Monday 5 April 2010

I Interviewed My FAVORITE Author: Nancy Turner

Oh My Goodness! I had the opportunity to interview my very favorite author of all time, Nancy Turner!! *SQUEEL!!* She is SO nice! I knew she would be! I just knew it!

Many of you know her as author of These is My Words. The most amazing book I have ever read in my life. I've never been connected to characters like this!

Check out the series:
These is My Words
Sarah's Quilt
The Star Garden

I hope you check them out. You won't be sorry. There is even a MINI Giveaway at the end of this post!!

Let me introduce you to my favorite author, Nancy Turner!


Welcome Nancy! Thank you so much for joining us on The Sweet Bookshelf! Let's get this sweet party started.

Sweet Bookshelf: For those who don't know, How did you come up with the idea for These is My Words?

Nancy Turner: Sarah Agnes Prine was my great grandmother. Everything I knew about her when I began writing the short story that turned into These Is My Words could have filled less than a single page. All my life I heard stories about her but the facts were few. So, as a freshman (forty years old) at a Junior College, when I got an assignment to write a short story about someone I wanted to get to know, she was the first person I thought of. The earliest record we have of her she would have been 16. How better to get to know a teenager than to read her diary? The only connection I had to her real life was a memoir written by her brother, several years her senior, that detailed a wagon train trip from the Four Corners area (Cottonwood springs isn't near Cottonwood, AZ but up near Monument Valley) down through central AZ to Benson and east to Texas. I used the information about the trip from Henry Prine's memoir but told the story through the eyes of a 16 year old Sarah. In reality she had nine children who lived to adulthood, and probably two more that didn't. She never went to school but longed to, that much is true; never did anything notable other than work "like two men" according to her children until she died in her nineties. She quit ranching in her mid seventies because she could no longer hit what she was aiming at with a lasso. (I'm amazed that she was on a horse throwing one!) There wasn't a diary - people have often asked where I found it. And I don't know if Sarah did all those things because mostly her life consisted of diapers and babies for about twenty years, but my grandmother read These Is My Words and said it did seem much like her mother, combined a little with her grandmother, Sarah's mother, whose name was Roxie Stockman and was in Sarah's words "a toot."

Tell us about your road to publication.

I was a student at Pima Community College, trying to become a high school English teacher. After the short story class, I signed up for the following semester taught by the same teacher but instead of being about short stories it was about novel-writing, from conception to publishing. Without anyone knowing, my little short story had grown to over 500 pages, so following the teacher's lecture on agent hunting, I started sending out letters to agents in New York. A year and forty letters later, the phone rang and a man said he'd like to read the rest of my story. I sent it to him and he said he wanted to represent my novel. I have worked with the same agent ever since. That was 1994, and I was still at Pima. I was after all a full time wife and mom, working part time, and going to school besides writing novels, so I didn't feel the need to fast pace through college. In fact I'd still be there taking classes if they'd let me major in everything! It took the agent a year and a half to sell the book.. One publisher at a time, he sent it out to all the big companies in New York. At the point of giving up, he called me in the wee hours of a Sunday morning to say he'd met a new editor at HarperCollins at the party he was attending, and she wanted to see the book.

Four days later she made an offer on it, contingent on my willingness to rewrite the entire thing as a third-person narrative in traditional style rather than the diary style.
Luckily, she listened to me when I talked to her about the reasons for the diary and listed several popular books with the same tight first-person Point of View. She did, however, ask me to write in many paragraphs of explanation throughout the book, and halfway through the process she got a job in another company. They assigned my novel to a newcomer who was a very young man. I worried about what it would be like to work with him but all he said was that there was too much explanation in the book and would I tighten it up. So I sent the original version to him and we worked from that, still cutting a few things but I believe it's about 98 percent intact and still the novel I wrote. I do credit him with making it slicker and easier to read than the original, which had much MORE of the rustic language.

Although a work of fiction, are there any events that actually happened in Sarah's life?
Everything that happened in the first 25 or so pages really happened to the family (except the rape of Ulyssa). They did encounter dangerous travelers but no one would have written of such a thing, even the girl it had happened to - people just didn't talk about sex in any way back then. I don't know that it really went that way at all, but the Lawrence girls were real people and Henry's memoir (from which I created the character of Albert, the older brother) said that he fell in love with a girl from "the other" wagon and married her when they got to San Angelo.
As far as the rest of the novel, many things that the characters do are created to depict internal conflict, character depth, and story line, but to also discover the lady who was my great grandmother and illustrate the oral history I'd heard all my childhood about her. The only thing I know about her real husband was that he died 40 or more years before she did. Other than that, his name was Jasper. But, I like a novel with some romance in it, even if it is not a boiler-plate romance novel, so I had Sarah remarry after Jimmy. I created Jack Elliot as the perfect soul mate for her because she was such an independent, strong woman, and would have been either emotionally strangled by a domineering man or bored stiff by a dull one.

Did Sarah fight Indians? Yes, and her mother Roxie carried a loaded rifle everywhere. She and Sarah blended together for the sake of the story. Sarah cooked, rode horses, ranched, gardened, and quilted. She raised cotton and hay, too. Her children said she worked like two men all her life.

The rest of it came from months of research into Arizona history to create as realistic a setting as I could. All the Indian confrontations really happened on those dates, with those Indians and the correct Cavalry units. All the medical information came from the Az Historical Society and even though it was unusual there were actually two hospitals in Tucson during those years, St. Mary's and St. Joseph's hospitals were begun by nuns with great medical skill who came from Louisiana. You can be sure that old Tucson would have been pretty much as it seems, the fort (Camp Lowell) still has ruins that can be explored, and Mr. Fish ran the general mercantile and married the school teacher, Miss Wakefield. I learned about corsets and button-up shoes, Army carbines and horse tack, windmills and gas lamps, plus all the history behind the story. The national and state politics, the coming railroad, the stark weather, all those had tremendous influence on the story, although hopefully it doesn't stick out like a weather report or news flash.

