Saturday, October 7, 2023

Q&A with Gerry Wilson




GerryWilson is the author of the forthcoming novel That Pinson Girl. She also has written the story collection Crosscurrents and Other Stories. She lives in Jackson, Mississippi.


Q: What inspired you to write That Pinson Girl, and how did you create your cast of characters?


A: I’m glad you paired the novel’s inspirations with the characters, since the two are deeply intertwined.


I grew up in the red clay hills of north Mississippi—William Faulkner country, about as harsh and unforgiving and beautiful a place as any I know. That Pinson Girl arose first from that place, but like much of my fiction, the novel relies on artifacts, family myths, and memories.


My favorite “artifact” that plays a role in the book is the letter that followed my maternal grandfather all the way to France and back to rural Mississippi during World War I.


Written by a woman he met in New York City when he was about to board a troop ship for France, the letter describes the Armistice celebration in the streets of New York. It seems the young woman was taken with my grandfather, but by the time the letter reached him back home, he had married my grandmother.


That letter and the missed chances it represents sparked a major theme in That Pinson Girl.


As for family myths: my maternal grandmother’s story about her father’s death in a hunting “accident” she believed was murder became an important mystery element in the novel. (My grandmother was quite the teller of tales, but she told different versions of her stories to different people. If I inherited any fiction genes, I may have her to thank!)


There’s also north Mississippi lore, like the tale of an old Black man who carried a lantern and walked the boundaries of his master’s home place at night to reassure the little girl in the household that she was safe.


That old man became Luther Biggs, a biracial sharecropper who appeared vision-like in my mind, making his way along a frozen road, trying to get to Leona Pinson, “that girl” at the heart of the story, who is in peril.


Finally, when I was a little girl, I became curious about a woman who lived with her son and her mother down the street from us. It seemed nobody else ever came or went, certainly not the neighbors.


When I dared to ask my parents about her, I received terse answers that weren’t answers at all. I was nearly grown when I figured out the son was “illegitimate.” That woman became the catalyst for Leona Pinson.


The cast of characters in That Pinson Girl evolved from these influences. From the start I knew Leona Pinson would give birth to a son out of wedlock and suffer harsh consequences. I knew her only ally against her brutal brother would be a sharecropper named Luther Biggs.


I knew Leona’s aunt, a dwarf who comes to live with the Pinsons after Leona’s father is killed, would betray Leona in a heartbreaking way. And I knew that Leona’s mother would share a devastating secret with another character (but no spoilers here!).

All the stuff of story, but it seemed a crucial piece was missing. Call it essence; call it heart. With each revision, though—and there were many—the characters created their complicated web of secrets and lies.


The final piece of the puzzle fell into place when I returned to the novel during Covid for what I considered one final “go” at it. (I hope you’ll read the novel to find out what that final piece is.)


Q: How did you research the novel, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: Over the course of writing That Pinson Girl, I thought often about how easy research is now compared to a few years ago. The Internet was my friend, although I quickly realized the need to be careful about the reliability of online sources.


Two story threads required in-depth research: the timeline and details of troop movements and trench warfare during World War I; and the influenza epidemic among the troops and here at home.


One surprising bit of trivia I learned was that a traveling circus brought the “flu” to rural north Mississippi—and thus it comes to Leona Pinson’s family in the novel. For readers who might be interested, I recommend a wonderful, very thorough book on the influenza epidemic: The Great Influenza by John M. Barry.


Q: Did you know how the novel would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I had a sense of how I wanted it to end all along. What changed dramatically over the course of many rewrites was how to get there. I already mentioned that the characters underwent drastic changes, which ultimately reshaped the ending.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: I hope readers will identify with Leona Pinson’s persistence and courage. I also hope they will see the timeless connections between issues of race and class and sexism in Leona’s day and our own. I hope they will embrace acknowledging the past in order to shape the future.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Right now, I’m working on a collection of linked stories set on an island off the Georgia coast. A sequel to That Pinson Girl is hardly more than a gleam in my eye, but it’s simmering!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: A few years ago, I gave up trying to publish this novel or any other. But this story kept nagging at me, and when I revisited it during Covid, issues that had stymied me for a long time began to resolve.


When I thought the novel was ready for submission—and when I felt brave enough to try again—I reached out to friends who had published with small and/or indie presses, and I pursued a few based on their experiences and recommendations.


I’m grateful to have landed with Regal House Publishing, one of the finest indie presses around. So I suppose my last word to other authors, especially those “of a certain age,” is to keep working and keep believing! We are our own best advocates.


One final word: if you’ve enjoyed this peek into That Pinson Girl and you’re a member of a book club, I hope you’ll get in touch using the contact form on my website,


I would love to visit with you and chat about the novel in person if you’re in my area (middle Mississippi) or virtually, if you aren’t. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb


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