This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Thomas Nelson.
Zoe Collins wasn’t planning on returning to her hometown of Copper Creek—a place she associates with painful memories and burned bridges. But when her beloved grandmother dies, she knows she can’t miss the funeral. As soon as she steps foot back on Blue Ridge soil, she feels the pleasing pull of small-town life and is surprised to find that her old friends and estranged family members welcome her with open arms.
What’s especially surprising are her intense feelings for her first love, Cruz Huntley, who is still just as handsome and caring five years later. When Granny’s will is read, Zoe is shocked to hear that Granny wanted nothing more than for Zoe to return to Copper Creek in order to take over the family peach orchard. But is Zoe willing to leave her life back in Nashville—and the increasingly toxic, but familiar relationship with her boyfriend, Kyle—behind her? And what's the best decision for Zoe’s 5-year-old daughter? As Zoe and Cruz feel a familiar spark begin to ignite, the two must make peace with their mistakes and stop hiding secrets. Can first love triumph after they’re given a rare second chance? We caught up with bestselling author of Blue Ridge Sunrise, Denise Hunter, to find out more about this sweet, inspiring story.
Hilli: First of all, do you just want to tell me a little bit about your inspiration for this story?
Denise: There’s a country song: The guy is singing about a woman he used to know really well. She’s come back into his town and she’s different—she’s with another guy, and she’s just not herself. You can tell that this guy has beat her down. That’s what got me thinking about Zoe. I wanted to tell that woman’s story.
And this is also a small town story. It seems like you’re really drawn to small towns. What’s so special to you about these communities? Are you from a small town yourself?
I am. Originally I’m from a Southern Ohio town called Madison. I think the more spread out we become as a culture in the U.S., and the more impersonal we become with social media, I think there’s a large part of us that longs for small-town roots and the community and the support you get in a community like that, where friends are like family. We’re so isolated today. I think a small-town read really makes readers feel connected.
What drew you then to romance?
I’m a romantic at heart, there’s no doubt about that! I think what I love most is diving into the psychology behind why we do the things we do. A lot of times when there’s a problem with a couple, the problems stems from something that happened to them either with a former relationship or in their childhood. It keeps them from having a healthy, loving relationship in the present. That’s my favorite thing—to sort that out for the character: What’s causing them to have these problems? Is it abandonment? Is it abuse? I think that really connects with a lot of readers. You don’t escape this life unscathed. We all have issues and it’s my goal to help readers see their own issues in themselves. And I even use it as a method of working on my own sometimes! I really think fiction can be a great tool in that way.
Absolutely. I should mention then that this book deals with some pretty heavy issues, like domestic violence. Was it important for you to handle this in a really sensitive way? How did you go about that?
Of course I want to be sensitive to issues as serious as abuse. In this case, it was more control than [physical] abuse. I really wanted to show the way that Zoe ended up attracted to that kind of a controlling person. It stemmed directly from the way her father treated her. And I like to make those connections for readers so that they can see the connections in their own lives and hopefully find healing through the story.
And as a result, maybe understand some other people and their experiences. Put themselves in their shoes so to speak.
Absolutely! Sometimes people in this life do crazy things. And it really does help when you’re able to look and say: “Well, maybe they do this because of that.” It helps you have a little more empathy and more grace for that person.
What do you love most about your two main characters, Zoe and Cruz?
Ah, Zoe and Cruz. I think what I like most about them is that it’s a story about their first love. They’re getting a second chance. I think everybody appreciates a second chance because we all mess up, and Zoe really messed up [laughs]. But sometimes we do, too! I think it’s encouraging to see a couple that has made mistakes in the past, and they’ve paid for those mistakes. Now they’re getting a fresh opportunity. I think that’s encouraging and inspirational.
And maybe a little more realistic than some other romance stories these days.
Bad choices often lead to consequences!
Yes. What would be your best piece of relationship advice? You’ve written a lot of romances at this point, and I know you also have a very strong relationship with your husband. What kind of wisdom can you impart?
Oh wow. There are so many things I could say. I would say that we’re all fallible. I’m going to mess up. My husband’s going to mess up. The person you’re with is going to mess up. I just think it’s really important to stick with it. [With] love and relationships, the romance kind of takes a back seat as time goes on and you have to make a choice to love that person. If you’re both striving toward a healthy relationship, I think the main thing is to give each other grace.
Oh, I love that. Did these characters surprise you at any point in your writing process for this book?
Yes! I only had about a paragraph or two of the story going in.
Oh yeah. It leaves quite a bit of wiggle room. It’s always a journey of finding out what these people are going to do and what’s going to happen to them. More if I don’t outline it all up front. All of that is part of the fun and surprise of writing. I enjoy that.
What’s the biggest takeaway for your readers with this novel?
With this novel and with all novels, my purpose in writing the story is to make the reader feel. I want my books to have all the good feels, that’s why readers read romance. I also think that when you open yourself up to really empathizing with characters—when you’re in their heads and you’re understanding what they’re doing (and maybe not liking it, but knowing why they’re doing it)—I think you can open yourself up to learning and growing because you’re so emotionally involved.
And how do you go about weaving in faith with your novels?
Every main character in a book needs to have some form of growth. In the case of a spiritual thread, there’s something in there, something in Zoe’s past that’s holding her back spiritually. Not just, you know, [holding her back] emotionally from love, but also spiritually. It might be connected to what’s holding her back from having a healthy love relationship. So they’re sometimes very intertwined, that’s just how life is.
Can we expect a new novel soon?
The follow up to Blue Ridge Sunrise comes out in May of next year! It’s called Honeysuckle Dreams, and it features Brady and Hope. I think it picks up less than a month after Blue Ridge Sunrise ends. That was a really fun one to write, too!