The Writer’s Practice: Julie Cantrell
 
Photo: Andrew McNeese

Photo: Andrew McNeese

 

New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell grew up in what she describes as a “rural, blue-collar Louisiana town,” where the possibility of becoming a novelist was “as far-fetched as becoming the Queen of England.”

Cantrell, who from a very young age had relied on writing as a way to process the world around her, found herself nevertheless convinced she would be wasting her scholarship if she chose to study the craft professionally. A high school English teacher told her to pursue something less wasteful.

“[She said] I would never make it as a writer,” said Cantrell. “I made the mistake of believing her. I become a speech-language pathologist and never took a writing class while in college.”  

Cantrell’s debut novel, Into the Free, hit shelves twenty-one years after she left that high school classroom.

 
Paperback Edition, Cover Design: Milkglass Creative

Paperback Edition, Cover Design: Milkglass Creative

 

Into the Free ended up receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly, became both a New York Times and USA Today bestseller, and won several literary awards,” she said. “Now, my fourth novel, Perennials, is about to release. Goes to show, we each must listen to our inner voice. No one knows our purpose better than we do. We just have to learn to follow our true path.”

Most recently, that path has led her to Oxford, Mississippi, a southern community brimming with beauty and literary significance that serves as the setting of Cantrell’s latest novel Perennials.

Perennials is a work of contemporary fiction that “examines the emotional tensions that play out in families, particularly the lifelong rivalry between two sisters.”

 
Art Direction: Kristen Ingebretson, Design: Mary Hooper, Milkglass Creative

Art Direction: Kristen Ingebretson, Design: Mary Hooper, Milkglass Creative

 

“In the story, the younger sister, Lovey, flees the south after high school, launches a successful career as an advertising executive in Pheonix, Arizona, and struggles to understand her only sibling, Bitsy,” explained Cantrell. “When Lovey returns home to celebrate her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, she learns things back home aren’t exactly what they seem. As she comes to terms with her past, many life lessons are learned in the context of the family’s perennial gardens.”

“The novel plays on the themes of lies and truths while examining the concept of time. There’s some romance, a bit of tension happening back at the Arizona office, and layers that weave the lives of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner into the story. All in all, it’s a story about family. And love. And trust. And forgiveness. And all the things that brew within us as we struggle to understand the people who are linked to us in this world. I’m excited to welcome readers to Mississippi and hope they’ll find a few unexpected surprises as they enter this tale.”

Cantrell’s novel writing process is surprisingly hands-off and organic. 

She typically begins with a visual image.

“I see a character set in a scene, and then I have to write my way to answers,” she said. “I never know who she is or what her story is until I start to write. Then, piece by piece, the puzzle comes together.”

For Perennials, that initial image consisted of a family interacting in their backyard. 

“They were in the south, surrounded by beautiful flower blooms,” said Cantrell. “The father was taking a candid photo of the three women in his life as the mother was reading to her two young daughters. One daughter seemed happy, carefree, and trusting. The other looked to be jealous, bitter, and hardened. I wanted to know more about this family, and so… I wrote Perennials.”

As she works from that first image, Cantrell prefers “the spiritual process of letting the words find their way to the page organically,” with little intrusion from her. As she writes, she tries not to think about how readers will react to her work, or how publishers will market it.

“I prefer to tap into that creative space and let the words flow without fear,” she said. “It’s a beautiful, powerful escape, and I’m a tad bit addicted to that process.”

That lack of fear allows Cantrell to delve into otherwise touchy topics. 

“I don’t shy away from the hard stuff,” she said. “In fact, that’s where I like to bring my readers - right to the messy parts of life. There’s nothing better than receiving messages from readers who tell me these stories have helped them heal or helped them develop greater empathy. I’ll always write, whether I make my stories public or not. But it’s that kind of reader feedback that keeps me publishing my work.” 

Cantrell said that, when it comes to her writing, she is inspired by everyone and everything. 

“Life is such a wonderful, beautiful, hard, painful, worthwhile adventure, and I find lessons and gratitude with every breath,” she said. “I never want to stop growing and learning and challenging myself to find the good in every experience. A friend’s confession, a stranger’s gaze, a cat’s purr, a child’s laugh, a flower’s bloom, an author’s words, a song’s lyric, a bird’s song, a moon rise . . . these are the kinds of things that inspire me.” 

Cantrell is eagerly anticipating the launch of Perennials, which will be released in November 2017 from HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson. 

“It’s always scary to nudge another fledgling form the nest, and I’m anxious to hear early reader feedback now as the advanced copies are taking flight,” she said. “I’m also working on my fifth novel. I’m at that fun stage where I’m just beginning to meet the characters and build their world. Anything can happen! Isn’t that magical?”


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Hiba Tahir is a senior English and news editorial journalism double major at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she serves as managing editor of The Student Printz.

@hhtahir