An interview with Cindy Morgan

Interview by Isabella Graunke

Singer/songwriter Cindy Morgan is a two-time Grammy nominee, a thirteen- time Dove winner, and a recipient of the prestigious Songwriter of the Year trophy. An East Tennessee native, her evocative melodies and lyrics have mined the depths of life and love both in her own recordings and through songwriting for noteworthy artists around the globe. Cindy is the author of two works of adult nonfiction—the memoir How Could I Ask for More: Stories of Blessings, Battles, and Beauty and Barefoot on Barbed Wire: A Journey Out of Fear into Freedom—and of the children’s picture book Dance Me, Daddy. The Year of Jubilee is her debut novel. Cindy is a cocreator of the charitable Hymns for Hunger Tour, which has raised awareness and resources for hunger relief organizations across the globe. She currently resides near Nashville with her two daughters.

What is the meaning behind the title of the book, The Year of Jubilee? 

The idea for the title of this book evolved organically over the process of writing it. My original title was Rojo, but as the book evolved, it became apparent that there was a bigger theme at work. I have always loved the charm of small towns in the South. I still live in a small town in the South. There is something comforting, a sense of community that seems lost in the world, that is present when living in a small town. I love the word jubilee. It evokes a lot of energy. My mother has attended a Messianic congregation for years. She has spoken many times about the Year of Jubilee and its importance in the Jewish calendar—a time when debts are washed away and prisoners are released from their bonds. I just love the connection between the name of the town and this biblical concept, especially in light of the historical setting of the book.

Although this story is fictional, it is based on real-life themes and struggles endured by your own family. Can you tell us about that? 

As you have said, the book is a work of fiction, but as is the case with most fiction, the inspiration from real life is always alive on the page. In addition to the prologue, which is based on my first memory as a child, the parallels between fiction and real life are struggles between mother and daughter and siblings and the reality of being poor, or just strangely different, in a small town. For my family, the aftermath of the death of a child cast a long shadow. The struggle a family endures after such a loss is a minefield. My family’s struggles in the aftermath of losing Samuel are definitely present on the pages of The Year of Jubilee.

In your author’s note, you mention that this book is based on your first memory as a child. Can you give us the real account of that? 

The original inspiration for the book was the very first memory I have as a child: seeing my brother Samuel through the hospital window as I lifted his pet rooster, Rojo, up to the window, sitting atop the shoulders of my father. I was around three and a half years old.

What elements changed from reality to the fictional page? 

The prologue is very close to the actual memory. I might have added some small details, but the prologue is the closest thing to reality in the book. As for the part that is fiction—the entire creation of the charming town of Jubilee, the historical setting, and the details of the story are all fictionalized, but there are anchor moments that are definitely based on real memories or the emotional impact of those memories.

You did some research the impact of first memories. How do first memories shape a person?

Yes, I did some research about first memories. I actually did that research after writing the book. The memory I had carried with me was so compelling that I could never leave it alone. I read some studies that suggest that even things we experience pre-memory, as an infant or toddler, or even in the womb, can impact the emotional state and the outlook we have in life. Some believe our first memories can set our lives in a certain direction. Certainly other events can intervene in positive or negative ways, but the imprint we receive when we are young does make a difference.

In what ways does Grace Mockingbird’s life mirror your own experience? 

The ways in which Grace found it difficult to express herself—that’s me. I think I became a writer because I found it so difficult to express myself verbally. There were a lot of very strong personalities in my family. To be introverted and shy was to most likely remain unheard. Also, I definitely relate to the part of Grace that wanted to please everyone. The strongest parts of Grace, though, were inspired by my sister Sam.

How does faith play a role in this story? 

At its core, it’s a story about the fear that God will not take care of us. It asks the question, why does God allow the worst things imaginable to happen? We often feel like even the idea that God could allow the worst thing to happen must mean he doesn’t care for us. That is a big question that the story tries to walk through.

One of the themes explored in this book is the sovereignty of God in the face of unjust suffering. Why is this an important topic to address? 

A very familiar question that people ask is how a good God can allow bad things to happen to good people. It isn’t a new question, but it is an important conversation we keep having. People are dealing with so much loss, suffering, illness, death, brutality, and injustice. I don’t think we should ever fear asking difficult questions. Tim Keller, in a sermon about how and why God’s sovereignty allows for suffering, makes a great point that the worst people you meet are those who have never suffered. There is something about suffering that opens up our hearts. It makes us empathetic. It’s difficult to understand, until you’re on the other side of it, that letting go of our “control” and surrendering to the will of God brings this beautiful freedom.

