DTH: Now you’re a seasoned author. What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were writing your first book?
MG: I would say don’t be such a perfectionist. Try to get it down on paper. Try to get the story out as quickly as you can and then worry about revising. Because that way, you manage to produce a book of good quality, hopefully, that is written more expeditiously. It took me a very long time to write “The Queen of Palmyra,” which was my first novel. And it took me an even longer time to write my memoir, which came out in 2004. Get it down on paper, and then you can tinker with it and work on it.
DTH: What’s your favorite book you’ve written so far?
MG: My favorite is my most recent, “Promise,” just because I feel so close to it. It is my baby. I haven’t sent it out into the world. It hasn’t settled yet in the world. It’s still a part of me and a part of the writing.
The main lesson I learned from writing “Promise” is that sometimes, historical accounts of the past can clear too tidy of a path. Sometimes it takes a story to show the mess and confusion and anguish of the historical moment. That’s what “Promise” taught me: that fiction sometimes can speak truth to history, that sometimes fiction can be truer, in a sense, in exploring the human condition than fact can.
DTH: Tell me about your most recent novel, “Promise.” What is it about?
MG: The novel is about the Tupelo, Miss. tornado of 1936. It is, to this date, still the fourth-most-deadly tornado in the history of the country, according to the official casualty figures: 233 dead and around 1,000 injured. This was back in the Great Depression, and the tornado leveled about half of the town. It packed winds up to 318 mph. It leveled 48 city blocks. People were dangling in trees, dead and alive. They were buried under debris. They’d been blown into a small lake and pinned under with debris. It was a landscape of devastation.
The reason I wrote the book is because I’m from Tupelo, and I heard all these stories ... What I didn’t know, and what I learned only recently, and what caused me to write the book, was that the members of the African-American community had not been counted in the official death toll. This official death toll, some people feel you should probably double the 233 deaths, because the African-American community made up one-third of the town. This just angered me and gripped me and made me want to write this novel.
The story takes place on the sixth day after the storm. It’s about two missing baby boys. One is named Promise. The book is rendered from the perspective of an African-American great-grandmother, who takes in laundry from white people’s homes and does their laundry in her home and then returns it clean. The second main character is a white teenage girl named Jo. Both of them are trying to traverse this landscape of devastation. They are linked together by an act of sexual violence of which Promise, the baby, was the result.
DTH: What are the prominent themes of your novel?
MG: This is a book that comes from a deep place for me — just because this was my town, this was my history, this was my community. The book focuses on three different elements that I think are very pertinent to our contemporary world. One is natural disaster and our responses to natural disaster, the second is racial injustice and the third is sexual violence. The book is dedicated to the uncounted of the tornado.
The book raises the question of what people matter, whose bodies get counted and what people count in our society. I think this is a very pertinent question now — after Ferguson and Charlottesville and Charleston and all of these events that have happened — that shows us how deep racism runs in our culture. I see this book as being a conversation as much about our present day, and even our future, as it is about the past.
DTH: What advice would you offer to students that want to write novels one day?
MG: I would say sit down and write them. You have to learn to love the practice of writing because that will carry you through all of your failures and all of your successes. If you have this deep inner love for parking yourself down in a chair, a couch, the floor or wherever and working on your story or poem or whatever. You have to have a love for the practice, not for the successes or the recognition, because sometimes that will come, and sometimes it won’t. To have a love for that practice, you have to have a certain kind of faith in yourself and in the story, or the poem, that you want to write.