Interview: Nancy Peacock Author of The Life and Times of Persimmon Wilson: A Novel

Winner of the 2013 Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for Best Indie Book

It’s 1875 in Drunken Bride, Texas, and the eve of former slave turned Comanche warrior Persimmon Wilson’s hanging. Nancy Peacock has created an enthralling character in Persy and a story that is at once an epic adventure, a love story, and a history lesson. We talked to Peacock about the novel.  

Shelf Unbound: How did you come to the idea of writing a novel about a slave?

Nancy Peacock: The original idea was to explore the possibility of a black man riding with the Comanche Indians. I’d read a book several years earlier about white captives (mostly children) of the Comanche who assimilated into the tribe and even fought with them. I found myself asking the writer’s favorite question—What if? What if a black man rode with the Comanche. That led to the next question—How did he get there? I kept on like this until I had backed it all the way up to a cane plantation in Louisiana. The reason for that location was that I knew New Orleans had fallen early in the Civil War, and I knew that some of the plantation owners fled to Texas with the enslaved people so as to keep what they saw as their property. I thought that this would be one way for my character to end up in Texas—and it almost happened that way.

 Shelf: Your first line is one of the best I’ve ever read: “I have been to hangings before, but never my own.”  Tell us about writing that line.

Peacock: Thank you. It’s one of my favorite lines too, and it just came to me one day. 

I think that writing—and all art—takes a lot of psychic space, and I was in a place like that, a place of inner spaciousness, when I started wondering about a black man riding with the Comanche—and then that line just showed up in my head. I didn’t so much write it as deliver it. That’s the way it was working with the character of Persy. He has an incredible strength to him, and a lot of focus, which made my job a lot easier. I did not need to go in search of him, so much as get out of his way and be his writer, and check the historical facts to make all the puzzle pieces fit together. 

I really believe that sometimes a story and a character choose a writer, rather than the other way around, and I think that is why that psychic space, that spaciousness for art is so important. 

Shelf: The novel takes place in Louisiana and Texas in the late 1800s.
How did you go about researching the regions in this era?

Peacock: This was hard. These are two places I had never been, and could not afford to visit, so I had to piece it together without the benefit of travel. Once I had accepted that this was the way it was going to be I started trying to figure out how. I felt that Louisiana would not be too difficult. I knew swamps, and I knew rivers. I read a lot about cane planting and processing, and created Sweetmore, the plantation where Persy is enslaved. In the Louisiana section he stays in one place, so once I’d created that place it could continue to serve me as the setting. 

But Texas! Texas is a big place with lots of ecosystems, and Persy is traveling in most of the Texas section. I watched some movies that were supposed to be set in Texas, but the thing that really helped was drawing my own map, and then looking up national and state parks, getting pictures of them and marking them on a map. In this way I got a handle on what sort of terrain Persy would be passing through. I also read a lot of memoirs and diaries from the period, and these provided some good description.

Shelf: Your characters use the word “nigger,” which woul have been accurate for the time. Did you have any qualms about using it?  

Peacock: Yes, I did. But it was necessary to use it as it is true to that period, and I always try to stay true to the story. I open every reading saying that this is an offensive word, and that I only use it the context of fiction, and apologizing to anyone who still finds offense with it. 

Shelf: In writing out his life story just prior to his hanging, Persy is candid about his shortcomings, for example of his lies to Chloe about escape plans he never actually makes, he says, “I told Chloe whatever I thought she wanted to hear, and she rewarded me with her love.” Yet he is unrepentant of the murders he commits when he later becomes Twist Rope, a Comanche warrior. Was it your intent from the start to write him as an emotionally and morally complex character or did that develop as he emerged?

Peacock: I think that to be human is to be emotionally and morally complex. As a reader I find these sorts of characters the most believable and the most interesting. As a writer I hope for my humanity to touch my characters’ humanity. In other words, I try to understand what it was like to be that person, and to be other people in the story. 

If I were Chloe, trapped in the big house with a man who rapes me, I would desperately want to escape. And if I were Persy, I would be frightened to try. Persy understands the swamps and the danger better than Chloe. Yet he is a man, and I think every man who is in love wants to please his woman, wants to save her from any unpleasantness if he can. What Chloe was going through was more than unpleasant of course. It was an impossible situation, and one that many enslaved people lived with. I think Persy told Chloe these lies as much to convince himself that he was doing something as to convince her. 

Later, riding with the Comanche he becomes a warrior, something he could never be while enslaved. He carries guilt about not being able to protect Chloe, but this is something that will never happen again. He’s empowered. 

It’s also important to remember that these were bloody times, and Persy had seen killing before. The killing he participated in as a Comanche was just sanctioned by a different group of people than the killing he’d seen previously. All the acts of violence Persy witnesses were sanctioned by someone. 

All this came from really trying to listen to the characters. We all share something as human beings, and this is why fiction is possible, and why being moved by a story is possible. I think stories connect us in deep ways, ways that we could not otherwise connect. 

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