Interview with a Best-Selling Writer: "Into the Free" author, Julie Cantrell
I'm honored today to bring you a recent interview I did with best-selling debut novelist, Julie Cantrell. Enjoy!
--I loved the vivid characters, setting, and dialogue in Into the Free. Obviously, by the response many, many readers agree! How long did it take you to write it?
Thanks so much, Dena. Your kind words really mean more to me than you will ever imagine. I'm thrilled to hear you liked the book and I thank you for sharing it with your readers today. Big honor for me. From the time I discovered your "Mother Inferior" blog (love that name!), I have looked up to you and greatly admired your work.
As for Into the Free, I wrote the first draft in a few months, writing from 3-5 each morning before we started our busy day. I didn't plan on showing anyone, much less trying to publish it...it was TERRIFYING for me to let anyone read the book. And I never in a million years thought it would be on shelves. Thankfully, my agent Greg Johnson was willing to take the leap along with John Blase and Don Pape at David C Cook. It was a big gamble to publish a debut novel, and I'll always be grateful for their support. Of course, that first draft is not what you read today. Many talented editors worked their magic before this story landed in stores. It truly does take a village.
--Describe your main character, Millie, in three words.
Brave. Observant. Survivor.
--Have you always been interested in historical fiction?
I have always been an avid reader. I read a wide variety of books, but my favorite genres are literary fiction and memoirs. My copyeditor at Cook, Renada Arens, taught me a TON about the fine details necessary for writing historical fiction. She was a genius and I will always have tremendous respect for her talent.
--How about finding a publisher and agent (it's fun that we share an agent, Greg Johnson!)? Was that an arduous journey?
I really got lucky. I signed with Greg Johnson years ago when I wrote a little picture book to help my daughter sleep through the night. I researched the market and made a wish list of agents I'd like to query. I started at the top and planned to work my way down. I queried my top two choices simultaneously, and Greg was the perfect match. Once I signed with WordServe, Greg was able to land us a publishing contract for not one but two children's books with Zonderkidz (God is with me through the Night; God is with me through the Day). Years later I sent him the novel. I think he was stunned. He confessed he told his wife (whom I adore), "You won't believe what the girl with the children's books just sent me." Thankfully, he dared to take a chance on me. I will be eternally grateful.
--How do you balance motherhood, writing, and life?
Tricky! I write in the wee hours of the morning and late at night when everyone else is asleep. By 5:30, we're starting our day...milking goats, feeding all of our farm animals, cooking breakfast, packing lunches, etc. I have two children who are both active in various activities and our sustainable farm keeps us hoppin'. I teach English as a Second Language at our local elementary school, and my hubby works full time too...so we stay very, very busy. Plus, I still have a few freelance contracts and I volunteer for our local Literacy Council. We don't have a lot of spare time.
I struggle to keep it all in check, and I admit I don't always manage a healthy balance. I try to focus on each moment. That's the good thing about working with children and animals. They won't let you be unfocused. They insist I pay full attention at all times, or they'll make me regret it. I really try to live that way and they've trained me well.
--Congrats on receiving a writing fellowship! What was that process like?
Thanks, Dena. I'm so glad you asked about this. I was incredibly honored to receive the Literary Arts Fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission. They offer grants each year, and they usually go to well-established authors and artists. I figured I didn't have a chance, but I applied anyway thinking it would be a learning opportunity. I was beyond shocked when they told me I had been selected. I'm grateful for organizations like the MAC who continue to support the arts, even during years of tight budgets.
--What are some of your tips for aspiring writers?
I see a lot of people get caught up in sales figures, reviews, etc. They go into writing for the wrong reasons, seeking fame, acknowledgments, wealth, etc. If you write for those reasons, you'll never be happy. If you get one positive review, you'll want a starred review. If you get a starred review, you'll want an award. If you get that award, you'll want bestseller status, etc. etc. Nothing will satisfy your thirst for success. BUT...if you write because it makes you happy to enter another time and place, to build a story, to process this universe on the page, then you will always, always find joy in the process.
I read a quote once that I thought was right on point. It was something like: "If you can walk away from writing, walk away now." If you're like me, you will sacrifice sleep, exercise, sanity, and balance to get in those hours at the keyboard. It's that much a part of who I am and I can't imagine not writing...whether anyone reads it or not. If you're not like that, you might not really want to write.
However...if you really do want to write, and publishing is a goal...I also encourage you to write anything. I never took a writing course. I learned in the trenches, accepting freelance gigs for little pay (some for free). Every one of those opportunities taught me something important. Never think you're too good for a new experience.
--This is your first published novel. It's been so fun to "watch" you become a bestselling author! How have you felt about the tremendous response to Into the Free?
Thanks so much, Dena. It's been amazing, shocking, overwhelming, and fun! Thanks to kind, supportive friends like you, each step of the path has been a positive experience. The thing is, I sat down to write a book not knowing if I could finish it, much less land an agent, then a publishing contract. The fact that it was going to be published at all was a huge accomplishment in my mind, and I never set any expectations for the book. When Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, my life changed instantly. I was so green, I had to ask: "Does this star mean it's a starred review?" I laugh at that now. I had no idea what I was doing.
When it hit the NYT list and the USA TODAY list, I went completely numb. I think I'm still trying to absorb the numbers of readers who have entered Millie's world. I count my blessings constantly and really believe this was never my story to keep in the first place. I feel lucky this story came to me, and I'm grateful I had the opportunity to share it with the world. When I hear from readers who have been impacted by Millie's journey, I know it was worth every bit of work that went into this process. The emails I receive are incredibly powerful, and I'm very glad I got to play some small role in helping those readers heal old scars.
Thanks for inviting me for an interview on your blog, Dena. It really has been a tremendous honor for me.