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Interview with Carol Heilman

Carol Heilman grew up in coal mining camps in eastern Kentucky, providing her with a treasure trove of family stories. The spirit behind those stories carries over into her debut novel where the main character, Agnes Hopper, brings a feisty spark to her new retirement home and its residents.

Capturing family stories got you started in writing. Why do you think it’s important to chronicle these kinds of stories?

Our stories are the very fiber of our being. I think in the writing, or in the telling, of them we can gain a fresh perspective and an understanding of who we are—and that insight needs to be shared with future generations.

What did you learn from that initial writing project? And what prompted you to begin writing fiction?

I learned that my parents overcame many struggles in their lives through prayers, tears, and lots of laughter. Writing fiction is plain fun, and I like to provide a voice for the vulnerable—such as children and the elderly.

On your website, you say that your mother’s reaction to the family writing projects was, “We no longer have any secrets.” How many of your family stories appear in your novel? And how do you balance fact and fiction when telling those stories?
I would say it’s more the essence of those stories, than a factual retelling. For instance, Agnes, the protagonist in my book, is feisty and outspoken—much like my mother, yet Agnes is her own person and has her own quirks. Sometimes I use bits and pieces from real life if it suits a character’s personality. Agnes’ friend, Smiley, was a salesman all his life and even sold Fuller Brushes to the farmers’ wives in his community. He would knock on their front doors with his pocketknife, which he always carried in his pants pocket. My grandfather did the same and, like Smiley, was always the top salesman for Fuller Brush.

Who are some authors you admire and whose work you appreciate?
Oh my, there are so many, but here are three. James Still: River of Earth. The Appalachian stories always speak to my heart. Clyde Edgerton: Walking Across Egypt. He is a gifted author who can write laugh-out-loud humor. Oswald Chambers: My Utmost For His Highest. He always makes me think and stretches my small brain.

Tell us about your lead character, Agnes Hopper. What was your inspiration for her? And what kind of adventures can we expect from her?
Agnes is a spunky widow who lives on a small tobacco farm with her pet pig, Miss Margaret. Her husband, Charlie, died two years and three months before. She still asks his advice, but she doesn’t always follow it. She is stubborn and outspoken.

I was inspired by my mother’s refusal to give in or to give up after she, and then my daddy, began having major health problems. And I love talking to seniors. I think their inner strength is amazing, perhaps because they have gone through and survived their many trials.

Agnes will get in trouble because she doesn’t follow the retirement home rules and she struggles against losing her independence.

What do you enjoy doing when you are not writing?

Hiking mountain trails, playing cards with friends, having family fill our house to overflowing.

What is one lesson you’ve learned on this publishing journey?
Submission to God’s timing.

Any parting words?
If you have a burning desire to write, never, never, never give up.

Thanks for sharing with us, Carol!

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