I was born in Pontotoc, a little town nestled in the red clay hills of north Mississippi, thirty miles from William Faulkner’s Oxford and far from just about everywhere else. Memphis, New Orleans, even Jackson, Mississippi’s capital city, might as well have been worlds away. An only child, I grew up in the household with my parents and maternal grandparents. Six days a week, my dad worked from six in the morning until six at night in his auto parts store, and my mother kept his accounts. They wanted more than anything to give me a better life. When I was very young, I understood I was the center of their world, which may not have been a good thing.
My grandfather died when I was ten, but I can still see him: propped up in his bed, smoking his Lucky Strikes even though he had only one lung, listening to baseball games on the radio. I can see my grandmother, too, baking biscuits on top of an oil heater after an ice storm knocked out our power for days (north Mississippi winters can be harsh) or working in the huge garden she kept without help. She was a teller of stories, a repository of family lore. The untold story was the tense relationship between my grandmother and my mother, who suffered from depression (but nobody talked about it).
Because of my grandfather’s illness and the tensions in the house, I was a quiet child. I loved to read; I played with my dolls; or I roamed our big yard, living much in my imagination. When I was eight years old, I wrote a mystery story my dad showed to his friend, a self-proclaimed mystery buff, who read it and pronounced it good. I remember my elation: I had written a story, and someone—a grownup, at that—liked it! Somewhere along the way, though, I lost interest in writing and moved on to other things. I wrote only what was required in school.
I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. I graduated from The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) with majors in English and Psychology. Neither was practical, but back then, we Southern girls were schooled to believe our highest calling was to become a wife and mother, and if we didn’t get engagement rings for Christmas our senior year, we were considered failures. I married a medical student—finding a nice young man with good prospects was part of the scenario—and after a stint in a telephone engineering office that had nothing to do with either English or psychology, I became a stay-at-home mom. Fifteen years and four children later, the marriage failed. I went to work as a preschool teacher and started graduate school, earning a Master’s degree in English from Mississippi College, where I enrolled in my first creative writing workshop. At forty, I began to figure out who I really was.
For more than twenty years, I taught English to high school students at an independent school in Jackson, Mississippi, where I launched a Creative Writing program and an award-winning student literary magazine. Sharing my love of reading and writing with students rekindled my desire to write. I read everything I could find about writing craft and wrote along with my students. One summer, praise for a short story I wrote as a workshop assignment at Bard College’s Creative Week for Teachers started me thinking that maybe mid-life wasn’t too late to become a writer, after all. Not long after the Bard experience, I enrolled in a poetry workshop at the Sewanee Writers Conference. On alternate days I sat in on Tim O’Brien and Ellen Douglas’s short fiction workshop. I took notes furiously while those authors unveiled a world of storytelling I’d never imagined. Since then, I’ve participated in workshops with other authors I admire, among them Dorothy Allison, Jane Hamilton, Andre Dubus III, Antonya Nelson, and Claire Messud. Residencies at Ragdale, Hambidge, and Rivendell have provided the rare but necessary spells of intense work I thrive on.
Over the years the untold stories that shaped me became the stories I could tell. The novel beginning that would become Spirit Light won a best-of-workshop award at the Writers in Paradise Conference (Eckerd College, St. Petersburg, Florida) in 2011. Stories found their way to publication and even scored as finalists in a few contests. In 2014 “Mating” won the Prime Number Short Story Contest. The following year, my debut collection, Crosscurrents and Other Stories, was published by Press 53. Crosscurrents was a Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Fiction Award Nominee in 2016. Also in 2016, an early draft of my novel, Spirit Light, was a finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition. I have been a recipient of a Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Arts Fellowship.
Spirit Light is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in 2024. In this novel I return to the myths of my childhood and the rural landscape of north Mississippi. The land has changed little since my grandparents’ day. The back roads still cut through the red clay hills like gashes in the earth. It’s a harsh, beautiful place that shapes the lives of the people who live there, just as it did long ago.
A seventh generation Mississippian, I live in Jackson with my husband, a rescue cat named Zoe who arrived here under the hood of an eighteen-wheeler, and a stray, Garcia, named for the black panther in one of my stories, who is conflicted about coming inside. I’m currently at work on a linked story collection, and a sequel to Spirit Light is not out of the question.
Regal House Publishing is proud to present Gerry Wilson’s Spirit Light in the spring of 2024.