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Nancy E. Turner
These is My Words


Original Airdate: April 9, 2008

 

About the Author

Nancy E. Turner began writing stories as part of her course work at Pima Community College. She graduated from the University of Arizona in 1999 with a Bachelor's degree in Fine Arts Studies, with a triple major in Creative Writing, Music and Studio Art. Nancy currently lives in Tucson with her dog Snickers and her husband. They have two children and three grandchildren.

 

About this Book

These is My Words is the fictionalized memoir of Sarah Prine, based on the experiences of the author's real great-grandmother. Themes of love and survival permeate this saga set on the Arizona Territories starting in the late 1800's Sara falls in love with U. S. Cavalry officer Captain Jack Elliot. But his duties carry him far away from her. She must endure loneliness while facing Indian attacks, floods and fires with only her courage and strength to protect her. This is the first of three books in the Sarah Prine series. These is My Words is the OneBookAZ 2008 adult selection.

 


Transcript

RON CARLSON:
Hello, welcome to Books& Co.. I'm Ron Carlson, and today our guest is the writer Nancy Turner, who's here with her novel These is My Words, which is the 2008 OneBookAZ selection. Welcome.

NANCY TURNER:
Thank you so much.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, it's terrific that you're here. Now, tell us, before we even get started, the title of this book is These is My Words.

NANCY TURNER:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
So why don't you explain the title and then give us an overview of the book.

NANCY TURNER:
Well, none of my novels have made it past the title selection committee. I didn't know there was one, but I wrote this book under the title straight through the heart.

RON CARLSON:
I see.

NANCY TURNER:
And I just felt like that's where a story had to come from, was right out of the heart, but it started with the first line of "My name is Sarah, and these is my words," and I had begun the book that way because I read many old diaries of people traveling west, and a lot of them began with a person's name and "this is my story of our trip to Oregon" or trip to here or there, and so I felt like it was appropriate. And of course, one of the underlying principles of the novel is this young woman's thirst for education, so she starts out with quite rustic speech patterns, and as the book progresses and she becomes self-educated, the language changes. But the publishers felt like that because the novel was about the change in the words, that the first sentence, "These is my words," made a good title.

RON CARLSON:
And her name is Sarah Agnes Prine, and these journals in your novel take place from 1891 to...

NANCY TURNER:
1881.

RON CARLSON:
1881, rather, to 1901.

NANCY TURNER:
To 1901, uh-huh.

RON CARLSON:
So 20 years.

NANCY TURNER:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
And you say you read nonfiction pioneer journals, and so this is the research for this book.

NANCY TURNER:
Exactly.

RON CARLSON:
Essentially what becomes a life story, this woman's testimony to what happened to her and her family. Where were you finding these journals? Where did you do the research?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, special collections in libraries at the universities and --

RON CARLSON:
Which universities?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, the University of Arizona in Tucson, the Historical Society in Arizona. There's one in Tucson, there's one here in Phoenix. They have actual diaries that you can read, and I wanted things -- I wanted the voice and the language to be as perfect as I could make it, so I did read a great number of diaries.

RON CARLSON:
Was the -- let's continue on this. Why were these diaries kept? I mean, the great tradition of western writing and traditional writing is -- we understand that, but what were these men and women doing by keeping these journals?

NANCY TURNER:
I think it was a record of their lives. I think there was a real sense in which they could just vanish out on the open wilderness. And it was a statement as to, you know, "I was here." And that's one of the – in fact, in the opening paragraph of the book, it's, you know, "I'm going to write this little story so people will find it and know whose bones these are," because she expected to not make it.

RON CARLSON:
What -- in your research, when you were reading those diaries, what was the biggest difference between what you read in the diaries and what we know from popular fiction, you know, our understanding of the "Wild West" and pioneer days? We've been fed such a steady diet of that for 50 years by the media, that here's firsthand accounts, and your book has a kind of freshness. But I was just going to ask what you learned from your research.

