Today I am so happy to welcome to the blog New York Times bestselling author Julie Cantrell so that we can chat about her new book, The Feathered Bone. Julie is not only a gifted wordsmith, she is a genuinely kind soul and a lover of humanity. Do read to the end of our interview so that you can get in on the giveaway of a copy of this emotionally gripping novel.
Julie has served as editor-in-chief of the Southern Literary Review and is a recipient of the Mississippi Arts Commission Literary Fellowship. She has contributed to more than a dozen books in addition to her two children’s books and award-winning novels. Her debut novel, Into the Free, which I LOVED received the Christy Award for Book of the Year (2013) as well as the Mississippi Library Association’s Fiction Award. It also was selected as a Best Read of the year by LifeWay, USA TODAY, and many book clubs.
The Feathered Bone opens in the pre-Katrina glow of New Orleans. Amanda Salassi is anxious about chaperoning her daughter’s sixth grade field trip to the Big Easy during Halloween. And then her worst fears come true. Her daughter’s best friend, Sarah, disappears amid the magic and revelry—gone, without a trace. Set amidst the murky parishes of rural Louisiana and told through the eyes of two women who confront the darkest corners of humanity with quiet and unbreakable faith, this novel is Julie Cantrell’s master portrait of love in a fallen world. Here, then, is our conversation:
You address many issues in THE FEATHERED BONE that are not easy to talk about: human trafficking, teen suicide, and domestic violence. What have you learned personally by writing about such difficult topics?
I have learned the importance of talking openly about these issues. It’s true, they are difficult to examine. It’s not pretty stuff. But by ignoring the reality of what is happening around us, we are—in a sense—allowing it to happen.
It’s time we examine the impact our choices have on others, particularly how our choices affect the most vulnerable among us. We tend to convince ourselves that when we act as a group (a business, a political party, a government, a society, etc.) we are not personally responsible for those actions. We remove our own accountability. We convince ourselves we can’t change things because we use terms like They and Them instead of We and Us.
We need to take personal responsibility for the behaviors of our businesses, our churches, our communities, and our government. If not us, who?
How did you come up with this very interesting title and what does it mean?
While brainstorming the story, my publisher and I were discussing the various ways women can become enslaved in life. Research led us to an article about featherbone corsets. It’s a fascinating story that is woven into the book.
To sum it up, corsets were once made of very rigid materials like steel rods, wooden reeds, and whale bones. But this restrained women’s movement too much, and they frequently broke. In 1883, a savvy Michigan businessman discovered a feather-duster factory in Chicago. He decided to use discarded feather bones to make corsets. These were less costly than the traditional steels, and they allowed women to bend without the bindings breaking.
In the book, the featherbone represents the resilient strength of something that can bend without breaking, and the corsets are used to examine the lengths women will reach in order to feel of worth to a man.
Throughout history, we have allowed ourselves to become “slaves” in a sense. We go as far as contorting our bodies and worse, our minds. We bind our feet and train our waists; we have face lifts and breast implants and develop eating disorders. We dye our hair and spend excessive amounts of money on clothing and jewelry and make-up. And worst of all, we absorb lies about our true purpose in life—all so men will consider us worthy of their attention and affection.
I realize this can affect both men and women, but culturally, women are usually the ones taking such extreme steps. As a woman, I want everyone, men and women both, to believe we are of worth exactly as God created us, without having to lose our true selves in order to gain human acceptance.
Human trafficking has been brought to the forefront of national attention in recent years. Why did you choose to write about this topic and did it bother you to delve into something so dark?
Well, you’re right. It is dark, and in fact, it has become such a buzzword I was hesitant to explore the topic. But no matter how much I fought against this story, it insisted on finding its way to the page.
What I’ve learned is that it could happen to any of us. To any of our children. People enter into prostitution in many different ways and for different reasons. And it is a very hard world to escape.
But I don’t like to feed the fear. Instead, I write so that we can conquer those fears. Ultimately, it’s a hope-filled story about forgiveness, resiliency, faith, and love.
