Heidi Turner is the author of The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot, a collection of short stories recently released that intertwine and provide context for one another, that tell us something about life in Hawaii, surfing, boys, and God. I first read two of the stories in this collection ["Samaritan" and "The Field"] as a contributing editor for Barren Magazine, and I was so impressed by the honesty and feeling in these pieces.
I have since read The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot and found the whole collection to be smartly crafted, bold, and honest [ICYMI, here's my full review]. Further, as a pastor's wife with a degree in literature and a love of writing craft, I was so grateful to see this author confronting difficult topics, challenging preconceptions, and bringing darkness to light. But it gets better; Turner does this with tact and excellence, employing strategies of craft to hone the pacing, perspectives, and immersive regionalism. I was so psyched to interview her about her process and intentions, and her responses are sure to inspire many of us flailing writers.
The stories in The Sacred Art of Trespassing Barefoot chronicle life in Hawaii because, as it turns out, that's where you're from. What would you consider the greatest misconception non-natives have about Hawaii?
For clarity, I’m not Native Hawaiian, so at best I can speak with a “local” perspective. I think the idea of Hawaii rarely overlaps with the actuality of living in Hawaii. The two misconceptions I come across most often are that everyone here is Hawaiian (or there’s no difference between being of Hawaiian ancestry and being born in Hawaii) and that everyone has money. In my experience, most people who have embraced the Hawaiian lifestyle and are ingrained in the culture are also constantly hustling to make it financially. There’s a huge class divide between people who move to Hawaii from the mainland US and people born in Hawaii or other Pacific islands. I think, to some degree, it creates a class and culture stratification: parts of Hawaii seem much like the mainland, and other places feel entirely foreign to the US. In short, it’s easy to believe that the myth of Hawaii and the resort experience is accurate to the lived experience.
How did this book of stories get started?
I wrote the big cornerstone stories during graduate school—my thesis was made of “The Field,” “Eternal,” “Enough Water,” and “Thorn.” “Eternal” is the weird one—I started writing Kat and Ali’s story as a sophomore in high school. A couple of them started off as writing assignments in undergrad. A couple wonderful professors insisted there was a book in this collection and were generous enough to help me map out the rest.
What works, if any, influenced you as you composed this collection?
I relied on Ryan Gattis’s novel All Involved to navigate through shifting narrators and perspectives. Beyond that, I looked at a lot of Southern fiction and magical realism. Both assume a level of understanding of place, time, and possibility, and usually come with a lot of humor. To Kill A Mockingbird is the big one in TSAOTB’s time structure. TKAM opens with a woman trying to understand how her brother broke his arm when he was thirteen. I wanted to capture that regionalism but also the process of healing from trauma (which starts with understanding it).
The theme of scars runs throughout the book. In a recent episode of your Spoilers Ahead podcast, you stated that you find scars poetic. How did you employ that poetry throughout the stories?
Initially, it started with the poetry of blood: passion, sacrifice, injury, violence, the whole buffet. As my characters grew and time passed, scars became the memory of violence and, for one character, the evidence. Scars are the parts of us that stagnate, and for characters that are growing up, they became a lodestone for where the growth stopped. LeiLei and Jax both get their wounds on the page, and we get to see them scarred years later; we get to see how those experiences have literally reshaped them. On the podcast, we were discussing Little Bee by Chris Cleave. Little Bee says scars are beautiful because only the living have scars—scars mean you’ve survived. One of the most haunting images in the whole Bible is that Jesus’s scars never heal. That disturbs my worldview of what it means to be alive. Without getting too deep, I think I wanted to explore that.
In many of these pieces, the narrators feel compelled to save another focal character, either from physical harm or perceived emotional or spiritual turmoil. What is it about these relationships that holds your interest?
Every story I’ve ever loved centers around that relational salvation, from Anne of Green Gables and Little Women to Star Wars and The Chronicles of Narnia, and of course my own faith in Christ is the story of a Person saving me from myself. I’m fascinated by how people do rescue each other, who actually does the rescuing versus who we think is doing the rescuing, and how often we fail those we love. In TSAOTB, a lot of people try to act like Christ (whether they know it or not) and all of them fail. On a personal level, I wish so badly I could keep the people I love safe. All I can do is be a safe place for them.
Your characters have a complicated relationship with the church and with God. What would you want readers to take away from these stories?