NANCY TURNER:
Well, one of the most interesting facts that I got right away was the difference between the movie version of a sort of built-in antagonism between the white settlers and the Indians. I know there was a lot of things that went on, but I found actual accounts of people who were shocked at the treatment of the Indians by the government, who complained loud and long that "you're not being fair to these people and no wonder they're angry all the time, because you promised them things and they haven't gotten them." And so I found a lot of – there was a lot more just humanity present as opposed to just the blustering sort of John Ford picture of, you know, the rough cowboy.

RON CARLSON:
Right, that's interesting. There's some wonderful interchanges with the Indians in here of all kinds, the entire circle of possible relationships. Is -- are -- is most of this pioneer writing by women?

NANCY TURNER:
No, a great many men kept diaries just equally well. In fact, more men were actually educated, and they tended to keep diaries. The difference was that men recorded facts and things and "we went this many miles and we stayed here." And so those things were very useful as far as how much time it took to get from one place to another, but the women talked about children that died on the trip, or one woman counted the passage of time by counting the gravestones that they passed.

RON CARLSON:
Oh, my heavens.

NANCY TURNER:
And she kept a record every single day of how many grave markers that the wagon went by. And so the women talked about different things.

RON CARLSON:
Well, that -- those grave markers, that informed your book, because this is a hard passage for this family. Sarah starts out, and how old is she in 1881?

NANCY TURNER:
She's 17 when the story begins.

RON CARLSON:
And they are -- they are in -- where are they in – describe the journey.

NANCY TURNER:
Well, they start out in Cottonwood Springs, Arizona, which is not Cottonwood. It's a little place near Four Corners. There's a – at tributaries to the Little Colorado River, there's Peach Springs, Pine Springs, and Cottonwood Springs. And that's where they lived and had a ranch and raised horses. And one day, you know, the family history is the dad came home and said, "Let's go east and find greener pastures."

RON CARLSON:
He wanted to go to Texas.

NANCY TURNER:
He wanted to go to San Angelo, Texas. And that came about after a trip to sell some horses where he had driven about half the herd down here to Hayden's Ferry, which is Tempe, and came back and said that he'd heard about a better place to live in Texas. So they traveled down through Prescott all the way down to the San Pedro River Valley south of Tucson, near Benson, and picked up those old railroad tracks that are still there. You can still actually take that Historic narrow gauge railway, a little tourist attraction, you can take a trip on it. And they followed those train tracks all the way to San Angelo, Texas.

RON CARLSON:
With their wagon train

NANCY TURNER:
Yes.

RON CARLSON:
They assembled a wagon train, and there are several families involved, and then almost immediately, in the beginning of your book, it starts with calamities and these adventures.

NANCY TURNER:
Yes, it's pretty violent.

RON CARLSON:
The exploits. What -- I thought -- as I was reading the book and I'd read the first 20 pages, I thought, "this can't go on." You just had such density of adventure. But it does. And was that your experience from the research, that this had been one thing and then another? I think in the opening, there's-- there's a confrontation with the Indians and there's confrontation with outlaws, and at one point, the Indian returns her horse. Sarah has a horse called rose. So is that all drawn from these records?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, right. It's actually drawn from not --Sarah herself never kept a diary, but her much older brother, Henry, had written a memoir in 1920, and he recounts some of the things that happened as they moved the family from Arizona territory, basically, to Texas. And when they got there, of course, he said they had nothing left but the calluses on their hands and the smiles on their faces. All the horses had been stolen by Indians, and buried their little brother on the way, and so it was a real tough time for the family.

RON CARLSON:
Now, this family, Sarah's family is her parents, and then she has, what, three brothers?

NANCY TURNER:
Four brothers in the beginning.

RON CARLSON:
Four brothers and a sister?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, there's a baby --

RON CARLSON:
Oh, the lost baby.

NANCY TURNER:
She refers to the baby that died.

RON CARLSON:
So somebody's died before the book starts, yeah, so it just --And then little by little, these calamities befall, and Sarah is -- shows herself to be very capable of distress. She turns out even to be a good shot.

NANCY TURNER:
Right, well, that was – the family stories about Sarah as I was growing up was that she could just outshoot about any man around.

