BettyJoyce Nash interviews Gerry Wilson, author of “That Pinson Girl”


BettyJoyce Nash and Gerry Wilson met in 2019 at the Key West Literary Workshop. Gerry’s debut novel, That Pinson Girl (Regal House: February 2024) was published recently by Regal House. BettyJoyce’s novel, Everybody Here is Kin (Madville Publishing) debuted in September 2023.

BettyJoyce Nash

BJN: I’m wondering how much of your grandmother’s story is true? 

 GW: Once, I was recalling one of my maternal grandmother’s family stories with my son, and he said, “But Mom, that’s not what she told me!” Age and time altered her stories—or maybe she fictionalized them. In That Pinson Girl, I have altered them, too, to create a different story.

It’s true that what I know about her life fueled the narrative. Like the main character, Leona Pinson, my grandmother, only finished the eighth grade. She was embarrassed by her lack of education, but she didn’t have access to more, living in the country in north Mississippi. Her father died of a gunshot wound when he was hunting, just as Leona Pinson’s father does. My grandmother’s life was hard. At one point, around the Depression era, she kept cows and chickens and sold milk, cream, butter, and eggs to neighbors. I have the ledger where she kept her accounts. My grandfather, a semi-invalid for most of his life, died young. She lived to be ninety-seven, and she wasn’t particularly happy about it. There’s no doubt she was the model for Leona Pinson’s hard life and, also, Leona’s resilience. How much is “true?” We would have to ask her.

 BJN: Tell me about Luther, where he originated, is he a complete fabrication or is he based, as, frankly, most authors’ characters are, on a real man? He’s just so wonderfully depicted and breaks our hearts almost right away with his do-right nature and heavy load.

Gerry Wilson

GW: A north Mississippi ghost tale inspired Luther Biggs, a biracial sharecropper with complicated ties to the Pinson family. In the ghost story, an old Black man walked the perimeter of his master’s land every night, carrying a lantern, making sure everybody in the house was safe. People inside the house could see the lantern bobbing in the dark. The story goes that long after the old man died, the light still appeared.

My first “vision” of Luther Biggs was of an elderly Black man traveling an icy road in bitter winter weather to get to Leona, whom he loves like his own child and has vowed to protect. I love that you refer to Luther’s “do-right nature.” It’s an accurate description, but I would add that Luther is a complex character who carries not only the heavy load of his station in life, but also the burden of generations of secrecy and betrayal.

BJN: The South, and even the United States, practiced a different kind of slavery back then. The physical chains were gone, but the taboos, threats and the reality of physical violence existed and kept people down, especially Black people and women.

 GW: One of the most memorable experiences of my life was the first time I saw the black granite memorial to lynching victims in the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. You walk in, and there’s a tall slab engraved with names, dates, locations, and crimes. That monument is stunning, but take a step or two, and you see there’s another monument behind it, and another, and another—sobering reminders of the way things were, and maybe still are. By the time period of That Pinson Girl—the World War I era—slavery had been abolished more than fifty years. But the “chains” of convention and class and brutality were very much alive. In the novel, Leona Pinson’s brother, Raymond, rides with men who model themselves after the Ku Klux Klan, terrorizing Black people. Raymond focuses his hatred on Luther Biggs, who Raymond believes has betrayed the Pinson family. Raymond never misses a chance to put Luther and his mentally challenged son “in their place.” In that era, chains weren’t necessary to keep a man down. There were other ways to do it.

Similar constraints kept women in their place, too. Woe to women like Leona who defied convention.

BJN:  The women are distinct individuals, stuck in sexism—pregnancy outside of marriage was quite a sin, a life-changing and enduring stain on character. How did you navigate these tricky paths?

GW: These were tricky paths indeed, and I’m glad you see the women as distinct. I struggled with how to portray the time and place and Southern culture accurately and still give Leona Pinson and the other women in the novel a voice. When the story opens, Leona is giving birth to an illegitimate child. Her refusal to name the father is an act of independence that leads to further isolation and scorn. She pins her hopes on the young man’s return from the war, believing he’ll marry her. When that doesn’t happen, she must make her own way. Her decisions sometimes have dire consequences, but she makes them. She finds ways to survive and protect her son, even in a culture that condemns her.

The women in this novel lack agency, although they wouldn’t have used that word “agency.” The confines of their lives echo through the years and still resonate today.

BJN: Your distinctive landscape details mimic the muddy, soul-sucking nature of society at that time. Tell me about that.

 GW: It’s important to recognize the dichotomy of this place—that it is both harsh and beautiful. It isn’t accidental that, as the novel opens and Leona is giving birth in an isolated farmhouse with only her aunt to attend her, a winter storm rages. And in one climactic scene, two men fight in  pouring rain, slogging in mud to their knees. Nature often reflects the physical, mental, and emotional struggles the characters face. In the era in which That Pinson Girl is set—during  World War I—the rural landscape was rugged and isolating. People were at the mercy of the natural world, just as they were often at the mercy of the culture. I don’t want to wax heavy-handed about the metaphorical possibilities; it’s sufficient to say that I wanted the landscape to reflect what is true of these characters’ lives and often of ours: that beauty brings solace in the midst of hardship.

 BJN: Can you share some of your thought and writing processes behind the novel?

 GW: I began That Pinson Girl twelve years ago and put it away more times than I can count, feeling dismayed and doomed to failure. The story never let me go, though, and in the summer of 2021—in the midst of the Covid epidemic—I decided to have another go at it. I can’t explain why this time was different; maybe it was good to let the story lie fallow, or maybe it was the urgency and uncertainty of those Covid times. Doors opened in the story in ways I hadn’t imagined: Leona evolved, Luther evolved, and the secrets and lies that entangled these families finally made sense to me. I’m afraid this is my “process”—more or less trial and error! I start with an idea or an image or a situation and play “what if?” with it to see where it leads. I generally know how I want a story to end, but getting there isn’t magical. It’s hard work.

That Pinson Girl began with family stories about the impact of World War I and the Spanish flu epidemic on my grandparents’ lives, but “good” historical fiction depends on accurate historical details to undergird and enrich the story. So—for example—I learned about the mechanics of war (what trench warfare was like) and about conditions at home (how to slaughter a hog). Thankfully, there’s good information online these days, but we need to make sure sources are reliable.

One final observation: from the start I planned to include the flu epidemic—how could I not? The very real and frightening experience of the Covid pandemic made the historical pandemic come alive for me—an interesting connection between the present and the past.

BJN: Gerry, thank you for this captivating story. It’s a compelling, important, even instructive book immersing us in harsh realities of the past as we navigate the possibilities of the future.

GW BIO: A seventh-generation Mississippian, Gerry Wilson grew up in the hills of the north she writes about in her debut novel, That Pinson Girl. She has published a story collection, Crosscurrents and Other Stories, and her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals. A retired high school English and creative writing teacher, she lives in Jackson, Mississippi.

BJN BIO: BettyJoyce Nash’s essays, articles, and stories have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, North Dakota Quarterly, Reckon Review, Across the Margin, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been recognized with fellowships from MacDowell, the Tyrone Guthrie Center, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and Ragdale. She teaches fiction at WriterHouse in Charlottesville.


  1. Thanks to Southern Literary Review and BettyJoyce Nash for this thoughtful interview!

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