A. Hmmm…this is an interesting question. I’d answer it but my ooh-la-la cabana boy is delivering me another perfectly pink umbrella drink, and the yummy yacht captain needs me to decide which of my private islands we should choose for tonight’s port party.
Ha! I always imagined New York Times Bestselling authors were living the high life. The truth is (BEWARE: Fantasy spoiler ahead)…nothing has changed at all for me. I still teach elementary students who are learning English as a second language. I still help my husband operate our sustainable farm, and to date, we have hired no employees to help us muck stalls, milk goats, trim hooves, etc. I still scramble to get our kids to all of their activities, complete homework each night, and all the normal Mom things that take place any given day.
The only thing that changed was that things got a little crazier, with an increase in the number of interview requests, emails, etc. I think it’s just too early to tell how making that list will impact my role as a novelist, but I’m extremely grateful to have reached that incredible high point. I’ve never been one to care about bragging rights, but New York Times and USA Today Bestselling Author certainly is one title I’m honored to accept.
Q. Did you receive any flak for incorporating words like Gypsy and Dago into your novel?
A. Good question. I really struggled with the use of such derogatory terms. I even added a note to readers in the Afterwords section of the book regarding the term Gypsy. The word Dago was used by one particularly abusive character who spins in a turbulent tide of hatred. I tweaked that sentence several times, but in the end, it was true to his character to speak like that. I hope by using the terms in the way they were used, and with the addition of the reader’s note in the back, the book, the story will encourage readers to consider how common terms can be incredibly hurtful to others. Abuse can occur in many forms, and words matter.
Q. What was your inspiration for Into the Free? Did you follow a plot or, like the caravan of Gypsies, allow the story to lead where it wanted to go?
A. The book originated from a 1915 Meridian Dispatch newspaper article detailing the funeral of Kelly Mitchell, “The Queen of the Gypsies.” I was fascinated to discover Romany Travelers resided in the southeastern region of our country and even more intrigued to learn many Roma continue to call this region home today. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know.
Ultimately, though, the Travelers are a thread woven into a much more complex tale about Millie Reynolds, a girl growing up in Depression-era Mississippi. No characters in the book are based on real people, but the funeral is mentioned and the Travelers do return each spring to pay homage to their fallen queen and king. While the book is a complete work of fiction, actual historical events from Mississippi’s rich cultural heritage are embedded throughout the story.
I never intended to write a novel from a child’s point of view, but Millie’s voice came to me very clearly so I just wrote the story as it bloomed. It was definitely an organic process, with no outline or structure to follow. Ignorance is bliss, and I enjoyed the entire journey. I wrote that draft in about 3 months but went back to fill in details (based on research) and to add side stories that built an entire fictional world for Millie. Then I tweaked it some more to make it fit a classic three-act plot structure. Thankfully, I had some amazing early readers and editors who helped me along the way.
Q. How has the southern Bible Belt received your perception of the church? Did you write from personal experiences?
A. I was reared in a very conservative, Christian family. I have never seen either of my parents drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, or utter a bad word. We attended a Southern Baptist church and I grew up spending a lot of time at church (Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and more). I was very involved in all the church activities and dreamed of being a missionary when I grew up. I even sold pecans (like Millie) from my backyard trees when I was in elementary school and donated all the money to Lottie Moon Missions through my GA’s group. So, yes, I do have a lot of personal experience with the culture of the southern Bible Belt.
And, yes, once I realized the story was really going to be published, I was worried about how some people would respond to the book because of Millie’s personal experiences, particularly one difficult scene that takes place in the steeple. But so far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. I think most of us have been impacted by incredibly devoted Christians who live their faith daily, quietly, humbly, without preaching and causing a show. In Millie’s life, a deep, true faith is modeled by some wonderful people who don’t offer her shame or blame. They don’t preach to her or judge her. They simply LOVE her.
I have said in another interview that the Bible says God is Love (1John 4:8). I honestly believe it’s a simple as that. We tend to get caught up in labels, traditions, rituals, and rules. But when it comes right down to it, I do not believe it is my role as a Christian to judge others or to generate hatred in any form. I hope this book encourages us all to dig a little deeper and consider what our faith really means to each of us.
Q. I know you and your family operate Valley House Farm in Mississippi. How are you able to juggle this occupation in addition to being a wife, mother, and bestselling author?
A. Ha! I fail daily. At all of it. But I do keep trying, and I have fun learning as I go. Thankfully, I have a very supportive husband who helps me tremendously. When he’s out of town, things fall apart. I’m not kidding. I salute all the single moms in the world (I grew up with a single mother, so I speak from personal experience here too). I could never manage all of this if I didn’t have a partner to help me keep the balance, and the only way I ward off a complete mental breakdown from the stress is to wear one hat at a time.
When I’m at school, I focus on my students and don’t think about my writing life. Most of my students have no idea I write books, and many of my co-workers don’t either. When I’m with my own children, I try to never let writing interfere with a Mom moment. I never want them to feel like they come second to a story. Real life comes first. When I’m working with animals, like children, they sense stress and don’t like it. I think by surrounding myself with children and animals, I have no choice but to stay in the moment and remain very grounded. Writing is just a little thing I do in the dark when everyone else is sleeping.
Q. What does your typical writing day look like? (Do you have a set time and place where you write or do you try to fit in writing time whenever and wherever you can?)
A. I try to write between 3:00-5:00 each morning. It’s quiet at that time, and I don’t feel guilty for taking time away from anyone else in those wee hours. Now that email and social media demands are a bit heavier, I do have to spend more time working on that during the afternoons just to barely keep up…so that is getting tricky. I’m just taking one minute at a time and maintaining a very long to-do list.