RON CARLSON:
Now, this is -- so these are family stories, your family stories.

NANCY TURNER:
Right, Sarah was my great-grandmother.

RON CARLSON:
Okay, and so let's talk about that. So you grew up surrounded and steeped in these stories about your great-grandmother, and she was -- the rumor was, or the story was, that she could shoot.

NANCY TURNER:
Right, and just as good as any man, you know, which was -- that was the standard. If you could outshoot a man, you were doing well, but she could ride and shoot and didn't retire from active ranching till she was in her mid-70s. And even then she said it was because she had lost her aim with a lariat. And I kept thinking, "but you're on a horse throwing it?" And she just -- her aim was off, so she was going to quit ranching.

RON CARLSON:
And you knew her, you met her.

NANCY TURNER:
I only met her one time. I grew up in Southern California, and she lived on this little ranch the last of her days in Texas, near San Angelo, but they didn't have phones, they didn't have electricity, and I -- you know, living so far away, when my parents would travel, we visited my grandmother, who told me stories. But I only actually met Sarah one time, and I think I was about 2 or 3. Just barely remember being told, "Here's this lady" and "give her a kiss." But I remember being pulled from her lap and reaching for her, so she must have had a really kind way about her.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah. And so you grew up with these family stories, and this family -- this story keeps coming back to you, "Sarah this, Sarah that," and at some point, you decided to take the nervy move of writing a book.

NANCY TURNER:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
How does that happen? Is there a critical tipping point where you thought, "Enough with hearing these stories, I'm going to write the book?"

NANCY TURNER:
Well, it wasn't -- it wasn't that abrupt. What had happened was when we moved to Tucson, I started going to college, thinking I would get a degree. Almost by accident, I got into a fiction writing class. Didn't want to be in fiction, I wanted to write "the truth," which now I've discovered sometimes there's more truth in fiction than there is in nonfiction. But I got into this class, and the first assignment I had was to write a short story about somebody you wanted to get to know. And I thought, "if there's anybody in the world I'd like to get to know, it was that lady that I'd heard stories about all through my childhood." So I started out with a short story, and that short story's actually the first chapter of the novel.

RON CARLSON:
I wondered about the density of that.

NANCY TURNER:
It just sort of was a short story that got out of hand.

RON CARLSON:
Well, that's terrific. Let me -- we're going to sample this book in a minute. Let me remind everybody, we're talking with NANCY TURNER: about her novel based on the diary of Sarah Agnes Prine. The novel's called These is My Words, a stirring frontier saga, 1881 to 1901. Will you read a little sample?

NANCY TURNER:
I'd love to.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, go ahead.

NANCY TURNER:
Right now? All right.

RON CARLSON:
That'd be great.

NANCY TURNER:
All right, this is on their trip east. Most stories, people come west, but this family has to break the mold. And the little boy, Clover, is 6 years old, and his brother, Harland, is 9 when Sarah's telling about this. "After supper, Clover declared he was about to turn in. He was tired out. He spread himself a blanket under the wagon at the tongue bracing and was sleeping two rows at once. He was plum tuckered. Up came Albert and Ernest to Harland and said, 'Let's fish in the river while there's light,' and they do. And sure enough, they catch a big old ugly catfish. The boys laugh and think they're surprising little Clover, and they throw that nasty thing on him and hollered, 'Snake, snake!' That blanket unloads Clover like a mule, and he bucks his head real hard on the tongue brace, and it's blood everywhere. Well, mama's tenderin' Clover and scoldin' the big boys all in the same breath, and it's the most amazing bunch of speech I heard ever. He's got a busted head and a bloody bandage, and before long, he and Harland are marching around being soldiers and hollerin' 'take that, Yankee!' And 'take that, reb!' at the top of their lungs. Albert and Ernest is sorrowful for what they did, but not much, and they're trying to skin that catfish and clean it. Mrs. Hoover is fit to be tied. "She never did see such goings-on," she declares, and sniffed her smelling bottle and she goes to bed without helping with the dishes."

