This is one of those unforgettable first lines that pulls a reader into another world. These ominous words begin Julie Cantrell's debut novel Into the Free, which has rocketed to both the New York Times and the USA TODAY bestseller lists. This lush story is set in Depression-era Mississippi, and is told from the viewpoint of ten-year-old Millie Reynolds at first, then skips ahead to sixteen-year-old Millie. Here's a quick synopsis:
Millie Reynolds knows firsthand the shame of family secrets. With an abusive father and a “nothing mama,” she craves a place of true belonging. Over time, the gypsies that travel through town each spring offer acceptance. Then tragedy strikes and Millie leaves her world of poverty to join a prominent family on the other side of town. There, with the help of unlikely sources, Millie uncovers painful truths about her family’s past as she struggles to face a God she believes has abandoned her. When unconditional love is offered, Millie learns the power of forgiveness and finally discovers where she belongs.
So with that summary, I must tell you there is much, much more to the story. This was truly a book that I read late into the night. Millie is a character who endures a lot of heartbreak in her life, as well as some happier times, and I was along for the journey with her. Every character she encounters has some impact on her life, and they were all amazingly real. I felt I knew pieces of each one.
The author, Julie Cantrell, has quickly become a huge inspiration to me. I am so honored that she would answer my questions and take time to meet my readers.
Welcome, Julie, to A Story Club!
Was there one incident that sparked the idea for this book?
Yes. When my family moved to Mississippi from Colorado eight years ago, I discovered a tiny blurb about Kelly Mitchell, the “Queen of the Gypsies” whose gravesite was located in Meridian, MS. I was fascinated by this and began researching the history of the Romany Travelers across the southeastern US. The story emerged from that idea, but the Travelers are now a small thread within an entire fictional world where my main character, Millie Reynolds, shares her life with us.
How did you discover Millie's "voice?"
I honestly have to say, Millie just spoke to me. I have always had a big imagination, and working with young children enables me to tap into that pretend world. I simply gave in to the power of fiction and let Millie tell me her tale.
There were so many aspects to research for this book. Did you do this before you sat down to write, or as you wrote along?
I had done a little research before, and I thought I was going to write about the Travelers. However, that’s not the story that came to me when I started to write. So, I just let the story unfold organically, without editing or researching or worrying one bit about any of the formalities that limit creativity. I had no plans to ever show anyone the book, so I was completely free to pretend. It was a joyful experience. One I will always treasure.
After that original draft was complete, I conducted extensive research to fill in the historical details and make sure the story was authentic to the setting. That was equally fun for me, because I love to learn new things and I certainly learned a lot by writing about the early American Rodeo, the Romany Travelers, the 1920s-30s, and the role of religion in the Depression-era South.
I completely loved how you wove in the theme of "why does God seem to let bad things happen?" I think so many people also ask this question. At what point did you know this would be a major message in the novel?
The ironic thing is that I didn’t write the book with any specific moral message in mind. I just told Millie’s story as she wanted it to be told, and in the end, she left me with a beautiful, inspirational message of survival and faith. That’s when I realized this book was never mine to keep. I took a deep breath and dared to show my agent, Greg Johnson (WordServe Literary). The rest has been an incredible journey.
Whose story surprised you the most as you were writing?
Everything about this story was a surprise to me. I did not outline, and I had no idea what any of the characters were going to do until they did it. So, in the parts that make you cry, I cried. And in the parts that make you laugh, I laughed. And in the parts where you want to shake Millie and tell her to wake up and make a better decision, I definitely did that too. But I resisted my personal desires to control her character. Instead, I let Millie be Millie, and in the end, I loved her so much I wanted to share her with others. I’m glad readers seem to love her too.
What do you like to do when you are NOT writing?
My life is insanely hectic. First, and top priority for me, is my family. I am lucky to have married my best friend from childhood. We have two amazing children who are both very active. We operate a sustainable farm, which means we raise our own eggs, milk, veggies, fruit, and meat. We also board horses and welcome a ton of pets who enjoy calling this place home. We also have a very busy house, full of friends nearly 24/7 because we are loud and we love to laugh, we always have something to feed everyone, and we have a slight obsession with games, especially Just Dance on the Xbox. I am old and fat and look ridiculously pathetic trying to keep up with the younger, hipper dancers, but I do try. This makes for insanely cruel video footage that will someday be used to blackmail me, I’m afraid.
On top of that, I also am a speech-language pathologist and I teach English as a Second Language to elementary students. Plus, I am an active volunteer in our community where I am particularly devoted to our local Literacy Council.
I love writing, and I will always write, but it has not become the main focus of my life. It’s just one small part of who I am, and something I tend to do in the dark, quiet hours when no one is watching. I guess you could say, it’s my dirty little secret.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
Go for it! I assure you, if I can do it, anyone can.
Here’s the thing. I never took a single writing class. I have no clue what I’m doing, and I’m probably breaking all the rules without even being aware I am doing so. I was told by my high school English teacher that I’d never succeed at writing, and a bestselling author refused to endorse Into the Free, warning me instead that readers would throw it across the room and that it would never sell. (Christina here: Gasp! What! They must have been insane!)
I don’t know how Into the Free ended up with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly and a place on both the New York Times and USA TODAY Bestsellers lists, but I sure do count my blessings daily and thank God for allowing me to share Millie’s story with readers everywhere. I’ll say again, this story was never about me, and the power of this entire journey has been the reaction from readers who tell me every single day how much this book has inspired them, renewed their faith, or helped them heal old wounds.
Have I learned a lot through this process? Absolutely. Do I feel better prepared to write the sequel? Yes, I think so. Would I do it all again? Without a doubt. And I sure hope anyone out there with a story to tell will do the same.
But ultimately, my big advice is this: Write because you love to write. Write because it’s the way you process the world around you. Write because it makes you happy, and because you’d rather spend your time writing than almost anything else. Write because it’s part of who you are, and how you think, and who you are meant to be. Write because you write for YOU, not for anyone else. Not for fame, or money, or awards, or recognition. Not even for publication. Write because without it, you are less of yourself than God intended you to be. Write. Simply write. And let the words fall where they may.
Thank you, Julie! I get chills every time I read this last paragraph. I am so glad to have met you and hosted you here. Come again when the sequel is out!
Readers, leave a comment, and you'll be entered into a random drawing for a SIGNED COPY of INTO THE FREE! Also, if you go like Julie Cantrell on Facebook, she is having an incredible giveaway opportunity right now. If you don't win a book here, there are more chances on her Facebook page! You can also find out more about Julie at her website. Thanks for visiting A Story Club! (Drawing on 6/30 for US/Canada only).
Winners: Lisa P. and Kyla H. both win copies of Into the Free. Thanks for participating!