An Interview with Juliette Fay, author of The Tumbling Turner Sisters

tumblingJuliette Fay’s fourth book, The Tumbling Turner Sisters, is the story of four girls who try their hand as an acrobatic act in 1919 vaudeville, in an effort to save their poverty stricken family (Gallery Books 2016). Ultimately it is a story of awakening—to unexpected possibilities, to love and heartbreak, and to the dawn of a new American era.

Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen, says, “This novel of love, dreams, and the everlasting strength of family perfectly encapsulates the social mores and pressures of the early twentieth century. The Turner sisters dare to dream big. Don’t miss this page turner!” This praise is echoed by Christina Baker Kline, author of the Orphan Train, “Filled with energetic prose and colorful characters—you won’t soon forget the Turner girls!”

Juliette earned a bachelor’s from Boston College and a master’s from Harvard University. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and four children. The Tumbling Turner Sisters is available at IndieBound, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Learn more about Juliette and the fascinating vaudeville era at an upcoming reading.

Dead Darlings: Your first three books, Shelter Me, Deep Down True, and The Shortest Way Home earned you acclaim as “one of the best authors of women’s fiction” (Library Journal). Why veer into historical fiction? And how was writing this book different?

I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction, but never thought I had the “credentials” (whatever those might be) to write it. Didn’t I need some sort of history degree? But when I found out about my great-grandfather performing in vaudeville at the turn of the 20th century, suddenly it seemed like I could write about it because it was part of my family history. I spent about three months just doing research before I ever wrote a word, and then I felt ready.

This book was different from the others in a couple of ways: first, it took exponentially more research than contemporary fiction. You’re not just researching subject matter, you’re researching how people spoke and interacted and dressed, and so many other things that you simply take for granted when writing present day fiction.

Second, it was my first foray into first person point of view. I’d written all my previous novels from the third person, in my own voice. Finding—and keeping straight!—the voices of the two sisters who tell the story was a huge challenge for me. It felt like I was in a two-year long play, and I had to stay in character, except that I was playing two very different roles. There were a lot of plates spinning with this novel.

Dead Darlings: The life of your vaudevillian great-grandfather inspired this story. You even named one of your characters after him. Did you find it different writing with a real family member as inspiration, as opposed to characters and situations you wholly create?

Though I named a character after my great-grandpa Fred, the character was not him. I didn’t really know enough about his life to make it biographical, and even if I had, I didn’t want to. I knew that if I did, it would be too much of a constraint to adhere to the facts of his personality and life when I wanted the freedom to tell the story I wanted to tell. I think my family members appreciated both that his name was part of the story, and that I didn’t attempt to re-create him.

Dead Darlings: I read in Writers Digest that, “Regardless of your time period, regardless of all the in-depth research you’ve done, you must remember that you’re writing fiction first, and historical fiction second. In other words, don’t forget that it’s action and conflict that moves the book forward. The historical details enrich the work, but detail for detail’s sakes will sink you.”

The Tumbling Turner Sisters covers a lot of historical ground: World War I, Women’s Suffrage, Boston’s great molasses flood, Spanish flu, looming Prohibition, race discrimination, and the vaudeville era. How did you include all this without the book sounding like a history lesson?

Oh, it was so very tempting to say, “Here’s another cool thing I learned in all that research!” But I knew that the story had to come first, and the historical aspects would need to be the flavor and texture, but not take the place of, or intrude on, the story. At first I put in a lot of details, but then I weeded through the parts that weren’t critical to what was actually happening to the Turner girls. If it didn’t feed the story, it was out.

Dead Darlings: How did you build the setting for vaudeville, aside from introducing us to the characters and their acts? What did you have to research and for how long? And, perhaps most importantly, how do you know when to stop?

I started building the plot from the nomadic nature of vaudevillians, traveling from town to town, with a whole new set of performers to meet, befriend, or beware of. I liked that there was a new setting to deal with every week. I don’t think I ever did stop researching. It felt like every page—at times every paragraph!—required a dive into an outside source to figure out what was true to the period, and true to vaudeville.

Dead Darlings: In this book, you chose to tell the story from the point of view of two of the tumbling Turner sisters—Gert and Winnie. Why two and not four? And why these two?

At first, I had only thought to tell the story from Winnie’s perspective. She’s a watcher and very perceptive, and I wanted to talk about how girls were barely expected to finish high school, much less go to college. But after I’d written the whole first draft from her perspective, I realized that because the reader could only see what she sees, and know what she knows. There were entire plot threads that were obscured. I considered the other two sisters, Kit and Nell, and even their mother. But it was Gert who was having the most adventures, and these were secret, so only she could fully reveal them. I felt like two voices was enough, and four would be overly complicated without being of much benefit.

Dead Darlings: As we follow the four sisters and their mother, a girl-power theme seemed to permeate the narrative. Was this something you set out to do or did it emerge as you wrote?

Generally when I start to think about a new novel, there’s a subject I want to explore, and then I ask myself, “Who can best tell this story?” In 1919, with Women’s Suffrage in the works and this whole idea of the “New Woman” emerging— adventurous and daring, unfettered by marriage and children—I began to see that it had to be about young women. Then, as I started to write and get to know the characters, I began to conceive of what that would mean for each one of them: something different, but all of them slightly out of step, or perhaps ahead of the curve, of the old ways.

Dead Darlings: The Vaudeville era (roughly the 1880s to 1920s) was a tumultuous time in America. What lessons can we take from this book that we can apply to today? Many of us might be feeling our current presidential campaign circus looks a lot like a seemingly never-ending vaudeville act!

Vaudeville was far more fun and entertaining than this presidential campaign! I think what this story offers is perspective, not only on how far we’ve come with social issues like civil rights, sexism, racism, and the freedoms that all people should enjoy, but also that there is still plenty of work to be done. If anything, the current political climate has stirred us from our complacency, and revealed the old schisms and disparities that are still often swept under the rug.

Dead Darlings: What are you working on next? More history or back to present day?

I seem to have caught the historical fiction bug. During research for The Tumbling Turner Sisters I became fascinated by the nascent silent movie industry. It really was the Wild West in Hollywood in those days. Movies were made in a couple of days, with everyone pitching in with ideas. And because these “flickers” were not really taken seriously, and women were considered the main audience for silent movies, there were many women writers, directors, editors and producers. That changed when movies became big business by the end of the twenties. I’ve been having a lot of fun learning about those crazy early days and thinking up a story to showcase them.

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