Interview by Amanda Woods
Under the Magnolias is different from your usual romance novels. What compelled you to deviate from your usual subject matter in this book? How was your writing process different?
I always write what I’m led to, and I really never want to limit my stories to a certain genre. With romance, there’s typically a loose formula to follow—boy meets girl, they fall in love, something gets in their way, they overcome it for their happily ever after. But with this book, I just wrote it like no one was looking. I wasn’t even sure where it would end up until I reached the ending. It challenged me as a writer and I loved it!
Can you walk us through the emotions you felt while writing this book?
My emotions were all over the place. I fully invest in my characters. When they hurt, I hurt. When they rejoice, so do I. One scene where Austin starts unraveling and doesn’t see how to hold her family together, I was right there with her. It was a tough writing day, for sure, and I walked away from the computer not knowing how she would either. I definitely stayed in my head for several months while writing this one.
You’ve said that this book is the most important book you’ve written to date. Why?
The subject matter of this book, even though it’s fiction set in the eighties, is so relevant today. Everyone hurts. Everyone struggles. And everyone hides their truths to some degree. I was led to write this book in a way that I hope readers will realize it’s not so healthy to hide, that it’s okay to seek help no matter what they are going through.
You say you are an observer of people. What do you mean by that? How do you use that to craft your stories?
People are so fascinating. I know I look like a weirdo but I’m all about people watching. I also want to understand things that I see, whether it’s from a news headline or something I’ve witnessed in person, so I work that out through my stories.
This book has been said to highlight the best of humanity. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Honestly, I fear the world we are living in today has forgotten how beautiful it is to be compassionate and to empathize with others. This book has characters from all walks of life and highlights how those characters choose to show kindness for no other reason than to be kind. Simple enough!
Some of the common themes in this book are the power of community and connectedness, as well as the impact that small and simple kindnesses can have on those around us. How do you hope those themes encourage the reader? Why did you include those themes specifically?
I hope the reader will reflect on their own actions and attitudes toward others. As I’ve already said, kindness is a simple act but can have such a profound effect on the one receiving it. Austin was able to stop hiding due to the strength she garnered from those who reached out to help her and her family. We can be that for someone—how powerful is that?
Simple act of kindness example: I’m always on people-watching duty, so when I go through a checkout line and the cashier is in a terrible mood and being rude, instead of complaining to the manager, I ask the cashier if they’re having a bad day. I can’t tell you how many times this was exactly what they needed. Just someone to take the time to acknowledge them and to let them unload a second. I’ve always left those situations with the cashier smiling at me. Simple kindness, ladies and gentlemen.
What was the research process like for this book? Did it require more research due to the subject matter?
The research was extensive, for sure. An entire summer was spent doing nothing more than research for this book. Mental illness is a subject that I made certain I got right. Even though it’s fiction. I spent days reading articles and watching testimonies from those suffering bipolar disorder as well as the loved ones who stood by them through it. And even more time researching treatments.
Why did you choose to set this book in the eighties? Why was it important to you to write a coming-of-age book that wasn’t set during the age of social media?
The eighties was a great decade, so why not! I truly wanted to get to a simpler time for this book. One with less noise, so to speak. I think it’ll be easier for someone to read this subject from afar and not have cell phones and all that to distract from it. It makes Austin different yet shows her coming-of-age journey is still relevant today.
You used to work on a tobacco farm. What made you choose this setting for the book? How did you draw from personal experience to create the setting?
Working tobacco was my first job and my hardest job. This job taught me that everyone has to do their part. It cannot be put on the shoulders of one person. It’s quite symbolic to the story. Austin tried taking care of her father and siblings all on her own, but the burden was too heavy and came close to ruining them until the community stepped up to take a part in helping.
What was your inspiration for this book? You’ve referenced some of the conversations you had with God about writing this book. Can you walk us through that a bit?
Spring of 2019, it seemed every time I turned on the news or pulled up Facebook, there was a headline that a community leader, mostly church leaders, had committed suicide. Man, did that put such a burden on my heart. I wanted to know their story and why they got to the point of feeling that hopeless. Before I knew it, I was deep into research. I discovered most times those victims were secretly suffering with mental illness. They were worried what others would think, so they kept it hidden. A lot of prayer went into the book, asking God to help me understand and to express that understanding to readers. Days of writing with goose bumps along my arms and a tightened chest, I knew I wasn’t telling this story alone.
This book is gritty in parts, but it also serves up a good dose of humor. Why did you intentionally include humor in this story? Can you give us an example?
Life is tough! It is gritty, yet I lean heavily on humor to get me though the rough patches of life. I also needed it to get through the rough patches of this book and I think readers will too. You will meet Phoenix, aka Peg. He is the next-to-oldest brother and boy, does he have a mouth on him. The scene where he gets ahold of a man who is making racists remarks cracks me up even now. It’s a lot of dry humor, my favorite type, and Peg always gave me some comic relief on the hard writing days with his sarcastic one-liners.
