Lisa Turner grew up in Memphis, graduated from White Station High School, and is now an author who splits her time between her hometown and Nova Scotia, where she talked to me by phone for a story in the September 2016 issue of Memphis magazine. Her books, The Gone Dead Train and A Little Death In Dixie, are set in the South. Her latest novel, Devil Sent The Rain (William Morrow), is being released on Tuesday, September 27th, with a reading and signing at the Booksellers at Laurelwood. This Q&A is taken from our phone conversation.
How did the storyline for Devil Sent The Rain come about?
This one had an unusual genesis in that I had the idea for the story and then I saw, on my friend’s coffee table, a copy of a book of Man Ray’s portraits — all of those black-and-white, really unusual photographs from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s — and I started flipping through and just said, ‘Okay, there are my characters.’ I started writing about the different characters and put them up on the wall. I do plot everything out to begin with, I actually storyboard it with big Post-It notes.
Did you know “who done it” when you began writing the book?
Not when I started. My original idea was that it was [redacted for spoiler], and then once I put the pictures up and stared at them, I realized, ‘Ah! It was [redacted for spoiler].’
How did you begin writing?
I read a lot. I went almost immediately to work in the interior decorating business with my mother, but became curious about what makes a reader turn the page and I bought John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist. You know, let’s just shoot high! I thought, ‘I want to try this,’ and it was just awful. Just because you can read, and you can recognize good writing, doesn’t mean you can do it, especially not sustain it. But I’m a fairly tenacious person and I wasn’t so much interested in publishing as I wanted to know how it was done, and the more I did it the more curious I became. And then I became passionate about story structure and just the whole idea of creating a story, the mythic journey.
And that curiosity led to your first novel, A Little Death in Dixie?
I worked on that for years and years because I didn’t plan necessarily to publish. I kind of backed into this entire thing of writing because being curious and then passionate about how it’s done, that’s been the driving force.
Your books have a lot of police procedurals and Devil Sent the Rain, particularly, involves legal trusts. Did you have to research for the more technical aspects?
The plot started with a conversation with a trusts and estates attorney and he said it’s the easiest practice for an attorney to steal money. My ears perked up. What’s great is attorneys and cops really like to brainstorm when you give them “What if” questions. Because I’ve written now three procedurals, I started early with that and have worked with a lot of retired police officers because they have time to talk with me. They love it. I would say my biggest questions have been the details of what’s on the desk, where you holster your gun, and what kind of badge you’re carrying — those real specific details. I try to keep in mind that it really is about the story and about the South and about the puzzle, but I do try to make it as accurate as possible.
Where did Detective Billy Able come from?
I don’t know. When I was trying to develop him, because the South has so many characters, so many quirky people, I wanted him to be more of a Quixotic detective and a good guy, kind of an everyman. As I’ve seen from a lot of detectives, they’re very good-hearted people. They’re cynical and jaded and all those things, but they’re interested in doing the best they can for the victims and their families, and they really are interested in justice.
Will he show up again?
The book I’m getting ready to start is [Detective] Frankie [Malone] and Billy, but I’m interested in writing more about Frankie for this book.
What is your writing routine?
I find that my brain is best in the morning. I really am not an early riser but when I’m writing I’ll get up at five or five-thirty. I will understand or even write things that I can’t write at two in the afternoon. So I work around until eleven, then we’ll have lunch, and then I work on a different kind of writing, maybe looking back over things. And then from five to six or so the lights come back on.
The Booksellers at Laurelwood
Tuesday, September 27th