A seventh generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in Pontotoc, a little town nestled in the hill country, in a household with her maternal grandmother, a born storyteller. Gerry’s love of story began there. For more than twenty years, she taught English and creative writing to high school students. As she learned how to impart her love of reading and writing to her students, her yen to write fiction blossomed.
Now retired, Gerry writes short and long fiction. Her short stories have appeared in numerous journals. “Mating,” the first story in Crosscurrents and Other Stories (releasing 11/1/15; read an excerpt here), won the Prime Number Short Fiction Award in 2014. Gerry is a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship. She has studied fiction writing with Antonya Nelson, Ann Hood, Jane Hamilton, Connie May Fowler, Dorothy Allison, and Ron Hansen. She is currently working on a new novel.
Gerry and her husband, Austin, live in Jackson, Mississippi, with their Siamese cat, Oliver. Learn more about Gerry on her website.
My bedside table? A rickety antique with a single, shallow drawer. There’s room for the old-fashioned clock radio, the lamp, a silver paperweight (not for papers; it holds a favorite photo of my husband), a little basket with the few pieces of silver jewelry I wear almost every day, and a stack of books waiting to be read or “on hold.” In the remaining space, there’s always the one book I’m currently reading, or in its place, my iPad, so there’s a careful balance of what the table will bear.
I love to read before sleep—not that the books I choose are sleep-inducing, although I’m careful of my bedtime books; a too-intense story can turn into an all-nighter. A recent favorite novel, Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, caught me unaware; I wasn’t expecting the intensity of a plot turn that left me undone, sleepless, and in tears.
A Spool of Blue Thread chronicles a big family’s complexities, conflicts, and complicated love. Abby Whitshank and her husband, Red, are in their early seventies, and they’re winding down in ways their adult children notice. Abby starts having little “spells” and wanders off—sometimes literally—or she’s present, but she “just isn’t there,” as Red puts it. After Red has a heart attack, the grown-up children descend on Abby and Red to help. Their adopted son, Stem, his wife Nora, and their three little boys move in, as does Denny, the misfit among the four siblings, the one who drifts from job to job and can’t seem to get a grasp on his life. Havoc ensues, and after the unexpected plot turn, the Whitshank family’s lives require a re-settling and retelling of their stories, which Tyler does with such grace. There’s a secret at the heart of the novel that, once revealed, explains much about the dynamics of this family that is unique in many ways and yet recognizable to all of us.
I want to re-read this book as a writer and examine more closely how Tyler moves back and forth in time and among points of view. There’s much to learn (and to love) here.
Another novel I recently enjoyed is Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, a breathtakingly beautiful, smart book. I expected no less, having read Groff’s story collection, Delicate Edible Birds. The two main characters in Fates and Furies border on the mythological: Lotto (a nickname for Lancelot) and Mathilde are “. . . so handsome, the still axis of the garden, of the spinning world.” When Lotto marries Mathilde, his mother vehemently disapproves and cuts him off from the family’s fortune. Lotto and Mathilde live in poverty; Mathilde works to support them while Lotto struggles as an actor. In quiet ways that Lotto never seems aware of, Mathilde manages his life as he evolves from unsuccessful actor to successful playwright. Throughout the book, Groff inserts interior commentary in brackets. Her structural “trick” is to shift the point of view halfway through. The first half of the story is Lotto’s; the second, Mathilde’s. (Groff points out in an interview that she was working on this novel before Gone Girl, so hers isn’t a copycat strategy.) The result is a lesson in perspective: are we ever capable of truly knowing another person?
Above all, the beauty of this book is its language:
Think, Lotto. Last thing remembered. Home, moonlight planing the surface of the desk, bone fingers of winter trees plucking stars from the sky. Papers strewn. Dog wheezing on his feet. One floor below, his wife sleeping, hair in a white-blond plume on the pillow. He’d touched her shoulder and climbed to his study, the residue of her warmth on his palm.
As a writer and admirer of short stories, I almost always have a book of stories underway. Nathan Poole’s Father Brother Keeper is a stunning collection. These are stories about men who suffer failure, heartbreak, and loss, yet the characters somehow survive. In “Stretch Out Your Hand,” a neighbor child is dying of a fever. Here, the narrator describes the little girl’s grieving brothers:
One morning, a week after the doctor’s first visit, all six of the Bryson boys were sitting outside in the shade, leaning with their backs against the side of their house. They were wearing undershirts and pants but no work shirts. A few of them stared in my direction; two had their arms crossed, their heads hanging down toward the dirt, and the youngest was tearing a leaf in half and throwing the strips out between his legs.
Father Brother Keeper is full of such powerful moments.
And what of the waiting, on-hold stack on the bedside table?
I like to pick up a poetry book when I’m writing fiction, hoping I’ll absorb some of the richness and rhythms of the language. Right now, it’s The Moment’s Equation by Vern Rutsala, a poet whose work was unfamiliar to me until Andre Dubus used some of these poems in a fiction workshop at The Lighthouse in Denver this past summer. Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers is there, for dipping into and re-reading. Some Luck, a new novel by Jane Smiley, is my next read, and then a book that’s been waiting around for a while: Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch. I dearly love O’Connor’s work, and her life story is as fascinating as a good work of fiction.