What did your research for this novel reveal to you about human trafficking?
In talking to the women and children from the sex trade, I’ve learned that everyone just wants to feel loved and safe in the world. The large majority of these people have been victimized, and we have to take an honest look at who is victimizing them. It’s not just the pimps and the pushers. It’s also the Johns who pay for pleasure and the Joes and Janes who sit home in their living rooms watching porn, convincing themselves it is harmless.
Everyone who takes part in victimizing another person should be held accountable. As well as all of us who walk past the situation pretending it isn’t happening.
In recent years, thanks to the hard work of law enforcement agencies, non-profit organizations, and ministries, we are finally taking a more appropriate response and targeting the people who are profiting from this market. The last step is to quell the demand.
You weave your faith into your writing, but it’s done in a way that examines the spiritual journey from all angles without bias. How does your personal faith impact your worldview?
As a person of faith, I believe we are loved, each and every one of us. But as life hurts us, we begin to believe a very big lie—that we are not loved. This either hardens us or makes us desperately seek love from unhealthy sources, leading us to hurt ourselves and others.
If we have a solid belief that we are loved by God, we are free. We are only separated from this love by our own choices or our own reactions to the choices of others. Realizing this and opening ourselves once again to God’s love is the essence of what some people call a spiritual awakening, enlightenment, or (in Christian terms) being born again (or saved).
I have explored this a bit in all three of my novels. In THE FEATHERED BONE, Sarah, goes through horrific experiences when she is kidnapped and trafficked. But she is able to journal her way through the captivity by examining the lies the captor wants her to believe versus the truth she knows in her heart. She comes very close to separating herself from the truth, from God’s love for her, but in the end, she holds tightly to the core beliefs her parents instilled in her and that’s how she is able to fight her way back to freedom and to the light.
What’s the takeaway message you want readers to carry when they close THE FEATHERED BONE?
Whether someone is Christian or not, the answer to all of our problems is as simple as Jesus said it was: Love God. Love others. Love ourselves.
The first (Love God) is the part many in our modern culture have forgotten. We make false Gods of our money, status, ego, business, entertainment, sex, porn, drugs, alcohol, appearance, material obsessions, and even our religion or our family. We end up becoming separated from God, from love, because we try to fill that crucial need with other things that will never satisfy our spiritual requirements. These substitutes may numb the pain, but that “high” is not sustainable. Only genuine love (God) fills that hole in a way that brings true peace and contentment.
The second (Love Others) is the part that many men in particular tend to forget, especially in our culture where men are conditioned to be strong and unemotional, shutting down their ability to feel empathy and compassion for others. How many little boys are told not to cry? To be tough? To “man up”? Sadly, this tends to make them turn cold and destructive to the people who love them because the only acceptable emotion they were encouraged to express was anger. They end up believing the lie that behaving this way is the manly thing to do. It stunts their emotional and spiritual development, separates them from God and, thus, blocks their hearts from love.
And the third part (Love Ourselves) is the part many women in particular tend to forget. We are taught to love everyone but ourselves. But we’ve each been given only ONE soul to carry through this world—our own. And we are most responsible for moving THAT soul toward a peaceful eternity with God. Many women feel selfish or mean if we put ourselves on the list, but if we do not set healthy boundaries to protect our own souls, we are at risk of becoming spiritually wounded and therefore becoming separated from God. From love. From our true purpose in this life.
Again, these gender lines are fluid, so I speak only in generalities. Many a woman’s heart has become hardened, and many a man has lived a selfless and spiritual existence. But culturally, these are the roles we have historically been conditioned to fill, and in this particular book, I examine these patterns.
In the end, it all comes down to one infinite and universal love. I call that love, God.
THANK YOU, Julie, for being my guest today! If you want to stay connected to Julie, dear reader, here are places you can find her:
And now for the giveaway of a copy of The Feathered Bone. In a comment below, just include one thought about why you’d like to get your hands on this book! The winner (US/CAN only) will be randomly chosen from all those who comment by 5 p.m. Pacific on Monday, March 21. Good luck and happy reading!