Authors / Fiction / Interviews

My Homecoming, On My Own Terms: Q & A with Judith Turner-Yamamoto

by Martha Anne Toll

Judith Turner-Yamamoto’s accomplished novel, Loving the Dead and Gone, is a beautifully rendered story of love and longing. The book opens with a fatal car accident that makes 17-year-old Darlene a widow and unleashes the secrets and emotional stuntedness of the people around her. Turner-Yamamoto makes her novel debut in her late sixties, after a lifetime of experiences, memories, writing, and publishing in a wide variety of outlets.

MAT: How did you come to the idea for your book?

JTY: This novel found seed in my first memory from a tragic family death, the specifics of which I would only learn as an adult. The memories from this event conflated with a later parental betrayal to become Loving the Dead and Gone.

Exploring the characters’ internal dialogue became a way for me to better understand the family members and traumas that shaped my early life. I created an infidelity that felt compelled into being by tragic events, and a hard-as-nails grandmother, who, we come to learn, has ample reason for her meanness. I wanted to free someone from the strictures of place, and she became Darlene, the headstrong and impulsive 17-year-old widow. For the young character, Emogene, I wanted to give her an advocate, someone who was looking out for her interests, something absent from my own experience.

MAT: Was any of this based on your own upbringing?

JTY: I did not have an easy relationship with the place where I grew up, somewhere I was always trying to escape, first through the magic of books and reading. The limits of very small towns, especially Southern ones, can be crushing, particularly for the questioning and intellectually curious. All this was confounded by an absent father and a boundary-less narcissistic mother, their tumultuous relationship and infidelities, and having adulthood foisted upon me at an early age.

I first began to write fiction in a class at Georgetown University with the amazing Shirley Cochrane, who coincidentally, was a fellow North Carolinian. I found myself right back in the little store up the road from my paternal grandparents’ farm. My father wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but I do have memories of going with him from the summer heat into the cool darkness of that store, and the unspoken strangeness of it all, broken only by the sweating Brownie drinks pulled from the drink box and a salty pack of Nabs—the ubiquitous Southern cheese crackers with peanut butter sandwiched in the middle.

I wrote a scene set in that store that was the beginning of everything. Shirley encouraged me to keep going with this insular/unique place where I’d again found myself.

MAT: Did you have a sense of the characters before you started, or did they evolve as you wrote?

JTY: I was dealing with the mythological figures of early life. Characters are like anyone else—you have to hang out with them before you get to know them. They can surprise and shock you as they evolve and become more of themselves.

MAT: Tell us about your writing trajectory, how you learned to write, and how you arrived at this novel.

JTY: I first came to writing through my art history studies. I was a junior in college when an art history professor told me I should become an art critic, I wrote so well about art. I had no idea what an art critic was, but since no one had ever said I should be anything, I immediately added art history as an additional major and charted a path to graduate school.

I wrote art reviews and magazine features for several years while I worked for the legendary art dealer Harry Lunn, where I was immersed in photography which became an area of my expertise. I then worked as a projects director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. I’d started to break into major papers and national magazines, expanding into dance, music, books, travel, and food. By the mid-80s, I knew I wanted to focus exclusively on writing and that I wanted to be home with my newborn son. But my son was soon sharing me with his siblings—the four novels, the screenplay, the many short stories I would write during the next 12 years.

I met a famous psychic who told me he saw a golden hand with a pen in it, surrounded by passports and suitcases. That’s exactly how my writing career unfolded. In my work as a critic and features writer, I was free to follow my curiosity while working with such publications as The Boston Globe Magazine, Elle, Omni, Interiors, Art & Antiques, The Los Angeles Times, and Travel & Leisure. That work, and over 1000 articles, took me all over the world and into conversation with such luminaries as Frank Gehry, Hella Jongerius, Marcel Wanders, Annie Leibovitz, Alison Krauss, and Lucinda Williams.

At the same time, I began taking fiction classes. Washington, DC, is rich in resources. As an American University alumna, I had access to MFA workshops with such stellar visiting writers like Terry McMillan and Lynne Sharon Schwartz. I took classes at the Washington Writers Center; I was a Jenny McKean Moore Fellow at George Washington University where I studied with Richard McCann. Everything I learned about how to run a workshop I learned from Richard.

And in that very first Georgetown class with Shirley, I also had the good fortune to meet Barbara Scheiber, who was also beginning her fiction career. She was in her sixties; I was 32. Over the next 30 years we read everything the other wrote. Richard’s best advice was, “You have to decide who you’re going to listen to.” Barbara was that person for me.

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After writing full time for 12 years, I had a 20-year period where I fit writing around a new full-time career in public relations, first for the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and then launching my own consulting firm. I discovered a gift for telling other people’s stories, for advancing their careers. I could imagine their different realities just as I had done with my characters, making it all happen in real time.

Abandoning my own storytelling was a nagging death. A psychic—yes, another one— even chided that my books were just sitting on a shelf, waiting for me to pay attention to them. Three years ago, a cascade of life changes—a major health event, the death of my last parent—freed me to bring my full focus back to fiction, an ambition driven by the regret of omission. There absolutely couldn’t be a better moment to be experiencing this.