Q. I noticed throughout Into the Free that you have a keen ear for dialogue whether it is the rugged voice of the horse whisperer Bump or the silky smooth voice of the Gypsy River. Does your position as a speech pathologist help in this area?
A. Thank you for that wonderful compliment. I think many things might have impacted my “ear for dialogue,” as you so nicely describe it. I have always been fascinated by language development and the many ways we communicate. That led me to study speech-language pathology and linguistics through grad school. I also grew up in a blue-collar community but have since spent a lot of time with well-educated professionals – which means I tend to code-switch a lot. I watch my husband do this too. He has a PhD in Organic Chemistry and works with some of the leading researchers in the world, yet, he can switch in an instant when talking to the men in his family who all work as plumbers and pipe fitters. I’ve always been amazed at how differently he communicates depending on the situation.
I’m also lucky I get to work with fantastic students who present a wide range of abilities, so I constantly have to adjust my language level to meet each child’s needs. I have also lived in many parts of the country and always paid close attention to regional patterns of speech each place we lived. I even did my master’s thesis on dialect. We moved a lot during my daughter’s language learning years, so she grew up saying funny things like “Y’all guys” and had a unique little accent that included everything from a New Hampshire /r/ to mid-western vowels and a Colorado pace. Poor kid swears we’ve warped her for life.
Q. As a literacy advocate, how have you seen readers react to the dawn of the e-book? Do you think it is going to hurt literacy or will the convenience of a pocket library help propel it?
A. This is such a hot topic right now, and no one seems to know where the e-book is taking us. The one thing everyone does seem to admit is that “times they are a changin’.” Personally, I think anything that encourages people to read is a lovely thing. New technology is reaching folks who have never stepped into a bookstore or a library. How can we complain about that?
I’ve also found some of the technology very helpful as a reading teacher. I can highlight words or sounds in various colors, increase the font size, click the word for synonyms, check for spelling, and in some cases, have the word produced audibly for the reader to hear. Many websites and apps have been created to help teach reading, and while these are not exactly “e-books” per se, they are tech tools used to teach literacy.
Students today are growing up in a computer age. It’s only natural for them to gravitate toward e-books. But, I’ve never seen any of them turn away from an actual book. They still love to turn the pages and hold the printed book in their hands…as I do. I don’t think we have to look at it as an either /or situation. While e-books may reduce the number of printed works, there is still a need for both forms, at least for now.
The point is, folks are reading more than ever. I am thrilled to see people reading and talking about stories with such enthusiasm. Publishers and booksellers all have varying opinions. But if you ask me…books. e-books, even audio books – it doesn’t matter. The power is in the narrative structure which, in my humble opinion, is one of the most beautiful and meaningful gifts we have as humans. Long live the story!
Q. What was the one thing you found most surprising about the publishing process?
A. Well, one thing I’ve learned is that it’s not always best to sign with a large publishing house. I’ve been very blessed to work with David C. Cook, a wonderful publishing company based in Colorado Springs. While they’ve been around for something like a hundred years (since 1875ish), they aren’t known for publishing many fiction titles.
Some writing friends warned me not to sign with a house whose primary focus isn’t fiction. I took the leap, as I’m prone to do, and I have to say I have enjoyed absolutely every single step of this adventure and have learned tons about the publishing process. I cannot rave enough about how perfect a fit this has been for me, and I just count my blessings daily that John Blase and Don Pape at Cook were willing to take a risk on me. I’m also grateful for my agent, Greg Johnson, who first believed this story was worth sharing.
I guess one of the most surprising things for me was visiting Cook’s headquarters and meeting all the folks who would be working on Into the Free from start to finish. I never imagined so many people touched a book before it hit shelves. I honestly believe everyone’s name should be on the cover, not just mine.
There is certainly no job that matters any more or less than the next one, and Into the Free would never have reached a single reader without a whole bunch of very talented, dedicated folks who made this book what it is today. In particular, copyeditor Renada Arens should be declared a saint and Karen Stoller in marketing should be given a medal of honor for showing extraordinary patience with me as I continue to ask a million newbie questions. I’d also strongly encourage any writer to have a publicist. Jeane Wynn has worked diligently behind the scenes to get this book noticed, and that’s no easy job when you’re representing a nobody like me.
Q. Would you consider doing a sequel to Into the Free?
A. I am very happy to say I’m writing the sequel now. I’m excited to be publishing it with David C. Cook, the wonderful publishing team who published Into the Free. While we have not set a definite release date, we are all eager to tell the next phase of Millie’s story. I hope everyone will stay tuned and come back for more!
Q. Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring authors?
A. Yes. Write. Not for publication, praise, or profit. Don’t write for anyone else. Write for you. Write because it’s your way of processing the world around you. Write because it brings you so much joy, you miss it when you can’t write. Write because it makes you think, feel, and experience everything more deeply. Write as if no one else will ever see it. Ever. Write honestly, openly, freely. Just write.
Q. Is there anything I haven't asked that you would like to share?
A. Thanks for this opportunity because I do want everyone to know how incredibly grateful I am for the tremendous support this book has received. I’ve been blown away by emotional reader feedback and humbled by the impact Millie’s story has had on so many people.
It is not easy to break in as a debut novelist, and I know how many wonderful books there are for folks to choose on today’s shelves (and e-shelves). I will be eternally thankful for each and every reader who gives Millie a chance.
How to win a copy of Into the Free
(Drawing idea taken from Nina Badzin's wonderful blog.)
If you leave a comment on my blog, I will place your name “in the hat” one time. I will add your name a second time for letting me know in your comment that you have shared this post on Facebook or Twitter. The winner will be announced on Monday, April 2nd.
For those who do not win, here is how you can order Into the Free.
Product Details from Amazon:
Paperback: 368 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook (February 1, 2012)
Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars (128 customer reviews)
Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #14,329 in books
As always, thank you for visiting!