An Interview With Ann Turner About Love Thy Neighbor
Author Ann Turner discusses her book on the American Revolution, part of the Dear America historical fiction series.
Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D. & Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D: You’ve said, “The queerest thing about writing is how a story chooses you, instead of you choosing it.” How did it happen that Love Thy Neighbor selected you?
Ann Turner: That statement about stories choosing me rather than my choosing them reflects some of the deep mystery of the process of writing — something I don’t always understand myself. I think with this novel, this “diary,” I probably had more of a role in “choosing” this story. With Tories in my family history, I was alert to the possibility of the other side of events — the side not often told in history books. Probably the part where I did not do the “choosing” was when Prudence walked into my life; with red curly hair, an impatient walk, and a mind full of questions, she plucked at my sleeve and asked me to tell about her life. In that way, I could not not tell her story.
RFA & EST: You mention in the Historical Note that history books say little about the Tories, and what they do say is not positive. From what sources did you gain your information for Prudence’s diary?
AT: There were a great many books I read and people whom I interviewed which gave me information about the Tories. Written sources include: John Adams, by David McCullough; Dearest Friend, (A Life of Abigail Adams), by Lynne Withey; Loyalists In The American Revolution, by Claude Halstead Van Tyne; Our Own Snug Fireside, by Jane C. Nylander, about daily life in Colonial times; The Way of Duty (A Woman and Her Family In Revolutionary America), by Joy Day Buel & Richard Buel, Jr.; Clues To American Dress, by E. F. Harley; Early American Cookery, by Margaret Huntington Hooker; and also, the wonderful children’s book, If You Lived At The Time Of The American Revolution, by Kay Moore. I received immense help from the many people listed at the back of the novel, particularly Ann Lanning, Associate Curator for Interpretation at Historic Deerfield, Mrs. Elise Feeley, Reference Librarian at Forbes Library, and Frances Karttunen, at the Nantucket Historical Library Museum.
RFA & EST: What was the most challenging aspect of writing from a Tory point of view?
AT: I think the most challenging aspect was that I have always sympathized with the Patriots. Had I been alive at the time of this diary, 1774-1775, there is no question in my mind that I would have been a radical Patriot, involved in the attempts to separate from the Crown. I had to put my personal feelings and loyalties aside to write this book in an authentic and sympathetic way.
RFA & EST: Prudence writes about Tories who were threatened with the punishment of being tarred and feathered. Did this happen? Why was this torture selected? Where did the idea of tarring and feathering a person come from?
AT: Yes, being tarred and feathered was a potent threat to Tories throughout this period. It was used, and the men who suffered this punishment often never truly recovered. They were maimed for life, sometimes blinded and badly burned. I am not sure where this punishment originated. I believe it was used as a threat because people were so frightened of it; it was an effective threat for that reason alone. It also reminds us that people on “our” side of the Revolution, the Patriots, could behave cruelly.
RFA & EST: In your research, did you find that the island of Nantucket became a safe haven for Tories not wanting to go back to England or were they still persecuted on the island?
AT: There actually were not many Tories who fled to Nantucket; we estimate it was perhaps one hundred people, according to available research. They were not terribly welcomed by the islanders, due to the shortage of food, but they were not actively persecuted. Nantucket tended to be more Loyalist than Patriot. It wound up in the unfortunate position of being neither trusted by the Loyalists nor by the Patriots.
RFA & EST: In your mind, was Pru’s brother Walter really a Patriot?
AT: Yes, I believe Walter was a hidden Patriot within his Tory family. Such things often happened at that period. Remember My Brother Sam is Dead? That, for me, is one of the best and most passionate novels about this period and about the fact that the Revolutionary War was also a Civil War. It divided families, split communities, and broke apart friendships of long standing, and this country lost many people of talent and worth who fled to safer places.
RFA & EST: How do you think your work as a poet influenced your fiction-writing style in Love Thy Neighbor?
AT: I hear words singing inside; often words string together in a kind of rhythm, and metaphors sprinkle my writing. So, although the writing in Love Thy Neighbor is not heavily poetic, some of the descriptions are. Sometimes emotions are described in ways that are poetic. Here are some I remember: Prudence is writing about her sadness at the defection of her old friend, Abigail: “I have discovered that when someone goes away from you, your whole body feels empty.” And later, when Papa tells his family they shall remain Tories and will not change and become Patriots, Prudence writes: “That would be like crossing the river in a boat and deciding halfway across to swim on the back of a horse. We are in the king’s boat and will stay in it.” Poetic language allows me to say a lot in a short space, with fewer words.
RFA & EST: You advise the youngster who wants to be writer to “learn to be spy.” Would you elaborate on this advice?
AT: It is something I tell students when I speak to them at their schools. Writers are nosy people; we are endlessly curious; we ask questions when we shouldn’t; we peek around corners when we are least expected. That need to question, listen in, and find out what makes people tick is part of our strength as writers — as long as we keep it in check! One of my favorite activities when I was a teenager was going riding on the back of a horse with a friend of mine. Because we were rather high up, I could see into peoples’ lighted windows as we trotted past. Questions would rise up inside: Who lives there? Are they happy? What are they doing? Any dogs or cats in sight? Any fights going on? Kids who want to become writers might want to start carrying a small notebook in their backpack. I encourage people to sit down in malls and listen, just listen, to how people talk. And walk. And touch their children. What can you tell about people from the way they move and the tone of their voice?
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Associate Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction, Houston, Texas.