Mother-in-law’s Story Inspires Tale of Turkish Transformation – A Conversation with Judy Light Ayyildiz

Forty_Thorns_2ND ED_cover-002About Forty Thorns

A kaleidoscopic scheme of Turkish history, Forty Thorns blends past with present—centering on 60 critical years in the emergence of modern Turkey. This epic story parallels the nation’s struggles and growth with those of a woman of great spirit, the remarkable Adalet.


What inspired you to write Forty Thorns?

This novel grew from my 91-year-old mother in law’s life story. She asked me to come to Turkey for the summer so that she could tell me all of it. I did, and recorded her detailed oral history on film, tape, and notebook. Her memory was incredible. She died a year later.

It was quite a remarkable story of a progressive woman who was a part of the Turkish Revolution following the Balkan Wars, WWI, and the collapse of the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire. The revolution and building of the new Turkish Republic was led by M. K. Ataturk, who is internationally recognized as one of the very top leaders of the past century. The 15 years of his presidency and fantastic accomplishments are considered to be the most outstanding civil rights and human rights movement of the past century.

At this point, I was hooked on Adalet’s story and caught up in the drama of the epic historical period. So after seven years of research, I began to write this novel—which covers the time period in Turkey from the Balkan Wars into 1985, as seen through the eyes of a woman who was one of the foot soldiers in the building of a new nation from the ashes of an old. And so, I discovered that it was a personal saga of longing and loss and survival where a character paralleled her nation.

What was the hardest part about writing this particular book?

Aside from dealing with the vast and layered history of Anatolia and Thrace and the relationship with other nations and wars, I also had to situate the story within the various towns and villages throughout those entire areas. There came the working with all of the foreign names and the customs of the lands, the changes in values and mores in the differing eras and various ethnic groups and tribes–(Ah!). I had to discover why my heroine, Adalet’s, story would be interesting to people in the West and to today’s Turks, and where within the work lay that universal theme.

Probably the trickiest task was to write all of these things plus the documented history into a story that seemed to flow from the page sounding as if it was written by someone who had grown up and lived all of their life in Turkey. Adalet must be real and the reader must identify with her, even though the details in her life might not be common to the reader. I had to build a character with whom people of both East and West could identify and care about.

At the same time, there is the parallel story of the author/daughter in law who is struggling to find the truth and be able to write it. This character is thinly based on me, of course. Her name is Lee. As Lee unfolds the mysteries, the reader, too, discovers.

Hardest part? It was all a challenge from beginning to finish. I was entranced by it.


“Our great author of Catch 22, Joseph Heller, told of his experience with Guillain-Barre in No Laughing Matter. Now Judy Light Ayyildiz equals–and in some way surpasses–his account in her book Nothing But Time.” – Walter James Miller, highly acclaimed author, editor or co-author of 67 books, most recently, Love’s Mainland and Interviews with Kurt Vonnegut

Forty Thorns is based on Adalet’s oral history—which is her collective memory of her whole life told to me. FT also includes a lot of my memory in fictionalized form. In West Virginia, I grew up hearing family stories told and retold with emphasis.

Recorded history is one thing and the history of being human, another. Memory brings the very personal human experience into the heart and soul of documented history. Each person’s experience in time is real history playing out within the wider drama of the world. We hope that our readers will react to a very specific experience of memory on an emotional level. The specific can make us understand and relate on our unique personal level.

For example, we respond differently to the historic facts and explanation of something such as The Great Depression than we might to a personal story about someone who had struggled to survive during that era. The details of the challenge can remind us of times when we (or our relatives, friends) have also struggled, and the episodes become alive in our mind and emotions in a very real way. We tend to remember what we experience. We can actually experience something hands-on, or we can experience from the arts when a work is successfully presented to a reader, listener, or viewer.

I am also interested in the fact that an individual character’s or narrator’s point of view can change the vision of truth of a story. A historian generally stays unbiased with a neutral telling of history. However, once a particular point of view is cast into the telling of history, truth may fall on the side of the character or narrator. There are endless issues that can be better understood when all sides of an issue are presented through different memoirs. In the end, we may read the many views and then choose the one we think best fits the truth of the matter. We will also, however, come away with a broad understanding of motives for the opposing sides of the issue. We do not have to agree with the other fellow’s point of view; but until we understand why the fellow holds that view, we cannot get close to a solution to conflict–whether it is between nations or between altars.

With your coauthor Rebekah Woodie, you wrote Easy Ideas for Busy Teachers. What’s your best advice for encouraging writing in the classroom?

Rebekah Woodie and I also wrote Creative Writing Across the Curriculum, The Writers Express, and Skyhooks and Grasshopper Traps. All are designed around the following ideas: The first suggestion is for a teacher or instructor to create an atmosphere in which students have permission to open their mind and the world of imagination and connections. The writing process is the thinking process. Literally any subject can be examined and analyzed. Writing can be used as a valuable tool in any subject because the writing process is the thinking process. A teacher’s basic responsibilities are to teach students how to think and where to obtain knowledge. The discoveries and growth through writing should be fun!

Mud River front coverYou write poetry as well. What do you see as the connection between poetry and memoir?

