I am so very pleased to introduce you to the August Author of the Month T.J. Turner, the author of the Lincoln’s Bodyguard series of novels. Todd has served our country as a member of the U.S. Air Force. He has been active in the Dayton-area writing community as well, serving as president of the Antioch Writers Workshop. Welcome, TJ, to our August dialogue!
Janet Irvin: It is always interesting to learn of a writer’s journey to publication. What first inspired you to write?
TJ Turner: I’ve been writing as long as I remember. It hasn’t been a steady journey, as I tend to go through spurts and dry times. For instance, I wrote a lot during my undergraduate studies as means to escape all the incessant coursework. But then in graduate school, I stopped writing creatively almost entirely. It never leaves though, and the stories always come around and demand to be heard. So eventually I always head back to the keyboard.
J.I.: Your first two books offer an alternative history regarding the Abraham Lincoln presidency and the Civil War. How did you first get interested in this genre? Why did you choose Lincoln as your focus?
TJ: I’ve always loved history, and in particular American history. When I’m reading, I tend to read a work of fiction followed by a work of non-fiction—then I wash and repeat. And those non-fiction works were always in American history. It truly didn’t dawn on me to write historical fiction until I was driving home one day from work, rather defeated from a writing related failure, and I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air. Terry Gross was talking about presidential assassinations, or some such topic, and she said something along the lines of: “Wouldn’t it have been a different country if Lincoln hadn’t been assassinated.” And at that moment the title “LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD” popped into my head. By the time I finished driving home that evening, the rough outline for the story had already planted itself in my imagination. Truly though, Lincoln isn’t the focus at all. The story is. He’s actually a fairly minor character in the first book (LINCOLN’S BODYGUARD) and plays only a slightly larger role in the sequel (LAND OF WOLVES). The first two books are told from the perspective of Joseph Foster, the bodyguard who saves Lincoln, thus setting us off down this alternative historical timeline. Really the books are about loss, love, redemption, and the places in between.
J.I.: Working with history can be daunting. What does your research process entail?
TJ: Mainly my research process is to read as much as I can, whether it’s great non-fiction about an event or a time, or even some period pieces to get me in the mindset of the setting I’m looking for. In my latest novel, ANGEL IN THE FOG, I read a lot about the initial assassination attempt on Lincoln before he made it to Washington for his first inauguration. There are some amazing women who played a role in safeguarding Lincoln to his first term in office, and since I was writing from the perspective of Molly, my female protagonist, it was like the story was ready made for her. So sometimes maybe I just get lucky. Other times, I like to weave the story into our actual history, or challenge the reader with the alternative timeline, just so we can all ponder what was and would could have been.
J.I.: You have also served in the military and are a father. How do you balance these important roles with your writing?
TJ: Not well! I normally write late at night, when the house is quiet and the kids are asleep. That’s when I can let my mind wander and not get interrupted. On the military side, I don’t get much writing done when I’m on duty—particularly when deployed. There’s just too much going on, and the mission deserves my undivided attention first. But the writing is never far away. I think it’s always percolating in the back of my mind, waiting for me to sit down in front of the keyboard and get back to work.
J.I.: Can you share with us a typical writing day for you?
TJ: I don’t have one. I tend to write when I feel like it, and I don’t when I’m not in the mood. If I force it, the prose comes out stilted. When I’m on, and the story is begging to be told, then it’s like magic—normally late at night so I’m guaranteed to be tired the next day! I’ve tried writing to a schedule, and I find I just can’t do it.
J.I.: Is there a character in your novels with whom you identify the most? Were any of your characters difficult to write? Why or why not?
TJ: Right now I identify with Molly the most, but I think that’s because I just finished watching her story in ANGEL IN THE FOG get released to the world. Personally, I’m probably closest to Joseph in the first two books, but there’s something magnetic about Molly. I was most worried about writing her. The first two books are told from Joseph’s perspective, written in first-person. I found I like books told in that point of view, and it was easy to really get inside of Joseph’s head with that technique. When I shifted to writing Molly’s story, I went with third person. I was worried about authentically writing a female character, so I think the third person gave me some psychological distance to be able to better write her story.
J.I.: Almost all writers can point to a seminal moment that inspired them — a novel they read, a lecture they heard, a person who mentored them? Do you have similar moments in your life?
TJ: I know I have some big seminal moments in my life, times when a decision altered my course for good. But I can only think of one in terms of writing. That was when my wife Nancy pushed me to apply for the Antioch Writer’s Workshop. We wouldn’t have been able to afford tuition at the time, and I was lucky enough to get a scholarship. That set things in motion for me. My agent Liz and her help, would certainly be another great moment. I carefully planned which literary agents I wanted to query. Liz was one of a small number, and after I deployed to Afghanistan for my second deployment, I got an e-mail from her asking if we could talk about the project. Well, I had to convince her that I was overseas, and that I would have to call her since she wouldn’t be able to reach me on the DoD phone system. I’m not sure she believed me. The only time she had free was right during the time of night when we always got rocketed by the Taliban. So I told her if I hung up on her, it wasn’t her…it was just an attack I had to go deal with. I know she didn’t believe that! But we had a great talk, she gave me pages of feedback, and by the end she decided to pick me up as a client. And the best part was the Taliban held off on the rockets that night! Amazing.
Finally, as for lectures, I’ve had the privilege to sit through some amazing ones as a part of the Antioch Writer’s Workshop. The one that stands out the most was a master class by Andre DuBois III. It was a fantastic couple of hours, with great advice on writing. If you get a chance to see him, take it. Most of the material in that master class is also presented in videos he gives on YouTube. I highly recommend anyone look them up and watch.
J.I.: Do you have plans to attend any conferences in the future?
TJ: Yes…but I’m not sure what’s next! I haven’t been to Bouchercon, or Killer Nashville. I’d like to attend both.
J.I.: What’s next writing-wise?
TJ: I started another work of historical fiction, one told from the perspective of an untrustworthy narrator. I thought that might be fun. But this other project keeps coming up in my mind. I just don’t know. That second one will likely have to be told next, but it’s not quite historical fiction…I’m not sure how to describe it.
J.I.: Who are you reading these days?
TJ: I’ve been reading Paulette Jiles. I love her writing. I feel so inadequate as a writer when I’m reading her novels…but goals!
J.I.: Thanks, TJ! Now, just for fun, what is your favorite movie?
TJ: I think I have to claim Man on Fire, with Denzel Washington, as my favorite movie. I know it’s a hard-core action film, but when you look at it closer it has one of the very best character arcs in any movie I’ve seen, coupled with a real plot. You don’t find those together too often, and I love how Denzel plays out that arc to completion.
J.I.: When you relax, what is your favorite thing to do?
TJ: To relax? I like to get in my wood shop and do something creative in a more physical medium—woodworking. It helps the writing come.
TJ Turner is an award-winning novelist, a historian, a research scientist, and a federal Agent. He has a PhD in Mechanical Engineering and Material Science from Cornell University. As a reserve military officer, he served three tours in Afghanistan and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal twice (2013 and 2017). Angel in the Fog is Turner’s third novel and a prequel to Lincoln’s Bodyguard and Land of Wolves. Turner’s novels have one won the Darrell Award for Best Mid-South Novel, the International Book Award for Historical Fiction, the Best Book Award for Historical Fiction, and the Military Writers of America Silver Medal. Turner lives in central Ohio, with his wife, Nancy, and three children.
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