Q&A: Jamie Langston Turner (To See the Moon Again)
Your main characters are Julia, who is sort of hiding from life and Carmen, who is seeking it out. What was it like to create two very different characters and watch them interact?
I used to love being present when my husband’s aunt and father were in the same place at the same time. Aunt Ila was a spinster, retired from thirty-five years on the mission field in Brazil, and Dad Turner was a retired Baptist minister. You would think the two of them would have a great deal in common, having attended the same Bible college in Minnesota, having given their lives to Christian ministry for many years, and sharing a deep affection for my mother-in-law—Aunt Ila’s sister and Dad’s wife. In most ways, however, they were total opposites, and that’s where the fun started—for me, that is, but not for my gentle mother-in-law, who was always on pins and needles when the two of them were together, for she knew hot words would erupt sooner or later, usually sooner. One memorable disagreement between them ended with Aunt Ila saying, “Well, just go ahead and call me a dummy then!” before she stalked out of the room.
I loved and appreciated Dad and Aunt Ila for a lot more than their humorous spats, of course, but I suppose my enjoyment of contrasting characters in fiction is rooted in my observations of real life. I’ve always enjoyed creating characters who are opposites and then putting them together in situations that highlight their differences. Writers know that readers want sparks to fly, sometimes in big, splashy showdowns but more often in subtle ways. Conflict is at the heart of good fiction. A novel in which the primary characters are too much alike, whether good or bad, would seem bland, confusing, and undramatic. The same goes for a novel in which all the characters get along together and succeed easily.
I’m not sure whether Julia or Carmen took shape in my mind first, but I knew from the outset that they would look at life from totally different angles. As the story unfolded, I realized that they had much to teach each other and that these kinds of lessons should come quietly and slowly, by observation and reflection rather than didactic commentary.
As you know some novels are plot driven, and some are character driven. Sometimes, you even find a jewel that is both. This novel seems to be both. Do you agree? Do you usually write plot or character driven books?
Interesting question. I think of plot-driven books as the kind Tom Clancy and John Grisham write, whereas good examples of character-driven books are Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Home. I enjoy reading both kinds, but I’m partial to the latter. (I’ve read Home at least eight times.) Plot-driven novels can seem superficial and manipulated, and character-driven ones can be ponderous and tedious, so they both have their pitfalls. I would love to think I had found the perfect balance by blending deep, rich, multifaceted characters into a well-paced, riveting plot, but I would never claim that high mark of achievement. I know this, however. The starting point for any book I’ve ever written has always been an interesting character in a difficult situation. The two elements—the character and his/her initial problem—usually introduce themselves to me at the same time, and the plot develops from there.
How was this project different from previous ones?
I love relationship stories, and this one is certainly in that category. I also like mysteries, so there’s a touch of that in a couple of my books, this one included. As a teacher of writing and literature, it’s natural to weave literary references into my novels. In this book I used one of my favorite authors, Flannery O’Connor, for thematic unity. Furthermore, I don’t like to tie everything up neatly at the end of a book since that’s not a true picture of real life. So those are some ways my new book is like my previous ones, which wasn’t the question you asked.
Now to answer it. As a Southerner, I like setting my books in the part of the country I know best, but this novel is different in that the characters take a significant journey to the Northeast—a journey in which the turning point of the plot occurs. I found that I enjoyed traveling outside my geographical comfort zone more than I thought I would, but I did bring the story back home before it was over.
In addition, this book felt emotionally heavier than some of my earlier ones, so perhaps that’s another difference.
Where did you get the inspiration for this book?
The idea for my new book, To See the Moon Again, started stirring in my heart five years ago when we learned that our first grandchild was on her way. We visited her in New England when she was only a month old, and something about the inexpressible wonder of holding our child’s child for the first time, combined with the autumn beauty of Connecticut, set the course and tone for a new story. I knew it would be set in South Carolina, where my earlier novels had been set, but I also knew it would include a trip to the Northeast. And a baby, of course.