This might be a spoiler, but I very deliberately wrote God in as a character in every story. I genuinely don’t think it’s possible to avoid featuring God as a character if the story is set in reality. I want the reader to leave these stories having seen how deeply the Church has failed and how deeply and fundamentally, Christ has succeeded. After everything, is it worth it to stay? I think my answer is obvious, but I hope that TSAOTB leaves room for readers to answer it their own way, in their own time.
If you could liken your style of writing to any other author's, who might you say your style is similar to?
Goodness, this one’s hard. I hope my writing has the flavor of Harper Lee and C.S. Lewis with a little bit of Flannery O’Connor’s humor and Stan Lee’s gift for universe-building.
For a writer like me, who completes maybe two or three stories a year, the fact that you have a whole book of stories to show for the time you spend writing gives you Wonder Woman status. How do you stay on task?
I really love that it looks like I stay on task! Mostly I use projects to dodge other projects. When I’m stuck on a story, I make sure my poem is ready for Monday. I also have a pretty good theater background, so when I’m really stuck, I’ll literally play out the scenes I’m working on with my sister or with someone else to see where the physical momentum takes us. Beyond that, I find that every 80–100 pages of writing I read gets distilled into one good page of my own writing. In other words, if I read a 400-page novel, I’ll probably have enough in me to bang out a new SFD (shitty first draft, a la Anne Lamott) of my own. Then it’s just rinse, lather, repeat. I know I’m done when I realize I can’t make the piece better, just different.
SFDs for the WIN! I began my writing career with the advice of Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and I don't know where I'd be without it.
Your vocabulary is extensive and impressive—absolutely bangarang. Any suggestions you can give poor Neanderthals like me for strengthening those muscles?
Thank you so much! I read across genres and time periods and almost never look anything up while I’m reading. That sounds counterintuitive, but by not checking the definition, I have to use the context to figure out how the word is actually used in real life. Then, once I’ve got the meaning-in-practice down, I’ll check the definition. Also, I rarely hear anyone over the age of twelve actually use a word wrong. Most of the time, we know the meaning a word carries even if we can’t explain it. Use the big kid words. They’re fun.
You write stories, poems, and songs, and you have two podcasts. How do you juggle all your projects?
I have a ton of support, both relational and structural, in all of those projects. Spoilers Ahead is collaborative—Rory and I are in constant conversation about what we want to read. From there, it’s just finding movies and music that can live in conversation with the book we pick. It helps keep me on task with reading and it’s a great excuse to hang out for an hour. Messy Scripture is basically just me making sure I understand what the Bible stories actually say, but doing it live. The weekly poems are incredibly restricted in size. Music has rules and of course I’m compositionally limited by my own abilities. I’m also really lucky in that I work in a ukulele store and my boss is an incredibly talented teacher and creative person himself, so I have free access to a lot of creative people, time, and equipment. Plus, I really struggle with leaving an “assignment” undone. I treat my projects like beloved homework.
That said, I went through a period of about two years where I didn’t write anything because I wanted to write something “good.” I broke that cycle of analysis paralysis by challenging myself to write one poem every day for two hundred days (enough to fill a composition book). The last ten poems are way better than the first ten. I decided to continue with a weekly poem and I’ve been doing that for about three years. It keeps me from taking my work seriously in the wrong way. I’m making stuff up. I’m putting pretty words together. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to exist.
Going a little off topic. Do you often have to do research for a story? What is the strangest thing you've ever had to research?
I don’t usually need to do much research because I try to keep my settings familiar, so it usually begins and ends with checking Google Maps for street names or asking a friend what year we did this-and-that. This might sound ridiculous, but I do have to do physical blocking research—I’ve got a reasonable theater background, so almost all of my physical scenes (falling, fighting, etc.) were physically acted out by myself and different theater buddies to make sure I didn’t accidentally write someone having three hands or falling in a way that breaks through to the fifth dimension. You can imagine how some of the scenes in the book looked when we were pantomiming them in my living room—“Okay, so if I’m convulsing from withdrawals and this needs to end with you breaking that invisible table, how do I need to twist my body to land you over there?”
If you were stuck on a desert island—with a fabulous entertainment system—and could only have one movie, one book, and one album, which would you choose?
I’m guessing the complete extended edition Lord of the Rings films aren’t one movie? I think I’d take Across the Universe, The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Relient K’s Air for Free. What can I say? I’m a sucker for songs with stories in them and stories with songs in them.