Author Interview – Julie Cantrell

I have the sincere pleasure of welcoming another one of my favorite authors, Julie Cantrell. I first discovered her after reading her debut novel, Into the Free. I can’t emphasize enough, how much I loved this book. I fell in love with the characters and story, so when Julie Cantrell came out with a sequel, When Mountains Move, I was excited. These two books are on the top of my list.

Julie Cantrell is such a gifted writer. The characters and story do not reflect her life at all. They are works of fiction and the story is entirely made up from her imagination. I can only dream and aspire to write like her.

Without further ado, Julie Cantrell.

  • When did you decide to become a writer? or When did you discover you were a writer?

Writing has always been my way of processing the world around me. When I was a young girl, I kept a journal. As a teen, I wrote poetry, song lyrics, and short stories. And I’ve always loved to write letters to friends and family across the miles. But when I told my high school teacher that I wanted to be a writer, she quickly nipped that dream in the bud. She told me not to waste my scholarship to study writing, saying that I would be lucky to write greeting cards but that I would never get beyond that. I happen to think writing greeting cards would be a fun job, but she meant it as a criticism. The problem is, I believed her.

I spent the next decade writing only my college assignments, and I never took a writing class. I would walk past the English and Journalism buildings every day and want to sneak into those classes. I ended up studying to become a speech-language pathologist because I am fascinated by language development and communication in all forms. Plus I love to help people. It has been a wonderful career for me. But, I am happy that now, after twenty years, I finally realize that teacher was wrong. I am glad I took the leap and dared to write a novel; and I’m thankful readers are taking a chance on Millie’s story.

  • Which writers inspire you?

I am inspired by the authors who blog with me at Southern Belle View: Beth Webb Hart, Rachel Hauck, Shellie Rushing Tomlinson, and Lisa Wingate, as well as dear author friends I’ve met the last two years of my journey. Just a few include Christa Allan, Missy Buchanan, Judy Christie, Lynne Gentry, Kellie Coates Gilbert, Kathy Harris, Ann Hite, River Jordan, Michael Morris, Kathy Patrick, Jolina Petersheim, Karen Spears-Zacharias, Carla Stewart, Michel Stone, and Renea Winchester. I’m also inspired by authors in my local community, (Oxford, MS.) such as Katie Anderson, Ace Atkins, Beth Ann Fennely, Tom Franklin, and Neil White, and by those represented by my agency (WordServe Literary), many of whom join forces to blog at

  • What are your favorite books?

I have WAY too many favorite books to list, but here are a few that surface in my brain at the moment (in no particular order): The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver; Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren; Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand; The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama; Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Looking for Alaska, by John Green; I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb; The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen; and The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert.

  • What books help shape you as a writer?

I send a big shout-out to the classic, Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. A friend, Katie Anderson, loaned me her copy of this screenwriting manual. Of course, I’m still learning new things every day…but this book (actually it is one of a set of three) is a wonderful tool that can be used to sculpt a three-act plot structure. While it is written for screenplay writers, it can easily be adapted for a short story, novel, stage play, etc.

  • What is the hardest thing about writing?

Writing. And by that I mean, the actual physical act of sitting down and diving into that fictional world. I have to enter a different mental zone to really get a good scene down on the page, and that’s not always easy in the midst of a hectic life. It’s also difficult to find time to enter that sacred creative space because so much of my day is spent on the other part of the job…emails, social media, interviews, phone calls, mailing books, etc. I fantasize about having an intern someday who could handle some of that “other stuff”…ahhh…the dream.

  • What made you decide to sit down and actually start something?

Insomnia. And a bucket list. And a very strong nudge from Millie, my main character, who gave me her story and insisted it wasn’t mine to keep. (Thank you, Millie!)

  • How did you come up with your characters and story?

Honestly, it really did just come to me. The original spark for the first novel, Into the Free, was a blurb I had read years earlier about a gravesite in Meridian, Mississippi. Kelly Mitchell was buried there in 1915, and her tombstone reads: Kelly Mitchell, Queen of the Gypsies. This fascinated me, and I thought I’d write about the Romany Travelers who roamed through the southeastern segment of the US (and continue to do so today). The Roma ended up being a thread in a larger coming-of-age tale about Millie Reynolds.