MAT: Did you conduct research for this novel? If so, what?

JTY: I talked with my late cousin—he and I were both family outliers. It was interesting to hear his adult perspective on the shared aspects of our growing up, family history, and dysfunction. I talked with my maternal grandmother about day-to-day life on a tobacco farm in the 1920s. My father had worked in a hosiery mill for ten years. He was a fabulous storyteller who never forgot a detail, many of which made it into the book. And I ate dirt. Not just any dirt, but the red, iron-laden clay that runs through the Piedmont region where the novel is set. At work on the scene where a protagonist is witnessing the burial of her baby, I asked my father to mail me a vial of said clay from one of his fields. This is what I wrote:

“The smell of fresh-turned earth was thick on my tongue like it was me being covered up with dirt. Part of me was going in the ground with Malinah, all that was good and kind and took an interest in others. The day would never come when smelling a plowed field didn’t make me think of Hank and our baby’s grave and the part of me that was dead.”

I’ve also eaten grass, but that’s a story for another day.

MAT: I love the title of this novel. Can you comment on it?

JTY: Titles! This book had so many. I find it to be the most difficult part of writing. Garden of the Dead came to me translating signage in an Istanbul graveyard—so perfect for these characters tending and cultivating their grief. Unfortunately, it’s also the name of a cult horror film. The River of My Dreams was another possibility I loved, which came from Aurilla’s thoughts about her prescient dreams of death. I do love titles that come from something said or thought by a character. Aurilla says near the end, “Loving the dead and gone was the sweetest love of all.” There’s a bluntness to the title that feels right.

Even after the title was finalized, I fell in love with The Relicts—an archaic word for widow I discovered too late on a gravestone in historic Spring Grove Cemetery here in Cincinnati where my husband and I spend an inordinate amount of time walking.

MAT: This book is so much about longing. I wonder if you thought about it that way, and how you sought to portray longing.

JTY: I confess to not doing much thinking at all when I’m writing, that comes later with unending editing. 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 found voice in the pathos of my characters.

MAT: How did you arrive at the structure for your book?

JTY: A lot of rewrites—five? —done over a period of 30 years. It began as a series of interconnected short stories. Kelly Cherry read that version when I was a fellow at the Duke Writers Conference and said it felt like it was happening in a closet, that I needed to build a world around the stories. For years, I played with who would speak first and from what point in time. At one point, the book was optioned by a major independent publisher and that editor wanted me to put everything in third person. That change gutted the book and then it was turned down. It was Margot Livesey at Sewanee, where I was a scholar, who advised me to begin with the tragedy and let everything unfurl emotionally from there.

MAT: Bloom supports and features writers who published their first work when they were over 40. What has it felt like for you?

JTY: It’s not a straight path and being a perpetual “bridesmaid” can be frustrating. In the early days, Lee Smith read an excerpt and wrote me an inspiring letter to keep going, as did Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Straus, Giroux. Pat Strachan, then fiction editorat the New Yorker, was writing me encouraging rejection letters (there’s a whole tier system to rejection letters, as any writer will tell you). 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—including two fellowships from the Virginia Arts Commission and with the Ohio Arts Council—and publication in more than 25 literary journals and anthologies followed, while I completed three more novels and an award-winning screenplay.  There was the period I worked with my third agent and she had Deborah Treisman—the New Yorker again—looking at my work. A few years ago, this first novel was almost picked up by ICM Partners. That rejection was crushing. But you learn to roll with rejection, that’s part of the daily experience of being a writer.

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,” was the general thread I heard over the years from editors at major houses.

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 North Carolina. The true excitement has come from getting the advance review copies into the hands of real-world readers, librarians, and reviewers, and learning how reading the novel impacted them. This is my homecoming, on my own terms. What could be more gratifying?

MAT: What advice do you have for debut novelists?

JTY: Be undaunted.

MAT: What writing/publishing projects are you working on now?  

JTY: At this moment, I can’t do much more than write poetry (poems come whole and it’s a matter of capturing the words before they dissipate like morning fog). And recording the sentences that drop out of the blue into my head into what Richard Ford calls “the book of the book,” my idea incubator.  

I am totally focused on helping this book have the moment it’s waited for so long. It’s a moment I never thought would arrive and gratitude feels like such a small, inadequate word. This resonates with another powerful and joyful life moment—when I met my current husband at a monthlong artist residency in Spain. At 50, I was old enough to know love doesn’t present itself that often and I gave myself over to enjoying every single minute of an unlikely courtship that had us for three years meeting all over the world. But this, the book…honestly, it’s the best love affair of all, because as one of my high school friends who read it remarked, I have lived my whole life to write it.

Martha Anne Toll won the 2020 Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction. Her debut novel, Three Muses, is forthcoming from Regal House Press, September 2022. She is a frequent contributor to NPR Books, the Millions, the Washington Post, and other outlets. For her fiction and nonfiction, please visit her website, and tweet to her at @marthaannetoll.

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