A Chat with Julie Cantrell

November already? Crunchy leaves on the lawn. The first chill of autumn and Thanksgiving right around the corner. I’m up to my eyeballs in menu ideas and shopping lists, but you know what I’m really looking forward to is the release of Perennials coming November 14 from my friend Julie Cantrell. I smile every time I see this gorgeous cover.

Perennials FINAL (002)

Here’s what I know and love about Julie: She’s kind hearted, amazingly talented, and a Southern girl through and through. She’s a NYT and USA TODAY best-selling author who writes razor-sharp novels with characters you won’t soon forget. I’m over the moon to have her here to answer some burning questions I have, and at the end, you’ll find a special surprise, so without further adieu . . .

Q: You set your latest novel in your hometown, Oxford, Mississippi, a community that’s been known for literature since the days of William Faulkner. How has Oxford shaped your journey as a writer?

A: There’s no place quite like Oxford. I’ve lived many places across the country, but I had never met an author until I moved here fifteen years ago. Suddenly, writers were everywhere.

Beth Ann Fennelly was one of the first I met.  We discussed pancakes during a Mother’s Day ceremony at our children’s preschool. Then, Tommy Franklin asked me to tie his daughter’s bow during an elementary school Halloween carnival. I didn’t know them. They didn’t know me. We were just parents doing our best to support our kids. It wasn’t until later that I realized they were also married to one another and they were both esteemed authors. That’s when I realized you could be a parent, and a spouse, AND an author.

Fateful encounters like those changed the course of my life. Without Oxford, without Mississippi, I likely would never have dared write a book, much less publish it.

Q: What’s it like to be a writer in Oxford today, walking the footsteps of William Faulkner?

A: VERY intimidating. Not only is the university full of savvy literary scholars, the town is filled with equally elite readers, and the level of talent in our community is second-to-none.

I came to Oxford as a reader, shopping at Square Books and admiring the gifted storytellers around me. I never imagined I would one day have books on those shelves! Suddenly, I was the one speaking at Thacker Mountain Radio and launching my novels from this hallowed ground.

It’s been surreal. Especially because I came into the literary scene through the back door with bare feet, and I still feel like the kid who crashed the party. I’m just grateful I’ve been given this incredible journey, and I’m glad other Oxford writers have made me feel so very welcome and supported.

Q: PERENNIALS is your fourth novel. Unlike many writers, you jumped from historical fiction in your first two books to contemporary fiction with your latest two. What unites your novels?

A: It is kind of unusual to change genres, but I don’t consider it as big of a leap as it may seem. I put my characters in challenging situations and watch their souls taking shape. This can be done across any space or time.

Specifically, I write stories about the struggles we face as women. My novels examine relationships, especially, and I like to explore the various trials and struggles we all must navigate in life – love, loss, grief, heartache, trauma. These are universal experiences, timeless and eternally human by their very existence. Yes, the timeframe may be different, but the core driving elements of the story are the same.

Q: What can readers expect from PERENNIALS?

A: Perennials is near and dear to my heart because it is set right here in Oxford, but I’ve also been incredibly moved by the responses I’ve received from early readers. You wouldn’t believe the stories people share with me about their own sibling rivalry or estranged relationships. It seems everyone can relate in some way or another to Lovey and Bitsy’s complicated sistership or the issues these characters have faced with the men in their lives. Most people have been hurt by someone they love, and that’s what this book explores – what it really means to love one another.

Q: What is it about family that causes so much turmoil in our lives?

A: I think our family wounds hurt us so deeply because these are the people we love most in the world, the people we want so desperately to love us in return. We long to be seen and understood, especially by our family members. And yet, it doesn’t always work that way. The challenge is to find a way to love one another in spite of it all.

Q: You seem to have established a real relationship with your readers. How do you approach that reader-writer dynamic?

A: My readers are the reason I keep publishing. I’ve stepped away from this gig a few times, due to life’s interferences, and every time I decide I’m not going to publish anymore, a reader reaches out at just the right moment to nudge me forward. I never imagined the impact my stories would have on people, but I receive letters and messages nearly every day from readers telling me how my books helped the heal, given them the courage to reclaim their truth, enabled them to forgive, or made them feel less alone in their suffering. I enjoy meeting the people who are reading my work, and I love to hear their stories. It’s a fascinating and beautiful relationship, when you think about it. The writer and the reader… we enter one another’s hearts. We are deeply connected. I don’t take that level of intimacy lightly.

