AA: You’ve written nonfiction in the past, but this is your first novel, correct?
JC: I have published two children’s picture books (Zonderkidz, 2009), and I have contributed to a dozen books, including the most recent coffee table book, Mississippians (Ed. Neil White, 2011 and 2012), but this is my debut novel.
AA: What was your inspiration for writing this story?
JC: It all started with a newspaper article from 1915 reporting a funeral for a gypsy queen named Kelly Mitchell. I was fascinated to learn about four bands of Romany travelers who roamed across the southeastern U.S. (many of whom still live here today). The story started with that small spark, and evolved into a novel that is very loosely based on historical events that took place in Mississippi in the early 20th century.
AA: What was your most significant challenge in crafting the novel?
JC: The story came together very organically, as if I was listening to Millie tell me her tale. Then, I plugged in details from extensive historical research and added an external plotline. So, the greatest challenge was reworking the original draft into something with a steady pace and a classically structured plot, while still maintaining the natural flow of the language.
AA: Free could be considered young adult, but there is quite a bit of depth. What is the audience age range?
JC: The book is marketed as general fiction, but it has crossed over to the young adult market with positive reactions from both age groups. Because there are some rough scenes, I recommend that parents read the novel first for any child under 16, but many parents have asked their daughters as young as 13 to read this book because it opens communication about many important topics such as sexual abuse, racism, classism, substance abuse, faith, love, conformity, and personal choices.
AA: What did you as an author learn from writing this story?
JC: This entire journey has been a learning process, which is what has made it so much fun for me. I started this book to learn more about the Romany travelers, but I ended up learning so many interesting facts about the rich cultural heritage of Mississippi, the Choctaw, the early American rodeo, the Depression era — not to mention that I learned a ton about the craft of writing.
AA: What are you planning for your next book project?
JC: I’m currently writing the sequel to Into the Free, which will be published by David C Cook. I also was awarded a literary arts fellowship from the Mississippi Arts Commission to write a creative nonfiction book with my husband about our experiences becoming first-generation farmers in Mississippi.
AA: Anything you’d like to add?
JC: I am so grateful to everyone for giving this story a chance. I am an avid reader, and I know how many titles are available. Every time someone chooses Into the Free from the shelf or online, they’ve made Millie’s voice a little stronger. Every time they recommend it to a book group, friend, or library, they’ve helped again. I appreciate every single person who spends time in Millie’s world, and I will never take that gift for granted.
The most incredible part of this experience has been hearing feedback from readers whose lives have been changed because of this book. I have received amazing letters, calls, emails, and text messages from people who say this book has helped them heal deep emotional wounds.
Although readers may not have exact the same hurdles as Millie, most can relate to something along her path. They close the book feeling the ability to forgive and a sense of hope they did not have before reading it. Sales numbers, positive reviews, and literary accomplishments mean nothing compared with that kind of feedback from readers. Their reaction has been the best part of this journey, by far.