Author Interview: Julie Cross Part 1

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Julie Cross is the International Bestselling author of the Tempest series, a young adult science fiction trilogy featuring Tempest, Vortex, and Timestorm (St. Martin's Press). She has also released Letters to Nowhere, a mature young adult romance set in the world of elite gymnastics. Julie lives in Central Illinois with her husband and three children. She's a former gymnast, longtime gymnastics fan, coach, and former Gymnastics Program Director with the YMCA meaning she gets it. Everything a gymnastics fan would want in a book, you will find in Letters to Nowhere. You can read my review of Letters to Nowhere here.

Could you tell us a little bit about your gymnastics background?
I did gymnastics on and off throughout my childhood. I attended 11 different schools between pre-school and senior year (we moved a lot) so often I wasn’t near a good program. I did a lot of YMCA gymnastics which follows USA Gymnastics compulsory routines and most J.O. rules but typically isn’t anywhere near as competitive with less hours in the gym and other differences like only needing one judge per event for girls compulsories. I also did competitive swimming (it’s easy to find a swim team everywhere), dance, soccer, softball, and track and field. But gymnastics has always been my favorite. I could never get enough and since age 4 I’ve been turning cartwheels or dropping into the splits in the most random places.

Before my sophomore year of high school, we moved to the Chicago area and most of the schools in the north suburbs have gymnastics teams. My school even had a gym devoted a hundred percent to gymnastics. For me, that was amazing. I joined the JV team that year but later during track, I suffered a stress fracture in my back and did not continue with organized sports at all. Instead, I joined the color guard and my dance and gymnastics work ethic came in handy with that activity as well. In addition, in 10th grade I began coaching recreational and competitive kids at a local YMCA program and there I found where my true talents lay. All my life, I’d never had really good technical coaches and coming from several years of ballet, I knew that skills could be picked apart and made to look perfect and that became an obsession of mine with coaching. I started by working with school-aged recreational classes and competitive girls levels 4 and 5.

Later, after moving with my husband and newborn son to central Illinois (my current residence), I took a coaching position at a YMCA that also competed in USA Gymnastics competitions in addition to YMCA meets. Before quitting to write full time in August of 2011, I worked for the Y for 11 years coaching everything from USTA tumbling and trampoline to preschool gymnastics through girls Level 8s and 9s. My favorite to coach, by far, were the kids [that] myself and another coach trained for TOPs. It was a program that fed my obsession with perfect form and technique and it was such an exciting challenge to train kids for that level.

Was there any motivation or spark moment behind writing Letters to Nowhere?
I’ve always wanted to write a young adult novel featuring a gymnast as a main character. A high level female gymnastics athlete is such a unique and authentic perspective compared to your average teenage girl, plus it would give me the opportunity to incorporate real-life challenges for gymnasts and splash in a fictional world where my characters can perform whatever skills I’d like them to do and wear any color leo and of course win whatever meets I’d like them to win. I wrote a more in depth story behind the story on blog that you can read here

Could you explain a little more about the "NA" category and if fitting into that category versus Young Adult changed the direction of the book?
I think Letters to Nowhere fits right between YA and NA. New Adult (NA) is all about independence, sexual exploration, being an adult and not only how a character will choose to place themselves in society but a more urgent need to do this asap or fail at life. Young Adult (YA) is about many of those things, but often with authority lurking in the background or the “I still technically have to be labeled a kid but someone is expecting adult behavior from me” mindset. In YA, responsibility is always a weight for the character to shoulder and in NA, responsibility is the everyday norm (even when characters choose not to accept it, it’s expected). So with Karen in Letters to Nowhere—she’s an elite gymnast and even though she’s held onto her amateur status for college, she is very much a professional expected to behave as an adult in her world. Her sport is like a full time job. But at the same time, she’s just a girl who misses her parents, is afraid to talk to the boy, and doesn’t know exactly what to do with her life after high school. As the series progresses, it will evolve into a full-blown NA story.

Did you want to write about an elite gymnast or was elite gymnastics something that came later as the character developed in your mind?
Writing an elite gymnast was something I wanted to do from when I first started writing back in 2009, but I held off because I wanted to show that I could write [about] other subjects beside gymnastics. Though I’ve never coached elites, I got a bit of an inside look at the world by coaching kids for TOPs. It took about three years to get a group of young girls hitting those national best scores for TOP testing and to qualify someone to the team. We did this in 2003 and I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend the TOPs National Training Camp at “the ranch” in Houston. In fact, I shared a cabin with some young ladies who went on to hit the elite scene like Mattie Larson, Sam Shapiro, Randy Lau, and Petra Matthies. Being at that camp gave me such insight into how tiny that percentage of gymnasts is and how enormous that jump from Level 10 to elite truly is. People who tune in for Olympic gymnastics but know little about the sport have no idea what it takes to reach that level. Yes, it’s talent and physical make-up but also time, money, great coaching, technique, technique, and TECHNIQUE plus the personality and patience to do the same thing a thousand times and then a thousand more. I wanted people to have that inside look with the book.

Tell us about your main character, Karen.
Karen has just turned seventeen when the story opens and she’s also just lost her parents in a tragic car accident. After her coach offers to let her live with him and continue training, Karen faces new challenges both in the gym and out, like having a crush on the coach’s seventeen year old son.

Karen Campbell, as a gymnast, is the type that I lived to coach. She’s not the top seat in the gym, not the one who can do any skill, she’s the kid who gets my love of perfection, who looks at me when I give corrections and who, on the very next turn, makes a change even if it’s the wrong change. There is nothing more frustrating to a coach than having gymnasts repeat the same mistake over and over again. I used to tell kids, just do SOMETHING different. Anything. Show me that words are actually falling from my mouth and I’m not going crazy. Karen is also the kid who lives and breathes for gymnastics. She loves it in a way that is extremely rare, in a way that, if given the right coaching, will prevail over those more talented than her. These types of gymnasts, hide in the back at first, make their way to the middle and slowly, after absorbing everything they’ve been taught in their gymnastics career, sneak out front and surprise everyone. On the outside, Karen is quiet and obedient, on the inside she’s had a fire lit under her and is developing a feisty spirit and a level of mental toughness than will rival the very best.

So much of your book is based in fact - the Martha Karolyi of the team, getting international assignments increasing chances of going to Worlds, the difficulty of comebacks in a "young girl's" sport, etc. Was it important for you to keep things in line with the real world of elite gymnastics?
98.5% realistic to the sport of international elite gymnastics is what I was going for. Okay, maybe not that exact figure, but as close as possible without ruining all the awesome potential for fictional fun. You have to stretch a bit for the sake of the story. There are a few skills that Karen begins working on then later performs in competition that probably would require more training time, however I imagine it has been done before. Because I have this knowledge, getting it right was a huge priority. In fact, I don’t think I would have been able to create something watered down. I’ve been too far on the inside to be able to give that type of perspective. But I did really worry that the insertion of Nina Jones (aka – Martha Karolyi) might hit a little too close to home, but I so had to do it after weaving it into the plot in a way that I fell in love with. Hopefully Martha won’t mind. Nina is probably at least 10% caricature Martha. At least.

Check out Part 2

Buy Letters to Nowhere on Amazon - there is both an ebook version and paperback version.
Follow Julie Cross on twitter: @juliecross1980