Interview with Julie Kibler, Author of Calling Me Home
Jaime Boler: Julie, thank you for allowing me to ask you these questions. We over at She Reads love your book Calling Me Home, the February Book Club Selection. Many of us, in fact, have said it’s our favorite book thus far! There is a story behind your story. How did you come up with the idea for Calling Me Home?
Julie Kibler: Five or six years ago (I’m struggling to remember the exact time frame these days!), my dad shared that when my grandmother was a young woman, she had fallen in love with a black man, and that their families had torn them apart. This really opened my eyes. My grandma hadn’t been an especially happy or warm person, at least when I knew her, though we shared some special moments in time. But learning this convinced me she had lost her “one true love”–and that her life had never been exactly as she dreamed it might be as a result. The idea for writing a novel with this concept at the crux took hold and wouldn’t let go. It took me a few years to gather the courage to write it, but I finally did. I am thankful I did, and I think she would like it. I hope she would like it.
JB: Readers are really connecting with your main characters, Isabelle and Dorrie. How do you feel about the wonderful early praise your book is getting?
JK: It is exhilarating and terrifying at once. I’m thrilled most of the reviews I’ve seen have been positive. Yet, I think every writer really takes to heart the ones that aren’t quite so good. We hyper focus on the things we worry might be true. Of course, we can’t please everyone, and the hope is that your book will find the right readers in the right timing. I am, of course, absolutely thrilled readers are connecting with Isabelle and Dorrie. I tried to make these two women as authentic as I could, and it wasn’t always easy.
JB: In Calling Me Home, the residents of Shalerville erected a sign warning any African-Americans to get out of town before darkness fell. On your website, I read where your father’s hometown actually had such a sign. Was it difficult to write about such an ugly time in our history?
JK: It was difficult at times, partly because I did not live during that era. I did not experience it myself. I knew I’d never truly comprehend what it must have been like, from either side of the sign. I believe my father was brave to share this when I asked him to describe his hometown as I was creating my setting. I didn’t know about sundown towns, and he had never, ever mentioned this before. I think it was both freeing and a little frightening for him to say the words that were on the sign in his hometown out loud—which were even uglier than those I used in Calling Me Home. I used a phrase more commonly documented in discussions about sundown towns. My dad was one of my earliest readers, and he seems pleased with the story and the setting I created based on a conglomeration of details I learned about the whole region of Northern Kentucky—not on one single town.
During my research, I also learned that my grandmother and her family had lived in more than one sundown town—and not just in Kentucky. These towns existed all over the country in various forms, as I learned on a website created by James W. Loewen. I also realized my mother’s side of the family had lived in sundown towns, too, here in Texas—in fact, one entire county. It blew me away. My parents are some of the most open, least racist people I have ever known. Somehow they made a break with this attitude and taught my siblings and me differently. Thank goodness.
JB: What kind of research did you do for your story?
JK: To be honest, there wasn’t any true system to my research. I am the kind of writer who gets an idea and takes off, researching as I go along. That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall down the rabbit hole of research on many occasions—for hours or days or sometimes weeks, I would hyper focus on certain details, trying to ensure I got them completely right. Interestingly, one detail that seems almost insignificant in relationship to many others, I got wrong. I discovered it after the galleys were printed and out. I corrected it for the final copy. Nobody has noticed or pointed it out in the galleys (a very small detail relating to the work Isabelle did working with photographic slides), but I know it’s there, and that bothers me. So, while I may not do my research in a completely orthodox or linear fashion, I am a perfectionist when it comes to getting things right.
JB: When you were writing the story, did you have any sense how big it could be?
JK: This is a weird question. Not because you asked it, but because of the answer. I have to say that I had a gut feeling it could be. I was so obsessed with writing it, I knew I had finally found the “right story” (it wasn’t my first manuscript). The reaction of those I told about it as I was writing and of my critique partners as they read it, one by one, also gave me an inkling it could be. I was also somewhat systematic in trying to make it a “big” story. I found Donald Maass’ books Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction especially helpful in ensuring the story hit on all cylinders. I didn’t want to blow it; I really wanted to tell this story.
JB: My favorite character in the story is Isabelle. Do you have a favorite? Or is that like asking you to choose your favorite child?
JK: I must admit I was often impatient with Isabelle. Some reviewers have noted they thought she was naïve at certain points. My reaction is a strong YES. She was 16. She was sheltered. She was in love. I was frustrated with her at times, even though I was writing her. I thought she was melodramatic and self-involved and, frankly, quite dumb on more than one occasion. Then I would step back and say, Yeah, she was. I have two teenage girls—one who was exactly Isabelle’s age as I began writing the novel. I pictured her in this situation 75 years ago, and how her level of maturity might have directed her actions. Some days 16-year-old girls are really wise. Some days, it’s obvious their frontal lobes aren’t completely connected to the rest of their brains yet.
On the other hand, Dorrie was pretty easy for me to write, and I loved her. I loved how she made me laugh or cry. I relate to her for several reasons. First, I was a single mom for several years and I know what it’s like, though my situation was unlike hers in many ways. Also, and this is one of the few places I’ve mentioned it, but my personal hairstylist of 12 years is a lot like Dorrie. She recently moved away, and I still text or call her to whine, because I miss her. Not just because she did such a good job on my hair, but because over that twelve years, we became friends. She knows my character Dorrie was modeled after her personality to a certain extent. But in many ways, they are very different. Dorrie thought and did things my friend never would have done, and vice versa. The book is dedicated to Fannie in the acknowledgments, because she is one of the strongest single moms I’ve ever known. I’m hoping she’ll show up at one of my book events. If I could convince her to read from my book, I would, but she told me it would take alcohol to make that happen.
But as far as favorites? I’ll just say this: In real life, I have three kids. They are each my favorite.
