Welcome to the first Behind the Words blog. I’m chatting with authors whose book(s) I am currently obsessed with in order to gain some insight into the creation of these wonderful works. Our first guest is Nancy Peacock and her new book, “The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson.” A wonderful novel that is part adventure story, part mystery and part romance; it’s the story of a slave and the love of his life.
What was your inspiration for this novel? I was in the habit of getting up in the dark, pulling on my boots and walking three miles to the top of a hill to witness the sunrise. One morning as I witnessed the sunrise, the opening line entered my head. “I have been to hangings before, but never my own.” It came out of nowhere, and once home, I wrote it down. That night I was watching Ken Burn’s documentary on The West and I wondered if there were any black Indians. I knew there were white Indians from a book by Scott Zesch called “The Captured,” about white children captured by the Comanche during the 1800s and their assimilation into the tribe, as well as their rocky reunion with their white families and reentry into white society. I suppose those stories had gotten to me, and all these things together became a sort of perfect storm of inspiration.
This is your third novel. Like the first two, it also falls into the historical fiction genre. What appeals to you about this category? I hated history as a child. It was dates and wars and men who seemed “perfect.” I remember, in fourth grade, asking myself why I hated history so much and I realized it was because the people we learned about – George Washington, Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, etc – all seemed so perfect. There didn’t seem to be any struggle in their lives, although of course there was struggle. It’s just that it wasn’t evident in the history books. Also not evident was what these historical events meant to any individuals. It all seemed so removed.
I loved English though, and I loved books and stories. Once I realized history is really about stories, I became fascinated with it.
How did the character Persimmon (or Persy for short) develop? He is a very strong character, with a very strong voice and determined spirit. He was never difficult to work with because he was so willing and ready to reveal himself to me. I think of writing a novel as a partnership with the character. I don’t make things up. I don’t develop characters. They are either willing to tell me who they are or not. Persy was ready to be born into story form. The first chapter came to me full blown. The first chapter reveals that Persy is condemned to death, and his love for Chloe, as well as his experience with the Comanche. The first chapter also told me that Persy was literate and intelligent, angry and defiant, and smarter than most of the people he encountered in his journeys. He was never snobby though. He was kind when he could be kind. He was sensitive, for the most part. In the first chapter, he awaits his hanging, and wants more than anything to tell who Chloe really was. Everything he has ever done was for Chloe, including the telling of this story.
Persy can read and write, but plays the witless slave faultlessly. It’s obvious that if Persy wasn’t literate, the story would have to be told in a different manner. Did you always know that this is how the story should be told? Or did it evolve as you were researching or writing? It couldn’t have been any other way. That was his voice – strong and super literate. He had no reason to hide his literacy or intelligence any more in the telling of this story. He does hide it on occasion in certain scenes for his own survival.
When I teach fiction writing, I have a class on the importance of the first sentence. You have a humdinger of an opening, “I’ve been to hangings before, but never my own.” How and when did you decide that would be the first sentence? See question # 1 – It just came to me out of nowhere. I was very empty at that time. I wasn’t sure I’d ever write again. Those sunrise walks were a sort of spiritual practice. And Persy just tapped me with that opening line. By the next day, I’d written the first chapter. I will say that when I write, I am always looking for what I call “the portal.” The opening sentence from which everything else will flow. Often I’m stabbing at it, searching, like fishing with a spear. But in this case it was simply handed to me.
When readers meet Persy on page one, we learn that he is waiting to be hung, yet he writes his life story for the love of his life, Chloe. Why did you choose to write the ninety percent of the novel as a flashback? First person dictates a lot of how a story needs to be told. That’s something I love about it. It has limitations, which means the voice informs the way the story is told, in what direction it needs to go. If he’s about to hang, as the opening line implied, then there’s nothing left but flashback.
The novel opens on April 1, 1875, in a jail cell in Drunken Bride, Texas. If this novel were being studied in a university literature class, I’d bet money that the professor would find some way to make the date significant. Is it? [April Fool’s Day dates back to 1582 with the reform of the calendar under Charles IX.] That’s funny. He hangs on April 3, 1875 because it’s a Saturday. The month of April was chosen because he was captured in late fall and due to the oncoming of winter was held in a fort, and then transported for a spring trial to Drunken Bride, the town where he raided with the Comanche and “kidnapped” Chloe, known to the townspeople as Mrs. Joseph Wilson, and as white. The battle of Palo Duro Canyon is historically accurate, and took place September 28, 1874. This really was the demise of the Comanche. They never quite recovered from that. In fact all the battles mentioned are historically accurate. I find this to be one of the most interesting things about writing historical fiction. History drives the story, so dates and events have to be paid close attention to.