Why is it important to write stories about characters who deal with real issues? What are some of the real issues that this story addresses?
Sometimes I think reading about real issues in fiction is easier for us to digest than reading it in nonfiction or in a self-help book. It takes us out of it, so to speak. The issues addressed in this book are quite extensive, but it is mostly about ill-fitting labels that need to be done away with.
What was special about crafting the Foster children in this book? Austin Foster specifically?
The Foster children lived an isolated life out on the farm. It gave me the opportunity to explore hard topics through their curious, naive eyes with an honesty that I would not have been able to pull off otherwise.
Under the Magnolias features several noteworthy, misfit characters. Who was your favorite supporting character to write?
This is like asking me to pick a favorite child! Yikes! I will say it’s a toss-up between Foxy and Miss Wise. Both women faced gross social injustices. They were survivors who chose not to live like victims. They are great characters to look up too, if you ask me.
Why did you choose to represent characters who are marginalized or misunderstood in this book?
I don’t know about you but I am just so tired of the labels and the unrealistic boxes society creates and expects you to live up to. That’s hogwash. If God wanted us all to fit in the same box, he would have created us as carbon copies. He didn’t, so that means it’s a gift to be different and I think differences should be celebrated. I did a lot of celebrating this in Under the Magnolias.
Chances are readers are going to have a love/hate relationship with Vance Cumberland. He’s different from the male love interests we’ve seen in your other books. What do you love about Vance? What irks you about Vance?
Vance is different from most of my male leads because we meet him in the beginning as a privileged kid. Just as we go on the coming-of-age journey with Austin, we get to do the same with Vance. That boy had a lot of growing up to do. I love his determination, but he irked me when he succumbed to those socially labeled boxes in his younger years. He eventually gets it right, and I think he’s pretty swoon-worthy at times.
This book gives an inside look at the reality of mental illness, through a fictional story. How do you hope the themes of this book bring mental health awareness?
I want it to open our eyes, to start more conversations about mental health, and to be more empathetic to those suffering. Being more proactive in mental health awareness requires those suffering in silence to find their voice and for everyone else to take off their blinders and pay attention.
This book is very raw and real, as told from Austin Foster’s point of view. Did you draw from personal experience in writing her character?
Austin and I both lost our mothers, so I shared in her grief. And we both had a parent who was sick and we felt helpless when we realized we couldn’t fix it. I drew many parallels with my mother’s battle with cancer and Austin’s father’s battle with mental illness. Both illnesses need treatment and can be life-threatening when undiagnosed. I also think it’s important to point out that both patients are the main victims of their disease, but their loved ones endure suffering as well.
What was the hardest part about writing a book with such heavy themes? How did you make sure you protected and prioritized your own mental health during the writing process?
Walking away from it at the end of the day. I lived this story, even dreamed about it at times while writing it. I remember one significantly heavy writing day and how I told my friend about it. She encouraged me to take a break. To do something outside the house and away from the computer. Talking about the process with my friend helped me keep my own mental health in check.
Nobody is immune to hardship in life and the Fosters know that well. For readers going through a personal battle, what does Under the Magnolias offer them?
It will give them the courage to seek help in those times, realizing it’s not healthy to keep it all hidden. And that people genuinely do care and want to help.
Fiction is often cited by people as being a form of escapism. By contrast, Under the Magnolias holds up a mirror to the joys and sorrows we experience as people. Why did you take that approach with this story?
First off, I love a good book that is all about helping me escape reality. I mean, hello, that’s why I love writing romance. But Under the Magnolias has such a different purpose. I wrote this story with no expectations on how the reader would view it, but I have no doubt God will reach many through it. I think we need more fictional books that are brave enough to open our eyes.
We see a beautiful picture of what it means to be the church in this book. What do you hope readers take away from this?
Exactly as you put it in the question, the church is beautiful and I’m so sad that so many are missing out on this because they have misguided views of what church is supposed to be. I’m not an expert on theology, but I do love how Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 puts it: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth, for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Why do you think it’s important for people to be vulnerable with their hurt, pain, and secrets?
We are all human and all flawed and all going through something. I think when you choose to be authentic instead of pretending to be what folks expect you to be, there’s a great freedom in that.
What is one thing you learned about yourself from writing this book?
I’m more aware now of how I keep things hidden. I hide my pain through making jokes, sometimes at the wrong time. I’m much like Austin in the sense that I’ve put up walls to hide my emotions. I don’t cry in public. A few instances come to mind where my eyes watered, but the only time I can actually sob is in the shower or in the car by myself and that doesn’t happen often. I don’t know how to overcome this, but I’m praying about it and talking about it.
What do you hope your readers walk away with when they’ve turned the last page of this book?
My hope is that they say, “Dang, that girl can write!” Ha! Just kidding. Kinda . . . No, seriously, I want them to get to the end of this book and find their own sense of freedom. To bravely go out and live without putting on airs. To exercise their compassion and empathy muscles more.