1.Tell us how much of yourself you write into your characters.
When I sit down at the keyboard, I’m very much aware of the fact that bits and pieces of who I am are going to come through in every single character I create. I realize that I have a particular set of experiences and a way of looking at this world that tries to weasel in every time, and I have to consciously work at making characters who are different from me. Like any writer, I often have characters with hobbies and traits I’ve never experienced first-hand. For instance, Maggie in I’ll Be Home for Christmas is a member of the Navy WAVES and a mechanic. I did a lot of research to make that part of her real. She’s mad at God, and believe me, I’ve been mad at God, too, but not for taking my mother away. When I wrote those scenes where she’s expressing her fury at God, I did have to use my own memories to bring it to life. What’s challenging is to make characters who are very different from me in beliefs, and not to judge them harshly. As I get older, I find this much easier to do. I guess that’s the wisdom we get from our life experiences. I’m much more compassionate with other people’s and hence, with other character’s weaknesses now, realizing you have to ‘walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’ to really understand them. When I do write about unsavory, immoral, or even amoral characters, I try to have the heart of the book compassionate toward, yet not condoning, their actions.
2. What is the quirkiest thing you have ever done?
That would be letting myself become a Tomato Queen during the marketing phase of my first three books – The Homegrown Series. Dressing in a silly red dress, wearing a gaudy crown covered with tomatoes, and holding a scepter. I “reigned” over various Tomato Day festivals down South, rode in parades, passing out tomato seeds and smiles in the name of gardening and story-telling. I’ve also been a member of a traveling road show of four women authors called the Dixie Divas (now re-named the Dixie Darlings). We’ve made many a road-trip, dressed up in our respective costumes, making appearances at bookstores, women’s groups, and writer’s conferences.
3. When did you first discover that you were a writer?
My Mother likes to remind me that as soon as I was able to string words together, I was telling stories. In grammar school I began writing them down into crude little books fashioned from construction paper. My English teachers put encouraging notes on my report cards, and for me, a particularly nerdy child (all knees, elbows, eyeglasses, and braces) it was a way to shine; to hold my head up a tiny bit even if I was picked last for teams during P.E.. My favorite pastime was to crawl off into a private nook with a library book and immerse myself in fabulous adventures. A natural offshoot of this voracious appetite for reading and story-telling, as I grew older I began to write more and lengthier works. In 1980 I enrolled in the University of Georgia to pursue a degree in Journalism. In my junior year I became fascinated by the power of spiritual things when I hit one of those proverbial ‘rock bottoms,’ and I knew there was no way in this natural world I would survive if not for being sustained by God’s mystical hand of mercy and huge amounts of Grace. Flannery O’Connor was right when she wrote, “Grace changes us and change is painful.” I’ve been writing about that Grace in some form or fashion ever since.
4. Tell us the range of the kinds of books you enjoy reading.
I’m a voracious reader; magazines, novels, newspapers, brochures, the backs of cereal boxes. This may sound staged, but it’s true; I adore reading the King James version of the Bible. As far as secular stuff, I love fiction the best, gravitating toward the literary, but I’m also drawn to memoirs and biographies. I just finished Brad Gooch’s biography about Flannery O’Connor. I love things with ‘bits’ of stories; like Guideposts and Readers’ Digest.
5. What other books have you written, whether published or not?
I’ve honestly lost count. But a lot of the earlier ones, I’d just as soon they never see the light of a bookshelf. Not because of their themes, but because I was teaching myself to write and my lack of experience really shows. My published works are: Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes, ‘Mater Biscuit, Those Pearly Gates, The Romance Readers’ Book Club, and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Currently I’m working on a book called Twang, for Abingdon Press, which is to come out in the fall of 2011. In the drawer beside me are finished, yet unpublished manuscripts for a couple of novels; one called Judas That I Was, and one called Roots in Red Clay. I’ve got a filing cabinet full of children’s books and tween-age novels and a memoir which is really, really hard to write as I hate going back through those times that only God’s grace brought me through.
6.How do you keep your sanity in our run, run, run world?
First thing I do when I wake up is brew the strongest cup (well, three cups if you’re counting ounces) of coffee and then I pour in a ton of cream and shuffle into the den where I keep my Bible and some devotional guides. After I’ve drunk enough to be coherent, I come to myself and pray for Wisdom first off. Then, as I get slowly more coherent, I read the day’s meditation and the verse/verses of Scripture, and then I pray until I pray. There’s a prayer I pray every day before I begin to write that goes like this: “Lord, give me a heart to tell stories about Your goodness and the language to speak it well.” I’m also a regular at various Bible studies.
7. How do you choose your characters’ names?
I made up Tyronious, the name of the gardener in I’ll Be Home for Christmas, but I’m sure it’s out there somewhere! I got Loutishie, one of the main characters in the Homegrown series from an obituary. I also look back at graveyard records and family trees for unusual names, since lots of my characters are old Southerners. On Mama’s side, there was first names like Frobell, and Juette, and Drewillie. I haven’t used those yet, but the day’s coming… I collect names during the daily routine of my life, jotting them down on a scrap of paper in my purse, and now I have a folder full of them. Sometimes I have to change a character’s name during the course of a novel because it just doesn’t fit them.
