Sunday, September 25, 2022

Q&A With Julie Cantrell

CantrellEmily Gatlin chats with Oxford children’s book writer turned novelist

Julie Cantrell, bestselling author of “Into the Free” is an Oxford resident. HottyToddy.com’s Emily Gatlin recently picked Cantrell’s brain in a Q&A.

By Emily Gatlin

You published two children’s books before your first novel, Into the Free. What made you decide to take the leap?

My publishing journey has been anything but typical. Years ago, I published the children’s books after being nudged to do so from several friends. The first book, God Is With Me Through The Night, was originally written to help my young daughter feel safe to sleep in her room at night, so we could all get some rest. As my daughter’s friends would stay the night, we’d read The Emily Book before bedtime. Gradually, friends asked for copies. Stapled copies we’d printed out at home began to trickle out to different families around town, and I began to hear positive feedback about how well young children were responding to the book. Several friends suggested I should share it on a larger scale, in hopes of helping other sleep-deprived mothers. Voila! The result was a two-book deal with Zonderkidz to produce the simple, colorful set of books to help children overcome fears both day and night.

Did you always want to write a novel, or did your novel find you?

As an avid reader, sometimes I would finish reading a novel and wonder if I had it in me to accomplish writing such a thing. Because I had never taken a writing class or studied literature in college, I was and still am very insecure about my writing abilities. But, it was something I had always wanted to try. So when I was approaching my 35th birthday, I set a personal goal to write and finish a novel. I never intended to show anyone the book. I simply wanted to see if I could do it. Now if only I could be as productive with my fitness goals!

Tell us a little about your process. You and your husband operate a sustainable farm and you have children. How do you find time to write?

For me, finding time to write is the hardest part of the entire process. Not only do we have a farm and two active children, I also teach English Language Learners in kindergarten and first grade, and I am a dedicated volunteer with our literacy council. Aside from that, I love to just live life—spending time with friends and family, watching films, attending live music events, visiting with my book club, taking long walks and bike rides, playing with my pets, working in our gardens, etc. etc. Sadly, there are only so many hours in a day, and it’s never enough for me to do all I love to do. Solve that problem for me, will you? As of now, the only way I even come close to managing it all is by getting VERY little sleep—too little for human survival, but I’m still here.

Into the FreeFor your debut novel, you were given a Starred Review from Publishers Weekly. Can you describe what that feels like?

Describe it? Nope. Sorry, but no words suffice. Honestly, it’s that good. Okay, if you insist, I’ll give it my best try. Picture your favorite hot guy—I’m thinking Johnny Depp—hanging out with you in your favorite fantasy location—I’m thinking some clear blue water, tropical island with no jellyfish, seaweed, or sharks, and no other people—serving you your favorite drink (anything with rum or vodka for me) before strumming his guitar and singing a song he wrote just for you. He then surprises you with happy news: you’ll spend the next decade traveling the world—no expenses spared—together! Yep. It’s kind of like that. Even better. Promise. Honestly, it’s been more than a year since I got that call, and it’s still too hard for me to believe.

You skyrocketed to the New York Times Bestseller list very quickly and quietly. Where were you when you heard the news? Did you even have time to celebrate?

I don’t remember exactly where I was when Into the Free hit the NYT list, but I do remember I was in my barn with my horse when a friend texted me to say my book had just climbed past Hunger Games on Amazon’s list. I didn’t believe her, but after she insisted she wasn’t playing a cruel joke I did go check. I sat in my living room, wearing my PJs (after showering off the barn funk), and watched in disbelief as my name topped so many accomplished authors, eventually reaching that number one spot. It was surreal. Beyond. About a month later, the book landed on the NYT and USA Today lists. Again, I was kind of numb. It spent three weeks on each, and every time someone told me, I’d get all giggly. I still do. Granted, it wasn’t 30 weeks, but three weeks of that acclaimed top spot sure was good enough for me. I’m grateful.

Living in Oxford is every writer’s dream. What influences you?

Someone recently referred to Oxford as the Motherland of Literature. That is an accurate description. I honestly don’t know if I would have ever published a novel if I hadn’t moved to this amazing literary community, where I’ve become friends with so many talented authors who helped me realize that I, too, could give it a try.

Who inspires me? Every writer who has come before and who is walking this road with me today, as well as the many literature lovers, readers, and the folks who feed our souls through Square Books. I’ve lived all across the country, in many wonderful communities, but I consider myself very lucky to call Oxford my home.

Your publisher is David C. Cook, which is technically a Christian publisher, although your book isn’t necessarily Christian fiction. How is that market changing, and why do you think it is evolving so much?

This is such an important question, and no easy one to answer. The publishing market is changing by the minute. Publishers are watching carefully and hoping they can stay ahead of the game. With e-books becoming the strongest selling format, and young adult genres as well as inspirational genres taking the top profits, traditional houses are making adjustments to follow reader interests.

I realize there’s a huge market for darker works like Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Fifty Shades of Grey, but there are also millions of readers who want to close a book feeling inspired, hopeful, and, in some significant way, changed for the better. Personally, I read because I want to experience life through another lens. I want to crawl into another person’s head and live their adventures. I want to come away with a broader understanding of an opposing view, a more compassionate soul for those who struggle, and a more engaged mind to absorb every little sensory detail around me. I write for the same reasons, and I hope my readers leave my stories feeling hopeful, engaged, compassionate, and renewed—not to mention inspired.

I’m not concerned about how people label me or my work. Into the Free has been defined in many different ways, including Christian fiction, inspirational fiction, women’s fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, contemporary fiction, Southern fiction, young adult fiction, and general fiction. I’m probably forgetting a few. Ultimately, I just hope people read it and think it’s a good story. I also hope readers learn to care about my characters and can enjoy spending time in their fictional world.

You’ve got an Into the Free sequel coming. After that, will we continue to follow Millie, or do you have other characters to introduce us to?

The sequel, When Mountains Move, is set to release in September. Once again, it’s published by the extraordinarily talented team at David C. Cook, and I’m excited to hear readers’ reactions. While I’m hoping this book can be read as a stand-alone instead of a sequel, this story does continue Millie’s journey, taking us to Colorado for the next phase of her life. There, we are introduced to a new cast of characters while still seeing the storyline continue for some of our favorite folks from Into the Free.

When I finished the final edits of Into the Free, I knew there was more to tell. I am grateful I get the chance to finish this tale, and while I could continue to write about Millie—or many of the characters that have shared her world—I have the closure I need now to walk away and start something entirely new, which is what I’m working on now.

Book Three is set in Louisiana and brings readers through a more contemporary timeline. My first novel was a love song to Mississippi, the state I now call home; the second book was a love song to Colorado, a state near and dear to my heart after living there for two years; and this third novel will be a love song to Louisiana, the state where I spent the first 24 years of my life. I’ve been fortunate to live in many communities and experience tons of different cultures across our great nation, but there really is no place quite like Louisiana. Blame it all on my roots.

emilygatlinEmily Gatlin spent four years as the manager of an independent bookstore in Mississippi. In 2012, she was nominated to serve on the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Board of Directors. She is a contributor for Book Riot, Food Riot, and also writes for Invitation Oxford and Mud & Magnolias Magazine. Occasionally, she updates her own blog, A Prose For Emily.

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