Loving the Dead and Gone

A freak car crash in rural 1960s North Carolina puts in motion moments of grace for two generations of women and the lives they touch in Judith Turner-Yamamoto’s new novel, Loving the Dead and Gone.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett


Q: Loving the Dead and Gone may be your debut novel but you’re no stranger to the writing industry. Tell us a bit about how your past as an art historian and features writer informs your path to crafting a full-length novel.

Art history taught me how to see and pay attention to detail, to convey in words what I felt in the presence of the work and how to share that with an audience. Features writing taught me to listen, one ear pricked for the moment when the jewel falls from the interviewee’s mouth that reveals the focus of the piece from which everything you write will flow. There’s an art to interviewing, learning how in conversation to coax a subject to reveal themselves. It’s the same with characters.

Q: Plotter or pantser?

A: Pantser, and I confess, I had to google this! And if I’m being really honest, I hear voices. There’s not much thinking at all when I’m writing, that’s for later for the unending editing. 

Q: Share with us the inspiration for Loving the Dead and Gone.

A: The story grew out of my first memory, at three, of the tragic death of a favorite uncle. I can still hear my young aunt, widowed by a car accident and locked in my grandparents’ bathroom, wailing this ungodly lament, and I can see my uncle in his casket. This memory conflated with later parental infidelities to become Loving the Dead and Gone. So, I suppose you could say I’ve been writing this story my entire life. And, in a way I did, with five rewrites of this particular manuscript over a period of thirty-five years, while I wrote three more novel drafts, a screenplay, a number of published stories, and over a thousand magazine articles. First novels are the toughest, because you’re teaching yourself to write. I kept revisiting it, pulling threads, laying down new ones and bringing in the insights that living all those years brought.

Q: Two of the most prevalent themes of Loving the Dead and Gone are about love and loss. Was this novel a meditation of sorts on a specific loss or death as a universal experience to which your readers could relate?

A: I’d say in specificity lies universality. We all have but one window on the world, our own. That’s the magic of literature: it grants us access to the thinking of another human being.

Q: Were there therapeutic effects for you personally in penning this novel?

A: I found in writing Loving the Dead and Gone that exploring family stories and accessing the inner life of a character can explain someone from your history. Exploring the characters’ internal dialogue became a way for me to better understand the family members and traumas that shaped my early life.

Q: Did you know from the outset this was going to be a story of redemption, or did that unfold as the story progressed?

A: Pieces of ourselves find their way into our work—how else to give your characters humanity? We only possess one window onto the world.  I think longing and abandonment were unconscious unaddressed threads through my early life that somehow found voice in the pathos of these characters. Two of the most prevalent themes of Loving the Dead and Gone are right there in the title: love and loss. There’s also grief and grace. Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was writing. I’ve learned more about what the book is about from my readers. It’s been incredible to have the book living in the world and hearing reports back. When a reader says, “this book gives humanity hope for healing” you absolutely can’t put a price on that.

Q: Do your characters ever do things which surprise you?

A: I was dealing with the mythological figures of early life here. But characters are like anyone else—you have to hang out with them for a long time before you get to know them and then they can surprise and shock you as they evolve and become more of themselves, sort of like children growing into their own person.

Q: The settings in this novel—from a 1920s tobacco farm to a 1960s textile mill—are so vivid.  What was your process of coming up with the locations and imagery?

A: This place is the site of both family connection and estrangement. I went back to my childhood and put myself on the land and in the farmhouses and barns of my grandparents and of my great grandparents. I belong to the first generation of my family that was not intimately connected to the land in ten generations—my father, along with his six siblings, left the family farm as teenagers for the new mills and factories of the post-war South. But when I was very young, we were all back on that land every weekend and I saw a very different world from my experience living in town only twelve miles away—and the details stayed with me.

In the early 1960s, my paternal grandmother was still cooking on a wood stove and using a hand-cranked wringer washer in a washhouse. She worked in the fields, milked cows, churned butter, chewed tobacco. An entire room was dedicated to storing all her canning, another to funeral wreaths. Indoor plumbing and electricity were still near novelties. There was no plaster on the board walls of the house. I still remember winters in that house, with the one room heated by a potbelly stove, and wandering off by myself to nose about the icy rooms.

The upstairs of my maternal grandmother’s house was a museum of 19th century family history. There was a confused jumble of inherited steamer trunks, gilded picture frames, bureaus and wardrobes filled with the clothes of the dead. The rooms held an undisturbed papery decay and the pungent smell of rotting wood. I was terrified but also drawn to them and their contents. The personalities of these dead relatives colored adult conversations as if they were still contemporaries.

Q: What governed and influenced the structure of your book?

A:  It began as a series of interconnected short stories, much in the vein of Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine. Kelly Cherry read that version when I was a fellow at the Duke Writers Conference. She told me it felt like it was happening in a closet, that I needed to build a world around the stories and I followed that advice. I played for years with who would speak first and from what point in time. It was Margot Livesey at Sewanee Writers Conference where I was a scholar who advised me to begin with the tragedy and let everything unfurl emotionally from there.

Q: If Hollywood came calling, who would you envision to play the lead roles?

A: Meryl Streep is Aurilla Cutter! Who remembers her searing performance in August, Osage County? Mary Louise Parker embodies Berta Mae’s guarded vulnerability. The rest I’ll leave to casting.

Q: How did you go about finding the right publisher for this debut work?

A:  Book publication was not a straight path and being a perpetual bridesmaid can be frustrating.  I thought I was on my way when the first draft won the Washington Prize for Fiction in 1989 and I was picked up by a New York literary agent. Two more agents, 15 prizes and fellowships followed. 

I wasted a lot of years with agents and pursuing the dream of major house publication. I never had any trouble getting an agent, the trouble came with the selling. ‘Beautiful writing, but too quiet to succeed in the current literary marketplace.’ That was the general thread I heard over the years from editors at major houses looking at different manuscripts.

I’ve loved working with a small traditional and accessible publishing house and for me there’s a cosmic message that Regal House is based in my native North Carolina.  The true excitement has come from getting the book into the hands of real-world readers, librarians and reviewers, and learning how reading the novel impacted them. What I’m hearing is this emotional intergenerational story about the legacy of grief and secrets is moving readers. This is my homecoming, on my own terms. What could be more gratifying?

Q: What do you want readers to take away from the book by the time they reach the final chapter?

A: In trauma lies possibility. As Aurilla says “Death can make you over if you let it.” It’s all about endings and beginnings.

Q: You’ve won a number of awards for your work. Which one are you the most proud of and why?

A: I’d have to say my fellowships with the Ohio Arts Council and the Virginia Arts Commission. The highest praise comes from a panel of your peers.

Q: Best advice for aspiring novelists?

A: Be undaunted.  And decide who you are going to listen to. Then let the rest of it roll off your back and keep moving forward.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

 A: Revisiting a completed manuscript that catches up with Darlene eighteen years later in the world of early 80s country music.

2 thoughts on “Loving the Dead and Gone

  1. This sounds like a great read! I will be adding it to my TBR list!

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