By Alexandra Murphy
Jennifer Smith Turner is an MVICW Vineyard Fellow and the author of the award-winning novel, Child Bride (SparkPress, 2020). In this interview, we talk about the resilient characters and powerful themes found throughout Child Bride, her transition from poetry to prose, and what is was like to release her debut novel last year during a pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Child Bride is a powerful, engaging coming of age story for women that tackles heavy issues while still managing to feel uplifting. Can you talk about finding that balance between heaviness and hope, while still keeping the story grounded and believable?
Thank you for your comments. This is such a wonderful question because it gets at the very heart of the conflict that exists in Child Bride for the protagonist - Nell. Nell is relatable to all of us in one way or another. We each have things that occur in our lives that are joyful, exciting, sad, disappointing, and sometimes terrifying. What I wanted to capture in her life experience was how someone as young as she deals with these life emotions and still maintains a sense of both naiveté and hopefulness. Her inner strength is developed through the quality of her family relationships and the quality of the friendships she develops as she moves from the south to the north. The story is grounded in the belief that good and bad coexist but if you have strong character and a moral compass — good can prevail. Nell is grounded in all that she does because of her religious upbringing, her strong sense of family, and because of her inner strength that blossoms with time.
African-Americans exist in a world of duality, it is simply part of the American experience for those of us whose ancestors were slaves. We live our lives as everyone else does with the ups and downs that life presents any individual or family on a daily basis. At the same time though, we also live our lives within the construct of a society that has historically oppressed us and everyone like us. What I wanted to capture in Child Bride is the reality of the “just living our life” for Nell and her family, but not ignore the fact that racism is always present. It is possible to be happy in life and at the same time angry that racism is embedded in our lives. These emotions are not mutually exclusive.
Though Child Bride takes place during the mid-1900s, it encounters themes that feel especially relevant today: racism, male dominance, a loss of innocence. Were these themes always topics you wanted to tackle in your novel, or did they naturally emerge as the story took shape?
Thank you for this question, I do want talk about themes in Child Bride. Exploring the themes in detail will get at the answer to your question. The over-arching themes I wanted to highlight in the novel were — the value and importance of family in all its permutations, relationships between women and how they support one another, perseverance and inner strength, the power of love between people, the constraints society places on people because of gender and race, and the importance of education.
Family — We meet Nell when she is in her early teens living at home with her family on a farm in Louisiana. Her life is extremely traditional as was her mother’s life. She will get married young, she'll have babies, she'll take care of her husband, and likely live in an agricultural environment to old age. But she doesn't want this. Her parents are loving and empathetic to the strength that exists in their child. On the one hand they are willing to encourage her to live the life she wants but at the same time they want her to live life within the constructs of traditional mores as they understand them. Her teacher, Miss Parker, is another family member although they are not related by blood. Miss Parker takes Nell under her wing, acts as an independent older sister who will help Nell achieve the life goals that Miss Parker senses exist within Nell. Whenever Nell finds herself in a place of despair once she has moved up north, it is through the ties with these family members that she's able to pull on her inner strength to move forward and find her happiness. Even though she is far away from her parents and Miss Parker, isolated in the north, just knowing that they are part of her life, gives her strength.
Women supporting each other — I absolutely love the church women and the women in the beauty salon who become Nell’s best friends. It is through these characters and the relationship to Nell that we see the power of women looking out for other women take shape. They become her rock and her support system in many ways. Although there are times when, particularly the church women, question Nell and her character because of her affair, ultimately, they stand by her.
Perseverance and inner strength — Nell struggles and survives and overcomes her obstacles. Miss Parker struggles and survives. Momma struggles and survives. Every character male or female in the novel finds a way to struggle and survive. And although we don't know precisely what happens to Henry at the end of the novel there is a sense that his life takes a positive turn after the divorce.
Power of love — Momma and Daddy have a beautiful marriage and quite a love story even though I don't go into details about their love story. But you can sense it in terms of how they are as a family and how they treat their daughter and the stories they tell her about preparing for marriage. This provides Nell with a solid foundation upon which to build her own love story. But Nell’s journey to that foundation is fraught with obstacles which she has to overcome.
