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Amy Turner: Accidental Memoirist

Tue, 01/31/2023 - 15:00
Amy Turner, seen here at home in Wainscott, has reflected on her life as an attorney, writer, and teacher, as well as her family history, in "On the Ledge."
Mark Segal

"I didn't start out to write a memoir, and I certainly didn't start out to write something I was going to publish." So said Amy Turner during a conversation about her memoir, "On the Ledge," published in September by She Writes Press to glowing notices from Kirkus Reviews.  

Two traumatic events happened to Ms. Turner within months of each other in 2010. On a summer weekend in East Hampton, while crossing Newtown Lane with an armful of dry-cleaning, she was run down by a pickup truck. The accident, which nearly killed her, resulted in a concussion and lingering P.T.S.D. "I did not want to face the fact that I had had some kind of traumatic experience," she said. Reluctant to appear weak, she "really laughed it off for a long time."

Two months later, one of her two younger brothers, Harold, died suddenly and unexpectedly at his home in Fairfield, Iowa. At a memorial in Bridgehampton the following spring, Ms. Turner was stunned when Patsy Ribner, one of her high school English teachers, showed up.

"So I started to write her a thank-you note, and it made sense to tell her about the accident. I started writing, and pretty soon this channel opened up, and all of a sudden connections, reflections, memories were flowing out of me; it was beyond the bounds of a thank-you note. I mailed that, and I just kept writing." Which is why she calls herself "an accidental memoirist."

Those connections, reflections, and memories are the stuff of "On the Ledge," a title that refers to another traumatic event, one she first learned about 11 years after it happened. On a November morning in 1957, her father, clad in pajamas, climbed onto a ledge outside the window of his New Haven hotel room. 

A fire truck arrived, an extension ladder was raised, and a circular net deployed. Three priests were walking nearby as a large crowd formed, and one rushed up to the hotel room and convinced Harold Turner to come inside. Mr. Turner spent the next nine months first in a psychiatric facility and then in Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville, N.Y., where the Turners lived.

Ms. Turner learned of the events in 1968, from a psychotherapist. "It must have been soon after my father climbed onto the ledge when I began to sense something else co-existing in our house," she writes in the memoir. "I was certain that at any time and without warning, the floor could snap open, swallow one of us, and slam shut in a nanosecond."

She thought about becoming a social worker after college. "I felt I had the experience, growing up in my family," she said with a slight smile. She wound up instead attending New York Law School, where she and Ed Reale met on their first day of orientation. 

In 1981, after she had spent two years at a large law firm in the city -- "a great experience, but an amazing grind" -- the two were married, and decided to take a year's sabbatical together at her mother's house in Wainscott, where the Turner family had spent summers since 1962.

At that time, there was an effort to remove the East Hampton Town supervisor from office, and Ms. Turner, who had joined the Group for the South Fork, was asked to write its opinion on the matter. One thing led to another: She met Chris and Nancy Kelley, and Steve Latham -- who like Mr. Kelley was a partner at the Riverhead law firm Twomey, Latham, Shea, and Kelley -- invited her to join the firm on a part-time basis.

"Tom Twomey was a master of persuasion, and before we knew it, we bought a house . . . and we never left." At Twomey, Latham, she specialized in residential and commercial real estate and contracts, but after her first son, Matthew, was born, she limited herself to estates and estate taxes.

She left the firm briefly to work for a judge, then returned, by which time her husband was working there as well. "I never could relate to people who said they loved their job. I tolerated it, it was interesting, there were times it was great, but something always felt a little bit off." She liked the academic side of law, "but the practice is a bit different from that." 

In 1998, when Matthew was at the East Hampton Middle School, Ms. Turned learned that the school was looking for volunteer parents to teach some courses. She decided to be a "good citizen and do it," not realizing it would change her life.

"I was filled with joy, motivated, and inspired. While I had thought, if I ever taught, it would have to be at a higher level, I was shocked that even with sixth grade I really enjoyed it. It was the act of teaching, the gift, the giving that I loved. The content was secondary to that."

Without telling anyone at the law firm, she began taking education courses. "I thought, this is really risky. I'm 48, I have a secure job, it's good enough, maybe the experience at the middle school was just a one-off." 

But once it was time for her to bite the bullet -- either student-teach or abandon the whole idea -- she resigned from the firm. In 2002, after two years at the middle school, there was a job opening in Springs, and she took it. She retired in 2015, after teaching social studies and English to sixth through eighth graders.

Ms. Turner wrote a novel, she recalled, in the third or fourth grade. "Every day it started with a girl coming down the stairs and smelling bacon." She illustrated it and showed it to her father, who was a writer. "Something has to happen," he told her.

In college, she took a creative writing class. Meanwhile, her father was struggling with writer's block, as he had for much of his life. Seeing that, she said, made the act of writing seem "psychologically dangerous." She persisted, but found herself inevitably hitting the "Turner sludge, where it was all too depressing," and finally gave it up -- until writing that thank-you note in 2011. 

Three years later, as the memoir grew, she showed the manuscript to a local editor, who told her about the Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City. She spent a week there that summer, taking a weekend course with Hope Edelman, the author of "Motherless Daughters." 

Ms. Edelman was scheduled to teach a seminar for authors of manuscript-length works the next summer. Ms. Turner was accepted for the two-week course, along with nine others, each of whom had read the others' 150-page manuscripts. "You have to sit there for 45 minutes, silent, while everybody else talks about your work. So it was trial by fire, but it was a really supportive, comfortable environment."

By the time of a class reunion the following summer, Ms. Turner had a draft she felt was close to finished, but it wasn't until the end of 2019 that it was ready to send out.

Reluctant to embark on the search for an agent, she approached She Writes Press, which identifies itself as a "hybrid publisher," neither traditional nor self-publishing, of women authors. Its acceptance of the memoir wasn't the end, but another beginning. 

Of that editing phase, Ms. Turner said, "I never knew how much work it is once you think you're done."

It was worth it. "Timely, significant, well written . . . a courageous and engaging account, neither didactic nor sentimental, that belongs on school shelves as well as in the home,” said Joan Baum of WSHU's podcast "Baum on Books."

On Tuesday at 6 p.m., Ms. Turner will be at Ashawagh Hall in Springs to discuss "On the Ledge" as part of the Springs Historical Society's Meet the Author series.

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