Based on the level of detail during Persy’s slave days, you obviously spent a lot of time researching this period and the sugar cane plantations in Louisiana. Tell us about how you went about it. I’m blessed to live close to a university town with a great library that anyone local can use. UNC-Chapel Hill library is filled with many books, obscure and not. Figuring out exactly how sugar was made from cane was a puzzle, but I found a book in the library with sketches of a sugarhouse. There are a ton of books on slavery and the Civil War of course, but slavery in Louisiana was particularly brutal. The cane plantations ate people alive. It was a horrible place to be. The slave market in New Orleans, due to the demand for slaves on sugar plantations, was also particular, with showrooms, and the enslaved made to dress alike, arranged by height, etc.
So I just read a lot. I read a lot of scholarly work by historians. But I also read the WPA interviews with former enslaved people. These were invaluable to understanding slavery (as best I could) from the inside out, rather than the outside in. I wanted to read the voices of people who’d lived through it. Those interviews are available to anyone. Some are gathered in books, but many can be downloaded for free.
As I was reading, three descriptions gave me chills. First was Breech’s burial and how he was placed in his coffin. Second was the stack of coffins stored in the barn. Third was the souvenir nooses. Did you make up those details or was it something you learned in your research? The souvenir nooses were made up. The other two I read about in my research. So many people died while working cane that dying became a sort of factory. It was cheaper to just build a lot of caskets and have them ready. And if one wasn’t available that fit, it was made to fit, or rather the deceased was made to fit it.
I think you were brave in using the language of the time that is considered most offensive today. Did you wrestle with this while you were writing? It seems wrong to write about slavery and try to make it palatable. It was a horror, and we need to tell the truth about things. The language I used was the language of slavery then, and is the language of racism now.
The second half of the novel takes place after Master Wilson and the slaves flee Louisiana as the Yankees are approaching. I liked that Persy ended up living, and virtually becoming, a Comanche Indian. It was different in that many authors would have sent him North. Yet, the details that made the first half so rich and complex seem to be missing. Did you research it differently or how can you explain the difference? Tell us how you researched the second half. The novel is really in three parts. 1) Sweetmore, the sugarcane plantation 2) Persy’s stint in the Civil War and his travels through Texas, meeting Mo Tilly and working on a ranch. And 3) captured by the Comanche and living with the tribe.
The Comanche part is compressed for two reasons: One, they were nomadic, so there was no one place, like the plantation of Sweetmore to be in, and two, because of the time frame of the novel. Again, historical events dictated the way it was written.
Once Persy was captured, and then assimilated into the tribe, the Comanche didn’t have much time left that they were free on the plains. Once the Civil War was over America turned its military attention to “taming” the west. Military force that had been occupied with battling the Confederacy, could now be turned on the Indians. And it was. The irony of Persy’s life is that he finally found freedom with the Comanche, right when the Comanche were losing their freedom. It’s also ironic that many of the troops sent out west to chase Indians were the Buffalo Soldiers, the black troops who were allowed to serve during the Civil War (although not at first) and continued their lives in the military. Persy may have known some of the people chasing after him.
Did you study the Comanche language in order to give Persy and Chloe their tribal names? I did. There is a great organization called Comanche Language and Cultural Preservation, and they have a great dictionary. I did my best with the language. They now have their own alphabet, but in 1875, when Persy was writing his story, they did not have a written language. It was all done phonetically. I was relieved to learn that and work with the Comanche words that way. After the book was published I felt it was important to send the organization some money.
How was writing this book different than your other two novels? I’ve found that whatever I learned from one book, won’t be very helpful in the next.
You also have a published memoir. Which is easier to write: fiction or nonfiction? I can’t really answer this. I think it’s different for different people, and different for each book for the same person. I will say that I believe writing a memoir changes your relationship to the time in your life you are writing about. You learn about it in a different way, and it changes.
How long did it take you to complete this novel and how many drafts did you write? It took two years and probably five drafts. But I pushed it through the sieve a lot in each draft.
I want to go back and read your other works, is there a particular order I should read them? Nope. They are all very different from each other.
Will readers ever see Chloe in a follow-up book? No, I don’t think so.
I’m very excited for you next work? Can you tell us about it, and when do you think it will hit the shelves? I never talk about works in progress – or not in progress. It’s much too intimate and unformed to talk publicly about.
“The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson” is available as a book, in Large Print, as an eBook, and Downloadable Audiobook.
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