  • Where do your ideas come from?

I’ve always been a daydreamer, so most of my ideas come from that strange realm of imagination. I also rely on sparks, like the blurb I mentioned regarding Kelly Mitchell’s grave. And from my real-world experiences, although I never write about real people in my life and hope no one ever worries that I’ll put them in a book. People tend to assume I’m writing about myself, especially because I write in first-person, but the works really are fictional, and Millie’s story is not my own.

  • What is your writing process?

I tend to write freestyle, meaning I don’t outline or do anything by following a routine. I write without worrying about edits, and when I come to a space where more research needs to be done or I might need to go back in the story and confirm a detail matches, etc…I just insert *** in that spot and then work out the kinks later. I don’t let those little holes slow me down as I’m writing the story. All of that can be tweaked after the story has roots.

I’m a gardener, so I see the act of building a story much like that of building a garden. Seeds first. Then the roots. Then the stalk. Then the stems. Then the leaves. Then the pruning. Then the blooms. And finally…the fruit. It’s a process that takes time, patience, and a bit of hard work. If you’re afraid of getting dirt under your nails or sweating a bit…writing is not for you.

  • Do you write every day?

If I’m lucky.

  • Do you write full-time or part-time?

I have been teaching English as a Second Language to Kindergarten and First Grade students until this year. Now, I am writing fulltime. It became a little too tricky to juggle teaching, farming, writing, volunteering, and … my top priority … mothering. While I love all the segments of my life, something had to give, and I feel very grateful to have quiet time now to write during the day while my children are at school. I’ve always been one who believed in Family First. Now, I no longer have to work while everyone else sleeps, and I admit…it’s divine.

  • Lastly, what advice would you give to aspiring writers?
  1. If you feel called to write, then write. No excuses. Just write.
  2. Don’t worry about what anyone else will think of your work. Write as if no one will ever see it. Write as a gift to yourself, as a tool to stretch your soul, expand your mind, and free your spirit.
  3. If you do decide to venture into publishing, don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t get caught up worrying about reviews, sales figures, awards, or shelf space. It’s all part of the business of publishing, but your job as an author is to create. When the other stuff begins to steal the joy of the creative process, remember to put things back in perspective and celebrate the gift you were given. Write because it’s who you are and because you can’t NOT write. Write because it makes you happy and brings you peace. And if you are nudged to share the stories you are given, share them to make others happy and to bring them peace. Nothing else matters.

Pilar, thanks so much for inviting me here today. It’s been an honor to chat with you about writing, and I am grateful that you have dared to pull Millie’s story from the shelf and enter her world for a while.

Thank you, Julie. The honor is mine.

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Julie Cantrell has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. She is the author of two children’s books as well as Into the Free, whichreceived Christy Awards for Best Debut Novel and Book of the Year 2013 as well as the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. Cantrell and her family live in Mississippi where they operate Valley House Farm. Her second novel, When Mountains Move, released September 2013.

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  • Renea Winchester

    Posted by Renea Winchester: Perhaps one of the best gifts God gave me was when he put Julie Cantrell in my life in the tiny town of Jefferson Texas. Her writing is as pure as her heart. I have suggested both books to everyone I know. You’ll be hooked on the first page.

    • I agree, she is a fabulous writer. Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  • Jolina Petersheim

    Thank you, dear friend. You are the inspiration!

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Jolina. I agree, she is an inspiration. 🙂

  • Christa Allan

    Great interview. And thank you, Julie, for including me among such gifted writers.

  • Lucie

    I’m always appalled by teachers like the one mentioned…reminds me of one of my favorite poets, who now has at least three well-received books to her credit, who was denied entrance to a university creative writing program because the gatekeeper professor deemed her lacking in talent. Fortunately she didn’t let that stop her, and when her first collection was not only published but won a prize, one of her speaking stops was at that same university. I can only hope the discouraging gentleman was in the audience, eating crow.

    • Oh man, I am so happy she did not give up. Thanks for sharing this story, Lucie. I find stories like this encouraging and inspiring. I have to be honest, I am not so sure I would have been able to keep going.