Interview with Jo-Ann Costa, author of The Bequest of Big Daddy

Publisher: Koehler Books

Publication Date: April 1, 2013

Order Links:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: Ratio Janson is the crusty patriarch with an infamous background and a hair-trigger temper, reverently referred to as Big Daddy by his family clan. His feisty great-granddaughter, Jo-Dee, overhears shocking gossip at Big Daddy's funeral and is determined to plumb his murky past, spanning the Civil War, Reconstruction and forging head-on into the twentieth century.

From a vast turpentine industry to the ruins of a decaying plantation with its feudal order a memory, Jo-Dee explores the complex nature of family and self, only to make a startling discovery. Will she betray her great-grandfather and disgrace the family name, or will she preserve his shameful secret? And on the ancient grounds of the family mansion destroyed in the Civil War, will Big Daddy's spirit claim her even from the grave?  

Author Bio: Jo-Ann Costa studied her craft at the knees of her clannish Alabama kin, who are among the most accomplished at fabricating outlandish tales. Thus trained as a storyteller, Ms. Costa honed her compelling voice while serving in executive roles for a mega-corporation founded by the late Howard Hughes.

Along with the wildlife, Ms. Costa now makes her home at the edge of Colorado's Weminuche wilderness, where she writes historical fiction and mysteries. She is a graduate of California State University, the University of Southern California's Managerial Policy Institute, Leadership Southern California and the Public Affairs Institute. She also studied at the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program.

The Bequest of Big Daddy is the first book in her epic saga, Longleaf Legacy.

Interview: Q. Please tell us about your current release.

‘The Bequest of Big Daddy’, released April 1, 2013, is an epic adventure set in the old American South about a family dynasty, beginning just before the Civil War to present day, as seen and lived through the life of Ratio Janson, also known as Big Daddy to his kin. A tale of family betrayals, separations and reunions, it begins at the end of Big Daddy’s life when his great-granddaughter, Jo-Dee pays him a final visit and is soon caught up in his spell. When the old man dies, his prodigious family gathers and from there, Jo-Dee begins the telling of Big Daddy’s life as she uncovers the truth about his sordid past. When she discovers a long-buried lie, she is forced to make a choice: Whether or not to betray a man who has been betrayed by others his entire life. And on the grounds of her ancestral plantation, she comes face-to-face with the ghosts of the past, only to learn the importance of family and that Big Daddy’s mysterious “bequest” is more valuable than she ever imagined.

Q. How did writing this book affect you?

The book is as much a commentary about the social, economic and political institutions of the Deep South, as they once existed, as it is a work of historical fiction. And so, in writing about the people of that era, I internalized the tensions, confusion and pain that existed between the races, as well as the devastation felt by Southerners who lost everything in the Civil War. The research I undertook to tell a factual history of the leased convict system during Reconstruction and the hazards of coal mining put me in places of great emotional stress in order to recount the torment of prisoners and the bleak conditions in which they worked. In the mine explosion, where Ratio wrote to the families of the dead, I was as touched as though I was writing to them personally. The depths of Ratio’s longing to be loved when he was a child and his bottomless despair affected me greatly. Ratio’s unwavering desire to find his father, his long search to belong to something larger, the untimely death of one of his sons, made me feel as though I was with him in the darkness. When I crawled inside Ratio’s adult head, which had shut down to humanity because of his disastrous upbringing and unjust experiences, I found myself sympathizing with his decisions to kill those who had wronged him. He felt justified—an eye for an eye—a necessity to set things right. These are but a few examples of the gambit of emotions I experienced while writing ‘The Bequest of Big Daddy’. It was not possible to write this story without becoming emotionally involved with my characters, without becoming THEM. Thus, I wasn’t always the best company to be around. I thought about the book long into the night, often dreamed about it and then thoroughly lived it during the long days of writing. When I could, I wrote humor into the story. Big Daddy was not without a funny bone. In fact, he made me laugh out loud on more than one occasion.

