Jamie Langston Turner Answers The Faithful Fifteen
FaithfulReader.com: Could you give a brief summary of your latest book?
Jamie Langston Turner: WINTER BIRDS, set in Mississippi, tells the story of 80-year-old Sophia Langham Hess, who has much to remember but much that she wishes she could forget. She now has come to live out her last days with her nephew, Patrick, and his wife, Rachel. In their home she spends her days watching old television programs, reading outdated issues of Time magazine, observing the birds at the feeder outside her window, and listening to Patrick and Rachel on the other side of her door. Though she rarely ventures beyond her apartment, Sophie's world expands in surprising ways as she gradually opens herself to the power of love.
FR: What role does faith have in the book? What inspired you to write it?
JLT: The guiding light or "big idea" of the book is faith --- a steady trust in God's goodness, through sorrow and joy, and a ready obedience to his commands. It is the faith of Sophie's nephew and his wife --- faith that has been sorely tested yet has quietly endured --- that begins to speak to Sophie, not so much in words as in actions. As a result of the things she sees and hears through her apartment door, she slowly opens her heart to a simple truth daily evidenced in the lives of Patrick and Rachel: that faith, hope and love, all wrapped up together, offer sure healing.
"Inspiration" is a tricky thing to pin down. A piece of fiction usually starts when the writer conceives of a character who interests him and then places that character in a difficult situation to provide conflict, which is the driving force of any story. I can't identify the exact moment I felt "inspired" to write WINTER BIRDS, but at some point Sophie Hess took shape in my mind and I planted her in Greenville, Mississippi, the town where I grew up in the 1950s and early '60s. I read somewhere that geography is what lasts the longest in a person's memory --- a certain place where he still feels rooted, though he may end up many miles away. Mississippi is that place for me, though I haven't been back there for over 30 years. Writing WINTER BIRDS gave me the opportunity to return home in an emotional sense. I fictionalized the town to some degree, of course, but I also cited real landmarks and events I recalled from my childhood. The idea of an octogenarian as my main character could have been inspired by my recent and ongoing involvement with aging parents, although I have repeatedly told my mother that she is nothing like Sophie Hess! (Relatives and friends often worry and/or hope that they're prototypes of an author's fictional characters.)
FR: What do you feel your calling is as a writer?
JLT: I like the choice of words in this question. This is exactly the word I use in relation to my writing. It's a calling. It's not a hobby --- something I pick up for fun and relaxation but could put aside for more important things. Nor is it merely a job --- something that pays my bills so I can live. I feel with great certainty that God has very deliberately directed my steps toward writing from the time I was born until today. He gave me a natural love of words to start with, and he brought just the right experiences and people into my life, beginning with parents who had a wonderful balance between "hands off" and encouraging. Along with these blessings, he gave me an observing kind of mind, an affinity for solitude, a love of details, and patience for putting small pieces together into a big picture.
The best literature, according to the Latin poet Horace, both delights and instructs. I feel that my calling --- so determined because of what God has given me --- is to write novels that portray life realistically and that offer hope, reassurance and instruction in truth as readers observe the lives of my characters and the choices they make. (Everybody knows a story can drive a point home more powerfully than a sermon.) A good writer can't stop here, however. Our stories can't be seen only as medicine to cure a sickness. They also must be artistically rendered, capturing truth in a beautiful net, to borrow the words of C. S. Lewis. They must be winsome as works of art so that even those who wouldn't choose to read something "Christian" will find our books irresistible and therefore may, in spite of themselves, be drawn to their message.
I definitely aim at a mixed audience of both believers and nonbelievers. I want to cheer and perhaps chide believers to live out their faith more devotedly and consistently, and I want to make nonbelievers curious about the kind of faith they encounter when they open one of my books and enter its fictional world.
FR: Who are your favorite authors and mentors? How have they influenced your work?
JLT: Like most authors, I've always been an avid reader. The first book I really fell in love with as a child was LITTLE WOMEN. I liked all the Nancy Drew books, too, and even wrote several chapters of my own mystery in elementary school, titled UNDER THE WATERFALL. I had a teacher in fifth grade in Mississippi --- Mrs. Hansbrough --- who read poetry to us after recess, and I was swept away by the beautiful music of rhyme and meter. I think every novelist must have something of the poet in his soul to lift his prose above the level of flat communication; so I thank Mrs. Hansbrough, wherever she is today, for singing me all those lessons in shaping thoughts with style and grace.
