By Kendal Groner
After several years working as a newspaper writer and teaching high school, R.J. Harris published her debut novel “The Spirit Breather,” on Oct. 1, the first of a four book series called “The Native Guardians.”
Harris currently lives in Kingsport and grew up mostly in Rogersville. She has either been writing or teaching people how to write almost all of her adult life.
“I majored in English, but The Erwin Record is really where I learned how to write,” she said. “I was writing everyday and they kept making me edit and edit and revise and revise until I got it right, so that’s really where I learned to self edit my own work. It’s where I got my start.”
With an English degree from Emory & Henry already under her belt, Harris left The Erwin Record to pursue a teaching degree. After getting her Masters of Education from Milligan College she taught at Hampton High School in Carter County for several years. She then obtained her Masters of Fine Arts from Spalding University before returning to The Erwin Record as a feature writer for about a year.
Harris had been working on “The Spirit Breather” since 2012, but due to unexpected complications during her pregnancy with her three-year-old son Desmond, her writing was put on hold. Her son was born 13 weeks early, forcing her to have an emergency C-section. Her son was in the neonatal intensive care unit for five months, and health issues resulting from her C-section required her to have another surgery that caused her to develop fibromyalgia.
“Basically for about two years I did nothing but take care of him and try to take care of myself and make sure that he got all of the therapies and everything he needed,” she said. “Now I have a three-year-old boy with absolutely no health problems, so that’s definitely kind of a miracle in my life.”
After ensuring the health of her son and trying to get her own health stabilized, Harris began thinking about which direction she wanted to take her career.
“I’ve never been one to be idle or not contribute,” she said.
A close friend of hers, who is also a writer, encouraged her to continue her novel writing and pursue publishing. Instead of going through a literary agent, which could have delayed her publication date by years, she decided to publish her book herself.
“After much prayer and much thought, and about a year of research I said ‘you know what, life is too short and I would rather do what I dreamed of doing now than wait.’ It took me awhile to get to that mindset, but here I am,” she said. “I probably never would have adopted my mindset, I would’ve never had the courage to do it on my own if not for everything that I’ve been through.”
The setting for Harris’s novel is Cherokee, North Carolina, and old legends and mythology from the culture are found throughout the book. Harris became particularly interested in the Cherokee culture after her grandfather, who she had a very strong bond with, passed away. She knew her grandfather had Native American ancestry, but she never had the chance to speak with him much about his heritage while he was still alive.
“He had married into a very proper English-German family back in the 1940s, and as a result he just didn’t speak much about his heritage,” she said. “When I started doing research what I discovered was this amazing culture that doesn’t get very much attention. This idea was born and I just started writing and I couldn’t stop.”
“The Spirit Breather” centers around the story of Emily Morrow, a young woman who has been tasked with destroying the legendary Raven Mockers after enduring a very traumatic event in her life. According to Cherokee mythology, the Raven Mockers are among the most dreaded witches and essentially symbolize death as they steal the souls of the elderly and dying.
“You can supposedly tell if someone is a Raven Mocker because in their human form they have really paper thin, withered skin because they are so old and they have been stealing souls to maintain their immortality,” Harris said.
Harris went to great lengths to try to represent the Cherokee culture as accurately as possible. She visited museums, watched traditional dance ceremonies and read as many books on Cherokee history, culture and mythology as she could.
“I hope that I have done justice to their culture and their legends, I tried very, very hard with that respect,” she said. “I really did just fall in love with the culture.”
Along with Emily Morrow, another main character in her novel is Joseph Stomper, a spirit warrior of the Nunnehi immortals who has vowed to protect Morrow. After studying male characters in young adult literature in a course at Spalding University, Harris paid careful attention to the way male characters in her novel were portrayed. She said that oftentimes abusive situations can be glorified in some of the young adult literature and that was something she wanted to avoid.
“It was really important for me to create a positive male character, and so there’s this fine line with creating a brutal warrior who I didn’t want to over romanticize,” she said. “I wanted him to be a fierce warrior so I took great pains to not make him overly good looking.”
Her novel explores themes of forgiveness, destiny, purpose and finding one’s role in some sort of higher calling. The novel examines how sometimes suffering can be taken and used for a greater purpose.
“Emily Morrow has gone through this very traumatic event and when she least expects it she is confronted with this heroic prophecy she is a part of,” she said. “Even though she doesn’t feel that she is a hero, she really moves into herself and becomes what she has always wanted to be essentially.”
Harris said that so far her novel has been well received, and even though she wrote it for young adults, it has been appreciated by readers of all ages. Both male and female readers have been drawn to the action packed novel with an enticing plot line. She hopes to have the second book in the “Native Guardian Series” released just before Christmas.
“I felt like this book was something I needed to do, and it’s just so rewarding to have people tell me ‘Hey, I bought your book and I’ve loved every minute of it’.”
For more information, visit https://www.rebekahjharris.com/.