Societal constraints and education — Before Nell is born there are boxes in society into which she is expected to fit. There is a box for women and the role they’re allowed to play in society. There is a box for African-Americans and the place they belong. There is a box for people who are educated and people who are not educated. The boxes define the caste system imposed upon society at large. Education has the power to break down the walls of these boxes as does the inner strength and courage to not accept the stated caste roles. Nell instinctively understands this and pursues education, through reading, with a passion.
I wanted to address all of these themes in the novel. While writing, the direction each theme took was totally organic, but my intent to speak to each was always in my mind.
Nell Bight is a strong, complex, yet soft and instantly lovable character—a powerful role model for young women. And to think she started as a minor character! What can you tell us about writing her? Were there any women you modeled her after?
Alexander Weinstein, who did the first round of editing for me on the novel, pointed out that I was writing in first person retrospective. I had no idea that's what I was doing so it was helpful to get a frame of reference for my point of view. But it came out that way because Nell was a minor character in the first novel I had written that has never seen the light of day. So, in my mind I could see this 50 or 60 year old woman I had created years ago, telling her story — hence first person retrospective. The image I have in my mind is someone sitting on a couch or front stoop with a younger family member and saying to that person, “When I was 15 this is what life was like.” And from there the story unfolds.
Nell very quickly took on a life of her own and it became my job to merely put down on paper her story in her words. Other novelists told me there will be a point in time when your characters take on life and you won't have any option but to tell their stories the way they want them told. I didn't believe that would be the case, it seemed improbable to me. But I must admit that was exactly the experience I had with Nell. There were times at two in the morning I would wake up because Nell was banging on the inside of my head telling me you need to write this scene, you need to tell the story. I would get up and I would write. It was amazing.
Nell is her own person, not modeled after anyone in particular. But I suspect there are aspects of many women who have touched my life who are instinctively part of Nell’s character. This would include people such as my mother, aunts on both sides of my family, friends and colleagues, characters I've seen on stage or screen, other authors, notable athletes, or famous individuals. At best she is a complete and total figment of my imagination and at least an amalgamation of many, many other women. My hope is that others, particularly young women, can see themselves in Nell. If they are in search of their own inner strength, they may gain insight to their journey from Nell.
Your decision to write your novel came after publishing two poetry collections. What made you transition genres? And what advice do you have for authors looking to make that transition?
To be honest I always thought there was a business book in me, that all I needed to do was sit down and write about my 40 some years working in the public sector, corporate sector, and nonprofit sector and I’d have this wonderful “how to” book ready for publication. The truth of the matter was, whenever I got ready to outline it, I simply got bored. So, I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do. And yet beyond my poetry I still felt there was a larger piece of writing that was in me. And so I ventured into novel writing. My first shot at a novel was pretty much a disaster. Except that it was that novel where Nell emerged as a minor character, whose name was Mother Claire, who became the protagonist of this novel. After three years Child Bride was born and set out into the world.
I will always be a poet and I hope to continue to be a novelist. The most important thing I learned to do through the process of writing the novel was to incorporate my poetic voice into the novel itself. When I started on the journey with the novel, I felt like I needed to write differently than how I write poetry if for no other reason than the sheer length and arc of the story that I was creating. I was given important advice from someone who knew my poetry — use your poetic voice in the novel. This one piece of advice changed everything for me on this writing journey. I found it so much easier to write the novel in my poetic voice because it was authentic, a familiar and comfortable place to be. I still needed to study and work on the craft of writing fiction, but I didn’t need to work on how to find an authentic voice with which to write.
To any poet who feels as though they want to write a novel my advice is, just start writing.
Your novel was released during both a pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. How did these major events affect the publication and reception of the novel? And how have they affected your current writing?