Authors I have enjoyed in adulthood have been more than I can name, and though I'm sure I'll have later regrets for all the others I forgot to mention, here is a sampling (in no particular order, with genres all mixed together): Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anne Tyler, Kaye Gibbons, Flannery O'Connor, Elisabeth Elliot, Jane Kenyon, Annie Dillard, Scott Turow, John Irving, Charles Frazier, Leif Enger, Jane Hamilton, Anna Quindlen, Gail Godwin, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Mary McGarry Morris, Graham Greene, Barbara Kingsolver, Pat Conroy, Joyce Carol Oates and Wallace Stegner.
FR: Do you have any favorite stories of encounters with readers?
JLT: I've had the joy of meeting two dear friends in particular via e-mail and phone first, and then later in person. Both of these women contacted me out of the blue, just to tell me they had read a book of mine that touched them in a special way. The first one e-mailed me after our initial contact and told me she was driving to South Carolina for a conference. She asked if we could meet for lunch at a place close to the interstate. We did and have been fast friends ever since. The second one called me a couple of years ago while I was writing one afternoon; she guessed at which Turner to call in the phone book based on the dedication in one of my novels. We corresponded by letter and later by e-mail, and she sent me a picture of her family. They are members of a church called Old German Baptist Brethren, and they wear what some people would call "Amish-looking" clothes, even though they are not part of that religion and don't like to be lumped together. Just a week ago she flew down from Ohio specifically to attend my book signing for WINTER BIRDS. I've never had anyone except my parents come from out of town for a book signing, so I was very honored. We went out to lunch afterward and spent hours talking as if we had known each other since childhood.
These women are as different from each other as two women could be --- one of them a tap dancer, an actress, a singer and an unmarried mother of one son; the other a wife, a mother of four, a homemaker and a homeschool teacher --- but because of my writing, I was privileged to meet both of these believers and am blessed and enriched by their friendship.
FR: Tell us about your personal faith journey.
JLT: Except for the fact that every soul won to his kingdom is precious in God's sight, I might be tempted to call my personal testimony boring. I grew up in a Christian home with parents who sincerely loved God and served him faithfully. I attended a small independent church called the Church of the Open Door in Greenville, Mississippi, where I heard the gospel preached regularly. I was five years old when I understood that all those things applied to me --- that I was born in sin and needed a Savior to cover my sins with the sacrifice of his blood. One night, kneeling with my mother beside her bed, I asked Jesus into my heart.
My parents, who had met in 1946 at Bob Jones College in Cleveland, Tennessee, sent me to Bob Jones University in 1967, by then located in Greenville, South Carolina. I wanted very much to be a teacher and influence children as Mrs. Hansbrough had influenced me in fifth grade, so I majored in education yet took as many courses in literature as I could fit into my schedule. My first job was as a fifth grade teacher, and I spent 10 very happy years in the elementary classroom. Later I earned a master's degree, began teaching English courses at Bob Jones University, and then decided to try my hand at freelance writing (articles, short stories, plays and poems) when my husband began his doctoral work at the University of Illinois. I collected a lot of rejection slips for my efforts, but also a few acceptance letters along the way.
One day in February of 1992, I received a surprising phone call. It was from an editor who had read two of my short stories in Moody Monthly. This man, whom I had never met and whom I've never to this day had an opportunity to thank, said to me, "I've read your stories and think you ought to consider writing a novel." That was almost 15 years ago, and that was how God led me into writing novels.
I guess I've wandered somewhat from the "personal faith journey" focus of this question, but every phase of my life has been so clearly arranged and facilitated by God that it's hard to separate my faith from the steps that led me into my calling of writing novels.
FR: Who are your spiritual mentors?
JLT: I am blessed to have a spiritually balanced pastor who preaches the Scriptures not only with boldness, but also with compassion. He doesn't meet with me personally, but every sermon hits me squarely. My mother and sister are family mentors whose examples radiate Christlikeness, whose advice I seek and trust, and whose prayers for me are frequent and fervent. I also have several close colleagues and friends with whom I share my needs, doubts and struggles, and whose lives are testimonies to me of how we are to live in this world.