Q: As a writer, you say you are deeply connected to your readers. As a reader, what writers have influenced you?

A: Oh goodness, the list is so long. I’m not sure I would have ever learned to write fiction without To Kill a Mockingbird. I wouldn’t have survived puberty without Judy Blume. I wouldn’t have grown a thick enough skin through adolescence without Stephen King and Ann Rice. I wouldn’t have kept going through the dark times without The Catcher in the Rye and The Awakening. And I wouldn’t have stretched beyond young adulthood without Wally Lamb, Ann Patchett, and Barbara Kingsolver. And don’t even get me started on the music that saved me time and time again.

I sometimes look at art deprived cultures, and I wonder… What if all the artists of the world stopped creating? What if we created but we never shared the works that come through us? And more importantly, what if people stopped reading? Stopped listening? Stopped seeing? Can you imagine a world without story? Without music and song? Without art? What would we be, as humans, without these creative expressions to keep us connected, to remind us we are not alone, to help us process our deepest emotions, and to restore our hope when all is lost? I’m grateful we live in a nation that allows us to express ourselves creatively. I certainly don’t take that freedom for granted, and I am glad readers are on the other end, waiting to receive my stories.

Q: The book also brings us through the Faulkner Literary Garden in New Albany and the Welty Gardens in Jackson. Why did you decide to include these authors in your contemporary novel?

A: Well, for one thing, Faulkner and Welty both had a genuine appreciation for nature, as do I. We have such an abundance of natural beauty here in Mississippi, and those authors were both masters at capturing this unique setting. They gave us wonderful models of how we can use the southern landscape to examine our human journey, and it just seemed natural to explore the legacy they left us through the gardens.

I also hope this novel introduces modern readers to the classic tales of Faulkner and Welty. I admit I had not been all that familiar with their work when I started writing Perennials, and I guess I wanted to know more about them, both as writers and as people. I still have many of their works left to read, but now, I do feel like I have a much better understanding of their lives, and I feel inspired by both of them to continue this writing life.

Q: How did the idea for Perennials come to be?

That’s kind of a bittersweet story, actually. I wrote this novel during a particularly dark time in my life. You know, life tends to do that to us at some point along the way, sweep the rug out from under us or whatever. One morning, when I was having one of those Why Me moments, feeling hopelessly burdened by the situation I was facing, I stared to feel like all was lost. It was truly a dark night of the soul moment, if I want to put it in terms of plot structure.

Anyway, I walked outside and saw a new bloom on my stargazer lily. It was just the sign I needed. It reminded me that life comes back.

That lily had been given to me by one of my dearest friends nearly twenty years earlier. The flower had survived more than a dozen moves, as I transplanted her from home to home. The last move had been under particularly dire circumstances, and I had to plant her in a shallow pot with sub-par conditions, and yet there she was … in bloom.

That’s the spark that led to Perennials.

Q: You’ve given a motivational TEDx Talk in which you share a story about your high school English teacher. She told you that you’d never be successful as a writer. Is that true?

A: Yes, sadly that is true. But as I try to explain in the TEDx talk, we all have people in our lives who tell us we will fail, that we’re not good enough, that our ideas are worthless, and so forth. The challenge lies in how we deal with those obstacles in our lives. When I’m invited to speak to school groups, especially, I try to inspire each student to listen to his or her own voice. Because when it comes down to it, we already know what we were sent here to do. As I say in that talk, our journey is about tapping into our core truths, refining the gifts we’ve each been given, and sharing that love and light with others in this world. It’s really as simple as that.

Q: You speak of love and light, which leads me to ask about your faith. Your books all have an element of spirituality in them. Why do you incorporate faith in your stories?

A: I believe most stories examine spirituality on some level. Whether you call it Good vs. Evil or Light vs. Dark or you frame it into a particular religious context, the myths, novels, plays, parables… they all teach us about conquering fears, overcoming challenges, slaying the beasts. This is faith. The belief that we have a purpose. That we are here to do no harm. That we exist to love one another. That our choices matter. That’s faith.

Some readers have criticized my books for being too Christian. Others have criticized them for being not Christian enough. Either way, my stories seem to lead people to think deeply about what they believe and why. I consider that a good thing.

Julie, thanks for being here!!! I wish you the very best with Perennials. Keep up the amazing work.

Readers, here’s the special offer I promised. Pre-order Julie’s book and follow the instructions on the meme to get your own tiny garden and a gorgeous watering can.