Thursday, September 22, 2022

Q&A with Sheila Turnage


Photo by Crutchfield Photography



Sheila Turnage is the author of the new middle grade historical novel Island of Spies. It takes place in North Carolina during World War II. Her other books include Three Times Lucky. She lives in North Carolina.


Q: You write, “I first caught a glimpse of this story during a family trip to Hatteras Island, where the story is set, when I was about nine years old.” What initially intrigued you, and at what point did you decide to write about it?


A: Great question! I still remember that moment, walking along a white sand beach with my father so many years ago. I saw an odd black something washed ashore, and asked what it was. “Oil,” he said, and explained that U-boats sank our ships in the shipping lanes just offshore during World War II, and that those sunken ships still sat on the bottom of the sea, leaking oil. Then he mentioned spies.


I was hooked.


A later trip to Hatteras Lighthouse – which in Island of Spies is headquarters to our heroes, The Dime Novel Kids – set the hook even deeper. So I’ve always wanted to write about Hatteras Island in 1942, and decided to write Island of Spies as I was finishing the Mo & Dale Mysteries, which kicked off with Three Times Lucky.


I knew it was time because its characters were starting to speak up. Especially protagonist Sarah Stickley Lawson, better known as Stick.


Q: How did you create your characters Stick, Rain, and Neb, and how would you describe the dynamic among them?


A: Like many writers, I “listen” for my characters in my imagination and follow their leads. I write characters who want to be written.


Stick, Rain and Neb, the main characters in Island of Spies, are the strangest kids on Hatteras Island and also the only detectives on Hatteras Island. They are steadfast friends. As the story unfolds, as war comes to their world, they decide to catch a spy – to gain the islanders’ respect, to get the attention of the FBI, and to protect their world from Nazi Germany’s submarines, called U-boats, and the men inside them.


Stick’s a white, 12-year-old girl – a self-educated scientist at a time when girls had little chance of becoming a scientist. She’s smart and funny, and ahead of her time.


Her friend Neb’s a fake Boy Scout trying to live up to the Boy Scout ideals, and to cope with the illness of his father. Neb, who’s also white, always adapts, always hangs in. Knock him down and he pops back up, every time. Sadly, he falls in love with a spy, but things happen, right? ;)


Rain, a mixed-race girl who lives with her mother in the oddest home on the island – a remodeled, truck-size barrel that washed ashore in a storm – is Stick’s sister of the heart. Rain’s hands-down the island’s best artist, and her art – the stories it tells, the mysteries and miracles it reveals – made her a joy to write.


As for the relationship between the three characters, the Dime Novel Kids are true friends, standing up for each other as they face their challenges. And, as strangers come to the island and the stakes in the war offshore grow greater, they risk more than they ever imagined they would to catch a spy.


Q: The author Lauren Wolk said of the book, “Turnage deftly weaves history with fiction, humor with drama, light with dark to produce a concoction as compelling as its protagonist.” What do you think of that description, and how did you balance all those factors in the novel?

A: Well, I love that description. What writer wouldn’t? I am delighted that Lauren, who’s a great writer, finds the book well woven. It’s a challenge, interweaving history and story without one overshadowing the other.


Island of Spies is set in the first months of 1942 – a time of a “secret war” along North Carolina’s coast. Nazi Germany’s U-boats sank so many ships there that the government classified the news as much as possible, to keep the rest of the nation from panicking.


But this is not a war story. The war’s a backdrop for a story about friendship, fathers, and finding your own place in the world. It’s about being “invisibilized” by people who think they’re more than you, and maintaining your dignity and holding your place. It’s about recognizing friends in enemies, keeping your cool undercover and standing up to prejudice. And it’s about learning to depend on each other – no matter what.


And as for the protagonist – Stick – I love her courage, smarts and humor. They come through loud and clear as she narrates this twisty story.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: I researched the book in the usual ways, by reading and by talking to people who lived here during World War II, people who remember rationing and the fear of spies, people who saw the ships burning out on the water.


Still, I was surprised by how many ships went down off the coast of North Carolina in 1942. More than 80 – almost all of them sunk by torpedoes from U-boats.


And even though I’d heard stories of spies along the coast all my life, I was surprised by the number of real-life spies captured in the US in 1942. I used the details of those spies’ missions, plus true-life spycraft – gizmos and lingo – in Island of Spies.


And I’m always surprised by the courage of ordinary people – people braving the possible loss of brothers and friends who volunteered for the military, people muddling through the use of ration books, people doing without to support the war effort. And risking everything to catch a spy.


Q: What are you working on now?  


A: That’s the eternal question, isn’t it? As I launch Island of Spies, I’m also listening to my imagination for new characters and a new book. A boy’s speaking up – which surprises me, because female characters usually speak first in my imagination. If his story’s as smart and twisty and exciting as Island of Spies, I have some fun writing days ahead.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Oh gosh, let’s see. You can check out my website for book report information and great historical photos. I’d love to hear from readers of Island of Spies, which is an Amazon Book of the Month. And you can look for Island of Spies at your Scholastic Book Fair as well as at bookstores, I’m happy to say.


I’m always up for school visits, writing workshops, keynote addresses, etc., etc.! So please, shoot me an email and say hello.


Thanks so much for the interview, Deborah. It’s been a pleasure.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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