FR: What is your current church community involvement?
JLT: My husband and I are members of Heritage Bible Church, where we attend services weekly. I sing in the choir, and my husband helps with the music program.
FR: What are your Scripture reading habits? Prayer habits?
JLT: At present, I am reading straight through the NIV Bible. I have been amazed to find such deep pleasure in reading familiar material in different words. Having grown up reading and listening to the King James Version almost exclusively, I'm delighting in exploring several of the excellent alternate versions. Concerning prayer, I try to put into practice the scriptural injunction to "pray without ceasing" --- not that I succeed literally, but my praying is not confined to a certain time and place. I do, however, like to end the day with a specific, focused, extended time of prayer before bedtime.
FR: If you had one message for Christians today, what would it be?
JLT: While we all need to be constantly reminded that our standards for living come from God's Word and don't need the approval of men, we must also remember that our mission is to win others. I don't believe we glorify God if all we do is loudly accuse people of sin and declare their eventual damnation. If we don't show in our own lives the transforming power of God's love, why would anyone want to listen to our message of hope and redemption? One of the key ideas I like to highlight in my novels is the impact of a single, consecrated Christian on those within his small circle of influence. Each one of us has a very special task to do on earth, a role that no one else can fill, and a responsibility to God to keep on doing our work until the end of our time on earth.
I love the way Dwight L. Moody put it when speaking of the street boys he brought to fill his pew at church: "I am in the hope to live so before them that I may succeed in winning their souls to Christ." We should equip ourselves to be able to relate to people from all walks. Someone said of R. A. Torrey --- the great scholar, pastor and evangelist --- "He could kneel beside a drunk in a mission or explain the gospel at an elegant dinner table."
FR: Tell us about your family. Spouse? Kids?
JLT: I have been married for 35 years. My husband, Dan, is the chairman of the Music Education Department at Bob Jones University. He teaches a graduate course in education history, has authored two books on the history of Bob Jones University, conducts the University Symphonic Wind Band, teaches undergraduate music courses, plays tuba in the resident faculty brass quintet, and teaches private lessons in tuba and euphonium.
We have one son, Jess, who is 23. He is currently working on a master's degree in trumpet performance and is also studying composition. In 2005, he was named the national winner of the MTNA (Music Teachers National Association) Composition Contest for his sonata for trumpet and piano. He hopes to do further work in composition on the doctoral level.
FR: Do you and your family have any special traditions?
JLT: We love celebrating holidays, but the only out-of-the-ordinary tradition we have is this one: At Christmas, when my side of the family gets together, we have a three- or four-day tournament of games, with daily scores carefully recorded and prizes awarded at the end. These games may include everything from Rook and Monopoly to tennis and speed typing. Each day's activities are scheduled around a time of family singing, Scripture reading, testimonies and prayers.
FR: What are some of your favorite hobbies and activities?
JLT: I love to read and try to set aside an hour for that each evening. Another hobby is needlework. My needlework creations are a combination of cross-stitch and embroidery, and I like to work freehand from photographs instead of patterns. Recent projects have been a backyard clothesline, a collection of neckties and a mountain in Switzerland. My other hobby is tennis. I am on a 4.0 USTA tennis team here in South Carolina, and we have weekly matches against other teams.
FR: What are your media habits? Television? Movies? Music?
JLT: I don't know that I have "media habits." I watch an occasional movie on television, but I have no regular programs I watch. Our home is filled with music since my husband and son are both musicians. I like classical music, also big band music, Mills Brothers and good sacred music.
FR: What excites you about life?
JLT:The older I get, the more I find that the simple joys of life are the most satisfying --- a ride into the North Carolina mountains, a walk through the neighborhood, an evening with friends, a game of badminton in the backyard, a good book. We don't typically take grand vacations or get invitations to big society events, but we take great pleasure in our family, our home, our church, our university and our beautiful corner of America, here at the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. I love the work God has called me to do --- taking care of my home, teaching Creative Writing, Poetry Writing and Novel Writing to college students, and writing novels. I love waking up each morning with the anticipation of a full day ahead of me, not knowing exactly what opportunities and challenges I'll face, but knowing that God's grace will carry me through.
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