Julie Cantrell published two children's books before turning her hand to literary romance. A former editor of a literary review, Julie is a teacher by trade and operates a sustainable farming operation with her family in Mississippi. Her debut novel, Into the Free, has garnered acclaim from readers and critics alike.
Serena: Into the Free was an absolutely stunning debut. How long did it take you to flesh out those characters and bring your baby into the world?
Julie: What a wonderfully kind way to start the interview. Thank you! The first draft of the story fell onto the page naturally. I just tuned into my imagination and had fun, recording Millie's story as it came to me. I didn't work from any outline, and I was surprised each night by how the story unfolded. It really was a beautiful journey, and the novel was finished in a few months.
I admire writers who can work from an outline, but I don't have that skill. Instead, I listened to Millie and gave in to the wonder. I hope that allowed me to develop realistic characters who surprise us.The editing phase lasted much longer. I wove in a lot of details after conducting extensive research, and I worked diligently to develop the plot structure and pacing. Thankfully, I had some wonderful early readers and fabulous editors who helped the book become what it is today. I learned so much along the way.
Serena: You've worked as an editor for a literary review — does your experience make it less or more difficult to receive criticism of your own work?
Julie: That's a good question. I have reviewed other authors' works, and I always tried to focus on the strengths. Most reviewers do the same. I doubt I'd be too bothered by a negative review because I keep in mind that it's all subjective. When I reviewed a work or interviewed an author, I never criticized their work. Instead, I was always fascinated by their craft and longed to know more about their process. I'm just grateful folks are giving this story a chance, and I'm enjoying hearing such positive feedback. The most amazing part for me has been hearing from readers who have really connected to Millie and overcome some deep emotional wounds after reading Into the Free. Knowing this book is helping others is incredible to me. I'll take that over literary acclaim any day.
Serena: Do you see your novel as an inspirational title — or do think it will find a more comfortable home amidst a more mainstream audience?
Julie: This is a great question, and thanks for asking. This book is published by David C Cook, a Christian publisher. They've been an amazing team to work with from the start, and I'm extremely grateful they gave this book a chance. However, this book is also being marketed through the ABA (secular) market and that makes me happy, too.
There are powerful messages in this book, but they are woven into the narrative in subtle ways. I think a lot of Christian books preach the same message to the same audience, and I wanted to do something different. In particular, I wanted to reach readers who may not have always had a smooth path in life, especially those who may have fallen to a weak place in their faith.
Millie, like many Christians, questions her faith. She wonders, at some of the lowest points in her life, if God even exists. She faces tremendous struggles and discovers that some of the folks in her life who call themselves Christians are some of the most dangerous people she knows. Yet, she also knows people who exhibit a really deep faith and model for her the importance of forgiveness. These characters do not preach to Millie or judge Millie. They simply LOVE Millie.
While I didn't set out to deliver a certain message to anyone, I do hope this book encourages us to treat each other with love and kindness. We tend to get caught up in certain rules and traditions, but the Bible tells us God is Love. I believe it's really as simple as that.
Serena: Millie's childlike interpretation of her mother's debilitating depression is poignantly described and, although I don't think the word "depression" is ever used by Millie, the diagnosis is clear and keenly felt by the reader. How did you choose the term "the valley" for Millie to describe her mother's dark times?
Julie: Yes, Millie's mother is incredibly depressed. She has a broken spirit and she struggles to be the mother Millie needs her to be. Yet, she loves Millie, and Millie is fiercely loyal to her mother. Millie tells this story first as a young girl and later as a teen. She never really hears anyone mention her mother's difficulties, so to her, it is unnamed. From the time she's very young, she sees it only as The Valley — a deep, dark place her mother visits sometimes. I don't remember giving it much thought, it just seemed to be the way Millie would have understood it at a young age.
Serena: Millie loses so much over the course of the novel, but in her darkest times, visions of a person she's loved and lost comfort her. When you first thought to include these visions, did you see that character as a "friendly ghost" or as a guardian angel?
Julie: I think I always knew he was her guardian angel. I didn't write the book with any intentions of including angels, but this was authentic to Millie's journey. As it came together, it seemed to make perfect sense. This character had meant so much to Millie, and, in her life, he had always represented goodness. As Millie began to fight her own personal battles, it was only natural for her to turn to that source of strength and love.
