An atmospheric debut novel about growing up in the changing South in 1960s Mississippi in the tradition of Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees and Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. In the words of Jill McCorkle (Going Away Shoes), “Minrose Gwin is an extremely gifted writer and The Queen of Palmyra is a brilliant and compelling novel.”
What's the backstory behind THE QUEEN OF PALMYRA?
The original title for the novel was "What I Didn't See," and my impetus for writing it was to explore how certain forms of blindness or not-knowing can occur when the stories people may have in their heads don't line up with what's right in front of them. Back in the civil rights period and before, there were so many people who saw and knew that bad things were happening, but they didn't act as witnesses at the time. Some came forward many years later, but the trials and punishments that resulted at those late dates were meager compared to what they should have been. Anyhow, I’ve always been concerned about this kind of blindness, and i wanted to write about it--how does it happen and why? So it wasn't any one story, but several.
You have an extensive writing background but the Queen of Palmyra is a debut novel for you. What did you find most challenging in the writing of it?
Driving the plot forward. I'm prone to focus my attention on language and character development, but with a novel you have to make things happen. some days I'd find myself ceaselessly rewriting to polish the prose when what I should have been doing was getting my people from one point to the next.
How do you approach novel writing? Organically or do you outline?
I began this novel with a picture in my head: a terrified girl in the back seat of an old car, her father driving, then stopping, then doing what Win Forrest does. The girl seeing but not seeing, knowing but not knowing. I thought I knew where the novel might go, but quickly realized it wasn't going there, so I let it take its own course. what I've found in writing this, and my memoir too, is that if I try to control the action and the characters too tightly, the story becomes old and tired rather quickly. I need to keep myself interested to keep writing.
Who are you literary influences?
I read a lot of fiction and teach a lot of fiction, so I have many favorites--Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Mark Doty, Michael Cunningham, Jill Mccorkle, Lee Smith, not to speak of Faulkner and Welty. Voice is of utmost importance to me, and these are all writers with a strong sense of voice.
What is one of your favorite sentences in the novel?
I like the first sentence quite a bit: "I need you to understand how ordinary it all was."
A lot of aspiring writers read this blog. What was you path to publication?
I first published my memoir, WISHING FOR SNOW, about my mother's mental illness and my miserable job of taking care of her, with a university press that has a strong stake in creative writing, and that got me a toehold into the publishing world. I'm really grateful to LSU press for taking a chance on me. Then, through a very generous writer friend, I got a wonderful agent to read my manuscript, and the rest fell into place at Harper Collins with an incredible editor there. I did major revisions each step of the way. It was arduous and took some time. I'm lucky and grateful.
Minrose Gwin is the author of the memoir Wishing for Snow, cited by Booklist as "eloquent" and "lyrical"—"a real life story we all need to hear." She has written three scholarly books and coedited The Literature of the American South. She teaches contemporary fiction at UNC–Chapel Hill and, like her young protagonist, grew up in a small Mississippi town
The Secret Life of Bees is one of my favorite books. So I'm definitely giving The Queen of Palmyra a read! Thanks for the interview. :)
Great post/ interview. And a really terrific book which I've read and love.
I especially appreciate the comment about her writing process, something I'll take to heart and work on. Good to know even talented writers have trouble
"getting my people from one point to the next."
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