How does a London-based novelist concoct a convincing story set in the United States? Some might splurge for a temporary relocation in the name of research, but Holly Jackson opts for a virtual visit via Google Maps. Navigating from street views to real estate listings — and even, eventually, to electoral records — she’ll piece together a universe for her characters.
“I spend so much time clicking around a certain town or a certain stretch of road, becoming the expert, I know that place like the back of my hand,” Jackson said in a phone interview.
The approach appears to be working: Her most recent book, “Five Survive,” just spent 55 weeks on the young adult hardcover list. For this tale of a road trip gone awry, Jackson selected a secluded byway in North Carolina. Halfway between Philadelphia and Gulf Shores, Ala., the road is wide enough to accommodate a recreational vehicle and remote enough not to have cell service. Add college students, subtract air from tires via gunshot and you have the makings of a disaster scenario. As one Amazon reviewer put it, “Intensity builds to the extreme!”
Jackson’s next novel, “The Reappearance of Rachel Price,” takes place in Gorham, N.H. “This was slightly more personal since I have family who are from Randolph, which is an even smaller town next door. But it was so small it didn’t have some of the stuff I needed,” Jackson said. She scouted the nearest McDonald’s on Google Maps, studied up on local speech patterns and even selected a home for her characters, who land on bookshelves in April.
Jackson said, “Some poor family that live in Gorham are probably going to recognize their house.” Yes, she has taken the virtual tour; no, she will not reveal the name of the street.
Jackson claimed that her penchant for prowling is a form of procrastination — but it’s also a helpful way of situating herself in a new project. “I like to joke that I’m a screenwriter trapped in the body of a novelist,” she said. “I’m very visual. I need to be able to run the entire story, kind of like a movie in my head, before I put it down on paper.”
In real life, Jackson has been to a handful of states, including Florida, California, New York and New Jersey. “In the next few years, I think I’m going to be coming to the States a bit more for work,” she said. “I’m excited to see the parts you don’t necessarily go to if you’re just there to be a tourist.”
Elisabeth Egan is an editor at the Book Review and the author of “A Window Opens.”