Judith Turner-Yamamoto Took the Long Road Home to Her Southern Gothic Novel

The Cincinnati writer and teacher revisits her red-clay North Carolina childhood to create a personal story alternating between the 1920s and 1960s.
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I belong to the first generation of my family that was not intimately connected to the land,” says Cincinnati writer Judith Turner-Yamamoto, author of the new novel Loving the Dead and Gone (available September 6 from Regal House Publishing). “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 12 miles away—and there still is—and the details stayed with me.”

Photograph provided by Judith Turner-Yamamoto

She remembers a paternal grandmother who cooked on a wood stove and used a hand-cranked wringer washer in a wash house. An entire room held spent funeral wreaths. Meanwhile, in her maternal grandmother’s house, Turner-Yamamoto recalls “a jumble of steamer trunks, gilded picture frames, bureaus, and wardrobes filled with the clothes of the dead. 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.”

In Loving the Dead and Gone, Turner-Yamamoto returns to this haunted landscape and explores the long and winding impacts of trauma in a small Southern town.

The thick, complicated world of Loving the Dead and Gone captivated me from the very beginning. Can you talk a bit about who, at least initially, is dead and gone in this book and why you wanted to open with a sudden loss?

The book opens in 1963 with a fluke car accident and the death of the 19-year-old Donald Ray Spencer, a sort of golden boy of this rural North Carolina community. As writers, we tend to use our art to process and understand the emotions we’re feeling. Core wounds ignited this story. You could say I’ve been writing this book since I was 3 and experienced a similar sudden, tragic loss of a beloved young uncle—the inspiration grew from that first memory and conflated with later parental infidelities to become Loving the Dead and Gone.

In this novel, Donald Ray’s death is like a stone in a pond, with many far-reaching ripples. Can you talk a little bit about how the trauma of the present stirs the trauma of the past?

Kurt Vonnegut once said that “every story is about a character who gets into trouble and then tries to get out of it.” Writers are like fairy godmothers, perhaps the evil ones. We gift our characters the problems that will allow for their growth and depth.

Longing and abandonment were unconscious, unaddressed threads through my early life that somehow found voice in the pathos of these characters. Donald Ray caught four catfish the day of his death, and the four main characters become ensnared in this trauma, working their individual ways to redemption. After discovering Donald Ray’s body, Clayton is thrown into a mid-life crisis. He can’t shake the feeling that he’s living for the dead boy. Berta Mae, his wife, struggles with her mother’s lifelong withholding of love and the growing crisis in her marriage.

Aurilla, Berta Mae’s mother, is, as we say in the South, too mean to die. But we come to learn she has a past riddled with unthinkable losses and deeply bruising secrets that explains her meanness. With this present tragedy, Aurilla finally makes sense of and peace with her own past. Darlene, the impetuous, fiery 17-year-old widow, struggles with losing a new husband and with trying to keep him and herself alive. She crashes into Aurilla’s family with the life-destroying/life-generating force of a meteor.

The novel moves between different decades, the 1920s and the 1960s, exploring different generations navigating adulthood. Was structuring the novel difficult? Can you talk a bit about your writing process?

I played for years with who would speak first and from what point in time. And I do mean years. Aspiring writers will not want to hear this, but there were five rewrites over three decades while I completed three other unpublished manuscripts, a screenplay, and many published short stories. A first work of fiction is the most troubling to wrangle as you’re using it to learn to write. I kept revisiting it, pulling threads, laying down new ones and bringing in the insights that living all those years brings.

The work in its first world foray began as a series of interconnected short stories. I shared these with Jonathan Galassi at Farrar, Strauss and Giroux as well as North Carolina author Lee Smith and Pat Strachan, fiction editor at The New Yorker, and their encouragement was the fuel for those early writing years. Kelly Cherry, whom I met when I was a Duke conference fellow, shone a light on the problems of this structure and encouraged me to open up the page and make a physical world for these characters. 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 that event.

Would you describe the book as Southern gothic in flavor? If so, why?

There is a ghost, albeit a reluctant one. There is the undertow of the past; as Faulkner said about the South, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” And there’s an aura of anticipatory anxiety that ties into ancient folkways of warding off evil. I’m checking a lot of boxes here, so that would be a hard yes.

While interested in lovers and romance, the novel also explores the dynamic between mothers and daughters. In one case, a mother’s trauma as a young woman deeply impacts the relationship she has with her daughter, in ways neither fully understands. Can you talk a little bit about Aurilla and Berta Mae?

Their relationship is wrong-footed and combative and the emotional distance between them cavernous. They’re at once terribly distant and terribly close, as many mothers and daughters are. But Berta Mae is also the hapless victim of her mother’s unrelenting youthful misfortune. The product of a rape, Berta Mae is the temperamentally unfavored survivor of her beloved infant sister and the sole recipient of her brutish father’s affections, all reservoirs of Aurilla’s resentment of her.

Where did you go and what did you do to research this setting and bring it to life in compelling ways?

This place is the site of both family connection and estrangement. You could call this story the compulsive return to a traumatic site. 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 I deployed sense memory.

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.

In addition to print and electronic versions, Loving the Dead and Gone will be available as an audio book from Blackstone Audio featuring Cassandra Campbell, who also narrated Where the Crawdads Sing. Judith Turner-Yamamoto will read and sign books at Joseph-Beth Booksellers on September 7 at 7 p.m. and at the Cincinnati Public Library’s main downtown branch on October 15 at 2 p.m.

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