Juliette Fay, the author of three novels including The Shortest Way home is back with her fourth and most ambitious book, The Tumbling Turner Sisters set in 1919 against the backdrop of American Vaudeville.
Downpour: The backdrop of The Tumbling Turner Sisters is quite different from your previous novels. What made you want to take on historical fiction and this story of vaudevillians?
Juliette Fay: As a reader, historical fiction has always been a favorite of mine. I love the opportunity to learn about another time in the context of an entertaining story—it’s like eating ice cream that magically has the nutritional value of spinach.
However, I was a bit intimidated about writing it. I was sure I needed a Ph.D. in some forgotten era (or at least to have paid more attention in history class) in order to qualify. When I learned that my own great-grandfather had been in vaudeville, my inhibitions were overridden by how fascinating the subject matter was. Diving into the research, not only about vaudeville but also about that time in American history, was a real pleasure. I may not have a Ph.D. but I think I could probably teach a class in it now.
DP: How long did it take to research the historical background for the book? What was the process for writing amid that research, did you do them concurrently, or was it a linear process from research to drafting, etc?
JF: I did three full months of research before I even wrote a word. I read or viewed everything I could find—biographies of vaudevillians, analyses of how the business of vaudeville worked, general histories of the times, articles on the political and social changes, movies about vaudeville (which weren’t all that helpful because they tended to be glammed up and unrealistic), video clips of actual acts, documentaries on the life of traveling performers, etc.
Then as I began to write, I was constantly going back to my sources or finding new ones to answer the questions that arose from the story itself. For instance, how much did it cost to buy a cheese sandwich in 1919? (About ten to fifteen cents, depending on whether you bought it at a drugstore lunch counter or at a restaurant.) Or, where was the train station in Lyons, New York, and how would you get from there to the theatre? (Cross the bridge over the Erie Canal, take a left on Water Street and then a right on Williams.)
From the research stage to the last revision, it took me a little over two years to write.
DP: In your research did you come across any stories you really wanted to incorporate into the book but weren’t able to?
JF: The biographies of vaudevillians are full of vignettes and stories that I would have loved to use, but then the novel would’ve been a thousand pages and better suited as a doorstop! I particularly loved George Burns’s memoirs. He was not only a great entertainer, he was a solid writer, too, and brought the world of vaudeville fully alive for his readers. His story of how he got started in the business is priceless.
He was seven years old and working in a candy factory making chocolate syrup. He and his other young co-workers would sing to pass the time, and when a delivery man heard them and threw them some coins, it gave him an idea. Young George organized his little friends to form the Pee-Wee Quartet, and they sang anywhere that they wouldn’t be chased away—street corners, ferry boats, even a brothel. They didn’t make much money, but it was no less than they were making in the factory, and much more fun. He was hooked.
DP: All four sisters are compelling characters, but you chose to focus on Gert and Winnie to narrate the story, was that a decision you made at the outset, or did it evolve as you drafted the book?
JF: When I first conceived of the story, it was Winnie’s to tell, and I wrote the entire first draft in her voice, from her perspective. But as I started getting feedback from my early readers, it was clear that there was a lot going on with the other sisters that Winnie wasn’t entirely privy to. For instance, she knew that Gert was secretly involved with one of the other performers, but she never actually saw very much of it herself, and so couldn’t report with any detail to the reader.
I knew I had to have a second perspective, someone who could tell more of the story. I considered the other sisters, Nell and Kit, and even their mother. But it was really Gert who was having the most interesting adventure, and because it was on the sneak, I needed her to tell it. I went back and converted some of Winnie’s chapters to Gert’s voice and perspective, and wrote new chapters about her secret wanderings.
DP: Your previous work has revolved around relationships, both familial and romantic, as well as loss, which are themes present in The Tumbling Turner Sisters, but the sisters’ unique adventure gives you new ground to explore those themes. Was there anything you learned from that change that you hadn’t discovered in your previous books?
JF: Every book is a new opportunity to explore a facet (or several) of the human condition and how we relate to one another, often imperfectly, sometimes with great compassion and generosity. Writing about the relationships of these four sisters was a wonderful experience for me, in part because of the cherished bonds I share with my own two sisters (neither of whom were prototypes for any of the Turner girls, just to be clear). We don’t always agree on everything, and our personalities are very different, but like the Turners, in the end we always have one another’s backs.
In all of my books the main characters endure some sort of redemptive process that ultimately leads them to their truer selves. This hero’s journey is even harder for the Turner girls because of the social constraints of the time. They actually have to leave home and go out on the road to find their true callings, and learn just how much they need one another in the process.
I love the Mae West line from one of the chapter headings: “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Of course, Mae’s comments always had a sexual undertone, but it could be taken another way: Ultimately, none of the Turner sisters fit into the standard “ideal” box that society has built for them, but with the help of the others, they each begin to build lives that are uniquely their own.