Ruth Franklin On the Enduring Appeal of Shirley Jackson’s Life and Work

Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson, author of "The Lottery"

When you say the name "Shirley Jackson," anyone who passed the eighth grade is bound to immediately think of "The Lottery," her chilling story about a deadly annual ritual in Small Town, USA. But though Jackson’s best-known stories were spine-tinglers, she was a remarkably versatile writer who managed to balance a career with the duties of raising four children, a feat in any era. Ruth Franklin, a contributing editor at the New Republic and the film critic at Salagamundi, is in the midst of writing a biography of Jackson, which will be published by Norton in 2016. We caught up with Franklin between spurts of inspiration to discuss the writing process, biography as a genre, and Jackson herself.

Signature: How did you decide on Shirley Jackson as a subject?

Ruth Franklin: I’ve always loved Jackson’s writing. I remember reading The Haunting of Hill House as a teenager and being absolutely blown away by it. And of course no one can forget "The Lottery." But I confess I hadn’t read much of Jackson’s other work until 2010, when the Library of America brought out a new anthology of her writing with a wide range of her short stories. As I started poking around, I discovered there was a fair amount of archival material that hadn’t been available to Jackson’s first biographer, Judy Oppenheimer. Naturally, that was irresistible.

SIG: Your previous book was criticism of Holocaust fiction. How does writing biography differ?

RF: In just about every way! It’s much closer to journalism, in that it depends almost entirely upon gathering evidence and synthesizing facts from all kinds of sources, mainly letters and other primary documents, as well as my own interviews. That said, criticism will play a major role in my book. I’m deeply interested in the genesis of Jackson’s works, her writing process, the reactions of editors and contemporaneous readers -- all that juicy stuff.

SIG: Shirley Jackson’s work is often thought of as morbid. Does this characterize a majority of her work or only a small portion? Was her personal life marked by tragedy or a tendency towards melancholy?

RF: I wouldn’t say "morbid," exactly. Jackson’s body of work is extremely varied. She wrote six novels in different genres as well as dozens of short stories and a pair of wickedly funny memoirs about her family life, which was full to bursting with pets, children, and her vividly present husband, the literary critic Stanley Edgar Hyman. Their marriage was sometimes difficult, and evidence of that surfaces in Jackson’s fiction. She also struggled with agoraphobia and some fairly serious medical issues. But from what I’ve been told, her demeanor was actually quite cheerful. She certainly seems to have taken deep pleasure in both her writing and her children.

SIG: Is there anything about Jackson as a person or a writer that you relate to?

RF: I only have two children, compared with Jackson’s four, but I absolutely relate to her struggles to reconcile her role as a mother with her professional life. (Of course, that was much harder to do in the 1950s than it is now!) A major part of what draws me to Jackson is the way she negotiates that tension in her work -- sometimes explicitly, sometimes less so.

SIG: Do you have a favorite Jackson story or work?

RF: It’s hard to choose, but for me it has to be The Haunting of Hill House, at once a vivid depiction of psychological breakdown and a perfectly chilling ghost story. Only The Turn of the Screw is anything like it. And Jackson’s prose was at its acme in that book. The opening -- with the famous first line, "No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality" -- will take your breath away.

SIG: You mention in an article on TheNewYorker.com that Jackson told a friend that "The Lottery" was about anti-semitism. Have you found other evidence to corroborate this?

RF: Jackson was asked throughout her life what she had meant by writing "The Lottery," and she said all kinds of things in response. There’s no doubt that she was concerned about anti-Semitism, particularly after marrying Hyman, a Jew from Brooklyn, during an era when casual anti-Semitism was socially acceptable. That said, I’m skeptical that she intended to make such a specific point with the story. The best interpretation, I think, is the most general -- the idea that evil is random and can manifest anywhere, even in apparently cozy surroundings.

SIG: What is your writing routine like?

RF: Alas, I’m not the kind of writer who sits down for a scheduled number of hours every day. It happens mostly in mad bursts.