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Author Judith Turner-Yamamoto

Randolph County showcased in debut novel

he highly-acclaimed debut novel of Judith Turner-Yamamoto, “Loving the Dead and Gone,” is set in a mythical Randolph County during the 1920s, ‘40s and ‘60s. 


While the story delves into the minds of Aurilla and Darlene and how they deal with death and grieving, local readers will find numerous references to Randolph County landmarks, such as Little Beane Store, Blue Mist and Sir Robert Motel. 


Turner-Yamamoto also includes a cameo appearance by her real-life teacher, Emma Routh.


“Loving the Dead and Gone” was released Sept. 6, 2022, by Regal House Publishing. An audiobook version is also available.


Among her many recognitions, Turner-Yamamoto’s awards include the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Virginia Screenwriting Award. North Carolina author Jill McCorkle said this about “Loving the Dead and Gone”: “(It’s) a rich and skillfully rendered portrait of a place that explores the generational effects of love and loss and the fragile connections within a family. Judith Turner-Yamamoto gives us a complex and memorable cast of characters and a vivid setting filled with stunning detail.” 


Turner-Yamamoto, who now lives in Cincinnati, responded to questions submitted by Randolph Hub:


Q: Our Hub readers are primarily from Randolph County, so I would like you to provide a short bio of your time spent here, schools attended and any other special insights pertaining to your time in the area.

A: Born and raised in Asheboro. Park Street Elementary School, Asheboro Junior High and High School (Class of ’71), Guilford College graduate, née Judy Cox.


I belong to the first generation of my family that was not intimately connected to the land in 10 generations — 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 when I was very young, 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 the 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. I still remember winters in that house, with the one room heated by a potbelly stove, and wandering off by myself to nose about the icy rooms.


The upstairs of my maternal grandmother’s house was a museum of 19th century family history. There was a confused 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. The personalities of these dead relatives colored adult conversations as if they were still contemporary.


There was in all this experience the undertow of the past. As Faulkner said about the South, “The past isn’t dead, it isn’t even past.” North Carolina author Reynolds Price said that Southerners can “conduct mutually intelligible, agreeing dialogues with their resurrected great-grandparents and ... for all that, do not see themselves as isolated islands of the past but as typical of the world around them which has given the best southern writers and thinkers an ease with tradition.”


Q. Your story is about death and grieving. How did you come to this topic and how long were you in the writing process?

A. The story grew out of my first memory, at 3, of the tragic death of a favorite uncle. I can still hear my young 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. This memory conflated with later parental infidelities to become LOVING THE DEAD AND GONE. 


So, I suppose you could say I’ve been writing this story my entire life, or as my high school classmate Al Baldwin and fine writer in his own right, so eloquently puts it: “I had to live my entire life to write this story.” And, in a way I did, with five rewrites of this particular manuscript over a period of 35 years, while I wrote three more novel drafts, a screenplay, a number of published stories, and over a thousand magazine articles. First novels are the toughest, because you’re teaching yourself to write. I kept coming back to this one, rearranging the form, changing who spoke first. I kept revisiting it, pulling threads, laying down new ones and bringing in the insights that living all those years brought.


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.


Exploring the characters’ internal dialogue became a way for me to better understand the family members and traumas that shaped my early life. I created an infidelity that felt compelled into being by tragic events, and a hard-as-nails grandmother, who, we come to learn, has ample reason for her meanness. I wanted to free someone from the strictures of place, and she became Darlene, the headstrong and impulsive 17-year-old widow. For the young character, Emogene, I wanted to give her, in her grandmother, an advocate, someone who was looking out for her interests, something absent from my own experience of family breakdown.


Q. Aurilla says to herself during Darlene’s visit, “Loving the dead and gone was the sweetest love of all.” Obviously, it’s the book title. What led you to this as a “conclusion”? 

A. That title was Aurilla’s parting gift to me if you will. I’ve always liked titles that are spoken at some point by the character, and this particular one comes at Aurilla’s personal moment of grace. These words speak to the crux of the experience these two characters from different generations share: They are both in love with dead men, the memories of whom are incorruptible by time.


