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I happened upon the website of novelist Nancy Peacock in, of all places, the comments section of computer science professor Cal Newport's blog. Newport is the author of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Novelist Nancy Peacock's comments there echoed my own on the topic of social media; moreover, as I am writing about the Seminole Scouts and the Indian Wars in Far West Texas, an undeservedly obscure subject, I was intrigued to learn about her latest novel, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson.
From the catalog copy:
"For fans of Cold Mountain and The Invention of Wings comes a tour de force of historical fiction (Henry Wiencek, author of Master of the Mountain) that follows the epic journey of a slave-turned-Comanche warrior who travels from the brutality of a New Orleans sugar cane plantation to the indomitable frontier of an untamed Texas, searching not only for the woman he loves but so too for his own identity.
I have been to hangings before, but never my own.
Sitting in a jail cell on the eve of his hanging, April 1, 1875, freedman Persimmon Persy Wilson wants nothing more than to leave some record of the truth his truth. He may be guilty, but not of what he stands accused: the kidnapping and rape of his former master's wife.
In 1860, Persy had been sold to Sweetmore, a Louisiana sugar plantation, alongside a striking, light-skinned house slave named Chloe. Their deep and instant connection fueled a love affair and inspired plans to escape their owner, Master Wilson, who claimed Chloe as his concubine. But on the eve of the Union Army s attack on New Orleans, Wilson shot Persy, leaving him for dead, and fled with Chloe and his other slaves to Texas. So began Persy's journey across the frontier, determined to reunite with his lost love. Along the way, he would be captured by the Comanche, his only chance of survival to prove himself fierce and unbreakable enough to become a warrior. His odyssey of warfare, heartbreak, unlikely friendships, and newfound family would change the very core of his identity and teach him the meaning and the price of freedom.
From the author of the New York Times Notable Book Life Without Water, The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson is a sweeping love story that is as deeply moving and exciting an American saga as has ever been penned (Lee Smith, author of Dimestore)."
Check out Nancy Peacock's work on her website, www.nancypeacockbooks.com, and read more about her novel here.
C.M. MAYO: You have been a consistently productive literary writer for many years. How has the digital revolution affected your writing? Specifically, has it become more challenging to stay focused with the siren calls of email, texting, blogs, online newspapers and magazines, Facebook, Twitter, and such? If so, do you have some tips and tricks you might be able to share?
NANCY PEACOCK: My biggest experience with the digital revolution has been with Facebook. After much cajoling from an agent and the culture, I finally opened a Facebook account. That's what we're supposed to do, as writers, right? We're supposed to promote our work every possible way. I was surprised to find things that mattered to me on Facebook, and then, as those things dwindled, I became addicted to searching for them. In the end, my mind became fractured, and I was unable to focus on what I needed to focus on: the writing. I deleted my FB account. I did not disable it. I deleted it, and I feel my mind healing. It was like coming off a drug.
I'm a very private person, and my writing grows from that. I need spaciousness to pull it all together, and spaciousness is coming to be seen a bit like the horse and buggy. Quaint and picturesque, but impractical. But I needed it. Not having it is a deal breaker to me.
I also spend a lot of time on research. Writing any novel requires keeping a lot of plates in the air. Writing a historical novel requires keeping those plates from colliding and breaking against facts and dates. It takes focus. I couldn't focus because social media had splintered my ability to do so.
I think writers, and publishers (maybe especially publishers) need to start taking a bigger picture of what literature means, and what it has to offer that other forms of storytelling, namely movies and television, do not. Writing and reading are ways to slow down. I wish the industry would embrace that, and stop whipping the more, more, more horse.
For me it really came down to either being a writer or presenting as a writer. I chose the former.
C.M. MAYO: Are you in a writing group? If so, can you talk about the members, the process, and the value for you?