8. What is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
Hmmm. . . are children an accomplishment? I always heard that they’re a blessing. My three kids are beautiful people with good hearts and compassion for others and I feel like that ranks way up there with things I’m proud of. My marriage of 22 years – well, Tom probably ought to consider staying with me his greatest achievement, because I know he’s the one who’s put up with me and my crazy dream of writing through a lot of tight times. We’ve stayed together this long because when we fight, even if it’s my fault, he comes and works at patching things up. I’m a fairly stubborn person, which can be good in some instances and not so much in others. Here’s a writing accomplishment I recently heard about: I’ll Be Home for Christmas was named one of the top Publishers’ Picks in Fall 2010 fiction by CBA Retailers + Resources magazine.
9. If you were an animal, which one would you be, and why?
I guess I’d be a cat. Surly sometimes when I don’t want to be messed with, a bit finicky, like to nap in the sun. In fact, I was just editing an old manuscript and found this: “I’m envious of Mrs. Mittens because I want to curl up in a contented ball in the sun with my eyes at half-mast, in total bliss.” This character, a little girl, has just heard her parents fighting in the kitchen.
10. What is your favorite food?
Right now it’s a big hot cinnamon bun dripping with cream cheese frosting, and a side of buttery grits and bacon. But sometimes it’s fried shrimp and baked potatoes and slaw, and sometimes it’s a big juicy hamburger with golden fried onion rings. Often it’s something from childhood, like Mom’s pecan pies at Thanksgiving, or the shish-kebobs my Dad made for our summertime grill-outs.
11. What is the problem with writing that was your greatest roadblock, and how did you overcome it?
I guess that would be my battle with LALIAPHOBIA. Laliaphobia is the fear of public speaking and I had no idea an author had to go around speaking to groups of people. I thought writers stayed in their private caves, creating stories and well, creating more. Then my first publisher sent me an email about numerous public appearances I was to do when Truelove & Homegrown Tomatoes hit the book shelves. I was mortified. Paralyzed. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that ‘Public speaking is the number one fear; folks would rather be in the coffin that delivering the eulogy.’ Well, I overcame this crippling affliction with two PRA words: Practice and Prayer . I prayed, constantly, and I also took a class on public speaking, and the advice there was to do it over and over and over and over until you felt confident. There were other tips, too, and after about a hundred appearances, I’m fairly confident up on a stage with hundreds of eyeballs zooming in on me. I get paid money to entertain now. Now, that’s a true miracle.
12. What advice would you give to an author just starting out?
Get how-to books and study them (I still do that constantly). Go take classes at various writers’ conferences. Join a writers’ group for support and critique (I’m a member of ACFW). Keep a journal, because that makes a person very conscious and you’ll really treasure it as you look for fodder to write about, and later as you look back at what you were going through in your life, it makes for interesting reading. Maybe most importantly – read, read, read, read.
13. Tell us about the featured book?
The concept for I’ll Be Home for Christmas came as I got on the internet and started researching the year Bing Crosby made the song “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” a hit. I knew WWII was permeating everything at this time – even and especially romantic relationships. So many couples were being split up as the man went off to serve in the war, but I wanted something with a different twist, and I discovered a good bit of information about the WAVES, a branch of the U.S. Navy for women (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). I thought it would be fun to have a heroine who joined the WAVES and a man she leaves behind. Maggie doesn’t go solely for patriotic reasons: she’s mad at God because of her mother’s untimely death and she’s running from the painful memories in her small Georgia town. Meanwhile, the boy-next-door, is crushed. William loves Maggie, and when she leaves town to serve in the WAVES, he’s hurt even more as has to stay behind because of physical deformities from his battle with polio. One character in this novel that I fell in love with is Mr. Tyronious Byrd. Mr. Byrd is a black man who’s not real sure about how old he is, and who’s a caretaker on a Christmas tree farm in Georgia in 1944. Mr. Byrd has a lot of wisdom, and a lot of humility because he’s been through some valleys none of us would ever want to go through. He’s probably the least self-centered of all my characters, and he has a sense of humor about life and a gratefulness about him I cherish. When I think about the message I’d like my readers to take from I’ll Be Home for Christmas, it’s that we’ll all go through hard times down here, but God can use the suffering in our lives for good.
14. Please give us the first page of the book.
The world might be at war, but on Margaret Culpepper’s little piece of earth, Christmas spirit filled the air.
“Looking pretty festive for war time, huh, Maggie?” William asked, navigating his father’s 1940 Lincoln Continental through the streets of downtown Athens, Georgia. “I believe everybody in Watkinsville saved up their gas ration stamps to drive into the big city for Friday night.”
“Mmhmm,” Maggie muttered, pulling her chin even farther down into her coat’s luxurious fox fur collar until most of her ears disappeared. From this safe little cave, she peered out at red ribbons wound around street lamps so that they looked like giant peppermint sticks. This gave the place a magical look and made the war overseas seem far, far away.
William fiddled with the radio dial and tuned in to Frank Sinatra singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” He began singing along in a silly, melodramatic voice. Normally a happy, optimistic guy, tonight he seemed even more upbeat than usual.
“You okay?” he asked after several stoplights, turning his I’ll be Home for Christmas
shining eyes on Maggie. “I don’t think I’ve ever known you to be this quiet for this long.”
15. How can readers find you on the Internet?
My website is juliecannon.info and on my site is a place where people can send me an email. One of the things I truly treasure is hearing from readers who’ve been touched by my books – found hope or insight or peace or a just a good escape and a laugh. Recently I heard from a very old woman, apparently in the hospice stage of life, and she said she’s found so much joy in reading my books. That makes it all worthwhile!