“Inspiration” is a tricky word. After a book gets going, it’s often hard to trace it back to its source. Besides the big event mentioned above, I suppose a preoccupation with letting go of past mistakes also went into the mix as well as my longtime admiration for Flannery O’Connor.
You've won many awards over the years for your novels. What goes into writing a novel for you? What does your writing process look like?
First of all, I’m a slow writer. It takes an average of two years for me to complete a manuscript. I revise endlessly. I don’t start a new chapter until I’m satisfied with the previous one, though “satisfied” is never a definite, final sensation. I don’t think any writer ever says, “Yes, this is perfect at last.”
I like what Flannery O’Connor said about starting a new story: “I sniff it out like a hound dog.” A big part of the adventure of writing fiction is the slow discovery of who your characters really are and the large truths that arise from their actions and interactions. Maybe I’m just not patient enough to figure all of this out ahead of time, but even if I were, the writing itself would seem rather anticlimactic if I knew too much ahead of time. So I’m not an outliner. I may have a general idea of what will happen in a chapter, such as “they’re going to take a trip to the beach” or “her grandmother is going to die,” but there’s nothing predetermined on a chart, and I like to let the chapter itself take the lead. Sometimes, for example, the chapter I thought would include a trip to the beach takes a detour and they end up walking through a cemetery instead. And that’s okay. The characters themselves are wonderful guides for the writer who’s willing to trust them.
When a character begins to take shape, he often imposes his will on the plot in some odd way I can’t explain. Sometimes when a character reveals something big about himself that I didn’t realize from the beginning, I’ll have to go back to an earlier chapter and reinforce/delete parts for the sake of consistency. Often, however, I’m amazed to find that the groundwork was already laid for the unexpected turn. Perhaps it’s partly a demonstration of the writer’s subconscious at work all along, but I believe it’s rooted in a higher, more reliable source. When a plot holds together, I see it as an answer to my constant prayer for guidance. If God cares about me enough to direct my calling in life, why wouldn’t he care about the details of my work?
What advice would you give to writers?
Here are just a few words off the top of my head. Read widely in all the genres, not just the one you’re most interested in writing in. You might love fantasy, but be sure you also read historical fiction, mysteries, realistic, even experimental. Listen closely to people talking, not only for the information and stories they pass along but also for the natural rhythms of speech. But in all your listening and note-taking, never forget that people are more important than your writing. Never ever view people simply as material for your next book. A writer who’s not a compassionate person will never write as deeply and movingly as one who truly cares about his fellow man. Take time to help people; it’s good for the soul and part of God’s plan for every believer.
Also, be persistent and hopeful. Even when you get rejection slips in the mail instead of acceptance letters accompanied by large checks, keep trying. Each of my many rejection slips represents a time when I put a manuscript in the mail with high hopes, and each one also represents another day when I was greatly disappointed. More importantly, each one also convinced me I needed to try again. Sometimes I sent out the same piece with the same results, sometimes another editor at another place was interested, sometimes I revised it and kept trying, and sometimes I had to finally file it away under “R.I.P.” The point is, don’t be easily discouraged. There are all kinds of stories about successful writers whose masterpieces were turned down time and time again, but eventually they succeeded and now we’ve all heard of them. Just one well-known example: The first book by Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) was rejected by 27 publishers before an editor at the 28th publishing house decided to give him a chance. Writing takes a thick skin and a terrier-like tenacity, but in the end the rewards are incomparable. The process itself expands you in ways you can’t imagine or predict.
In all of your hard work and goal-setting, however, don’t forget to take time to enjoy the simple pleasures of family, friends, music, hobbies, nature, books. And, finally, pray earnestly for God’s blessing on your writing. Ask him to increase your understanding, strengthen your resolve, open up new ways of thinking, show you when to press forward and when to pull back. As a writer, you’ll be on your own a great deal, humanly speaking. You can’t expect someone to always be there to read, critique, guide; you usually have to grope through thorny plot problems and find your own way. This is part of being a writer, so be willing and ready to struggle, to feel occasional frustration, to discard whatever doesn’t work, and always to keep aspiring to excellence.