Jennifer Smith Turner’s debut novel, “Child Bride,” was published in April 2020. It’s generally not advised to launch a literary career a month into a global pandemic, but even with the country’s focus on Fauci, the book — a powerful coming-of -age story — found its readers and won a number of prestigious awards. Turner, who has also published two books of poetry and is the former CEO of Girl Scouts of Connecticut and interim CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation, retired to the Vineyard with her husband Ella Eric in 2012, and is currently working on the sequel to “ Child Bride.”
This is the second in our series of conversations with writers who will be taking part in this summer’s Islanders Write. The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Some writers figure out their story on the page, others map it out in their head; how does it work for you?
A lot of my writing happens in my head. I will see scenes in my mind, and those scenes will start to play out, and then I realize I want to capture those scenes on paper, and I want to capture the dialogue and the action of what was going on in those particular scenes.
So the story essentially reveals itself to you?
It’s sort of like being on a Ouija board, and you’ve got your fingers there, and it’s moving, and you think you’re moving it but you’re not sure whether you’re moving it, or if it’s just actually moving . So I let it evolve, and I have been surprised. In my mind I thought a scene or a character was going to go in a particular direction, and through the writing, suddenly it’s entirely different.
You came into writing your novel as a poet. Was that helpful?
When I first started writing the novel, I really tried to keep my poetry out of it, and then my first editor, Alexander Weinstein, said to me, “Jennifer, where’s your poetic voice?” I said, “What do you mean? It’s a novel,” and he said, “Jennifer, use your poetic voice,” and I said, “Oh my goodness.” And that opened everything up. The feedback you always get as a new novelist is show, don’t tell, because we tend to tell the story rather than show it, and of course with poetry you’re always showing — you’re showing what that flower looks like, and you’re showing the smells, and you’re showing the scenes. And so I started applying that, and I really worked at having my novel be lyrical.
“Child Bride” takes place over the course of a few decades, from the 1940s to 1960s. How much research do you do while writing the book?
We’re so lucky to have the research tools at our disposal. You know, there was a day you had to go to the library and try and do all this research, or go to universities. I’m constantly researching, even as simple as researching Pinterest to find pictures of locations in certain periods of time to help me describe what the store looked like where they would go in Louisiana to buy their provisions in the 1940s.
Your book has won a number of awards, and has over 500 incredible reviews on Amazon. Will you talk about your decision to go with a hybrid publisher for this book?
I thought about just straight self-publishing, and I actually did that with some of my poetry books, so I was going to do that with the novel, but somehow it just didn’t seem the right approach. Then I heard about this hybrid publishing firm called SparkPress. It’s hybrid, because you still do bear some of the cost as the writer, but they do all the traditional publishing pieces, which is how you end up with reviews, and people are looking at it because it’s being marketed.
That sounds great!
You do have to submit your book and be selected. I went through two editors on my own first. I had heard that one of the big mistakes first-time novelists make is not paying attention to the editing, that you need professional editors to help you, and it was extremely helpful. By the time I got to the hybrid firm, their reaction was “OK, this is clean.” They did a little editing, but not very much. I was glad I went with them, because the results really have been very good.
When and why did you decide to write a sequel to “Child Bride”?
The book was picked up by a lot of book clubs, and when I spoke to them on Zoom, I always finish with the question “Do you want to know more about these characters, or is one and done enough?” And they all said, “We want to find out what happens to Nell.” But it wasn’t until November of this past year that I started envisioning the sequel. And the characters have come alive again. And new characters have shown up, which has been fun, as I didn’t plan on them, but suddenly they’re there.
Jennifer Smith Turner will be at Islanders Write 2022. islanderswrite.com.