Q. Can you tell us about the journey that led you to writing?

As I’ve said in other posts, I was a stifled child, raised by a single, working mother and later, a critical step-father who believed that children should be seen and not heard. Thus, I began to write at a very early age. It was my path to self-expression. I can never remember a time when I didn’t write—poetry, essays, short stories and then books. I won awards for my writing in high school and in college. Before long, I seemed to be in the right place at the right time career-wise, and so other than business writing, and orchestrating the occasional office skit, the creative side of my writing was put on hold until I quit my day job in Corporate America when I retired early to do nothing but write. In planning for this eventuality, however, I attended the UCLA Writers’ Extension Program, where I spent several years learning the craft on weekends and at night. This is because I never lost sight of my ultimate goal of becoming a published author and I knew within the structure of a writing program, I could learn more about the career I always wanted, but never had the luxury of pursuing.

As to the publishing part, I wrote three books and numerous short stories, entered contests, won some of them, pitched my work at writers’ conferences, had agents, didn’t have agents, and at last got my foot in the door of two large publishing houses who presented my third book to their respective editorial boards for consideration. As my husband always says, “That was close, but no kewpie doll.” During a down economy, these two houses could not gain consensus and thus decided not to take a chance on this new author. Still, I kept plugging away and the publishing house who eventually bought my book, loved it despite my unproven background in publishing. To wit: Talent is not enough. Becoming published requires unbelievably hard work, a thick skin, unflinching persistence and God smiling your way on just the right day.

Q. What is the hardest part of writing for you?

Stopping to rest. When I’m writing, there is nothing in the world I’d rather do.

Q. Do you have a musical playlist you listen to while writing? If so, what kind of music?

I don’t have a playlist per se, but there are some old stand-bys I occasionally play to enhance a certain mood. For example, for a morbid or sad scene, I sometimes listen to Sting’s If on a Winter’s Night, for lover’s quarrels and contentious scenes, the Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow, for general ambience, Johan Pachelbel always works for me, for my Fourth of July family reunion scenes, Bluegrass or Allison Kraus sets the tone, for tension, anything by Carlos Santana and for mind exploration, Windham Hill artists will usually bring me gifts from my imagination.

Q. What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?

I like to have feathers around me. These are from collecting the odd fallen feather once belonging to one of the many colorful birds who inhabit our beautiful mountains. I place them in Indian pottery on a shelf above my desk. I probably have close to one hundred of these, of all different hues and sizes. I like to think that they give my writing wings and interest—crows, eagles, blue jays, robins, woodpeckers—all have distinct qualities.

Q. Do you plan any subsequent books?

‘The Bequest of Big Daddy’ is the first book in a broader body of work entitled “Longleaf Legacy”, about members of a Southern family spanning close to two hundred years. The next book is already written and is undergoing revisions. The working title is ‘The Seventh Pool’.

Q. What are you currently reading?

I love Thomas Savage’s work – he is an extraordinary author who received too little praise while he lived, but is best known for ‘The Power of the Dog’ and ‘The Sheep Queen’, also historical family sagas. I’ve now gone back to his early works and am reading ‘The Pass’.

Q. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

National Book Award winner, Peter Matthiessen. Because of his exemplary credentials as a naturalist and environmental activist, he weaves his tales with a verisimilitude not often found in fiction. The fury of his themes, the bloody feuds among disparate members of the same family as found in the Watson saga, have further underscored my desire to write the books of my “Longleaf Legacy” saga. His Mr. Watson, is very much akin to my Ratio Janson—a disturbed man shaped by his terrible experiences.

Q. Please tell us your latest news (book-related or not!).

I recently returned from attending a class reunion (my husband’s) and discovered that what once mattered at a certain age is only important to remember as a moment in time that has passed, like all other moments have and shall. The takeaway is this: Life is a collection of moments, but the only moment that really counts is happening right now.

Q. Please tell us a fun-fact about yourself!

I was a runner-up in the Dick Tracy comic strip contest for a live Miss Moon Maid. One more: I worked as the Good Witch in the Gingerbread House at Santa’s Village where, in a pinch, I also doubled as Santa’s head pixie.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Thank you for asking me this question. It’s probably the one I most want to answer. I want to say to every reader who has supported me with either the purchase of my book, or a kind review: Thank you from my heart. Without your help, there is no ‘The Bequest of Big Daddy’.  And if you take something away from what I have written, if you understand better the tumultuous times that I describe and the forces which shape my characters, then I feel that I have succeeded as an author.

And not least, to my host, the gracious Star: my sincerest appreciation for allowing me to be your guest today.


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