Donna Meredith interviews Terresa Haskew, author of “Winston’s Book of Souls”


To our complete surprise, when Terresa Haskew queried me about reviewing her novel Winston’s Book of Souls, we discovered we were once neighbors in Tallahassee. What a happy coincidence that we were not only former neighbors, but we both nurtured a lifelong love of books and pursued writing as careers. You can read the review here.

DM: Your protagonist sells life insurance. What motivated or inspired you to put this job at the heart of your story?

TH: I’m happy you asked! My father, who passed away in 2012, worked in the insurance industry most of his adult life. In the beginning, he knocked on doors to sell life insurance and collect premium payments. We lived in Perry, Florida, at that time, maybe 1959 to 1966. He then moved into management positions in Jacksonville and elsewhere. Much later he worked with the Florida State Insurance Commissioner’s Office, and was involved with investigations. Daddy was quite a storyteller, and he readily shared (and embellished) his work experiences. I was fascinated! Thus, protagonist Winston Taylor’s career was loosely patterned after my dad’s.

DM: The story’s tone is one of dread as Winston’s dark deed hangs over him. Readers also come to suspect Louis has something dark hidden in his past. Did you find it difficult to maintain the tone?

TH: My first writing steps were taken in the world of poetry, where much depends on compression. Then I learned to lengthen my stride with short stories, some of which were a little on the dark side. This novel is my first, and when I began to write it, I lived in dread that I couldn’t go the distance of a full-length story. I’m joking a little here, but writing something as big as a novel was daunting. I really didn’t have to think much about the tone—dead bodies and deep secrets naturally lend themselves to dark, long-running dread.

DM: The outcome for Winston and Louis hangs on a major coincidence. Did you have this outcome in mind from the time you started writing the novel, or did it come to you as you worked?

TH: I “pantsed” my way through this story, without a clue about the outcome. I had a good running start, though, as one of my short stories, published in 2013 in Main Street Rag, was titled “The Book of Souls.” Winston Taylor drew his first breath in that story. I wiped out the short story’s ending and then used it as a springboard to enter the novel. I tried out several outcomes, listening to my characters’ reactions. I’m satisfied with the book’s resolution, but truthfully, I think I could keep writing about Winston forever.

DM: What research was required for the writing of this story? Did you uncover anything that surprised you?

TH: Oh, I love researching! I probably wasted good writing time on this activity though, and might have finished quicker if I hadn’t let myself fall into that internet sinkhole.

My childhood came alive when I read about the 1960s. I shopped for my characters’ clothing in the online pages of Sears and Roebuck. While my husband looked over my shoulder, I chose period-appropriate cars. My face was red, though, when I realized that a Ford Mustang I plucked out of my mind’s eye and parked on Mr. Abe’s sales lot had not even been designed yet.

My dad’s brother sold life insurance during the ‘60s, and he readily answered all my questions. I read old articles on civil rights and protests. My husband and I visited the LBJ Presidential Library in Texas, and I took plenty of notes and pictures of exhibits portraying 1960s life.

A Florida geologist helped me better understand the Florida Aquifer System, which includes sinkholes and springs. Someone at the University of Florida reassured me that buckeyes could be found where Winston walked. After reading a book about deer hunting, I also drove my brother crazy with questions about that sport. I interviewed a friend of a friend who had served with a police unit to learn about arrests and dead bodies and fingerprinting. Originally, I had a Miranda Rights poster hanging in the Pineville Sheriff’s Department interrogation room, but tore it down when an early reader informed me that the Miranda Rights didn’t go into effect until well after this novel took place! My sons shared their knowledge of boats and fishing and tides. Two physicians from my poetry group kindly examined my injured and ill characters.

In thinking of ways to advance the story, I remembered a relative telling me about a Spring 1993 storm that fooled forecasters, defying all expectations by wreaking havoc on Florida’s Big Bend coast with hurricane-force wind gusts, storm surges and even snow. According to articles I read, the storm continued north, carrying heavy snow over the Eastern United States, ultimately taking the lives of over three hundred people. Hmm. Environment, and water in particular, play an antagonistic role in this novel. Since a sinkhole is prominent in the beginning, I liked the idea of water in the story’s climax. I borrowed elements of that “Storm of the Century” and moved them back in time to create a devastating 1960s situation.

