Interview of Cadwell Turnbull as told to and edited by Tori Weston.
Please tell us about your background and how you came to Somerville.
I grew on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and since going away to college I’ve been all over the place. I did my undergrad at La Roche University in Pittsburgh, PA, where I met my wife, Anju. After graduating I went home for a while, taught substitute English at my high school, and then went abroad for a year in South Korea where I taught English as a Second Language. After that, back to Pittsburgh for a year of AmeriCorps, and then Raleigh, North Carolina for grad school. And now, Somerville, because my wife is getting her PhD at Harvard in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology (which is way cooler than anything I’m doing).
What book or writer influenced you to write your first story? How old were you? Who or what inspires your work?
To be honest, my very first story (a half-completed novel) was urban fiction. I’m not exactly sure what inspired it. I stole quite a few urban fiction books from my sister’s collection and that might’ve given me the idea. It wasn’t very good though, so I never finished it. I didn’t start writing speculative fiction until college, and that was inspired largely by the media I loved (television and film) and books I read over the years. Orwell’s 1984 in high school and Le Guin’s The Dispossessed in college were two books that have had a lasting impact on me as a person and as a writer. I’m a huge fan of Le Guin’s work generally, so I would mark her as a huge influence, for the political and sociological lens she applied to her work and for the deep often quiet focus on character. Octavia Butler is also an influence because of the intersectional politics and complex humanity she explores through her speculative fiction. And writers like Ted Chiang and Alice Munro, who are aspirational role models of mine, for how they explore surprisingly deep ideas and subject matter through clean, approachable, and remarkably crafty prose.
What inspires me shifts over time, but I think I’ve adopted the same mission of writers like Le Guin and Butler. I want to use fiction to explore the political, but anchor that in personal stories. I’m very interested in how people respond to social change. Often that change I’m looking at is speculative, but I’m interested in the parallels that can be made to real-world change. There’s also some philosophical interest there, how we collectively and personally apply meaning to the world around us and what happens when our close-held beliefs about the world are challenged.
My introduction to you was from the podcast Levar Burton Reads. What was it like to have him read one of your stories? Has your work been featured on other podcasts?
It was a huge geek moment for me. I wouldn’t say I was a Trekkie as a kid, but I did watch Next Gen movies with my mother (most notably, Star Trek Generations, which I guess is a bit of crossover between Next Gen and the Original Series). It was just sort of our thing to watch sci-fi movies. Geordi La Forge was a fascinating character and was an early example for me of a black person in space. We also only had two television channels growing up, so I spent a lot of time watching our local PBS. Reading Rainbow was a staple. I can still recite the opening song by memory. But one of my strongest memories of Burton was his performance as Kunta Kinte in the Roots miniseries. Like a lot of people, the “what is your name” scene from the series is etched into my brain. So, as you can imagine, it was a surreal moment to hear his voice reading words I’d written. I relistened a few times to try to make it feel real. It still doesn’t. Many of the online speculative fiction magazines have associated podcasts. For example, “Jump”—the story LeVar Burton read—has been read before for Lightspeed. That version was read by Janina Edwards who also narrated my novel The Lesson. I’ve been on the Lightspeed podcast twice and the Nightmare podcast twice. Another one of my stories was featured on Margaret Kiljoy’s We Will Remember Freedom podcast. I also have an audio story with The Verge, as part of a web series they did called Better Worlds.
Our current situation of dealing with a global pandemic seems like we are living in a science fiction story, if the situation of COVID-19 was just a writing prompt, what kind of story would you write?
I think I might add another speculative element, since reality is so strange already, why not make it even stranger? Perhaps an invisible inter-dimensional historian chronicling this moment in our history, starting very broad and zooming down into someone’s life during this crisis. The story itself, I think, would focus on some interpersonal drama, between a couple, a parent and child, siblings, or friends, using the pandemic as backdrop. Or maybe add some magic. Or project into a future, try to imagine what will come out of this.
My other inclination is to just tell the story straight. It would be an interesting experiment to write a contemporary realist story that feels very much like it is happening in some speculative world because more and more our world is beginning to look like the science fiction world writers have been imagining for so long.
When not in self quarantine/social distancing mode, do you have any favorite writing places in Somerville?
Sometimes I write at the Somerville Library. There’s plenty of space and it is great to be surrounded by books. I also write at Bourbon Coffee, though it is technically right over the Somerville/Cambridge line. My other spot, though less frequent, is Bloc 11 café down in Union Square. Porter Square Books on the rare occasion I can find a place to sit (they draw a big crowd). I try to mix it up too, go downtown or further into Cambridge to write. I find changes of scenery helps me a lot.
How does one find out about your work?
I have links to stories and things on my website: cadwellturnbull.com (pretty easy to remember). You can follow me at the usual places: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I post updates on social media when I can. I also do my best to respond to people, so I encourage people to reach out. My debut novel The Lesson just came out last June. The novel is an alien first-contact story set in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The novel made a few “Best of 2019” lists and the audiobook was nominated for an Audie Award, so if folks have some time on their hands, and want to listen to some great narrators (Janina Edwards and Ron Butler), I recommend you check it out.