One of the more painful ideas explored in this book is the pain that can be caused by well-meaning Christians during times of tragedy. How have you seen that play out in your own life, as well as in the lives of others? 

The first story that comes to mind is that when my brother Samuel was in the hospital, some pastoral people promised my mother and father that if they had enough faith, he would be healed. I think they wanted to give my parents hope, but they were very irresponsible in doling out a promise only God could make or keep. When a family is in such a vulnerable state, you cannot make these kinds of promises. I think sometimes people want a crystal ball. They also want to offer a crystal ball—some shallow, possibly even well-meaning comfort, that they won’t have to be around to see all the way through. When you’re afraid, someone appearing with a “word” from God seems like a comfort. But it is rarely that easy or simple. Christians, pastors, priests, and rabbis often want to tell you when the end of the world is coming, or who’s going to become the next president, or what kind of biblical code they’ve cracked to tell you the day you’re going to die. We’ve heard it all. We are all susceptible to the fear of the unknown. 

Why did you choose to set the story in the South during the civil rights movement? 

I have always been drawn to that time in history—nearly obsessed with it. It was a time so brimming with possibility, scandal, and bravery for such a righteous cause. The idea of jubilee seemed especially poignant from a civil rights perspective.

How does this book specifically deal with race relations? 

The entire segregation-versus-integration conversation was at its boiling point in 1963. Grace is trying to make the transition. She is the representation of the next generation and how they will approach the race conversation and have a different view of equality than their parents did. The idea of racial segregation is so barbaric and unthinkable. It is so sad that the South—the buckle of the Bible Belt—was in many respects the very last place to adopt integration. I wanted to walk through that and interview people close to me who could give me a true perspective on that time in history. 

One of the major topics in this book is a difficult mother-daughter dynamic. Did you experience any of that same struggle as a mother with your own daughters?

Yes, for sure, no surprise there. I think the mother-daughter dynamic is intrinsically set up for drama and struggle. Though my daughters and I have a very good relationship, there were times when I was too controlling, trying to order their lives too much. We made it through and yet, I still have to remind myself to give them space and respect. My mother and I have a good relationship now, as do she and my sisters. But it didn’t come without some work on both parts.

You said most of the characters in this book surprised you. Why is that?

I think that is the mysterious thing about fiction writing. You are eased back in your chair, writing a scene, sure that you know every character who will be in that scene, and then suddenly someone new appears. It’s like they open the door of your brain and just walk in. It’s a strange and mysterious thing.

Who was your favorite character to develop? Why? 

Aunt June was my favorite character. She is so real to me. She is probably inspired by a dozen different people I know. She just appeared on the page one day. Maybe that happened because we need someone like that character to exist in our real life.

Who was the most challenging character to develop? Why?

Oh, without a doubt, Virginia. I think at first I made Virginia too likable, then too unlikable. I suspect it was because I didn’t understand her. It took time. I had to develop empathy for her and forgive her proactively for everything I knew she was going to do.

In your book you mention the idea of “the poor mind.” Can you explain what this is? 

The poor mind is the idea of viewing yourself as being deserving of less in life than others. People who suffer from a poor mind often self-sabotage and intentionally keep their lives from improving. They keep their expectations low. It is a spiritual and emotional poverty that seeps into every aspect of life. In many ways, it’s a sense of despair. Poverty is a brutal master. Often when people have escaped physical poverty, they still see themselves as poor. The damage and insecurity of poverty can become part of a person’s DNA.

Although you’ve written two nonfiction books, this is your first novel. How has the process been different? 

The process was completely different. I absolutely love writing memoirs and reflective nonfiction. I think the challenging thing about writing fiction is that you want to include a lot of the poetic language that you would use in a nonfiction piece, but wrap that into the structure of a fictional a story. Also, the entire cause-and-effect in storytelling is a rule you can’t break without losing your reader. There can be no coincidences. Everything has to add up. You have to satisfy all of the foreshadowing that you set up back in act one. It is such a challenge. I love that about fiction.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from this book? 

I hope it communicates that in community, we are never alone. And especially in a faith community, we can share our most difficult moments in life together and bear one another’s burdens. A burden is always lighter when we don’t carry it alone. I also hope that the novel might inspire people to empathize with others around them who have a different story. I love the anecdote about Fred Rogers carrying a note in his pocket for years with a quote from a social worker that said, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.” I believe that, and I hope there are traces of it in the pages of The Year of Jubilee.