Much of the matter within poetry is either straightforward memory or pieces of memory of place, characters, connections of idea, actions, and so forth. Writing finished poems forces the poet to construct imagery and ideas in the cleanest possible language. Through this process of saying the most with the least, the poet has to reveal or suggest meaning through absolutely everything that exists in the poem, including word choice, sound, line breaks, imagery, metaphor, and the music of the piece. In working with the meaning of memory in this way, we learn things as a writer that we may not have discovered before. In poetry, there is often multiple meaning to all of these things.

The use of memory in poetry makes the poet delve deeply into meaning. It is hard work. A lasting poem usually takes many rewrites. Every rewrite will reveal to the poet something more about the subject.

Since I am a poet, my prose tends to be full of imagery and lyrical. I draw heavily on my experience as a musician. The practice of writing poetry helps a writer in writing memoir as story. It teaches a writer to make the most out of each line.

What is your writing process like?

Walter James Miller was my mentor and he used to say, “I’m not a writer, I’m a re writer.” I learned to say that from him. I brainstorm and analyze a scene, character, idea until I can’t stand it anymore and then I just start writing. I don’t believe you have anything until you have a rough draft. Once I have the draft, I begin to edit, expand, and explore until it takes form and starts to make sense.

I really do trust the muse, the universal consciousness, or my conscious mind working with my subconscious mind. Out of the search for meaning, I so often discover paths I hadn’t thought of before I began. I don’t know what to say other than once I get into the heart of the work, the characters and action and place rather take over. I try to follow where those things are leading.

I get this feeling inside when the work is falling together right. I can write for hours at a time in this mode. I also know when a work is finished. And then, I begin the editing. I actually like each part of the process. Of course, placing the finished work is a whole different ball game. After that, marketing is another subject.

Is there anything in particular that gets you started writing?

Reading good books and trying to figure out how the writers managed to do it inspires me more than anything else. I also get inspired to write by listening to writers talk about their work or read their work.

Do you ever get writer’s block?

I really don’t struggle with writer’s block. I have to set aside time where I can get to the projects. Life seems to be so full. With writing, I just have to block out other things that I enjoy doing and pull the chair up to the desk and let the rest of the world go its merry way without me.

When I have a writing project that claims me, I put my writing time down on a calendar and try to stick to it. On days that my mind is so cluttered that I can’t focus enough to write creatively, I do office work. A writer always has a lot of mail and organizing and cleaning out to do. There are always submissions to make.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Sometimes I wish that I had started writing professionally in my younger years. And then, I remember that I really enjoyed my years as being a musician. I am the mother of three. It would have been difficult to have managed professionally working in two areas of the arts and being a mother and running a household all at the same time. I am very grateful that I have lived long enough to have had the careers that I dreamed of having as a child: teacher, musician, mother, wife, and a bit of stage life.

Living the creative life and growing toward wholeness as a human who happens to be a woman has been quite a fulfilling journey—and, I would not have missed the excitement and discovery along the way. My younger self managed to get me where I am today, and that’s okay. Sounds like I’m pretty satisfied. I’d probably tell my younger self to trust my instincts a bit more, and don’t try to figure out what people are thinking about what you are doing.

What other projects do you have coming up?

I have quite a few poems that have been published in journals, and I have finished poems that have not been published. I want to assemble what I have into a collection. I also have tons of writing experiences for adults filed away from a great many workshops. I would like to put those together into a volume whereby people who want to write can do the lessons by themselves. I am currently well into a large non-fiction work that I hope to have in a completed draft by the end of this year.

remzi poster for 7-6 Kanyon signingJudy ~ in her own words

I grew up in Huntington, West Virginia, along the Ohio River. I was born to naturally love the arts. I couldn’t dance worth a hoot or paint anything worth looking at; but I could sing and write and perform on the stage an early age.

I graduated from Marshall University’s School of Music with a teaching degree. When I first came to Roanoke, Virginia, over forty years ago, I taught music at Jefferson High School and then Addison High School. I was also a minister of music at two Roanoke churches. I took leads in Showtimers musicals and actually directed a very successful light opera there.

Along with Roanokers, George and Bernie Lemon and Doty Matze, I organized and directed a group of young people who joined some gymnasts and went to Soviet Poland and did a song and dance tour under the auspices of Friendship Ambassadors. I also sang in a group of six called, The Overtones, who gave an operatic concerts once a year under the guidance of Helen Robertson. We often sang in public, such as in the Regency Room of the old Hotel Roanoke. I also organized and directed the nation’s only-ever medical wives’ choir. We toured a lot for almost 15 years and won a couple of awards for our community support.

In 1981, I decided that I wanted to move everything I had learned about music into a career in writing. And so, when I was 40, I set out to explore the world of writing by entering the Hollins University Masters in Liberal Studies Program. My thesis was a manuscript and live performance of the wedding of poetry and music in art songs. By the end of two years, I had a book of poetry that had won a prize and publication in Queens, NYC. I was off and running.

Since then, I have had 10 published books and some translations into Italian and Turkish. I was taken into the Hollins Graduate Writing Program. After that, I decided that I loved to teach and wanted to have access to all ages. So, for years, I did just that and taught all over (especially Virginia, of course) all ages from Elderhostle to kindergarten. During that time, many grants were available, and I sure did get a ton of them, and loved the travel and various venues. Along with the author/educator, Rebakah Woodie, I had four writing and critical thinking books published, three of them by national presses. I also have a memoir, a childrens’ book, three books of poetry, and a novel in both English and Turkish, published by Turkey’s oldest and largest publisher.

You can find Judy on her website or at About Me. For more about her book, check out the Forty Thorns website.