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Interview With an Author: Cadwell Turnbull

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Author Cadwell Turnwell and his latest novel, No Gods, No Monsters
Author Cadwell Turnwell and his latest novel, No Gods, No Monsters. Photo credit: Anju Manandhar

Cadwell Turnbull is a graduate from the North Carolina State University’s Creative Writing M.F.A. in Fiction and English M.A. in Linguistics. Turnbull is also a graduate of Clarion West 2016. His short fiction has appeared in The Verge, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and Asimov’s Science Fiction, and a number of anthologies. His novel The Lesson was the winner of the 2020 Neukom Institute Literary Award in the debut category. His debut novel, The Lesson was shortlisted for the VCU Cabell Award and longlisted for the Massachusetts Book Award. Turnbull grew up in the U.S. Virgin Islands and currently lives in Raleigh where he teaches creative writing at North Carolina State University. His second novel is No Gods, No Monsters and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for No Gods, No Monsters?

I read a lot of urban fantasy with my wife. And growing up I was super into shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed. I realized that despite loving the genre, I’d never written in it. So I decided to give it a try.

On a thematic level though, I wanted to use supernatural elements to highlight how strange and complicated and messy our world feels in my own experience. The novel centers around an officer-involved shooting. Engaging with these events have always felt frustrating and bewildering to me, like gazing at a sprawling monster through a peephole. The reasons these things happen are vast and intersectional. The supernatural just so happened to be a compelling metaphor for our societal systems and their often tragic outcomes.

Are Laina, Ridley, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?

No, not really. I always say that characters have a bit of me in them. They also have bits of people I know or people I admire from afar. But this novel was me really trying to get outside of my comfort zone in some respects, write about people with very different experiences than my own. There is a character in the novel, named Cal, that in a lot of ways is an amalgamation of men in my immediate family, including myself. But even to say that it feels like I’m limiting him. He’s his own person with aspects of his identity that belong solely to him.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

I outlined this thing before writing it and tried my best to stick to the script. But, of course, you discover things through the drafting process and make new decisions in the revision process. Harry, one of my POV characters, got a couple of his scenes cut, particularly a scene I liked from his childhood, but ultimately I think it was for the better.

I did decide to put in a large Cal section and then revised the rest of the novel to make it fit a little more seamlessly. Since it was a flashback to an earlier time in his life, he sounded a little more youthful and a bit more vernacular in that section, so I went back and I made his language a little more loose in other parts of the book. Just so he didn’t sound too different. I also changed tense from past to present for a very specific reason, and that helped bring out some elements of the story. All good decisions, I think.

No Gods, No Monsters is listed as being the first book in The Convergence Saga. What are your plans for this series? Do you currently have an idea how many books it will take to tell the story you want to tell?

It will be three books. That should get me where I want to go. I want to dig deeper into the monster social movement stuff, the history of magic in the world, and the cosmic forces at play within the plot underpinning everything.

Do you have a favorite werewolf story (novel, television series, motion picture)? A least favorite? (I realize that you may not want to address this one and if that is the case, please don’t. But I also realize it might be so bad that it could be fun to answer.)

Recently, my wife and I were rewatching Underworld: Rise of the Lycans. It is a little campier than I remember, but we enjoyed the hell out of it. The original Underworld isn’t only about werewolves, but I’d put it high up on my werewolf story list.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I’m reading a lot of Martha Wells, actually. The fourth novel in her Raksura series and the fourth novella in her Murderbot series. Just finished The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. And I’m currently rereading Dear Life, a story collection by Alice Munro. The Changeling by Victor LaValle is next up when I’m done with Wells.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Ursula K. Le Guin
Octavia Butler
Ted Chiang
N. K. Jemisin
Alice Munro (in no particular order).

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

It depends on how we define “child.” Before my teen years, I was a terrible reader. I didn’t have favorite books, though I did like Goosebumps books for the ease and creepiness. As a teenager, it was 1984 by George Orwell. I’d have put him on my top influential authors list if I was allowed one more entry.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Not really. My mother let us read and watch mostly what we wanted. Movie night was a big deal at home, and my mom didn’t stop the VHS (those were the days!) if there was something risque on screen. I read The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah maybe a little too young? But I stole that one from my sister, so I would’ve had someone else to take the fall with me.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

Lots of books. Probably the one that fills me with the most shame is The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. It was a class assignment and I procrastinated too long. I still need to return to it. Now I know better.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

It was definitely not the only reason, but the cover for Nisi Shawl’s Everfair was the icing on the cake!

Is there a book that changed your life?

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. Blew my head open. Made me truly consider the possibility that we could create an equitable world through reimagining systems. So many big ideas in that book, but told with nuance and shades of gray. It has remained a huge influence on my writing and activism.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Well, I am trying not to use the same book to answer three different questions, but…The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin.

My second answer would be The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

The Underground Railroad adaptation based on the Colson Whitehead novel of the same name. The show is...heavy, but I’ve hardly ever been so impressed with a single piece of media.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’ve been finding more and more that my idea of a perfect day is a quiet hangout with people I love. Just chilling. No big grandiose expectations. If I had my pick of locations, it would be Lindbergh Bay on St. Thomas. It is my favorite beach back home, and the sunsets are wonderful.

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

Oh, man...this is a good one. You know, there is a question related to the book that I’ve been hoping someone would ask. But I really can’t say it because it’ll spoil the wonder if anyone ever asked it. No one’s asked me what my favorite board game is though. It’s Catan. It used to be Monopoly, but it is so hard to find people that’ll play with me.

What are you working on now?

The follow-up to No Gods, No Monsters. Right now, it is called We Are the Crisis. I am very excited about it and I’m fighting the writing demons to get it done.

Book cover for No Gods, No Monsters
No Gods, No Monsters
Turnbull, Cadwell