Sheila Turnage won a 2013 Newbery Honor for Three Times Lucky, her first book about Mo LoBeau, Dale Earnhardt Johnson III, and the other offbeat, lovable residents of Tupelo Landing, a fictional town in Turnage’s native North Carolina. Now she returns with The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing, another charming mystery in desperate need of unraveling by the indefatigable Mo.
Where did the idea for your books about Mo LoBeau originate?
Mo just started talking in my imagination many years ago. I wrote down her story as it unfolded, a little piece at a time, over the course of several years. When I finally printed out the first draft of Three Times Lucky, it was three times too long, about 750 pages. I tend to write fast.
Whoa, that is long. More like Mo of the Rings, or The Chronicles of Mo. Did you break it into parts?
No. I have been taking a creative writing class at Pitt Community College off and on for about 30 years. I used the class to tighten up what I had. After I sold it to Kathy Dawson, we distilled it even more.
When you were writing Three Times Lucky, did you know it was a children’s book?
No, I did not. I wasn’t trying to write a children’s book. I was just listening to Mo LoBeau. I really wasn’t thinking about who was going to read it or how it would it be marketed. But now I’m so glad I wrote a children’s book because it’s so much fun to write for that age group, and it’s so much fun to do school visits and talk about stories with kids.
Did some of the material you had to cut from the original 750-page draft you cut wind up in the sequel?
Not really. Mo was still telling me more stories so Kathy and I just mutually agreed that there would be a second book, but basically Ghosts of Tupelo Landing starts where Three Times Lucky stops.
You won a Newbery Honor for Three Times Lucky, your first published novel. Were you surprised or had there been a lot of buzz?
Getting that call surprised me to pieces. You always hope, but I did not expect to receive that call. And I had been told that if you win, the Newbery Committee calls really early in the morning so I was up at 6 a.m. I had breakfast and was doing this and that. About 10 a.m., when I realized the call was not coming, I was getting ready to go out and do something else. Then the phone rang. [The phone’s digital readout] said the call was coming from Seattle and I thought, ‘Oh. This must be a salesperson. I don’t know anybody in Seattle,’ so I hung up on them. Fortunately, they called back, and when they said, ‘This is the Newbery committee,” my knees just about gave out. So that’s how I had that conversation with the Newbery committee. I was sitting on the floor.
Had you already finished the second book by that point?
I had made a great deal of progress but I think it was still a rough draft and maybe not even a complete rough draft.
Did winning the Newbery Honor for your first book make finishing the second book harder? Was it a huge distraction or did it inspire you in some way?
It created a different kind of goal for me. The Newbery Honor is such a big deal for a writer. What it made me want to do was write a book the second time that was as good as the first one because I didn’t want to disappoint my readers.
Your editor, Kathy Dawson, has a reputation as something of a benevolent taskmaster. Were you surprised by the amount of work that was required after she bought your first novel?
Kathy works really hard. I did a lot of rewriting. But I didn’t find her to be a taskmaster. That’s not the way I would describe her. Her goal is to create good, good books so we have the same goal. She’s such a good architect, so good at helping with the structure. And she has a poet’s feel for words. I love working with her.
Before you wrote children’s books, you published two nonfiction books – one a travel guide to North Carolina and one about haunted inns of the south. Did one of the inns inspire the haunted house that Mo’s family acquires in The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing?
It may be that the idea of a haunted inn drifted over from writing the guidebook but the ghost story in the new book is an original story. Kids love ghost stories. Everybody loves ghost stories. So when Miss Lana accidentally buys an inn at an auction and it turns out to be haunted, Mo and Dale come up with the idea of getting extra credit for a history project if they can get an interview with the ghost.
I love that Dale “excels at the recess arts.”
Dale is so funny. I love Dale and I think he comes into his own in this book. And there’s a new character, a new boy in town who introduces himself as Crenshaw, Harm Crenshaw, like he’s Bond, James Bond.
Is Tupelo Landing modeled on a real place you know?
It’s a place I made up. I don’t actually live in a town. I live on a farm about four miles from a small town but Tupelo Landing is a little bit like a lot of communities in eastern North Carolina. It feels very familiar to me. One thing I love is that readers have contacted me for help locating it on the map. I love that it feels that real and it feels that welcoming.
Do you have more adventures in the works for Mo and Dale?
Yes, I was working on the third book this morning, in fact. I’m just about through the rough draft. I’m hoping to have it done by the time I have to leave to tour for The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing.
Do you have other novels in your drawer that were never published?
I had started a lot of novels that never went anywhere. I realize now that I was practicing for a long time.
Do you still take the creative writing class?
I do. I go because I like belonging to a community of writers and it’s important to me to have their companionship and their feedback. I also love to hear what they’re working on.
Does the instructor take any credit for your success?
She doesn’t, but she should.
Last question, and I won’t be surprised if you refuse to answer: Does Mo ever find her Upstream Mother?
Kids always ask me that and I have to tell you what I tell them which is, I don’t know. That story is still unfolding. The characters have a much better idea than I have of where we’re going so I trust them. It’s a more organic way of writing and I have to admit that they tickle me. I sit at the computer sometimes and laugh out loud. If I were stricter with them I wouldn’t get as many twists and turns.
The Ghosts of Tupelo Landing by Sheila Turnage. Dial, $16.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-8037-3671-9