Serena: Millie's first taste of romance is also her first hope of escape from the uncertainty of her mother's mental state and the violence of her father's personality. Several scenes made me long for Millie to escape, right now, however — and with whomever — she could. Did you ever have a time during the writing that you wanted Millie to just run away?
Julie: Oh, yes. Many times. I don't want to give away the ending, but let's just say, I never quite knew what Millie was going to do until she did it. I hope she keeps the readers guessing as well.
Serena: I'd never thought of "gypsies" in a 20th-century American setting, but you've written of them in a tender way that replaces the "fortune-telling thieves" stigma with wonder — and the idea that it is a gentle, divinely prophetic appointment that brings them to Millie's world each spring. What first fascinated you about the traveler's life?
Julie: I've always been interested in various cultures, surrounding myself with international friends since my college days and teaching students from other countries. However, I had never really thought of the travelers, beyond the stereotypical "gypsy" characters I had observed in movies and books, so I was fascinated to learn that many of them live in the Southeastern United States, including Louisiana (where I lived as a child) and Mississippi (where I live now). I first learned this when I read about the "Gypsy Queen" Kelly Mitchell and her husband, the "King of the Gypsies," Emil Mitchell. Our family visited Rose Hill cemetery in Meridian, Miss., where these travelers are buried, and I was completely engrossed in the legend of Kelly's life, her death, and her funeral, which supposedly drew as many as 20,000 Romany travelers to Meridian in 1915.
I have learned a lot about the Roma by writing this book, and I'm relieved to hear feedback now from travelers who are pleased with how they are portrayed in the story. It's purely fictional, of course, and the characters in the book are not based on real people. But, the "gypsies" in the book travel through town each spring to pay homage to their fallen king and queen, so the historical roots are threaded throughout the novel.
I've posted an interview on my website in which a traveler discusses his life in modern-day America, and more interviews will be posted soon. These travelers are reaching out in hopes of improving cross-cultural understanding, and I am grateful for their willingness to share their stories with us.
Serena: The interview with the Romani-American traveler was fascinating to read, giving a little bit deeper glimpse into the mystery of the travelers. Can we expect to see more of the Roma/gypsy culture in future novels?
Julie: I'm writing the sequel now … but once again, I won't know until it's on the page. Stay tuned.
Serena: There is such a dividing line between cultures in the small Mississippi town where Millie grows up. There's the Rodeo culture, the Society culture, the Help culture and, of course, the gypsies. Millie weaves in and out of each with varying results before finding a place where she is accepted for who she is. But even that acceptance comes with the baggage of her past. Do you think small-town America still operates under this system, or has progress blurred the lines?
Julie: You've done a great job summarizing some of the key themes of the story, as Millie deals with issues of classism, racism, religious hypocrisy and more. While women and minorities certainly have many more options today than they did in Millie's Depression-era Mississippi, most of these themes are timeless. Until we all learn to love one another and find the good in everyone, these issues will still exist.
Serena: As she comes of age, Millie gets to experience two polar opposite romances: one of instant fireworks and passion — and one that grows slowly and cautiously, but still causes her to hold back. Yet neither young man was "the bad guy" in the end — which made Millie's choice even more difficult. Were you ever tempted to keep River from returning to Millie?
Julie: Yes. In fact, this is one of the changes that occurred in editing. The ending was a bit different in the earlier drafts, but I wanted Millie's choice to be purposeful and independent. Not just a matter of chance. This is one of the main points of this book … our choices matter. Every single one of them. In the sequel, Millie's story continues, and while I'm not finished with the story yet … I will say Millie does ask herself, "If I had the chance to choose again, would I make the same choice?"
Serena: I was moved to tears more than once while reading this book. Did you cry while writing it? And if so, which scenes most tore your heart?
Julie: I am glad to hear you connected so deeply with this book. Many readers tell me they cried throughout the book. I also cried while writing it, and I still cry when I read certain scenes. Millie feels so real to me, and I love her dearly at this point. I care about her and I don't like to see her suffer. I think the steeple scene is one of the most difficult ones to read, but I also cried when Millie was in the hospital with her mother. Mother/daughter relationships are so complex, and I feel Millie's pain as she tries so desperately to salvage what's left of theirs.