My publication date was April 12, 2020. I remember thinking, “Oh well there goes any chance of in-person book events, book signings, selling my book to bookstore's or on college campuses because the pandemic lockdown had started a month earlier. The Black Lives Matter movement made me think about the correlation to the underlying thread of racism in my novel. The scene of Nell and Daddy at the local store on the aftermath of Emmett Till's murder struck me as so profound given the images of George Floyd’s murder and the impact felt around the country and the world. It makes me sad and angry. The images of how Blacks are treated have not changed and here we are in 2020 now 2021. Heightened sensitivity around racism and social injustice in this country resulted in readers looking at the novel with a very different lens. A number of book clubs chose Child Bride as their monthly selection. I've been meeting with them when asked and it's been amazing to listen to the discussion from readers—white, black, men, and women. Everyone drew the correlation between what happened in 1955 around race relations and what is happening today in 2021. It was eye-opening for some who don't think about the long view of race relations in this country. For others it was simply an affirmation of what we know about the American experience as Blacks.
Since the time you first asked me that question till now, we have gone through an unprecedented election cycle for the 46th President of the United States and we watched our Capitol under siege by rioters and insurrectionists trying to attack our democracy.
My writing is profoundly impacted by all of these external events. I have another collection of poems which is full of imagery that comes directly from the racial and health unrest that we are experiencing in this country and around the world.
What is the best writing advice you received during your time at MVICW? A favorite memory?
I attended MVICW the year I retired from my business life and moved to Martha’s Vineyard full-time with my husband, Eric. This was one of my best decisions ever! To be part of a community of writers and instructors dedicated to the craft of poetry and fiction, was enriching. It was just what I needed to make the transition to life on the Island and to a writing life. The best writing advice I received — show don’t tell.
Congratulations on all the high praise Child Bride has gone on to receive, being named best fiction eBook this year by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and BiblioBoard. It also recently received the 2020 NYC Big Book Award in the women’s fiction category. What can we look forward to from you next?
Thank you, literary recognition such as these two awards is a real honor to receive for a debut novel. I’m excited to share I was notified this month that Child Bride is a finalist for another literary award—Best Historical Fiction for 2020 by Story Circle’s Women’s Book Awards. The finalists will be announced in April.
I am in the process of outlining a sequel to a Child Bride and feel very excited about that. Just the other day I felt Nell in my head once again telling me there's more to the story. I've also taken the time to query my readers through the book club meetings if they would like to know more about the storyline. Most said yes and I must admit that through the discussions with readers it has helped to keep the characters alive. I see them growing and changing for perhaps another two decades of their lives.
I've just completed my third collection of poems in a chapbook and have that out for consideration for publication. I'm working on two audiobooks. One would be an audiobook for Child Bride which I intend to read myself. The other would be an audiobook of my poems. One of the things the pandemic stopped is live poetry readings. It’s a great feeling to be in front of an audience sharing your poetry with a group of other poets. Of course, none of us have been able to do this. And although there is the virtual approach through Zoom it's not the same. Poetry is engaging when you can hear it in the author’s voice. An audiobook is a perfect approach to get my new poems out into the universe instead of an in-person reading—have people hear my poems in my voice through the audiobook.
I always journal. This keeps my mind nimble, thoughts flowing, words falling on the page with wonton abandon. Thank you for this interview.
You can purchase a copy of Child Bride here.
Jennifer Smith Turner is the author of two poetry books: Lost and Found: Rhyming Verse Honoring African American Heroes and Perennial Secrets: Poetry & Prose. Her work has been included in Vineyard Poets, an anthology of poems by Martha's Vineyard writers, and in numerous literary publications. Her poems frequently appear in the Vineyard Gazette. She was featured on National Public Radio's Faith Middleton Show and Connecticut Public Television's poetry evening. She has been a featured speaker at Yale University and the University of Pennsylvania Kelly Writer's House. She has also worked extensively in the public and private K-12 schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts, bringing poetry to students and educators. Turner formerly served as Interim President/CEO of Newman's Own Foundation, where she is a board member. She is the retired CEO of Girl Scouts of Connecticut. During her professional career, she served as an appointed government official with the State of Connecticut and the City of Hartford, as a corporate and non-profit boards of directors. She holds a BA from Union College and a master's degree from Fairfield University. She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Hartford. Turner resides on Martha's Vineyard with her husband, Eric.