Writing had always been an escape for Walker native Julie Cantrell.
As a child, it had helped her process the world around her, share how she was feeling and work through the thoughts swirling in her mind.
She mostly wrote about herself in the beginning, crafting personal stories in the form of poems and journal entries.
But when Cantrell entered her freshman year at Walker High, an english teacher challenged her to try something different: Rather than write from her own point of view, Linda Purcell wanted her gifted student to write from someone else’s.
It opened up a new world for Cantrell.
For a few minutes each day, she was no longer confined to the body and the mind of her 14-year-old self. Instead, she could transport herself anywhere, at anytime, and become anyone — real or imagined, past or present.
“That tool was a superpower to me as a 14-year-old girl,” Cantrell said during Livingston Parish’s first-ever TEDx event on Saturday, June 3. “Ask most 14-year-old girls, and they’d rather be anything than what they are.”
Through fiction, the sensitive Cantrell had found the one tool that could help her better understand the world and people around her. She was soon able to remove herself and see things from someone else’s point of view.
“I no longer had to look at each person and write and try to understand them — I could become them,” she said. “I could enter their world and see it through their lens. It gave me a level of empathy like no other tool had given me before.”
But a few years later, just before her high school graduation, that treasure chest of possibilities Cantrell discovered in fiction writing was shut as another teacher's words of discouragement took precedent over her own voice.
It took years for Cantrell to listen to her own voice again.
“I put down my pen and didn’t write a thing for almost a decade,” Cantrell said.
But after several years of doubt, she eventually found her voice again.
Life now seems to be on the rise for Cantrell, a wife and mother of two who graduated from Walker High in 1991, long before she overcame her own uncertainties to become what she always felt she was born to be: a writer.
Since she decided to pick up her pen again 20 years ago, Cantrell has had three novels published as well as two children’s books, and the accolades have swiftly followed.
Her debut novel “Into the Free” (2012) earned a rare starred review by Publishers Weekly, became an international bestseller, and received two Christy Awards and the Mississippi Library Association Fiction Award.
“Into the Free” also spent three weeks on the New York Times bestseller lists, both for print and e-book, made the USA TODAY Top 150, and was listed as a top read of the year by LifeWay Christian Stores and USA TODAY.
The sequel, “When Mountains Move” (2014), was also named a top read of the year by both USA TODAY and LifeWay while receiving the ACFW Carol Award for Historical Fiction.
Her third novel and first with HarperCollins Christian Publishers, “The Feathered Bone” (2016), was chosen as Book of the Year by the largest book club in the world (Pulpwood Queens) and was selected as a Top Read by Library Journal.
“The Feathered Bone,” set in and around Cantrell’s hometown of Walker, is currently a finalist for both a Carol and an INSPY award.
And pretty soon, Cantrell’s fourth novel “Perennials” will hit shelves, beginning Nov. 14.
“I still can’t believe all that’s happened,” she said. “It just doesn’t happen.”
The past five years have been a whirlwind for Cantrell, who’s currently working on her fifth novel, and she says it all started when she decided to listen to her own voice again, not others.
For as long as she can remember, Cantrell has been wrapped up in stories. Her mother Cindy Perkins, a lifelong teacher, stressed the importance of books at an early age, bringing her to libraries from Walker to Baton Rouge to instill that belief.
By the time Cantrell entered her freshman year of high school, she believed in the power of stories — but mainly her own.
That changed when she walked in the classroom of Purcell, who wanted her talented student to venture outside of herself.
Cantrell would constantly bring extra work for Purcell to critique, and even though she had the full workload of a teacher, Purcell would read what Cantrell brought and give me feedback — and she never complained.
“She told me I was good at it, and she encouraged me,” Cantrell recalled. “She actually acted interested and engaged.”
Cantrell then became “addicted” to fiction, both reading and writing, and started entertaining the idea of one day becoming a writer herself. It seemed farfetched at the time, but the books she read always had a name on the front, so she knew it was possible.
But those dreams started falling apart during her senior year, thanks to another kind of teacher.
This teacher didn’t give Cantrell any positive feedback, constantly telling the aspiring writer that what she turned in was all wrong. The teacher rarely had a positive word to say, about her or her work, and over time, the harsh remarks sapped all of Cantrell’s desire to become a writer.
Then, on Cantrell's last day at Walker High, her teacher passed on one final bit of advice: Don't waste your scholarship to study writing.
“It sent me in the wrong direction for a long time,” she said.
While she studied at LSU, Cantrell went against her gut and instead got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication sciences and disorders, even though she walked past the literature and journalism buildings every day and “was drawn to it like a magnet.”
That magnet, however, steadily lost its charge, and for 10 years, Cantrell never wrote a journal, a song, a poem, or anything else other than school work, though up to that point writing had been a daily occurrence.
But the news of her first pregnancy years later brought Cantrell back to the world she truly wanted to be in.
She started off by writing “love letters to my unborn child,” documenting the pregnancy and the feelings and emotions she had as a first-time mother. She continued writing for her daughter, Emily, after she was born and did the same for her son, Adam, three years later.
“Becoming a mom is what helped me find my voice again on the page,” Cantrell said.
A few years later, Cantrell entered a poem contest off a dare from one of her friends. The poem ultimately won and was published, and she received a $50 check as a prize. It was the first time she had been paid for her writing or had something published.
But the best part: the check read “Julie Cantrell, Writer.”
At that point, Cantrell was once again hooked. She started taking whatever freelancing gigs she could find, hoping to make up for years of neglecting her passion.
In 2009, Cantrell released two children’s book, “God Is with Me through the Day” and “God Is with Me through the Night,” both of which were written at night with her daughter nestled in her lap.
But Cantrell felt another story brewing inside, so she began work on her first novel later that year, though she had no plans to publish it — or even tell anyone about it.
For three months from 3-5 a.m. Monday through Friday, Cantrell was at her computer, busy at work creating the coming-of-age story of Millie Reynolds that would eventually require a sequel to tell.
Though she had never attempted a novel before, the words just came to her — as if she had waited her whole life to share them.
“It just flowed, and I couldn’t wait to get to the computer every morning,” Cantrell said. “Those two hours would just fly by, and then I’d be in carpool lines or cooking or at practices with the kids, all while in the back of my mind, the story was brewing.”
That debut novel, published 21 years after her senior english teacher's disparaging words, eventually led to a multi-novel contract with HarperCollins Christian Publishing in the fall of 2014, further cementing Cantrell’s status as a writer.
But looking back on it now, Cantrell said she doesn’t hold a grudge against that teacher. In fact, she even wrote a story from her point of view.
And like always, Cantrell realized her teacher too had a story to tell.
“I might not know all the details to that story, but there’s something that made her the way she was,” she said. “Her experiences led her to that point, whatever they may be.
“But the mistake was mine, because I dared to believe someone else knew more about me than I knew about myself. In the end, you’re the only person who knows what you’re here for.”