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, that's -- that's one of the lighthearted moments when they're playing around, because there's a lot of stuff -- there's a lot of play and there's a lot of harm in the book, but I will say that the context makes it seem very real. Now, beyond your data and historical information, which is vivid and very authentic and it's like reading history, you have the dramatic story of Sarah. She grows up, of course, assumes these skills. She is courted, she marries Jimmy at one point, that's her first husband. And that ends the way it ends, and then she has this other romance with the captain, and that turns out to be another -- second part of her life. Now, talk about assembling all this material, because it isn't just "Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday." You -- what was your process in terms of putting this book together and doing the writing?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, it's almost like orchestrating a symphony, where you start with the violins and then you have to add some cellos. I knew that I wanted her to fall in love with this handsome cavalry soldier. I knew that eventually they would get together, but then no road to romance is as interesting as if it's pretty lumpy. So along came this boy, Jimmy, that she'd known since she was a child, and she describes it as "he wanted to get married and I was handy." And so her first marriage is kind of just convenient, but it doesn't end well. And there was always Captain Elliott in the background, holding on to a book that he had traded a horse for.

RON CARLSON:
He's a dashing figure, and not always pleasant.

NANCY TURNER:
He's a bit of a character. He's a tough cookie.

RON CARLSON:
But I think this is one of the most energetic and dynamic parts of your story. It's so nicely done. But the road to romance is always better if it's lumpy.

NANCY TURNER:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
So you put a lot of impediments.

NANCY TURNER:
Uh-huh, and also a lot of his personality, because he's not a stay-at-home, you know, tell-her-what-to-do kind of guy. He really wanted a woman who was very independent and capable, and she really needed a man who let her be that way. And I think -- so her independence really made that relationship work, because as much as she bemoans the fact that he's not here, he's gone off chasing some outlaws, "why doesn't he just stay home and chase me?" You know, "I'll put on feathers and a war bonnet if you'll just chase me around the table." And so she really longs for him to want to be with her, and yet she also sees that there is a fire inside him that he's got to go around and put out. And he just isn't cut out to be a homebody.

RON CARLSON:
Well, it's a very strong relationship, two strong people. So you'd written a short story, and that was very riveting, and by the end of those first 25 pages, like I said, so much has happened. And then how did you append, or I mean, did you outline all 20 years then, all the way to the -- the final moments in Pima County?

NANCY TURNER:
No, I had no idea where it was going at that time. The only thing I knew was that the story went on, because obviously Sarah did marry and have children, because I'm here. So I really -- but the family facts stop abruptly with what we know. And so the rest of it, I had to just stop and think, "well, who would she be attracted to and what would happen next?" And I spent a great deal of time just trying to envision this person and listen to the voice. Basically, I hear the voice of my grandmother telling me stories. So I didn't really have everything planned, but I sort of knew where it was going to go, and as I wrote it, if I came to a place where it felt as if something needed filling in or that there wasn't a good motivation, then I looked back through the manuscript for, you know, can there be motivation for this action, or does it need to be taken out and rethought?

RON CARLSON:
Did you have books as a model? Did you have other novels you were reading as models, or --

NANCY TURNER:
No, not particularly. I just -- I read a lot of books, so I -- you know, I sort of knew that there needed to be new things happening all the time, always something that makes you want to turn the page.

RON CARLSON:
Yeah, well, there certainly is that. Did you ever -- so you left -- essentially, you had this data, you left it behind, you stepped into fiction, this world that was congruent with the world you'd created, and what did you -- where did you feel most vulnerable or most when you were taking the biggest risk in terms of fictionalizing or making things up?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, it was in whether to decide to use complete fiction approach or to research the background and get the historical data right and have the fictional family interacting on top of that. And that's what I ended up doing, partly because I was still taking classes and learning new things. And I had discovered at one point that I had put this little pioneer family right in the middle of Geronimo's territory, and I decided they would've noticed, you know? And so I changed dates and things, and I realized that the time and the places all worked if I just moved the days a little, and I could use real battles that really occurred on all of those same dates. And so a lot of historical accuracy is in -- in fact, even the date when the Pima County courthouse was burned down by an arsonist really happened. I got it out of a territorial newspaper.