At its heart, the story is a tale of emotional abandonment. Two of the most prevalent themes of Loving the Dead and Gone are right there in the title: Love and loss. There’s also grief and grace. As writers, we tend to use our art to process and understand the emotions we’re feeling. 


Of course, I didn’t know any of this when I was writing. Writing literary fiction where the story is driven by the characters’ voices, is an unconscious act.


I’ve learned more about what the book is about from my readers. It’s been incredible to have the book living in the world and hearing reports back.


Q. Most books I read are written chronologically from either the first person or third person. What was behind your writing chapters from the characters’ viewpoints?

A. I confess I hear voices. And these voices demand my attention, like spirits asking me to tell their stories. They speak and they speak in a consistent voice, that includes their form preference, first or third person. It’s my job to get it all down as they reveal their stories to me. This is not a logical process; that comes later, with the endless editing.


I like getting inside a character’s skin to see the world their way — where else can you truly do that except in writing and reading fiction? Richard Linklater wrote, “We all go through the world trapped in our story, our own point of view.” These are all unreliable narrators, characters of a certain emotional stuntedness.


Q. Are any of the characters based on people you have known or observed while living here or elsewhere?

A. I would say place is the real outsized character in this novel. Richard Peabody, editor of Gargoyle Magazine, nailed it when he said, “This bittersweet paean to a NC Piedmont hosiery mill town is a mid- 20th century time capsule of car wrecks, nerve medicine, open caskets, ghosts and gossip.” I did not have an easy relationship with the place where I grew up, somewhere I was always trying to escape, first through the magic of books and reading. The limits of very small towns, especially Southern ones, can be crushing, particularly for the questioning and intellectually curious. All this was confounded by an absent father and a boundary-less narcissistic mother, their tumultuous relationship and infidelities, and having adulthood foisted upon me at an early age. This place holds both familial connection and estrangement. You could call this story the compulsive return to a traumatic site.


But when I first began to write fiction in a class at Georgetown University with the amazing Shirley Cochrane, who coincidentally, was a fellow North Carolinian, I ironically found myself right back in Elvin Beane’s little store up the road from my paternal grandparents’ farm in the company of the mythological figures of my childhood. My father wasn’t around much when I was growing up, but I do have memories of going with him from the summer heat into the cool darkness of that store, and the unspoken strangeness of it all, broken only by the sweating Brownie drinks pulled from the drink box and a salty pack of Nabs — the ubiquitous Southern cheese crackers with peanut butter sandwiched in the middle. I wrote a scene set in that store that was the beginning of everything. Shirley encouraged me to keep going with this insular/unique place where I’d again found myself.


But as for the characters themselves being recognizable, I remain at liberty to quote fellow North Carolina author Jill McCorkle and say, “Isn’t it interesting you think that?”


Q. I found myself looking for Randolph County landmarks and place names while reading the book. How much of that played into the writing? Also, how much can local readers look at such places as Potter and Simmons as representing towns/cities we’re familiar with? 

A. I write literary fiction and my work grows out of my life and what I observe and experience. Badin Lake, Blue Mist Drive-In, Troglin Hill, Elvin’s store, Teen Haven: These iconic places from my childhood all found their way into the book, like familiar landmarks emerging from the fog. I thought loosely of Potter as Asheboro, Gold Ridge as Coleridge/Seagrove, Clear Creek as Parks Crossroads, Simmons as a place like Greensboro. Berta Mae’s honeymoon shopping was inspired by my teenage shopping memories of Thalhimer, the apotheosis of 1960s big city glamour.


Q. Do you have relatives still living in Randolph County and do you ever comeback?

A. With my immediate family, forgive me, dead and gone, I seem to come back for funerals. As a cousin said to me a few years ago, “we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”


Q. Also, would you consider doing a book signing or reading in Asheboro at some point?

A. I would absolutely love that! I actually reached out to Mayor David Smith — a high school classmate — about Asheboro launching its own “One Reads” program (where everyone reads the same book) with my debut novel as the program’s 43rd debut book. His office has shared the idea with Randolph County Library director, Ross Holt. That kind of program, coupled with an author event to discuss the book with an audience of local readers, would be fabulous: My Homecoming, on my own terms.


LTDAG was finalist for the 2020 Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is published by Regal House Publishing, a women-owned house in Raleigh.