Donna Meredith interviews Ginger Pinholster, author of “Snakes of St. Augustine”

Donna Meredith interviewed Ginger Pinholster about her fascinating new novel, Snakes of St. Augustine

DM: Even though I know most snakes are harmless, I still have a visceral fear of them. It’s hard to overcome. What made you decide to write a novel that features snakes so prominently?

GP: A fear of snakes is completely understandable and probably hard-wired in our brains. We fear what we don’t understand, and most of us can’t tell the difference between a harmless Scarlett kingsnake and a venomous coral snake. Fortunately, the snakes in my book are nonvenomous and adorable, including a rare Eastern indigo named Unicorn, Banana Splits the yellow ball python, and Bandit the banded king snake.

These animal characters serve as a metaphor for mental health conditions. Often, snakes are feared and misunderstood, which leads many people to run away or kill them on sight. People with neurodiversity, particularly mental health conditions, are often feared and misunderstood, too. As a result, those with neurodiversity face a much greater risk of being harmed by others. There are forty-four native species of snakes in Florida. Only six of them are venomous. Similarly, the vast majority of people with mental health conditions are no threat to others.

DM: Like most people, I have witnessed both the beauty and dangers that accompany neurodiversity. I have seen it in friends, family, and former students. Your novel does such a fantastic job of depicting neurodiverse people. What motivated you to focus on them? What did you hope to accomplish with your character depictions?

Ginger Pinholster

GP: A real-life tragedy motivated me to write “Snakes of St. Augustine.” Jason Harrison, a 39-year-old man living with psychosis, was shot and killed by police after his mother called to ask for help getting “Jay” to a hospital. The police bodycam footage, broadcast by CNN, broke my heart because it was so senseless; Jay was not acting aggressively toward the officers. The tragedy reminded me of loved ones, including my late brother. John had a learning disability, attention deficit disorder, trouble communicating, severe anxiety and depression, and in the end, a substance abuse problem. He was 28 when he killed himself.

Snakes of St. Augustine is purely fictional, but losing my brother to mental illness and subsequently finding a partner who has neurodiversity clearly influenced the story. In my experience, discrimination can turn those with mental health conditions into “the others.” Sometimes, although my partner of more than a decade has his condition well under control, he will speak in a way that sounds like poetry. This can confuse people who don’t know him well. Some people find him funny, while others seem fearful, and a few become angry, as if they think he’s trying to spoof them. It’s easy to imagine why people with neurodiversity are far more likely to be attacked, compared to the rest of us.

I wanted readers to see and better understand the unique beauty of people with neurodiversity. Snakes of St. Augustine” is fundamentally about the power of community to help people who are living on the margins of our society. I hope that readers might look again at people who are different, or on the margins, and consider the ways in which we’re all similar, and all worthy of inclusion and compassion.

 DM: Did any particular character really speak to you as you worked on this story?

GP: I should relate most to Trina Leigh Dean, the serpentarium owner because I’m a volunteer with the Volusia Turtle Patrol and the owner of a sweet little ball python named Lemony Stitches. But, I relate most to Fletch, the burnt-out police officer whose search for stolen snakes sets up a dangerous conflict. Like me, Fletch is tantalizingly close to retirement. I also sympathized with Fletch because so many police departments lack adequate equipment or training to deal with tense situations involving people who have with mental health conditions. Fletch is doing the best he can with what he has.

Donna Meredith

DM: Why did you choose St. Augustine as a setting?

GP: St. Augustine’s rich history sparks my imagination. Also, a few years back, I took part in a writer’s workshop in St. Augustine, with novelist Connie May Fowler (“A Million Fragile Bones”). The workshop got me going and Connie, along with my writing group, provided essential feedback during the writing process. As a writer, I feel a need to preserve rapidly vanishing places, at least in the mind’s eye. I love to read and write immersive descriptions of physical settings.

DM: Could you share a little about your background and how you got interested in writing?

GP: I grew up in Atlanta in the 1960s. Back then, Atlanta was green and still wild in many spots. With my sisters and the neighbor kids, I spent hours exploring the woods behind our homes, building forts and raking trails. Those experiences show up in my stories as intensely immersive descriptions of the physical world.

My love of reading led to writing. My first short story, at age six, was a rip-off of Nancy Drew stories: A ghost was terrorizing a town, until a brave, clever girl who just happened to have reddish hair saved the day! When I was a bit older, I wrote a cringe-worthy thriller that resulted from reading too many of Stuart Woods’ books. Then, at The Paideia School, I attended a class with Pat Conroy. After that, I earned a bachelor’s degree in Creative Writing from Eckerd College and a Master of Fine Arts from the Queens University of Charlotte. Newspaper reporting was my first job, followed by science writing for universities and a nonprofit that publishes Science magazine.

DM: What are you working on next?

GP: I am revising a third book set in New Mexico. A dual-timeline historical novel, it tells the story of a wounded warrior, Jemi, who’s fighting to regain her confidence. In parallel, a nursing home resident, Rose, is struggling to have her Native American heritage verified. The historical story delves into a shameful period of American history when many Native American children were stolen from their families. I’ve also begun to outline a fourth novel. I can’t share details yet, but suffice it to say, there are sea turtles.

DM: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you?

GP: I wish that interviewers would ask, “Can anyone write a novel or does it require a special talent?” Sometimes, people say to me, “Oh, I have a great story inside of me, but I don’t have any talent.” My heart breaks. This bogus concept of “talent” scares off too many would-be writers who have fresh, diverse voices. Yes, anyone can write a novel! Writing is a craft, just like carpentry or playing the piano. Writers simply must learn and practice elements of the craft. Many people can’t afford to pursue a graduate degree in writing. I urge aspiring writers to find whatever free or low-cost opportunities are available in their community or online. Also, go to the library and check out craft books such as “Bird by Bird” (Anne Lamott) and “Steering the Craft” (Ursula K. Le Guinn).



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