by Barb Johnson
MINROSE GWIN is the judge for Bayou Magazine’s 2019 James Knudsen Fiction Prize. She is the award-winning author of nine books, most recently the novels, The Accidentals, (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2019); Promise; and The Queen of Palmyra; a memoir, Wishing for Snow; and a biography, Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.
A native of Tupelo, Mississippi, Gwin has been a writer all of her working life, beginning as a newspaper and wire service reporter. She has also been a professor at universities around the country, most recently at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
We were delighted to be able to talk with Gwin about writing her most recent novel, The Accidentals, her best writing advice, and what she looks for in a story.
Your most recent novel, The Accidentals, came out in August, 2019. Could you start off by telling us a little bit about what inspired the story?
I generally see the kernel of a story in a flash of something that catches my eye, in one compelling image. The Accidentals unfolded in the shape of three. The first was a 1957 photograph of the first Sputnik dog, Laika, strapped into a capsule the size of a rural mailbox, looking relaxed and hopeful before being launched to her death in outer space. The second image came to me at the rear of Audubon Park Zoo in New Orleans, where there’s an enclosure in which the giraffes can walk about fairly freely. One day, while I was watching, they began using their long necks to hit each other. It looked like a giraffe form of dancing. Watching them do this natural, beautiful thing with their bodies, I imagined two young girls, sisters, peering through the slats of the fence, as I was doing at that moment, watching these giraffes perform their magical dance, while at home the girls’ mother, entrapped by a third pregnancy, lies in bed bleeding to death from a botched backwoods abortion. Both of these images reminded me of the plight of girls and women in the 1950s—pre-pill, pre-Roe v. Wade—and the entrapment and constriction so many girls and women experienced then. I wanted to write about how they created their own freedom within such tiny, limiting spaces; how brave and fierce and irrepressible they were. Then the third image arrived in the form of a painted bunting at my backyard feeder. An ‘accidental,’ my birder neighbor said of the painted bunting, blown off track from its normal migration path. I’d never heard that term used as noun, and the whole idea of being an accidental struck me as enormously generative. Aren’t we all accidentals in one way or other, blown off track in life’s great migration? In any case, the central story of the sisters, June and Grace McAlister, came to me through the images and blessings of animals. Animals crowd the pages of The Accidentals, sometimes even astonishing me by their sudden appearances as I wrote the book.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
The Accidentals was a real stretch for me as a writer. It took me seven years to put it together. My two earlier novels, The Queen of Palmyra and Promise, cover relatively short time periods: The Queen of Palmyra takes place during the summer of 1963 and Promise during one week in 1936, following a devastating tornado. In contrast, The Accidentals tracks a half century in the lives of its characters, from Laika’s ill-fated flight in 1957 to the first election of Barack Obama. When you cover that amount of time, you need historical touchstones to ground the developments in the novel. Each important personal moment in the book is accompanied by a historical event: the murder of Emmett Till; the Russians putting little Laika into orbit; the Cuban missile crisis; the day the first man walked on the moon; the explosion of Challenger; the Obama election, and so on. Each of these events punctuates the characters’ struggles. One of the hardest parts of the novel was to make the historical and personal time lines match. Second, there are seven first-person narrators in The Accidentals. Each character has to have depth and resonance, each has her or his own way of telling this story; there are individual stories, for sure, but then they have to cohere. Each has to be a commentary on the stories of others and each has to advance the plot and characterization. These characters can’t just be talking heads, but must be real flesh and blood people who struggle. When a writer friend read an early draft of the novel, she suggested that I put the whole book into an omniscient point of view, but I wanted the reader to be inside my characters’ struggles, not peering over their shoulders.
How do you organize yourself so that you are able to keep track of the world you’re writing about?
I wish you could see my desk! It’s an unsightly collection of notes and hen-scratches and charts and graphs and serious research materials alongside sheer nonsense. Piles and piles. With The Accidentals, though, I had to track the characters’ ages and the events in their lives next to history, and that was sometimes hard to organize. You have to be very focused, especially when you’re in the final stages of revision.
What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever heard?
Read. Read fiction, or whatever it is you’re writing, that has flesh and sinew, that works at the level of the sentence, that has resonance. Read works you wish you’d written. Also, what I’ve learned the hard way: two hours in the chair (or in my case, on a worn-out futon) six days a week keeps the wheels oiled. Be strict with yourself, keep in touch with your story; otherwise, you’ll be continually backtracking to re-enter and believe in this world you’ve created, and you’ll waste a lot of time.
You’re judging Bayou Magazine’s fiction contest. As a reader, what are you looking for in a piece of writing? Any surefire ways of making you sit up and take notice?
One important element I look for in fiction is voice: there has to be a compelling sense of voice that transports us into the fictional world. And voice depends on the shape of sentences, the music of language, the vocabulary that implies as much as it says outright. I also look for struggle. Struggle is the fodder of fiction.
For a complete list of Minrose Gwin’s books and awards: minrosegwin.com