Serena: You are a speech language pathologist, currently working as an ESL (English as a second language) teacher. Do your students' struggles with language and/or local customs inspire your characters? Or are you able to separate your jobs into their own distinct categories?
Julie: I think everything I do in life plays a part in the stories I write, but I've never penned a character based on any particular person. I don't think I'll ever do that. The last thing I want to do is make my friends and family members insecure around me, thinking I'll put them in a book.
Serena: As a teacher, you have surely witnessed the results of domestic abuse in your students' lives. Was writing about this issue through Millie's eyes a cathartic exercise — or was it painful, making you hypersensitive to the fact that not every child will be rescued from that fate?
Julie: It is certainly heartbreaking to see what some children deal with in their lives. As a teacher, a mother, and a Christian, I have always had tremendous compassion for anyone in need, particularly children. I believe it is our role, as a civilized society, to never turn a blind eye to a victim of domestic violence. Many people feel trapped in abusive relationships. Until we provide safe, convenient escape routes as well as the support required to start a new, healthy life, the cycle will continue. We should stand up for every Millie in the world.
Serena: Beyond writing and your work as an ESL teacher, you live on and help run a farming operation, Valley House Farm. I'm a farmer's daughter from Iowa, so I know it's not all chewing a piece of straw and holding a pitchfork while you wait for the cows to come home. How do you juggle the responsibilities involved in producing sustainable crops, caring for animals, and boarding horses while still finding time at home to write and edit novels?
Julie: Lucky girl … Iowa farmland sure is beautiful! As you know, it's a tricky balancing act. We just became first-generation farmers in Mississippi about a year ago, so we've spent this year working constantly on the farm and trying to get it started. We enjoy the work tremendously, but we sure could use about 40 hours a day to get it all done. At this point, we haven't hired any help. But with our second milking season just around the corner, it may be time to admit we can't juggle it all. Mornings are the toughest, as we're all trying to rush off to our Day Jobs. The only time I really have to write is between about 3 and 5 a.m. Thankfully, I've never required much sleep.
Serena: (picks chin off floor and reminds self to quit complaining about being too busy) When you're not writing, editing, farming, or teaching, what do you do for fun? (Or do you even have time to look up the word "fun" in the dictionary so you can answer this question? LOL.)
Julie: Ha! I do have a VERY busy life, but my top priority will always be my family. For fun, we do all sorts of things. We are a loud, playful, active family, and we spend a lot of time together. We play games, travel, watch movies, read, and we do our chores together each day — everything from mucking stalls to cooking dinner. We are a tight-knit family and we LOVE to laugh. We feel no shame in dancing and singing around the house looking like fools.
Serena: Love it! I know all good writers are also avid readers who grasp every spare minute to dig into a good book. What are you reading now?
Julie: I'm usually reading about six or seven different books at a time. Right now, I'm reading some advanced copies upon request for endorsements. I'm also reading Blindness by Jose Saramago and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I've also always got a few farm books on my nightstand. I just finished The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow, and I just reread The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls for a third time.
Serena: Your first two books were children's books, written originally for your own children and promoted by kids you read them to when they came over for sleepovers. Was Into the Free written as a message for a specific person or group?
Julie: I didn't write it with any specific message in mind, but I do hope it gives readers a sense of healing. I hope it encourages people to work toward forgiveness and to always consider the way we treat one another. Even if readers can't identify with Millie's journey on a personal level, I hope they can relate to at least one character in the book and take a closer look at their own choices. I also hope it reminds us all to protect the children in our society and to offer help when it is needed.
Serena: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
Julie: I am so grateful to everyone for giving this story a chance. I am an avid reader, and I know how many titles are available. Every time someone chooses Into the Free from the shelf or online, they've made Millie's voice a little stronger. Every time they recommend it to a book group, Sunday School class, women's circle or library, they've helped again. I appreciate every single person who spends time in Millie's world, and I will never take that gift for granted.
Serena: You can learn more about Julie Cantrell and her debut novel, Into the Free, by visiting her website. There you'll find a reader's guide for the novel, interviews and lots of extras. You can also connect with Julie on Facebook and Twitter (@JulieCantrell).