Child Bride is the 2020 winner of SCN’s Sarton Award for historical fiction.
Jennifer Smith Turner knows who she is and where she came from.
“…my great-grandfather was a slave on a pecan and hog farm. Which became my grandfather’s sharecroppers’ home. Which became my father’s home that holds history in its fist. I am from slavery and freedom. I am from all of this,” Jennifer wrote in a poem called Where I’m From.
Jennifer also wrote that she is from: “Fishing poles and bowling shoes lined up seven-deep in the hallway…From ‘Stop fighting, hug and kiss your brother’…From Sunday school, Easter sunrise service, blessings before every meal… From Margaree, the youngest of nine, and Herman, the oldest of twelve…and from ‘You can be whatever you want to be in this world’ and ‘Education is the answer to everything.’”
The author followed the advice about education. Among her many credits and honors are a bachelor’s degree from Union College, a master’s degree from Fairfield University, and an honorary doctorate degree from the University of Hartford. She has been featured on National Public Radio, served as a featured speaker at Yale University, and served as the Interim President/CEO of Newman’s Own Foundation in 2019.
When Jennifer retired from her job as CEO of Girl Scouts of Connecticut in 2012, she thought about what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. The answer was that she only wanted to do things that made her smile. Some of the things that make her smile, she enumerates, are: “My twenty-year marriage to Eric; living on Martha’s Vineyard with my husband; my entire family. I’m a great-aunt five times over. Writing; reading both for pleasure and for knowledge; gardening; golfing; having friends and being a friend; traveling; author events, even on Zoom; working with young people. And a sunny day.”
Jennifer says she has always been a writer, but that she put this aspect of her life on hold for a few decades. Then on February 4, 2000, her mother died. “That night I made a promise to her to become a writer. She always encouraged me to excel in whatever I decided to do. But she would gently remind me, ‘You know Jen, you are a very good writer.’ Her words echoed in my mind the day she joined the ancestors. So I made a promise to focus on my writing skills, and here I am all these years later with two published poetry books and a debut novel.”
A little over a year after her mother died, Jennifer married Eric. Both were forty-nine. “If anyone had told me in my twenties that I’d be at a marriage altar at the age of forty-nine, well, it would have been unimaginable to me. Yet there we were saying, ‘I do,’ and here we are in 2021 celebrating our twentieth anniversary.”
Shortly after the wedding, Jennifer published her first poetry book, Perennial Secrets. “It was a homage to my mother, my way of keeping the promise to her and also a way for me to grieve her loss.”
Child Bride, the author says, was born from the failure of her first attempt at writing a novel, one in which Nell, the protagonist of Child Bride, was a minor character. Jennifer says she will always be grateful for the honest criticism people offered of that first manuscript, which eventually gave her Nell’s voice and the strength to write her story.
Although that first novel never saw the light of day, she says it taught her that there was a big difference between writing a book and writing poetry. “First, it was simply the longevity needed to develop each scene and character.”
Another stumbling block was that in poetry, the goal was to “capture a sentiment, an image, or feeling in as few words as possible and yet with enough descriptive language to grab the reader’s attention.” That didn’t work for a full-length book, she says, and early readers of that first novel told her it had far too much telling and not enough showing. “This baffled me since showing is how I successfully communicate through poetry,” she admits. But she wrote on, finished the book, and tried to find a publisher. “I waited anxiously for the offers to come in, but you guessed it, that never happened.” Instead, she got brutal feedback, including the comment from one agent who wrote, “Telling, telling, telling, typical first-time novelist mistake…and oh the grammatical errors!”
Several years later, when taking another look at the book and critiques, Jennifer says she realized it was Nell’s story that she needed to write. “Writing happens in my mind long before words find a home on a page. It’s as though I need to visualize the story, sense the characters, feel their lives. Once I’ve lived with this uncertainty for a time, suddenly my fingers want to take to the page or keyboard and begin to form sentences. …There were long pauses between the creative process, times when I thought there was no way the novel would ever be completed. But then, from seemingly nowhere, images would begin to visualize and the words would flow.”
Jennifer says her editor’s advice helped move the story to a higher level, but that her husband’s feedback helped, too. “The best advice he gave me was to incorporate my poetic voice into my writing… His advice gave me the freedom to be a poet who is writing in novel form.”
The Black Lives Matter movement, the author says, made her think about the correlation to the underlying thread of racism in her book. Even as she wrote Child Bride, racial discrimination incidents were being reported in the news. But heightened sensitivity around racism and social injustice in this country resulted in readers looking at the novel with a very different lens. “A number of book clubs chose Child Bride as their selection,” Jennifer says, “and I’ve been meeting with some of them, and it’s been amazing to listen to the discussion from readers.”
When Jennifer began to transform from the corporate world to the writing world, she says she sought advice from those in the literary world. One of the best pieces of wisdom came from an editor who told her to get over the romantic notion of writing while sitting on a secluded beach in the tropics. “Writing is work,” the editor said.
“And so it is,” says Jennifer, whose own advice to other writers is simple: “Just sit down and write, not for an audience, but for yourself; write from your heart.”
Meanwhile, winning Story Circle’s May Sarton Award is especially memorable to Jennifer, who notes that May’s weathered paperback copy of Journal of Solitude has been on her bookshelf for decades.