Jamie Langston Turner’s new novel
To See The Moon Again (Berkley Trade) tells the story of two women
on an unlikely journey together. Hope, redemption and family secrets are all
themes readers can expect from this book. Jamie sat down to share with us about
her inspiration, characters and writing process.
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
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
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.