The author shares her thoughts about her new award-winning novel, The Accidentals, her creative process, and her life as a Southern writer.
- interview by Harry Philpott
Whenever we write about the South, we do so with a capital “S.” While there are other regions in the United States that garner capitalization — the Midwest, the Northeast, and the West — only the latter carries the same mythic weight of the South.
These two distinct cultural and geographic regions have been of enormous importance to the lives and works of our nation’s poets, artists, and writers. To be born in the West or the South is to be tethered to and influenced by a place culturally, linguistically, and creatively. The West influences through its dry, endless, expansiveness; the South by its humid, low-down closeness. At times there can even be a repressive feeling in the sultry southern air.
Minrose Gwin is a writer whose life’s work has been profoundly impacted by the South, where she was born and raised. Gwin grew up in northern Mississippi during the civil rights era of the 1960s, and has devoted her professional life to writing and teaching about the racial history of the South.
These writings include three novels, a memoir, and four books of cultural and literary criticism. All address this complicated cultural past and present head-on. Her most recent novel, The Accidentals, which was recently awarded the 2020 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for fiction, is no exception.
All of Minrose Gwin’s novels are set in parts of Mississippi and New Orleans. The Accidentals opens in the fictional Mississippi town of Opelika. From there, the novel traverses the southern side roads and highways, confronting the region’s race, gender, and class-related discrepancies.
With The Accidentals, Gwin set out to first “bring to life the terrible desperation of women and girls who faced unwanted pregnancies in the pre-Roe vs. Wade southern United States.” From this bud blossomed a multi-generational tale of the McAlister family.
The novel primarily focuses around the McAlister daughters, June and Grace, whose lives unfold across five decades. Gwin also gives life to a range of other first-person narrators, whose voices embody the racial and gender struggles faced by southern residents from the civil rights era to the modern day.
Each of the major personal moments faced by the book’s characters coincide with major historical and cultural events, from the murder of young Emmett Till, to the election of Barack Obama. It is through this historical backdrop that Gwin examines racial and gender injustice in the South across the span of the past 50-odd years.
In anticipation of her scheduled participation in the Tennessee Williams Fest (since cancelled), Gwin shared her thoughts about The Accidentals and gave us insights into her creative process, her life as a Southern author, and the ways the passage of time affects our lives.
Q: The Accidentals is primarily centered between New Orleans and the fictional town Opelika, Mississippi in the 1950s and ’60s. You were raised in Mississippi around this time, so how much of your own personal experience of growing up in this region influenced the writing of this novel? What is your relationship with New Orleans today?
A. Eudora Welty famously said that location is “the heart’s field” of fiction. My writing has centered on Mississippi, while pivoting back and forth between my home state and New Orleans. What I wanted to do first and foremost in this novel was to bring to life the terrible desperation of women and girls who faced unwanted pregnancies in the pre-Roe vs. Wade southern United States: what their meager options were. There are three unwanted pregnancies in this novel, each with a different outcome. I wanted to write about illegal abortions in the rural South. This was before the Pill was readily available, especially to unmarried girls and women.
As to the city, I love it! My partner of thirty years was born and raised here in a large Irish-Italian family. The ten of them lived in half a double shotgun on Miro Street in the Ninth Ward. The two of us have owned two houses in New Orleans. Katrina destroyed one; an illegal catering operation and an Airbnb (in the same house!) ran us out of the other. Now we visit family and good friends here about four times a year. New Orleans keeps popping up in my novels, from the first, The Queen of Palmyra, to The Accidentals. The novel I’m working on now has even more of a toehold in the city.
Q. Your book is told through seven different point-of-view characters. I also found it to be a deeply personal and emotional book. What was it like having to inhabit the minds of these seven different characters? How did it affect you emotionally or creatively?
A. Getting into the heads of seven different characters was a huge stretch for me! In my first novel, The Queen of Palmyra, I’d used one first-person narrator; in my second, Promise, a close omniscient narrator focusing in on only two characters. The biggest challenge with The Accidentals is making sure each character had her or his distinctive voice, which was especially hard with the two sisters. I always try to think of my characters as people who struggle. Struggle is the fodder of fiction.
Although having seven characters speaking in their own voices was challenging, to say the least, it enables the reader to get inside their struggles in a way that a limited or even omniscient point of view would not. In the writing of the novel, I had to take breaks between chapters of at least a couple of days so as to recalibrate. Also, it was incredibly difficult to rotate among these voices and advance the plot at the same time.
Q. Was there one character in particular whose eyes were easiest to look through? If so, who was it, and why them?
A. An interesting and complicated question. Truth is, I loved all the characters in this novel, even the father, Holly, who carries “the boy in his belly” during the fighting in World War II and will do just about anything to make sure his dream of a male child becomes reality. Different characters at different times in their lives were easiest to write, but I can’t isolate just one.
Q. I also found this book to be incredibly funny at times. How do you go about balancing the emotional heft of this novel with humor? Do you think that humor is essential to all good storytelling?