RON CARLSON:
That was 1901?

NANCY TURNER:
Right.

RON CARLSON:
And did they ever catch that arsonist?

NANCY TURNER:
I don't know. I didn't look that up, but I do know that it burned down. And the story in the newspaper, was the Arizona Weekly Star at that time, said that it was probably somebody who thought they'd come to the long end of a short rope in that courthouse if it got finished, so...

RON CARLSON:
Did you consult a lot of newspapers of the day?

NANCY TURNER:
There -- yes, I found microfilm versions. You can get every single territorial newspaper from the first couple hundred years of Arizona.

RON CARLSON:
In the mid-'90s, 1890s?

NANCY TURNER:
Yes. Yes, it goes back to early 1800s.

RON CARLSON:
And what is in there besides legal notices and --

NANCY TURNER:
Oh, lots of fun stuff. You know, stores that advertise birth control right next to horseshoes, and everything you need on the pioneer life.

RON CARLSON:
Right, well, there is a lot of -- there is a lot of women's news in the book, and that was, I think, one of the fresh sides of it for me, looking at -- I'm looking -- we all are familiar with lots of western novels, stories, films, television, and that part of it, the women's angle, and then -- but Sarah is very interested in education. One of the great issues in this book are these books. And where did she get those books or where are those books from?

NANCY TURNER:
Well, she found an abandoned wagon that had books in it, and that was very common. When people were trekking across the country, the horses would die or they couldn't go on, the load was too heavy, and they would leave off, and it became -- as the trip progressed, more and more things got less and less important to take, until people would actually arrive at their destination maybe pushing a wheelbarrow with just a few clothes and some tools or something. So the books would have been something that a person may have taken partway and then cast off. It was very common to find books and pianos and things like that on the side of the road. So she found these books, and I think the love of education was something that the real Sarah actually did instill in her family. My mother was the first in that line of the family to go to college, so that was a really big event in our family for her to do that, but Sarah never really had but about a second-grade education.

RON CARLSON:
Well, there's that wonderful thing with the missing page, page 78, from the book, and I think Captain Elliott finds it, and then --

NANCY TURNER:
He finds the book.

RON CARLSON:
And then he extorts -- there's kind of a trading, "if you do this, then," like that.

NANCY TURNER:
Well, she wants horses to haul that wagon of books, and he trades her a book for each horse.

RON CARLSON:
Right.

NANCY TURNER:
And she wants that book something fierce.

RON CARLSON:
It was a good page.

NANCY TURNER:
Yeah, it was a good page, just enough to -- it was her first look at fiction and how exciting fiction can be and how it can draw you in. And I think it corresponded, too, with my going to college, trying to get a degree, intending to become a teacher, and just the whole world that opened up to me as I discovered everything that was there.

RON CARLSON:
There are lots of parallels here. Well, you've done an interesting, sort of brave thing, and there are probably a lot of people watching who are considering or who are writing their family stories based on these figures from the past who are somewhat larger than life, and so let me ask you, how has your family received this book about -- I mean, they can identify certain things and...

NANCY TURNER:
Well, I think the vast majority of them just think it's fun. There's a couple of people that have said, "yes, but that didn't really happen, but that isn't really true." And I said, "well, but this is fiction." I didn't know the facts, and I still don't know the facts, and the actual true facts we know would probably fill a page and a half. But this was a story to get to know a character, and a character as was described to me from, you know, my childhood. I literally grew up in the shadow of the Disneyland. Matterhorn, and fairy dust was as real to me as car exhaust. So -- so putting this character into a real situation where I felt like I could get to know her just felt as real as sitting and talking with her. And I think most of the family is pleased.

RON CARLSON:
Good, good. Well, you put her in a real situation, and the fabric of the book is very convincing. And congratulations on its success. These is My Words, which is Nancy Turner’s novel, is the 2008 OneBookAZ selection. And I'm Ron Carlson, this has been Books and Co. I hope you'll join us next time.

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