Anyone who has read These is My Words is in love with Capt. Jack Elliott. Can you tell us, is he based on anyone?

Well, yes. I didn't realize as I was writing it how much of my life and my husband's lives are in the novel. John has always been a rescuer. After he got out of the Army and home from Vietnam --I know full well what it's like to wait, unknowing, for word that he's still alive -- he became a police office with the City of Phoenix and then two years later joined the Arizona Highway Patrol. He has pulled people out of overturned, burning cars, given CPR to drowned children, and been hit by sliding vehicles on icy roads while trying to help stranded motorists. He once chased armed kidnappers down the Phoenix freeway at 140 MPH on a motorcycle. He's destroyed both knees, crashed and crushed internal organs, and broke his back, all in the line of duty, and still worked for 33 years trying to help people in the toughest of times. I know he was always the kind of officer who was out there to save people and get drunks off the roads.
The good thing about writing a fictional hero, though, is that in a novel there is less snoring.

Have you ever thought of writing Jack's diary? I know I'm not the only one who would LOVE to read that!

You know I have but only briefly. It would be a real stretch for me to write from "indside the head" of a man. I think I write male characters fairly convincingly, but a whole diary from his eyes? Just not sure I could pull it off. Then again, I like the mystery of him, but I'd never rule out a story idea if I get inspired..

Are you working on anything new? If so, what can you tell us about it?
I'm trying something radically different. I felt really chained to a sort of "type" of book, and the editors want you to just do it again and again, whether you are inspired or not. I simply couldn't go on with Sarah at the time, and some other family issues made it hard to concentrate. So, one day I was fiddling around, wasting time on the internet, and I came across a webpage with guidelines for "how to write a mystery novel in twelve chapters." It had formulas for everything that had to happen, including --I kid you not -- notes like "You might want to have a SUB-PLOT." After I laughed myself out of the chair, I thought it would be a fun gimmick, so I set out to do it. I called my agent and told him about the 12 chapters and said it was a 12-step program for writer's block! Now my 12 chapters of course have grown to 490 pages and there are even multiple subplots and creepy villains, creepier victims, and creepiest murderers. It was fun. My agent is reading it this week and should let me know soon if it is really a novel, or was it just an exercise? Either way, at least I'm writing again after a long dry spell.

I would never say that I won't write more historical fiction, because I love it. And, I might return to the characters in Sarah's books, or take one of them and explore a novel with them in it. However, I believe my very best writing comes not from forcing something but from a real inner need to tell a certain story. I have to first love the character and be intrigued by the tale in order to care about it and write it.

What are your favorite books?
The Grass Harp by Truman Capote
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is the book that made me want to become a writer.
A Painted House by John Grisham
Katherine by Anya Seton
Fair and Tender Ladies by Lee Smith
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
On The Banks of Plum Creek by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Oh, Ye Jigs and Juleps by Virginia Cary Hudson
The Shape Shifter and many other mysteries by Tony Hillerman

What is something about yourself that most people would be surprised to know about you?
I once had a job baking pies for a restaurant in a little town in Northern Arizona. When I started they needed three pies a week. In two months I was baking 15 to 18 pies a day and people who were driving across the state called ahead ordering whole pies to go. Chocolate meringue, banana cream, coconut cream, apple, peach, blueberry, and pecan. After that they wanted even more, and I just couldn't keep up but the owner wouldn't let me make just 20 a day, he wanted to fill all the orders or nothing, so I said goodbye. That was the long and the short of my culinary career, though for years I dreamed of opening a bakery and breakfast place. I put a pecan pie recipe in the back of The Star Garden.

What is your favorite sweet/salty snack?

How much time do you have? I lean toward caramel, apple pie, cinnamon flavors. My fave would have to be a slice of hot-from-the-oven homemade cinnamon swirl bread that I make with a yeasty brioche dough rich with real butter. Always use twice as much cinnamon as it calls for...always. Left over it makes phenomenal French Toast for breakfast.

Is there anything you would like to say to The Sweet Bookshelf Readers?

I'm glad you're out there. Writers do worry if the book has become passe, and if we are a slowly dying breed of misfits who love to hold a heavy mound of paper with someone's heart bound in its pages, just to savor the art of putting words together. Truthfully, from everything I hear people read more than ever. I think books like the Harry Potter series jump started a whole new generation of young people who have discovered the treasures of books.

Thank you so much Nancy, this was such a pleasure! We wish you all the best in your career and can't wait to read what's next!


  1. WOW! What an amazing interview. I am so glad I mailed you the book Mar, and that you read it even though it was dipped in the ocean and soaked through. I wish Nancy would open a pie/reading cafe. Wouldn't it be fun to come and have some of her yummy pie while reading some delicious pages from her books?

  2. Mary....LOVE IT!!!
    Congrats on a great interview! I can't wait to share it with friends!

  3. I LOVED this interview. It was great to hear all that she had to say about her life and her characters. Her books are absolutely brilliant. They remind me so much of my Grandmother, a spunky Virginia farmer.
    Thanks Mares!

  4. That answered a lot of questions I had about the book and it was a joy to read!

  5. Loved the books! Loved reading the interview! Great blog!

  6. Fantastic interview I love this author and your favorite books are all on my bookshelf. I would love to read Jack's diary!


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