JB: I pictured Dorrie as Queen Latifah. Are there any plans to make the book into a movie?
JK: My film agent understands my vision for the possibility of turning Calling Me Home into a movie. Hearing the news that someone or some studio was interested in making a film from this story would be mind boggling, but very exciting! We’ll see.
JB: You hear so much today about the United States being a “post-racial society,” but as Isabelle and Dorrie travel together, glares, stage whispers, and meanness follow in their wake. Do you think we’ve come far as a nation in term of race relations? Do we still have far to go?
JK: I think these are immeasurable distances. I believe there will always be marginalized groups—probably for reasons we couldn’t even comprehend today. We’re a constant work-in-progress. The United States has made inroads, certainly, but there are still miles to travel. It’s said we all have prejudices to varying degrees and for varying reasons. I know this is true in my own heart if I’m honest. I make assumptions. I stereotype. I try not to, but sometimes I do anyway.
I see extremes where I live. My neighborhood and city is about as diverse as you can find anywhere. On my block, there are Asian, black, Hispanic, white, and Middle Eastern families. I feel exhilarated sometimes to see the rainbow of faces in our local restaurants. My kids have never been particular about the race of their friends.
On the other hand, sometimes you still hear ugly whispers about who belongs where, when, and how. School districting tends to be a hot button in many communities, and it’s often an unspoken battle about racial diversity. Sadly, this behavior seems modeled by the adults and passed down from generation to generation. If only we could follow the example of our children more often.
JB: I have to say this story made me cry. Did you ever cry while writing it? Did you ever have to get up, leave what you were doing, and get away from it for a while?
JK: I cried over certain chapters when I wrote them, and I cry again every time I read them. I cry every time I read the last page. I think this means these characters were like the Velveteen Rabbit—they became real to me. I rejoiced with them and I grieved with them. I don’t remember having to get away from them. Writing that made me the most emotional was the kind I wanted to dwell in forever. I wanted to jump in that stream and swim as long as I could. Unfortunately, that kind of writing session is something you can’t predict or replicate. It happens a different way each time.
JB: What would your grandmother have made of this story?
JK: I asked my dad this after I sold the book. He said she was probably laughing in her grave and saying, “Ohhhhh, SH##!” Pardon her language, but I think he’s right. I can picture it. But I also believe she would be happy. Calling Me Home is not her story as much as it is the essence of it. She was probably poor. She wasn’t a doctor’s daughter. I don’t really know much at all. What I do know is I felt her sitting at my shoulder, whispering to me of what it felt like to be a young girl hopelessly in love in an impossible situation.
JB: What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
JK: I’m a rabid movie fan—especially independent films. My husband and I attend movies nearly every weekend, and then talk about them over dinner. I’m a little worried about the book release as I know we won’t have as many chances to get our movie fix. I fear withdrawal.
We’re also big fans of food. We love finding new restaurants and trying new things, as well as going to our favorites and wallowing in our comfort foods. I say “we” because I’m lucky enough to have a husband who has similar taste in cuisine. We figured out if we share, we can get an appetizer, entree, and dessert without overeating too much. Well. Sometimes.
I love to travel, and my favorite thing is going off the beaten path. I was once put off a train in England because of a bomb scare. I landed in a little suburb of Liverpool where I might have been the first American tourist to ever show up. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve ever had, wandering around and talking with the locals. They were shocked when I ordered a baked potato—a “jacket potato”—with chili AND cheese. I assured them this is done regularly in Texas.
JB: If you could have dinner with any author, living or dead, who would you choose and why?
JK: Probably Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’d say her writing affected me as a child more than any other, and was instrumental in making me both a reader and a writer. There are few books I’ve read over and over—the Little House books are the exception.
JB: What book is on your nightstand right now?
JK: About 15 or so, in a precarious pile. Not kidding, though I’m reading J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy on my Nook for a book club meeting. I never read a single Harry Potter book (I know!), and I’m liking this quite a bit. I had no preconceived notions of what a Rowling book should be. I’m also reading a manuscript for a blurb, which is a new and surreal experience. And I’m reading a book as research for my current project. I often have three or four books going these days, which means I read each one very, very slowly.
JB: If you could describe yourself in one word, what would it be?
JB: Are you going on an author tour? If so, which cities will you visit?
JK: I’m doing a launch event in Arlington, Texas. At this point, I’m also doing events in Austin, Houston, and Waco, Texas; Denver, Colorado; and Spokane, Washington. There are a few other things in the works. My events page on my website and Facebook author page should be current.
JB: You are also a book blogger. How important are bloggers to the publishing industry and to authors?
JK: I think book blogging is a relatively new and developing phenomenon, so it’s hard to say. Book bloggers feel very important to me, and publishers obviously put a lot of stock in them to send so many books for review each year. I’m eager to see how this evolves over time, and how it affects publishing. Will blogger reviews become more important than industry reviews? It’s so hard to say. It’s a form of word-of-mouth marketing, though, and we all know word-of-mouth is instrumental in selling almost anything.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Calling Me Home?
JK: In my acknowledgments, I charge the reader with an unoriginal (something similar is attributed to Mahatma Gandhi), yet important challenge: It’s up to you to be the change. It’s the thing I truly want readers to think about as they close the cover.
JB: Are you working on anything new?
JK: Yes, but I can’t talk about it just yet! It might lose its magic. Suffice it to say it’s another story involving marginalized groups, family issues, and a nostalgic setting closer to my current home in Texas.
JB: This story really has so much to teach us about life, about our fellow man, and about ourselves. It bridges generations and races, and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk with you about Calling Me Home. Good luck with the book, Julie!
JK: This has truly been my pleasure, and your questions were thoughtful and fun to answer. Thank you so much for your kind words and for hosting me today.