Enjoy part 2 of BLGs’ Book Club’s interview with NY Times bestseller, Julie Cantrell about her life, literary loves and her book, Into the Free. Be sure to grab yourself a copy and dive in ~ you will be glad you did!
BLGs: Please share a little of your own spiritual journey
Julie: Oh, goodness. That’s an entire book in itself. I’ll try to keep this short.
Basically, I have always had a deep faith…but I have a love/hate relationship with organized religion. I grew up Southern Baptist, have visited many different kinds of churches throughout my life, and we now attend a United Methodist church.
I don’t agree with the hate-filled messages shouted loudly by a small minority of Christians who so visibly express their views in the media. It’s sad to me that these extremists represent our faith as a whole. Like extremists of any religion, these people choose to distribute judgment and self-righteousness rather than Christian love. It’s dangerous, in my opinion, when people defend monstrous behaviors by saying they are doing God’s work. Too many times in human history has “God’s work” led to genocide, war, oppression, torture, corruption, etc. These behaviors never had anything to do with God.
There are times these people have made me doubt my faith. That’s when I have to remind myself that they are not a true representation of Christianity. I choose, instead, to focus on the teachings of Jesus, and I interpret his messages to be about love, kindness, compassion, and an overwhelming desire to make the world a better place.
Various denominations/religious leaders focus on specific verses of the Bible to defend their beliefs. Some choose to focus on fine details. For me, I think God is so much bigger than anything we can narrow down to a few words. So much more than what our finite minds can process. So we zoom in on something we can understand….hair, clothes, sex, politics, etc. Perhaps it’s radical to say this, but I don’t think any of it matters, personally. I don’t think God (as I envision God) cares one bit about any of it (as long as we are not hurting others or causing harm to this universe).
If people want me to boil my complicated faith down to something simple, it’s this: we’re all here for a purpose, each and every one of us. We are all flawed and we all struggle. That is part of the journey. We have lessons in each moment, and it’s up to us to learn those lessons. Ultimately, I believe, we are here to love one another. If I narrow my faith down to one verse, as people tend to want me to do, it is 1 John 4:8, which the NIV Bible quotes as saying: Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.
How do you express the main underlying spiritual them in Into the Free?
God believes in you.
You writing style is very literary ~ was that intentional or is it just how the writing flows for you?
It’s just how it flows for me. It was actually much more literary before we edited it to suit a more general audience. I read a lot of literary fiction, so I think it’s just the kind of language that draws me in.
Does Millie reflect moments from your own life or your personality?
I think all of my characters reflect a little of me, but yes, I think Millie is a bit like me and my daughter. We are both very comfortable in nature and both tend to really think deeply about everything and every person we encounter.
Which authors do you love to read?
I’m an avid reader, and I’m usually reading about six books at a time. I leave them in every room of the house, in the van, in my purse, etc., and I just pick one up when I have a free minute throughout the day. I really love to read all different types of writers, and I prefer literary fiction and memoirs to other genres. Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorites, as well as Ann Patchett, Anne Lamott, Jeannette Walls, Rick Bragg, Gail Tsukiyama, Khaled Hosseini, Hillary Jordan, Chris Cleave, Joan Didion, Sue Monk Kidd, and my friends Neil White and Beth Ann Fennelly.
Right now I’m reading two wonderful books that might interest you. One is Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality. It’s a collection of essays by wonderful southern female writers who explore their own spiritual experiences and faith in the context of a very southern Christian culture. I just finished it last night and enjoyed every word of it. The other is Ann Voskamp’s. One Thousand Gifts . You’ve likely heard of that one, it’s a blockbuster bestseller, but she has an amazing style that makes the words just sing off the page, and everything she says resonates with me. I was a stay-at-home mom for years, and many of my friends couldn’t understand my choice to stay home and put my career on hold. Likewise, many of my friends who stayed home suffered from fatigue and burnout, feeling unappreciated, undervalued, and exhausted by the constant dullness of daily routines. I never felt that way, and I couldn’t adequately put those feelings into an answer when they would ask me “Why?” I just tried to say, “because I’m grateful for every moment of this.” Ann Voskamp beautifully presents the answer I wasn’t able to express well to my friends. The fact was, I was truly joyfully happy, because I chose to be in a constant state of gratitude. If the baby was crying, I reminded myself this season was short. If we had little money and were eating soup for a third day in a row, I reminded myself we had more than many people in the world. If I had gone three weeks straight with less than two hours of sleep a night, I thought of those trying to sleep in warzones, children who were being abused in the dark, deep hours of night, and women who were awake from the haunting nightmares of devastating grief from losing their child. I was blessed in those wee hours, wide awake with a colicky infant held to my breast. How dare I complain, when I had so much to be grateful for? This is the essence of Voskamp’s book, and I hope everyone reads it.
