Perennials: A Q & A with Julie Cantrell

11/17/2017 12:07 pm ET

In Perennials by Julie Cantrell, we find Eva at a turning point in her life. As she grapples with coming back to her childhood home of Oxford Mississippi, readers will themselves question what it means to go back in time.

I love the title of this book. How did Perennials come to you?

Thank you. The theme of the book is perennials, and much of the story is centered around a perennial flower garden in Oxford, Mississippi, so it seemed a natural fit for the title. However, I’ll admit it was not my first choice.

My other titles (Into the Free, When Mountains Move, The Feathered Bone) each have three words and provide layers of meaning. I also worried Perennials may seem more like a title for a non-fiction gardening guide. But this is the choice that kept rising to the top, and now I’m certain it was the right title for this story. I’m glad I followed the lead of my savvy publishing team, and I’m glad you like it.

What do you feel it means in terms of the work?

Perennials represents the ongoing cycles of life. I explore this in the novel, playing with the way our brain processes time and examining the many ways life comes back. There is also a perennial tradition of faith that lends itself to Christian mysticism. I would say that belief system is explored a bit loosely in the book, as well.

Can you go home again?

This is a question many of us ask at some point in our lives. It’s one I explore in Perennials as our main character, Lovey, returns to her small Southern town and tries to come to terms with wounds of her past as well as options for her future. I guess readers will have to dive into this story to find Lovey’s answer, but I definitely believe the answer for most of us is quite complex. Usually, when we try to go back to something, we realize it was never quite what it seemed in the first place.

You conclude your author’s note with “here’s to finding the good.” How do you do that in your own life?

I definitely believe in the power of positivity. Personally, I’ve lived through a lot of loss in my own life, but I try to never let the darkness get the best of me. I even wrote a Huff Post article about the simple ways we can choose happiness: How to Be Happy and Grateful: 6 Sacred Secrets Shared by Grandmothers, Mutants and Cajuns (and Proven by Scientists)

Basically, when I start to feel the weight of grief or pain, I count my blessings and I go out into the world and lift others. Truth is, there is always someone, somewhere, who would trade places with us right this moment. And there is always someone, somewhere, who could benefit from our outreach.

But sometimes, life knocks us too low to reach out because we find ourselves in a place of bare-knuckle survival. It’s not always possible to help others when we are barely breathing.

During my darkest moment, I sat in my car with nearly nothing left in my life. I felt hopeless, and my faith was definitely being tested. I remember looking at my cellphone and thinking, well, I’ve still got a phone. And I’ve got a car. And I’ve got clothes on my back and shoes on my feet. I’ve got enough money to get some food. And I’ve got my son.

Beyond that, I didn’t know what was going to happen. But as I started looking at what I did have instead of everything that had been taken from me. I thought of all the people in the world who would do anything to have a car, clothes, food, someone they loved, freedom, or a phone. I realized I had an awful lot to be grateful for.

That night, I scrolled through social media using free wifi from the library. It would have been easy for me to really sink by looking at all the happy family posts, vacation photos, etc. I could have started to feel down on myself and even become bitter at how unfair life can be. But then I went to the Humans of New York page, and I started reading those posts.

Suddenly, I was reading about Syrian war refugees who were struggling to cross the border to safety, homeless people living on inner city streets with no safe shelter for the night, single moms who were struggling to care for a disabled child with no family or community support to help them cope. No matter how much pain, grief, and fear I was dealing with in the moment, I was not running from terrorists who had burned my loved ones in front of me. I was not sleeping on a street corner where pimps and drug lords reigned. I was not holding my disabled child with exhaustion in my eyes and no sense of hope for his recovery.

That’s my trick. No matter how hard my day may feel, I always remind myself how many other people are suffering more. I focus on how blessed I am to be alive. I center myself in that gratitude. I offer prayers of thanks. I work to help others who are in pain. I find the good.

How does your faith interact with your writing?

I have a very deep faith. It impacts every aspect of my journey as a human being. It naturally comes through my writing, not because I have an agenda or am out to tell readers what to believe, but because I view the world through a lens of faith and can’t really interact with the world any other way.

What does a life of faith mean to me? It’s very simple. I believe we are each here for a purpose. I believe our choices matter. I believe we are here to love and to be loved. I believe we are to do no harm.

Those core beliefs govern my life and my work. Because my childhood religious teachings were Christian, I consider myself a Christian, but readers of all faith backgrounds (and those with no faith at all) can enjoy my work.

The thing is, some readers think my books are too Christian. Others think they are not Christian enough. Either way, the story leads most of my readers to think deeply about what they do believe and why. I consider that a good thing.

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