NANCY PEACOCK: I am in a writer's group. The group grew from a women's writers group which I led for years, and for income. Over time the members became very solid with each other, and I kept looking in from the position of leader thinking I want to join. I thought that for years. Finally I asked if they would accept me as a member, and they said yes. So I lost some income because I no longer lead the group, but I gained an incredible group. These women are sharp, funny, great listeners and exceptional responders to the written word. We have three novelists (one needs to finish her novel - she knows who she is!), a poet, and an essayist, short story writer, and poet combined into one amazing person, who also bakes great cakes! We've seen each other through life events, sickness, raising children, publication, struggling with the work (although it is mostly me who struggles and crashes with the work) and much more.
I think the format of a writing group is very important, and that not enough people pay attention to that. I don't think just any comment goes. You need an agreement among the members on how to respond. For instance, I once brought in a piece to a different writing group. The piece mentioned being in therapy, and one of the members response was to say she was glad I was still in therapy. She said it again and again, and it was personal, a judgement on my sanity, and had nothing to do with the writing or the story I was telling. This was not OK at all and I tried to discuss it with them and got shot down for it. One of the reasons my current group works so well and has lasted so long is because we follow guidelines that were established at the very beginning.
C.M. MAYO: Did you experience any blocks while writing this novel, and if so, how did you break through them?
NANCY PEACOCK: The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson was the least blocked novel I have ever written. The opening line, "I have been to hangings before, but never my own," arrived to me on a walk I took one morning to watch the sunrise. It literally was suddenly in my head. Out of nowhere. I went home and wrote it down, even though at the time I was very discouraged about writing and publishing and was thinking I might never write again. That evening I watched the documentary about The West by Ken Burns, and I idly wondered if there were any black Indians. I knew there were white Indians from having read The Captured by Scott Zesch years earlier. From these two things, the line in my head and the idea of a black Indian, the first chapter poured out of me.
With some books you labor hard to get to know the characters, and to gain their trust. With others you are possessed. This was a possession. I had to do a lot of research and shape the narrative around historical events, but Persy (Persimmon Wilson) was very willing to talk to me. I had a sense of urgency from him, just as if he was about to hang in a few days time, which at the opening of the novel, he is.
C.M. MAYO: Back to a digital question. At what point, if any, were you working on paper for this novel? Was working on paper necessary for you, or problematic?
NANCY PEACOCK: I mostly compose on the computer. I don't have trouble with it. I trained myself to do it with my first book. When it comes to anything but writing, I don't like being on the screen. It's the interaction between story and me that makes composing on the computer different from all other screen activity. If I get stuck on something, if a scene is not working, I turn to writing by hand. That usually makes something break through that wouldn't come before. I also teach two prompt writing classes each week, during which I write with the students, and I sometimes use that time to work on a novel. I remember vividly writing the scene in which Persy is captured by the Comanche in my class, and reading it to them. It went almost verbatim into the book.
C.M. MAYO: Do you keep in active touch with your readers? If so, do you prefer hearing from them by email, sending a newsletter, a conversation via social media, some combination, or snail mail?
NANCY PEACOCK: I am in active touch with a large group of local writers and readers because I've built a community around a free class that I teach once a month I've been doing this for fifteen years now, and hundreds of people have come through my workshop. Because of this community building, I've built a local fan base. National has proven more difficult, and I don't really think social media helps. I think it's spitting in the wind.
I have a website and occasionally hear from someone via the contact form. I always love hearing from anyone who's read my book. I've found that if someone takes the time to contact me, it's because they liked something in the book, so it's (mostly) been a positive experience.
I'd like to encourage readers to contact writers whose work has impressed them. There's so much competition to the printed page these days. I don't even think publishing houses understand the unique value of the novel.
Another community building activity I hope to organize is a regular letter writing campaign to favorite authors. Real letters. Not email. Real letters (or postcards!) with stamps and handwritten words on them. I am extremely touched when I receive one of these, and I'd like to make a space for readers to reach out to writers. I'd like this to be a regular part of the reading experience. Another nod to the slowing down reading gives you. Nothing says love like snail mail!
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