That’s the big question. Millie has to decide whether she will repeat these dysfunctional cycles and end up like her mother, or will she learn to build a healthier life for herself. As a child, she imagines a happier place, where she feels loved and safe. Her neighbor calls that place “the free.” We follow Millie’s journey until the age of 17, as she finds her way into the free.
Q: The response to this book has been overwhelming, especially for a debut novel. It received a rare starred review from Publishers Weekly and went on to become both a New York Times and USA TODAY bestseller, making several lists for the Best Novel of 2013 and even winning two Christy Awards as well as the Mississippi Library Association Fiction Award. How have readers reacted to this story?
A: I cannot begin to count the messages I have received from readers since this book was released. Many have been so emotional, they have made me cry. It’s unbelievable how strongly this story has connected with people, especially women who have survived some form of abuse either as children or adults. It’s clear to me that we should be talking about these issues.
Q: The story not only deals with domestic violence, it also includes a sexual assault. Why write about such a dark topic?
A: Well, it is dark, but sadly statistics suggest one in four women experience domestic violence and one in six experience sexual assault. Some believe those numbers could actually be much higher because most victims never report the incident.
Many victims suffer silently, and that’s what we focus on in the sequel, When Mountains Move. In that book, we join the next phase of Millie’s life, and we as readers heal along with her.
Q: How have readers responded to that aspect of Millie’s story?
I’ve been surprised to hear some readers tell me they’ve had to read it in small segments, putting it down to process the emotions that surface because it is so personal for them. Many of them have buried the abuse experience, never really confronting it or working through the emotional damage they continued to carry. Some didn’t even realize the behaviors they were doing were coping mechanisms. Many have written to tell me how much it has helped them finally free themselves from those scars and connect in ways they were never able to do.
Q: Many reviewers have praised your ability to capture the emotional and complex issues that go along with abusive relationships. Is Millie’s story completely fictional or did you write it based on your own experiences?
A: I am a novelist. I write fiction. I didn’t base any characters on real people. That said, I believe fiction is a tool that can be used for healing and also as a tool to help people develop more empathy for those who have different life experiences than them.
I hope all of my characters are authentic and deeply developed, not just Millie and her mother, but also the men who abuse them, the community members who react in various ways to the abuse, etc.
I think I’m like most women. I have had many relationships in my life, some of them healthier than others. I have had painful experiences, like most people, and hopefully, I have learned important lessons from each. But this story is not about me. It’s about Millies everywhere.
Ultimately, I want to help readers feel less alone in the world and to know they are loved. That their life matters. And that the choices we make have generational impact on many, many people…beyond anything we can even understand.
Q: But the books aren’t just for people who have survived abuse, are they?
Not at all. I hear from lots of readers who have enjoyed these books and have learned many other lessons from Millie’s story. Lessons about what it really means to be a Christian.
While we should engage in open dialogue about important issues like abuse, I hope Millie’s story encourages us all to take a deeper look at our own faith and to consider how we live out that faith on a daily basis.
Q: You’ve already accomplished a lot with your first two novels, and you’ve published two children’s books to help preschoolers rely on God to help them overcome fears: God is with me through the Night and God is with me through the Day. What projects are you working on now and what do you still hope to achieve as an author?
Well, I’m currently writing my third novel of four that are signed to be published with David C. Cook. As far as career goals are concerned, I don’t get too worried about the business aspect of it. If there’s anything I want to accomplish as a writer, it’s honestly that I hope my words can be used to help people learn how to love and be loved. I believe that’s what we were sent here to do. Everything else is a bonus. I think it really is as simple as that.
For more information or to get help, please call:
THE National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233
THE NATIONAL SEXUAL ASSAULT HOTLINE AT 1-800-656-4673