by focusing on Steve, as Jackson almost lovingly comments on his eccentricities and insecurities. “My brother is still living alone [in Ohio],” she says. “It’s been 15 years that he’s been living by himself. It’s a rarity. In fact, it’s staggering.” Without ruining the novel, that’s precisely where Jackson knew she wanted to bring the book’s ending, too. “If he wasn’t managing as well as he does, I don’t know if I’d write about him,” she says, which is a testament to her brother’s own strength of character—and of being a character. Regardless, mental illness itself almost plays as much a role throughout the novel as anyone or anything else, causing others to collide, to argue, and to reconcile their own places in life. That said, Just in Time brings everything together in such a way that it celebrates the beauty of imperfection. Nothing fits neatly together and nothing is ever certain, Jackson argues, but the friction between broken places and people gives rise to the one thing she believes in the most: hope.