Sheila Turnage talks Tupelo Landing

Sheila Turnage DUO

Sheila Turnage’s Three Times Lucky was a book that made me laugh out loud, repeatedly, and was easily one of my favorite reads of 2012 – and given that it was awarded a Newbery Honor, clearly I wasn’t the only one! So as we all count down to the release of the next Mo and Dale adventure (The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing), I thought I’d ask Sheila if she would stop on by to talk all things Tupelo Landing – and happily she agreed! So here we go:

Byrt: First off, how much fun did you have coming up with your characters’ names? (Moses LoBeau, Dale Earnhart Johnson III, The Colonel, etc)

ST: I had a great time coming up with the names for these books. Mo’s name – Moses – is, of course, a reflection of the Bible story about baby Moses floating along the river, into a new life. That’s Mo’s story, too.

Dale Earnhardt Johnson III – well, Dale’s family believes in “naming for the famous,” as Mo says. So his daddy named him for the racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the driver’s famous car, The Immortal Number 3. NASCAR is huge in North Carolina and huge with Dale’s daddy, and so the name makes perfect (if unexpected) sense.

The Colonel’s name came off his jacket. The name fits both his character and his circumstance. I chose Miss Lana’s name because I wanted a soft, Hollywood-sounding name.

You’ll meet some new characters in The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, and their names were just as much fun. There’s Harmond Crenshaw (Harm for short.) And his fast-driving, cold-hearted brother Flick.

Character names are lots of fun, and really important. They not only have to make sense, they have to fit together like pieces of a puzzle. They’re part of the story, after all.

Three Times LuckyByrt: Now I think my favorite thing about Three Times Lucky was Mo’s genius for turns of phrase – so did Mo’s voice just spring to life fully formed in your head, or was she based on someone you knew, or even yourself as a child?

ST: A lot of people ask me if I’m Mo grown up and the answer is no. Mo’s smarter than I am and much funnier. :)

Mo’s voice did just “spring to life,” as you say – which is common for writers of fiction and poetry. I listened to her in my imagination, and I wrote her story for the sheer joy of it. It’s really exciting that her voice brings other people joy too. I love that.

Byrt: And for the Yanks like me – how much is Mo’s gift for words part and parcel of growing up in the south? (The south does have all the best sayings…) Or is it simply Mo herself?

ST: I think it’s a little of both. I’m a native of eastern North Carolina, like Mo. It’s still very rural here. There’s a rhythm and richness to our way of speaking and I think that comes across in Mo’s narration. Her language is the language of front-porch storytellers, really. It’s funny and rhythmic and image-oriented. It lets you see a story unfold, it invites you to step inside.

There’s a lot of natural poetry in Mo’s language, plus some I deliberately inserted in rewrites to help spin the story and give it additional texture.

So I think Mo has a definite narrative advantage as a Southern storyteller, but I think part of what you’re reading is also heightened language.

Byrt: Have you yourself ever lived in a place much like Tupelo Landing?

ST: I’ve never lived in a place exactly like Tupelo Landing, but I’m a frequent visitor – as is anyone who lives in eastern North Carolina. Eastern North Carolina is full of tiny towns and communities similar to Tupelo Landing, but Tupelo Landing itself exists entirely in my imagination. I do love it, though, when it feels so real to readers they write to me asking for help finding it on the map.

Byrt: And as you went about creating and populating your fictional small town, how conscious were you of the usual backwoods/small-town stereotypes? Were you having fun with having fun at their expense?

ST: Actually I wasn’t thinking about stereotypes at all. I think stereotypes come into play when you’re on the outside looking in. Mo’s stories are told from the inside looking out.

I was just writing Mo’s stories and having fun capturing her voice on paper. Mo’s stories run fast, funny, and full of heart. I love the way readers connect with them.

Maybe there’s a little Mo in all of us. Who knows?

The Ghosts of Tupelo LandingByrt: So what’s coming up next for Mo, Dale and the rest? Will they encounter a real ghost or two?

ST: What’s up next? Well, Mo and Dale’s next adventure, The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, comes out February 4. It’s received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Bookslist and SLJ. It’s an OKRA pick (for the best new Southern lit) and a Junior Library Guild selection. And readers of Three Times Lucky seem to be excited that Mo’s story is continuing, which absolutely thrills me.

Mo, Dale and I are heading out on a book tour in February. We’ll visit schools and bookstores across the South and Midwest, which will be fun. And we’ll visit lots of schools in NC here too, of course.

As for the ghosts, I’ll tell you what I usually tell kids who ask that question: No clues EXCEPT that I haven’t turned a character you love into a ghost! (Sometimes readers worry about this.) With that said, no clues! I don’t want to spoil the book for you. You’ll have to read it to find out!

Byrt: Do you plan to continue the series after the next book (I hope)?

ST: Yes! I’m just finishing the rough draft of Mo and Dale’s next mystery. As long as Mo’s
spinning stories, I’m writing them down!

Byrt: Last but not least, read anything good lately? Any books you’d recommend, so we have something to read while we wait for your next book?

ST: Wow, I wish I could say I’ve been reading stacks of new books but I really haven’t! I’ve been busy working on Mo and Dale’s next adventure, and preparing for the release of The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing. I’ve recently read a biography of E.B. White. Also A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price. The books patiently waiting on my bedside table include Counting by 7’s by Holly Goldberg Sloan, and What I Came To Tell You by Tommy Hays. I’m looking forward to both of those!

Me too – and thank you again, Sheila, for taking the time!

For more on Sheila, you can check out her website here.

And you can read an excerpt from Three Times Lucky here.