An Interview With Valerie Young Turner

Valerie Young Turner recently joined Word Addicts as a Facebook Group Administrator. Here she talks with James Elliott about her life and her new book, Tales of A Sunflower.

James: Hi Valerie. Welcome to Word Addicts! We’ve already put you to work planning, organizing and launching the Word Addicts Facebook Group. We’re so glad to have you. Tell our readers a little about yourself.

Valerie: I am happy to be a part of Word Addicts. I just retired from teaching 36 years as an elementary school teacher. I am a proud grandmother and live with two spoiled cats named Weasel and Chub. I have always written short stories and poems but never really shared them with many people. Now that I have the time to devote to this, I find it answers a need in me to write and weave stories. I grew up north of here on a cattle ranch in Bear Lake County, Idaho. My family has lived on the Idaho, Wyoming border since the 1860s. I still have cousins who own a ranch on the Wyoming side. I love to create things with my hands, baking, sewing, embroidery. I am a typical granny for this area, and I am good with that.

James: You very recently retired from teaching. I follow a lot of teachers on social media and it seems that teachers nationwide are extremely stressed out right now. This isn’t a new thing, but it seems to have gotten worse recently. What do you think we can do to improve the lives of teachers and help them provide the best education to our kids?

Valerie: There is too much being asked of our teachers and educators right now. They are overworked and stressed by the demands being made on them. Asking teachers to keep doing more without any support of extra people is causing the most stress. It isn’t unusual for teachers to spend 60 to 80 hours a week doing all that is expected of them. With the extra societal pressures of School Shootings, Covid, standardized testing, committees to run the schools, dealing with parents who are cruel in words and actions, it isn't hard to see why over 50% of teachers leave the field in the first five years. If you want to help teachers, you need to get involved and find out what is happening in your schools, your districts, and the state. Even if you do not have children in your home, these children belong to you. If you are part of a community and benefit from that community, you have children as a part of it. How the teachers are treated directly affects those children.

James: You grew up in rural Idaho. It seems similar to rural Utah where I live, except that Idaho seems a little more, shall I say, eccentric(?). Do you agree? And in what ways do you think rural Idaho is unique, at least in terms of culture?

Valerie: That is a good question that I have wondered about myself. Every place likes to think they are unique but there are some common parts to all small places all over the world. As for Idaho, it is one of the places where the Wild West never died. Idaho is mainly wilderness full of wild animals, and towns are very distant from each other. This wilderness is connected to the national parks, and some of the highest mountains in the lower 48 states are in the Sawtooth Mountain Range.

The Salmon River is called The River of No Return. Many people went to Idaho to find gold, silver, and gems. These people stayed and had children but progress passed many of these places by. I can’t speak for all of rural Utah where you live but I believe most of the rural land is connected by highways and freeways to bigger places. Railroads came in and helped. When you have isolated pockets of people living in wilderness so vast, it allows people to create their own way of living. This isolation breeds people who feel cut off from the rest of the country and feel they do not have to do what others are doing. They don’t usually feel a part of the country as a whole.

James: Your novel is deeply autobiographical, and in fact is really a memoir, except that most characters have been combined and modified and names changed, etc…This reminds me of the early 20th Century novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, which is very similar in form—intimately autobiographical, yet still officially a work of fiction. How do you believe this format helps tell your story?

Valerie: I decided to tell my story this way for several reasons. First because no one's life runs like a novel. There are interesting parts and boring sections. It helped to fictionalize places and characters to move the story along. Second, my story was emotionally hard to tell. It helped me feel a little more removed from some of the trauma in my life so I could tell it more objectively. Third, not everyone wants to be mentioned in your book and this way I could respect their privacy by making up a character to play that part of the story.

Tales of A Sunflower, by Valerie Young Turner

Set in the rural wilderness of the Idaho Mountains, Jeanie is born into an abusive home during the 1960s. When Jeanie looks to the adults in her life to make sense of what is happening, she finds they cannot help her.

James: Your story is wild, yet reflects the experience of so many women in the United States, especially in our region and probably in other rural areas of the country. You’ve experienced just about every kind of abuse, from physical and emotional to ecclesiastical, and others. What can we do in these areas that might correct these problems?

Valerie: Women need to be in charge of their own lives. They need to make the laws, and rules they live under and respect others who might want to live free of their beliefs. When you force others to live a certain way and ignore their voices, it leads to abuse of some kind. For thousands of years women have not had much say in laws or the rules they were forced to live under.

Women need to listen to each other as well. Your experience isn’t my experience just because we share a gender. All voices need to be listened to and given power to make more fair rules and laws we live under in a community.

James: Near the end of the book you reveal that your son is part of the LGBTQ+ community, and you recount some of his experience. I’m the father of an LGBTQ+ child, and this touched me deeply. We live in a region that has dragged its feet on the issue and hasn’t been the most accepting of this group in the past and present. This has led many people to devalue and hate themselves, believe they are a drain on their families and society, and ultimately take their own lives. What can we do to better value the lives of people within this community in both word and deed?

Valerie: I believe I saved my son’s life when I accepted him unconditionally. He was suicidal and hated himself because he couldn’t make himself straight. He was cutting his wrists and slept with a knife under his pillow, I later learned. When I told him I loved him as he was and that I didn’t believe he was evil, he physically relaxed.

Most studies about LGBTQ+ people show acceptance by family is most important for their mental health. Then acceptance by their community. 17 years ago when my son came out as gay we couldn’t find any acceptance in our LDS faith community, and many of our extended family rejected him. I stood by him and got him therapy. The turning point was when he realized that his life mattered more to me than belonging to any community. I think everyone must do what is right for their family; however, being inside a community that tells you bad things about yourself will erode even the most positive influence a family has. I decided my son’s life was too high a price to pay to remain a member of a group who rejected him.

My son is happily married to his husband and they moved away to Maryland. They both are happier away from Utah and the cultural rejection of them. They no longer are stared at for hugging or kissing in public. This makes me sad because I miss him living close to me, but I want my son happy and healthy.

As for what we can do to stop suicide of LGBTQ+ we can become educated by science and realize we do not understand how gender and sexual attraction really work in humans. What we have done has been harmful to many people as they were forced to live inside the limited categories they were allowed to live. I have learned that as I know more I will adjust my thinking and change my mind. I think mental flexibility is the sign of a thinking, learning, person. Hopefully people will learn more about this topic and accept people for who they are and not who they want them to be.

James: The story of how you found and married your now ex-husband is at once sad and mundane, at least to me. Do you think this indicates a wider problem in our culture?

Valerie: At the time I married my ex husband, after you left college and went to live in a rural place there were few places to meet a partner. Church activities are about the only way, or you can go to bars. I think the internet has made this easier and harder. First you have to be willing to move and adjust if you find someone you are interested in. Also internet dating has many hazards because people can hide a lot online. I don't think dating has ever been easy anywhere. My friends who grew up in the city tell of the problems they had. Now I think it is best to join groups where you have the same interests and get to know someone as a friend before you date them. That way you have some kind of connection and friendship to work with. Plus you know the person better before you go alone with them.

James: is there anything else you would like us to know about you, your story, etc…?

Valerie: If anyone has any questions, please contact me and ask away. I know there is much to unpack especially after you read my story. Thank you for letting me be a part of your group.