Judith Turner-Yamamoto on Dirt, Memories, and “Loving the Dead and Gone”

Judith Turner-Yamamoto’s debut novel, Loving the Dead and Gone, follows the trajectory of multiple characters and multiple generations as they navigate life and the emotions provoked through love and loss. Set in rural North Carolina, Turner-Yamamoto introduces us to the lives of Aurilla, Berta Mae, Clayton, and Darlene, and their intertwining stories. What could be construed as a novel of unlikeable characters and their poor choices, Loving the Dead and Gone is actually a story of redemption, and how we make the most of our lives when so much is out of our control.

Judith Turner-Yamamoto is an award-winning author whose work has appeared in StorySOUTHMississippi Review, Snake Nation Review, and American Literary Review, among others, and in many anthologies, including Walking the Edge: A Southern Gothic Anthology, Show Us Your Papers, and Gravity Dancers, as well as The Boston Globe Magazine, Elle, Interiors, Art & Antiques, The Los Angeles Times, and Travel & Leisure

The crux of the story ostensibly weaves through the lives of Aurilla, Berta Mae, and Darlene — a cast of strong, stubborn, and acutely different women. And yet, the fourth narrator is a man, Clayton, and in fact, he is the introductory speaker. What was your reasoning behind starting with Clayton’s POV? 

That’s what happens when you go through five rewrites over a thirty+ year period. This work began as a series of interconnected short stories. 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 as there are dual timelines.

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 somehow gutted the book and then she declined the manuscript. It was Margot Livesey at Sewanee Writers Conference where I was a scholar who advised me to begin with Clayton and his discovery of the tragedy and let everything unfurl emotionally from there. The accident is the ripple in the proverbial pond that upends the lives of these characters.

Did you know Aurilla’s story was going to be one of redemption, or did that unfold as the story progressed?

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.

My favorite scene in the book is near the end when Aurilla and Darlene meet. It was really in writing that scene that I found Aurilla’s moment of coalescence and release. I only realized today that this moment in the book was inspired by the time I was twelve and home alone and had to confront my father’s lover who showed up unannounced. In many ways, I’m still surprising myself with what this book is about.

Your bio states you grew up in a mill town in rural North Carolina. Loving the Dead and Gone was set in a mill town/farming community in rural North Carolina. Are there characters or landmarks in the story that people from your upbringing might recognize?

Oh, yes, certainly. Badin Lake, Blue Mist Drive-In, Elvin’s store. I recently reconnected with someone I went to high school with and shared an advance copy of the book with him. The highest praise I’ve heard is him saying I totally captured that place and moment in time with simple honesty and that I had lived my whole life to write this story. But if anyone says I know who that character is, I remain at liberty to quote Jill McCorkle and say, “Isn’t it interesting you think that?”

On the subject of the setting — wow! Your writing about Ramsey Lake and the Cutter tobacco farm and the simplicity but authenticity of the houses where the characters live is so vivid and tangible. I can easily picture Hank and Aurilla and the girls landscaping the front yard now. What was your process of coming up with the locations and imagery in the novel? 

I went back to my childhood, to what I call my land of first memories, and put myself on the land and in the farmhouses and barns of my grandparents and of my great grandparents, and deployed sense memory.

I belong to the first generation of my family that was not intimately connected to the land — 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 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 awaythe 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. Indoor plumbing and electricity were still near novelties. There was no plaster on the board walls of the house.

The upstairs of my maternal grandmother’s house was a museum of family history. There was a jumble of inherited steamer trunks, gilded picture frames, bureaus, and wardrobes filled with the clothes of the dead. These were the things left to her that would fit nowhere else. 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.

Two of the most prevalent themes of Loving the Dead and Gone are right there in the title: love and loss. As writers, we tend to use our art to process and understand the emotions we’re feeling. Was this novel a meditation of sorts on a specific loss, or something general, as we know death is a universal matter? Did you find in writing it that there was a therapeutic effect? 

The novel found seed in my first memory, a tragic family death, the specifics of which, I would only learn as an adult and after writing this novel, were the fiction of a three-year-old shaped by the character of my childhood and all that came after. But I can still hear my seventeen-year-old 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. These memories conflated with later parental infidelities to become Loving the Dead and Gone.

I did not have an easy relationship with where I grew up. It was a place I was always trying to escape, first through the magic of books which showed me another world. The limits of very small towns, especially southern ones, can be incredibly crushing, and especially so for the questioning and intellectually curious. All this was confounded by an absent father and a boundaryless narcissistic mother, their tumultuous relationship and infidelities, and having adulthood foisted upon me at an early age.

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.

Loving the Dead and Gone is your debut novel, but you certainly are not novel to the writing industry. How did your past as an art historian and assignment writer inform your path to novel writing?

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.

Critics have compared your writing to that of William Faulkner and Carol Chute. Do you consider them to be influences? What other writers do you admire / consider influences? Definitely with these writers there is a similar focus on place and past.

My influences — shall we call them aspirational voices? — have changed over the years with my reading. I would count Flannery O’Connor, Lee Smith, and Reynolds Price — the beauty of Fair and Tender Ladies and Kate Vaiden have never left me — as early influences. I admire the seemingly effortless and natural ease with which Alice Munro, William Trevor, or Edna O’Brien tell a story. And there are my current favorites, Tessa Hadley, Mary Gordon, and Elizabeth Strout with their unexpected soul-culling sentences.

Were there any specific works of historical fiction you read in preparation for writing Loving the Dead and Gone? What other research was involved for writing this book? 

Back to the revisiting of my early life. Talking with my late cousin — he and I were both family outliers, so it was interesting to hear his adult perspective on the shared aspects of our growing up and family history and dysfunction. I talked with my maternal grandmother about day-to-day life on a tobacco farm in the 1920s. My father was a knitter in a hosiery mill for ten years, so he knew that environment, the machinery. 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 one of the protagonists is witnessing the burial of her baby, I asked my father to mail me a vial of said clay from one of his fields. And 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.

What are you working on now?

I am totally focused on helping this book have the moment it’s waited for so long. 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 and Pat Strachan at The New Yorker was telling me to please keep sending her work. Two more agents, 15 prizes and fellowships, and publication in more than 25 literary journals and anthologies later, this moment, with my work reaching a broader readership, is one I thought would never arrive and gratitude feels like a miniaturized word to express what I’m feeling.

A funny thing has happened to my body of work since I first began writing in the 80s. I now find that all of it is now classified as historical fiction. I plan to next revisit my third novel draft. IRIS AND TRUDY is a story at the intersection of family and class that explores the alienation that occurs in blue collar families when children become strangers through the social mobility afforded by education, and how unexpected losses offer a mother and daughter who find themselves on opposite sides of the class divide the chance to reunite and recast their lives.

Grief and loss, they’re outing themselves as my recurrent themes, aren’t they?

You can find Judith Turner-Yamamoto at these upcoming events: Cincinnati: Joseph-Beth Booksellers (9/7), Cincinnati Public Library, Main Branch (10/15); North Carolina: Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh (9/15), Scuppernong Books, Greensboro (9/18), and Park Road Books, Charlotte (9/20). For more information and appearances, visit Judith’s website

Loving the Dead and Gone
By Judith Turner-Yamamoto
Regal House Publishing
Published September 6, 2022