I’m not sure it’s essential to all good storytelling, but it certainly felt essential to The Accidentals. This is a story of two young girls whose mother dies from a botched backwoods abortion, and how their lives fan out from that one tragic event, which shadows everything they become. With an opening chapter like this one — a woman dying from an illegal abortion — there needed to be some humor in this book!
Q. There are many themes which are central to this book, but the one that stood out to me was time and how time affects our lives, how our perceptions of time change as we age, and how time is ever-present. How did you go about capturing the passage of time from a structural standpoint? Do you think that you could have written this novel 10, 15, or 20 years ago?
A. Capturing the passage of time was the other major challenge I faced in writing The Accidentals. This is partly why each important personal moment in The Accidentals is accompanied by a historical event: the murder of young Emmett Till, which sparked the civil rights movement of the later 1950s and 1960s; the Russians putting little Laika into orbit; the Cuban Missile Crisis; the day the first man walked on the moon; the explosion of Challenger; the first election of Barack Obama as President. Each of these events not only punctuates the characters’ lives and struggles, but they also suggest the way personal and cultural histories collide and coalesce.
For instance, Ed Mae Johnson’s life explodes when she makes the mistake of thinking about her own children while taking care of another. One of the hardest parts of the novel was to make the historical and personal timelines match. I also wanted to imbue the novel with the feeling of fear, both personal and historical, during the Cold War.
And no, I don’t think I could have written this novel when I was younger. I’m old enough now to know how time works to change, even reverse, our perceptions and affiliations. Life, like writing, is infinitely surprising if you stick around long enough.
Q. Birds and birdwatching are also central to this novel. There are dozens of allusions, similes scenes, and metaphors which all rely on birds. Are you an avid birdwatcher yourself? If you are, what is it about birdwatching that you enjoy? What sort of research was involved in writing this novel?
A. For so many of us, birds represent beauty, flight, and freedom, things that Olivia McAlister and her daughters Grace and June yearn for. Animals of all sorts are a large part of my life, as they are for my characters. The inspiration for The Accidentals was the little Sputnik dog Laika, the idea of intense confinement within the vastness of space and in the act of flight, which struck me as the plight of many American women post WWII. This book is overrun with animals of all stripes: Laika, giraffes, the extinct Carolina parakeet, a multitude of unattractive dogs, a cat who sniffs out marital infidelity, and so on. And yes, the birds and the whole idea of flight hold special significance. The love of birds is a gift, a legacy, a deep yearning Olivia passes along to her daughters, Grace and June.
I’ve always loved birds. I have set up feeders and nest boxes everywhere I’ve lived, though I’m not what’s called a professional birder. Birds are spiritual. They give us a sense that there’s a world beyond what we can imagine; their migrations offer us a sense of the great circle of being. This is the larger sphere Ed Mae Johnson speaks of at the end of the book.
The question of research is a larger one. Yes! Lots of research, from plotting Holly’s path in battle, to “necking” in giraffes, to the Cuban Missile Crisis — and so much more!
Q. Southern life and the always-present specter of the South’s troubled past seem to be themes that come up often in your writing. What is it that draws you to the South’s cultural and historical past as a mine for storytelling? What have you learned from revisiting that era through your writing?
A. I grew up in Mississippi as a white girl during the 1960s and have devoted much of my life to writing and teaching about the racial history of the South. Wearing another hat, I’ve written four books of cultural and literary criticism on this topic, including Remembering Medgar Evers: Writing the Long Civil Rights Movement.
In my three published novels and my memoir, I’ve addressed this topic squarely, dipping back into the 1960s, the 1930s, and in The Accidentals, the 1950s up to the election of our first African-American President. All of my novels, including the one I’m finishing up now, are set in Mississippi, with side roads (Highway 90!) leading to New Orleans. Whatever period I’m working with, I feel that, as a white Southerner, I have a profound responsibility to the subject of racial injustice, which is so much still with us today.
Q. The title of your book, The Accidentals, is a term that refers to birds that have been blown off course and find themselves outside of their natural ranges. What drew you to this idea of characters finding themselves blown off course? Is there a time in your life where you’ve felt like an “accidental” yourself?
A. Yes, birds and other migratory creatures like whales are sometimes are blown off course in their migrations and become “accidentals.” The idea of becoming an accidental struck me as enormously generative. We all get blown off course in our lives, myself included.
What I’ve found in my own life, and also in my writing, is that getting blown off course can lead to surprising flights of the imagination. The paths we forge for ourselves aren’t always the most exciting ones, or the ones that will teach us what we need to learn. Life surprises us if we let it: a series of accidents, both tragic and miraculous. The same is true when writing fiction; we have to be open to surprise, to astonishment.
In The Accidentals, for example, when June gets sick and her husband leaves her, she thinks her life is over; instead, it takes a sharp turn back toward her past and her sister, all of which gives her a purpose — dare I say a sense of joy? — she didn’t have before.
Harry Philpott grew up around books and barbecue in the Piedmont region of North Carolina. After college at the University of North Carolina, he tramped around the country for a few years, settling in Oregon for a time before heading back to North Carolina. He now resides in New Orleans, LA where he is pursuing his MFA in Creative Non-Fiction at the University of New Orleans. He currently serves as an intern for the French Quarter Journal.