Debut author Julie Kibler discusses her first novel, Calling Me Home, her memories of the grandmother who inspired the story, and her ideal road trip partner.
Zola:Calling Me Home was inspired by your grandmother, whose romance with a young black man was torn apart by their families. How did you learn of this story? Was it one your grandmother told freely or did you have to coax it out of her?
Julie Kibler: I did not learn about my grandmother’s relationship until many years after her death—more than a decade. My father, who was an only child, told me out of the blue one day, seven or eight years ago. Apparently, she shared this with him when he was about 18, in the context of a conversation about not judging people by the color of their skin. It was never talked about when I was growing up, so I assume it must have been a difficult and private subject for her, and in turn, my father likely felt it wasn’t his place to tell anyone else until long after she died. I discovered, while editing the book, that my grandfather (her husband) had mentioned it to my brother years before. I have to assume it wasn’t common family knowledge or an everyday topic of conversation for reasons of sensitivity to my grandmother. Any family members who might have known what really happened are deceased now.
Zola: Your grandmother died when you were a teenager. Was she an avid reader? What was her favorite book? Do you think she’d have liked Calling Me Home?
JK: While I remember my maternal grandmother being an avid reader, I don’t remember this one reading much. We often watched television together, and she was always busy doing something with her hands—sewing or crocheting or canning things she’d grown in her yard. The character of Isabelle is more a composite of the older women in my life than a real picture of my paternal grandmother’s personality. I do remember her having a Bible, and recently, when my sister and daughters and I sorted through a small trunk of costume jewelry that belonged to her, I found several notes she’d scribbled on scraps of paper listing some authors and titles of books she apparently wanted to read, of a self-help or positive living nature. I hope she would have liked Calling Me Home, though perhaps she might have felt exposed. Surely, she would have read and thought it was nothing like what truly happened—I wrote the story mostly from my imagination because we know few details. Perhaps, though, she would feel I got the emotions right.
Zola:To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, and even The Notebook have been likened to your book. Did any of these novels or some others inspire you when writing?
JK: I read The Notebook years before I ever thought of writing Calling Me Home—or any novel—and always enjoy a story of deep emotion and forbidden love. I read To Kill a Mockingbird long before that, when I was in junior high school. I didn’t know about The Help or read it until after I’d already finished writing Calling Me Home. A woman in my blog group suggested we all read it around the same time I was writing, “The End.” I was a little fearful as I read, but breathed a deep sigh of relief when I realized The Help was written about racism, but was a completely different story.
One of my favorite courses in college was a Southern Literature class, where my very genteel professor often read aloud to us. I’d say the body of work we experienced in that course, along with all the other reading I’ve done over the years, was influential, of course. In a way, however, I think of Calling Me Home as southern, but not southern. The Cincinnati/Newport area is more culturally midwestern than southern, and while the road trip portion of the book takes the reader through southern climes, and southern culture is prevalent, the heart of the story really takes place in the heart of our country—neither north nor south, east nor west—a microcosm of the United States. In retrospect, this seemed very appropriate to me. Something similar could have happened in almost state in our country at that point in history.
Zola: The book is about unlikely friendships. What’s the most unlikely friendship you ever had?
JK: Looking back, I find it harder to name the likely friendships I’ve had. My best friend is 12 years older than me. I’ve always found more in common with a person because of things besides age, and have often found my obvious peers to be the folks I relate to the least. Maybe I was born out of time.
I have a dear friend who very much inspired the character of Dorrie, from a personality standpoint. My own hairstylist of almost 15 years—though she recently moved away—is a black single mom. When she first started doing my hair, I was a single mom, too, and over time, we commiserated about kids, exes, aging parents, dating, and much more. I still text her when I need to go to the strangers I’m trusting now with my hair, whining because she has gone away, but I’m also so very grateful for the years we spent laughing and carrying on together while I sat in her hair chair. Now we’re simply friends.
Zola: The story concerns two women on a road trip. If you could pick any person to drive cross-country with—past or present, living or dead, famous or not—who would it be?
JK: The answer to this question is obvious. I would give almost anything to drive cross-country with my grandmother now. I’d ask her to tell me what really happened.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.