Donna Meredith

DM: Your main setting is clearly Perry, Florida, though you changed its name to Pineville. Why change the name? What details were most challenging to get right about the setting?

TH: Because we moved from Perry when I finished elementary school, I have forgotten the fine details of that town. Neighbors’ last names. Streets. Where most things are located. Perry is now more just a feeling I carry from the past, rather than an actual place. Perry is the excitement of the old Pine Tree Festival and classroom visits from Smoky the Bear (only you can prevent forest fires). It is Gladys Morse Elementary School, where my mother was the secretary and I could see her anytime during the school day. But Perry is also the terror of walking in flipflops through a horde of giant grasshoppers, just waiting for one to jump on me. The dread of swimming lessons at the big community pool, the way the water blurred my wide-open eyes. Perry whispers like my mother and her sisters in our kitchen—stifled cries that Aunt Bertie was dead, killed by her own husband. So, I changed the name to Pineville, which somehow seemed a safer place to grow my characters. Or so I thought . . .

DM: How long did you work on this book? Did you have a writers’ group to provide feedback as you worked on it? Who helped you?

TH: It took me two full years to write it: first draft in 2019 and revisions in 2020. I didn’t have a dedicated writing schedule, but wrote when I felt the urge, working around retiree travel and the fun of visitors to our South Carolina home on Lake Murray. In 2021 I queried agents but had no luck. Frustrated, I started small press queries and landed a contract with TouchPoint Press in August of 2022. That was a very happy day!

I did benefit greatly from my writing group in Chapin, SC, which is a chapter of the South Carolina Writers Association. I read every page of that novel to them over those two years of writing/revising, and their feedback and support was critical to my finishing the story. A few members of my Greenville, SC, poetry group read and reviewed it, too. Additionally, my husband, an avid reader of authors such as John Sandford, Michael Connelly, John Grisham, and C. J. Box, read passages of my story, and the whole novel twice. Most of all, he listened to me and my struggles, offered advice, and pushed me to reach the end.

DM: Tell us a little about your background and what got you started as a writer.

As with many writers, I loved libraries, especially as a child. My mother took me there regularly. It was a magical place…the woody, vanilla smell as I wandered through quiet stacks, the reading of random passages I was too young to understand, and always bringing home an armload. In high school I dreamed about creating my own fiction, but I never thought I had the required tools—I didn’t know where to begin. But I attempted a short story anyway, about a one-armed murderer. I sent it to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, that might have been in 1970, and it was rejected for gratuitous violence. I tried to forget it ever happened.

I attended community college while working full time, and managed to fit in a creative writing class. I loved every writing assignment, whether poetry or short fiction. But life happened, and my writing was limited to the drafting of business correspondence for busy executives and school excuse notes for my three children. When my youngest was preparing for college, I decided to do something just for myself. In 2005 I learned of adult classes at Furman University’s OLLI program, and after dialing with trembling fingers and a stuttering heart (“You’re not a real writer,” the devil whispered in my ear), I signed up for the one creative writing class they offered, which was poetry. I never cared much for poetry. But writing was writing.

Fast forward to the present—My poems, short stories and book reviews have appeared in over fifty printed journal and anthology issues such as American Journal of Nursing; Archive: South Carolina Poetry Since 2005; Atlanta Review; Press 53 Open Awards Anthology; Pearl; and The Main Street Rag. I’ve been blessed to win several first prize poetry awards, as well as a few awards for short stories. My poetry chapbook, Breaking Commandments, was published by Main Street Rag Publishing in 2014 and is available for purchase on their website or online at Barnes and Noble.

DM: What are you working on next?

 TH: I’m playing around with a sequel to Winston’s Book of Souls. I’m not sure about it yet. But I’m also hearing a whisper from a little girl who lived in DeFuniak Springs, Florida, during World War II. She keeps talking to me. I think there’s a story there, waiting to be uncovered.

 DM: Terresa, I can’t wait to read the sequel to Winston. Thanks so much for sharing the story of your writing life, and I wish for your continued success in your career.

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