That’s off the top of my head. I could name many, many more. I’m in awe of everyone, to be honest. Everyone I read. Everyone I meet. People, and the way we think, are incredibly interesting to me. Some people are surprised when I say I love movies like Crash, Good Will Hunting, Juno, and books like A Million Little Pieces, The Kite Runner, etc. All of those were mentioned in the AfterWords section of Into the Free, and a few people have made comments about how those works aren’t “Christian” and that I shouldn’t encourage others to read them. To me, these works are honest. They explore the truth of the human condition, ugly parts and all, and they help me understand the way other people view the world. I don’t think there’s anything about the human process that shocks God in any way. I choose to live my life in a conservative way, but I am very liberal minded about opening my mind and heart to all kinds of people in this world. How can I do that, if I don’t try to understand them and love them as they are? These works help me do that. Jesus didn’t shun away from the darker elements of human existence. Instead, he embraced those who had been shunned for not being “good enough” or “clean enough” for others. If Jesus can embrace the bleeding woman, sit with prostitutes, touch lepers, join forces with a wild locust-eating man of the desert, and break bread with his enemies, then I can open my mind to all aspects of the human heart. I feel no shame about that, and I do encourage people to broaden their horizons in order to reach a deeper understanding of things that make little sense to us.
What do you love about language and story?
Again, I could write an entire book to answer this question. I am a speech-language pathologist, so I am very interested in language development and the correlation between language and cognition. I’m fascinated by the human ability to communicate and I work with many children who are not able to communicate in the typical way. I love helping them connect with the world around them, but I’m also intrigued by the complex workings of the human mind. Some believe we can’t really “think” of something if we don’t have a “word” to label that idea. It’s interesting to examine how much of our “human essence” is directly linked to our ability to share a common code of communication.
To narrow the scope a bit to Story, I’m convinced that narrative structure is key to our ability to process those thoughts. Think about how Jesus taught. He did not preach in the traditional way. Instead, he told stories…narratives…to make his point through those tales. Whether you believe a man named Jonah actually was swallowed by a big fish and released days later, or whether you believe Jesus taught with parables, using fiction to teach greater truths, you still understand the meaning of the story. Yet he didn’t have to say: “You can’t hide from God.” His messages were clear in his use of narratives and symbolism.
If Into the Free was made into a movie, who do you picture having the starring roles?
Wouldn’t that be fun!? I can only dream. But, come on, let’s dream together.
The truth is, I didn’t create any of the characters with specific people in mind, with one exception. Sloth. Every time I wrote about Sloth, I pictured Morgan Freeman. Other than him, I don’t know. I think Sissy Spacek might do a great job playing Mama, but again she’s too old for that part now. If not her, maybe Charlize Theron. Joaquin Phoenix is so intense. He could nail Jack’s character. Robert Downey, Jr. would do a good job with him but does not have the look I envision for Jack. Ashley Judd might work for Diana. Someone southern, polished, beautiful, but sharp edged. As for Millie, River, and Bump…it’s hard for me to say any actors that come to mind because I kind of envision my own daughter as Millie and two of her friends as River and Bump. The friend I picture as River is actually a Romany Traveler, and the friend I picture as Bump is a cowboy…but I did not know either of them when I wrote the book. Ironic, isn’t it?
What do you hope readers take away from Into the Free ?
I didn’t write the book with the intention of delivering a specific message, but now that it’s written…I do hope people close the book with a few thinking points in mind. Mainly, I want readers to consider the choices we make as human beings. I want people to realize that every choice we make matters. Every single one. Especially the way we treat one another. And that forgiveness is a crucial part of this human journey.
Into the Free hit the New York Times bestseller list (Congratulations!!)~ how did that make you feel?
Thank you! It was one of the most amazing moments of my entire life, no doubt. I’m still trying to absorb the reality of it. I have never been one who cared about titles and honors, but I have to admit, it is an incredible feeling to hear someone introduce me now as the New York Times and USA TODAY Bestselling Author, Julie Cantrell. Really, when I hear it, I try to picture each and every person who bought the book. I’m just overwhelmingly grateful for readers who are giving this story a shot. It’s amazing to me that you are reading this story all the way on the other side of the world. I’m just incredibly honored by that…no words will ever be able to adequately express my gratitude. (I have to admit, also, that while this title is awesome, I’m much more proud to be called Mama by my children and Mrs. Julie by my students who first learn to speak English words. That’s the real gift.)
Please share two things about you people may be surprised to learn?
Oh goodness. I don’t know. I’m not that interesting. Maybe, hmmm….When I was in college, I discovered I had a BB in my arm. Proof that my brother shot me as a child. And perhaps that I grew up in Louisiana swimming with alligators. Typical southern childhood, really. Not much to tell.
Thank you all again for choosing to spend time with Millie and to hear her story. I sincerely appreciate your willingness to read Into the Free, your desire to discuss it, and your efforts to share it with others. I have grown to really love Millie, and it’s a fabulous feeling to hear you care about her as well. I’ve enjoyed your questions and welcome your feedback. I’m not too great at keeping up with social media, but if you want to stay updated on the progress of the sequel, feel free to follow me on facebook, twitter, or my blog. I always enjoy hearing from readers.
It’s been an absolute pleasure, Julie ~ thank you for sharing so openly with us!
BLGs’ Book Club ~ Book Loving Girls meet at my home every six weeks to celebrate our love of story and to spend time pondering a selected book and chatting (via email, skype or telephone) with the author ~ I look forward to sharing with you some of the fun and encouragement we have over 2012 and beyond!