Julie Cantrell was editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review. She teaches English as a second language to elementary school students and is a freelance writer who has published two children’s books. Julie and her family run Valley House Farm in Mississippi. Her first novel, Into the Free, was released by David C. Cook in 2012.
Julie, so glad to be doing this interview. First of all, congratulations on the publication of Into the Free, which, at the moment, is number 23 on the Amazon Kindle bestseller list. What does it feel like to have completed your first novel?
It’s amazing! The entire journey has been joyful for me, but to see it reach readers across the world is incredible. Having it become a bestseller is simply surreal. I admit I’m a bit numb watching it climb the charts, and I keep thinking it will end in a few minutes – a strange little bubble of joy that is about to pop. For that reason, I’ve been doing the happy dance nonstop and am just going to enjoy the fun while it lasts.
The main character of the book is Millie Reynolds. How did you come up with Millie? Did you know what she would be like—her personality, her attitudes, her struggles—before you started writing, or did she sort of come to you as you worked?
Well, to be honest, I never intended to write from a child’s point of view. I originally set out to write about the “Gypsy Queen,” but it just wasn’t the voice I heard. Then I saw a scene of a poor, depressed woman standing on a porch watching the Travelers leave town. She wanted to leave with them, but she was too afraid to take the first step. So I sat down to write her story, but it wasn’t her voice I heard either. Instead, Millie sat in her tree and told me her story. I know it sounds kooky, but I guess I just have a very vivid imagination. I’m happy to introduce Millie to readers, and I hope they love her as much as I do.
You once told me that you had two kids, four cows, three goats (two of which were then due with babies that you’d have to bottle feed), two dogs, two cats (one stray that arrived pregnant), a horse that likes a lot of attention, a flock of hens, a newly arrived carton of chicks, a husband, and a full-time job as a speech therapist. How did you ever manage to finish writing Into the Free?
It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? In fact, we’ve grown bigger since then! I still work in an elementary school, but now I teach English as a Second Language, so I was able to reduce my hours to part-time this year. With a full-time farm, a teaching job (which is never really part-time, as any teacher will tell you), two kids, a wonderful hubby, freelance gigs, and an active community life, we stay very busy. I usually write between the hours of 3 am and 5 am, when the rest of the world is sleeping. I just love it more than sleep.
Tell us a little about your choice of setting for the novel?
I am a southern girl, through and through. I spent my childhood in Louisiana before leaving the south after graduate school. I loved living in various states across the country, but our family relocated to Mississippi seven years ago, returning to our southern roots. I find this state incredibly rich with everything needed to whip up a story. I never considered setting it anywhere other than Mississippi. However, I like to mix things up a bit, so let’s see where the sequel takes us.
Any advice for aspiring novelists who might come across this interview?
Yes. I say, Go for it! If writing is what you love, be willing to make sacrifices to keep that in your life. Only you know what you were born to do, and only you know how to live the life that makes you happy. Life is short. Choose wisely.
Thank you, Julie. This has been a great interview. I’m thrilled to see the success of Into the Free, and I would encourage readers of this site to purchase a copy right away.
Thank you, Allen. I am honored to be interviewed here on a site I have always loved. You’ve done a fabulous job with Southern Literary Review, and I know your readers all agree. Kudos!