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Interview: October 2012

Shelia Turnage's debut children's book, THREE TIMES LUCKY, follows spunky eleven-year-old Mo LoBeau and her best friend, Dale, while they try to solve the mystery of a murder that happened in Tupelo Landing, their small town in North Carolina. This heart-warming tale explores the meaning of family and friendships...and how sometimes what you're looking for is right in front of you. In this interview, conducted by Liz Kossnar, Sheila Turnage explains the inspiration for her wacky characters, how children can sometimes be better detectives than adults and her future plans for Mo Lobeau!

Congratulations on your success with your first children's book, THREE TIMES LUCKY. How did your story about spunky 6th grader Mo Lobeau get started?

Sheila Turnage: Thanks, Liz! I am really excited about the book. It’s my first novel for kids, but believe it or not, I didn’t start out to write a novel for kids. I just became aware of this spunky, eleven-year-old girl sort of kicking at the door of my imagination with her plaid sneakers. And when I’d think in her direction she’d say things like, “Hey, I’m Mo LoBeau. You got a minute? I got a story to tell.” I started listening to her, which is something writers often do --- listen to their characters in their imaginations. 

I just loved Mo’s story. It was exciting. I love action, and THREE TIMES LUCKY is loaded with action. A hurricane, a race car crash, a kidnapping. I loved the mystery, and Mo. She’s smart and funny. Mo really had me hooked.

I remember you saying that you took inspiration for the Colonel's car, the Underbird, from a Thunderbird in your husband's shop, which had the "Th" missing from it. There are so many intricate details in your book --- do many of them come from chance encounters like that?

ST: Many of the details in this book are based on details of my own life here in Eastern North Carolina, which is where the book is set. That’s one of the great things about writing about the place you live. If you need a great detail or description, all you have to do is look out the window or walk outside or go to the Piggly Wiggly to find it. 

Even the hurricanes and the flood in the book are based on real life. 

One of my favorite parts of THREE TIMES LUCKY is how truly living the characters seem. Their personalities seem out of this world, but I also wouldn't be surprised to meet one in real life. Did you base any of the characters on people you know?

Thanks for the compliment! All of the characters in THREE TIMES LUCKY are fiction but I know them so well by now they seem real to me too. Again, bits and pieces of my life and my experiences go into each of them but there’s not a character I can point to and say, “that’s so-and-so from down the road.” They’re fiction. I might see an interesting hairdo and put it in. But not an entire person.

Mo and Dale's Desperado Detective Agency actually does pretty well! They find the same cat twice and gather important evidence for the murder case. Do you feel like kids are able to see things that adults aren't always able to see?

ST: Mo and Dale are great detectives! And yes, I feel like kids look at things differently than adults because we all look through our own experiences. Sometimes kids don’t have as many filters as adults or they look at things in a new way. 

Mo and Dale definitely look at the mystery differently than the adult investigator, Detective Joe Starr. Mo and Dale know the town and its people, for one thing, and Starr doesn’t. And they care deeply about the outcome of the case because first Dale’s future is at stake, and then the safety of Mo’s family. 

Plus they not only have to solve the murder, they have rules to deal with. Curfews, having to ask permission, having to outsmart adult characters sometimes to get the things they need to solve the crime. Plus they can’t drive! They have to walk, take their bikes, or catch rides.

Mo and Dale are creative thinkers, and they’re really bold. When Mo has an idea, she acts on it. And I love the way Dale goes along with her.

This book isn't all light and fun; there are serious issues represented. Why do you feel it's important to you to keep a scene like the one where Dale's father strikes his mother or the details of Dale's suspicious bruises that Mo picks up on?

ST: Thanks for asking about that scene. It is SUCH an important part of the story! In that super-tense scene --- the one where Dale’s father hits his mother --- so many things change for so many characters. For Mo, for Dale, for Dale’s mother. 

That is a really important scene in the book --- a pivotal scene. The plot pivots, the characters’ lives change direction, the story changes direction.

Dale’s difficult home life and the way he chooses to deal with it gives his character huge depth. And Mo’s growing understanding of his situation and the way she chooses to handle it tells us a lot about her and helps her grow too. It’s part of the heart of this book.

You seem to really enjoy your visits to schools and libraries. Do you have a favorite story or two from a visit?

ST: I love visiting schools and libraries. I was just in New York and Connecticut, where I had a fantastic time with readers of THREE TIMES LUCKY. 

I love discussing THREE TIMES LUCKY. Kids always have great questions about Mo and Dale. We talk about writing and publishing. My pets, all kinds of things. It is SO exciting for me. I visited classrooms, school and public libraries, Mock Newbery Clubs, a Young Critics Club. It was a fantastic trip. 

At one school in North Carolina the kids had each dressed up as a character in the book. I got to meet my own characters! And the teacher had helped them turn their classroom into the café at Tupelo Landing! Mo, Dale, and Lavender were there. Grandmother Miss Lacy Thornton hobbled around on a walking stick. And Miss Lana wore a long blond wig! They were amazing! I absolutely loved it.

Getting to do things like that is just flat-out fun.

This story takes place in a small town in North Carolina in a place similar to where you call home. What are some similarities or some difference between your North Carolina and the one you write about in the book?

ST: Physically, I’d say they’re pretty much the same. Emotionally, I’d say there are lots of similarities. Family is important here. The Cousin Information Network is alive and well. Relationships can be very layered because in small towns, relationships can overlap. So, for instance, the mayor might be your uncle and also the guy that drives the school bus. Or the guy who tunes up your car might be your best friend’s cousin.

The people of Tupelo Landing are more defined and exaggerated, to make the story work. So Tupelo Landing is an imaginary town. But if I were to place it on a map I’d put it just down the road from my house. And dead center of my heart. 

What would you like readers to take away from THREE TIMES LUCKY?

ST: A GOOD TIME. I had a great time writing THREE TIMES LUCKY and I want people to have as much fun reading it as I had writing it. Which is a lot. I laughed out loud while I was writing this book. 

There are lots of things to think about in the book, if you’re in the mood, and I think that’s why readers of all ages like it. You can think about family if you want to and the concept of aloneness, and so on and so forth. And that’s okay with me. But I really just want kids to have a great time reading the book.
 

What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it? Will this be the last of Mo LoBeau and her adventures in Tupelo landing? I want to see all of the characters in school with Miss Retzyl!

ST: Thanks for asking! I am busy writing Mo’s next adventure with Dale. It takes up pretty much where THREE TIMES LUCKY stops, so you will get to see them in school with Miss Retzyl. You’ll meet the kids you met in the first book, plus some new ones. 

THE GHOST OF TUPELO LANDING will be out Winter 2014. It will be one of the very first books published by Kathy Dawson Books at Penguin!