Interview with Jill McCroskey Coupe

SLR:  Thank you for the opportunity to interview you. I really enjoyed your novel, Beginning with Cannonballs. Did you draw on any “real life” experiences in this story? What would you say this story is about, in the big picture sense?

Jill McCroskey Coupe

JMC:  I’m very glad to know you liked my book. I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, at a time when racial segregation was so complete — neighborhoods, schools, hospitals — that I rarely saw a black child. A friendship like Hanna and Gail’s would have been extremely rare. In trying to imagine a scenario in which a white girl and a black girl could have met and become friends, I came up with the idea of a live-in maid whose daughter lived in with her. I thought of the novel as a “what-if?” story. What if, during those days of racial segregation, a white girl and a black girl had been able to become friends? Would the friendship have lasted?

SLR:  Beginning with Cannonballs is composed episodically. What motivated your decision to organize the story this way?  

JMC:  At first, I envisioned the book as a series of linked stories. Upon realizing that the two mothers, Sophie and Bessie, would play important roles in their daughters’ friendship, I added stories from the mothers’ points of view. Thanks to feedback I received in a writing workshop, I came to see that what I was writing was not a story collection but a novel.

SLR:  Your MFA thesis at Warren Wilson College was a novella about an interracial friendship. How is Beginning with Cannonballs different?

JMC:  In my MFA thesis, one of the friends died in the first chapter. As I began thinking about tackling the subject again, I realized that the friendship needed to be more central to the story. The friendship had to be tested — and to survive, or not, on its own merits. I was a beginning writer at Warren Wilson. I’m still learning. But I know in my heart that Beginning with Cannonballs is the better effort.

SLR:  What research did you do to gain insight into the racial relations at the time of the story?

JMC:  I observed segregation first-hand. As a child, I didn’t understand the whys of it, or the history behind it, and, like most Southerners, I wasn’t taught those things in school. In the Tennessee public schools we learned something about the Cherokee Indians and the Trail of Tears but nothing at all about the history of slavery. I’ve since done a lot of reading and will continue to do so.

SLR:  How do you hope Beginning with Cannonballs will be received by the literary community?

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JMC:  If my MFA thesis can be considered a first draft, then I spent decades writing this novel. I do hope readers will enjoy and appreciate it.

SLR:  Did any of your favorite authors help shape your own writing style? 

JMC:  One of my very favorite authors is Muriel Spark. She was almost exactly my mother’s age, so younger readers may not be familiar with her fiction. I admire her wry take on human behavior and her ironic wit and dark humor. I truly doubt that any of Dame Muriel has seeped into my own writing, but I would be thrilled to be told that it has.

SLR:  Thank you for the interview! 

JMC:  And thank you for the opportunity and for the questions.

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