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“Why did you have to kill Uncle Wellie?!?” Interview With Joanne C. Hillhouse

Posted on 17/04/2012
By Commonwealth Foundation

Commonwealth Writers Conversation; Joanne Hillhouse

"I just loved to sing and dance to my favourites – Shorty, Obstinate, Latumba. We all did; and we all knew we could count on them to tell the truth."
Joanne Hillhouse

Is there a place or an event that has informed your writing?

My writing is always rooted in my Antiguan-ness; and in particular the Antiguan (with a hint of Dominican) working-class reality from the 1970s to present; the rhythms of that world especially informed my first book The Boy from Willow Bend (2009). But it’s there in some way, shape or form in the other stories as well – even the ones not set in Ottos, where I was born: people making do and making a way, people who had their eyes wide open to reality but were still superstitious, people dealing with the disorientation of change within the shadow of larger political and social factors, much like in my new book Oh Gad! (2014).

Calypsonians would have been some of the first poets I would have been exposed to and, from a literary perspective, their frank handling of topic juxtaposed with their inventive use of language gave the story a layered interpretation. I think in retrospect I took in some of that, though back then I just loved to sing and dance to my favourites – Shorty, Obstinate, Latumba. We all did; and we all knew we could count on them to tell the truth. But, of course, I also read what I could get my hands on, or bent my ear to whatever Anansi or Jumbie story was floating around.

Which book would you never give away for fear of losing?

Well, I remember buying a friend a copy of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at a used book sale because I wanted her to read it but didn’t want to loan my copy.

"It’s important if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, which isn’t exactly easy when you come from what Jamaica Kincaid described as “A Small Place” in the Caribbean. But if I could just write, I would prefer that."
Joanne Hillhouse

What is the best piece of writing advice you have been given?

I don’t know if this is the best advice I’ve been given but I was thinking the other day about one of my first writing workshop experiences. I was maybe the youngest at the table and it was being led by a very seasoned writer, at a prestigious university, in the company of other writers who had done so much already. At some point, we all had to present for critique excerpts of our writing. I had never been really been through that process before, at that level, and I remember one of the participants, a lady almost as seasoned as the one leading the workshop, looming – that’s how I think of it now – and challenging me “why should I care about these people?” with reference to my characters. Even thinking of it now is difficult…

But what I took from that and the discussion that followed is that it’s not enough that you know the characters and think they’re interesting or whatever, you have to help the readers see and feel them as well, and to do that you have to know them in a multidimensional way; don’t do them the disservice of sharing them with others too early. To this day, I guard the early stages of the process very closely, I use a lot of detail, a lot of specificity in rendering the world, and I write from a very character-driven place – Who are they? What do they want? What is their truth (don’t compromise on telling their truth)? Why should we care?

What was the hardest thing to overcome when trying to write your first novel?

That’s a tricky one. The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight are short novels and by comparison once I took the time to spend time with the characters they came relatively easily, even with having to juggle a day job and burn the midnight oil. By comparison Oh Gad!, my first full length novel, felt like a marathon, a marathon in which finishing the first draft was just the beginning. Just not giving up, always coming back to the story, that was the hardest; a process made somewhat easier by a friend who at some point became these characters’ biggest cheerleaders, insisting (as if it was an inevitability) that she had to read their story in print after hearing so much about them. One of my mentors who helped with final edit had the same kind of certainty; it helped.

Do you think discussing your work with others is important?

I actually don’t like discussing my work. I prefer to let the writing speak for itself. But I’ve had to get over that, because publishing and promotion go hand in hand which means discussing your work to some degree. It’s important if you want to be taken seriously as a writer, which isn’t exactly easy when you come from what Jamaica Kincaid described as “A Small Place” in the Caribbean. But if I could just write, I would prefer that.

That said, one of my favourite discussions was with a group of high school students who had read Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (2004) and were studying it for school, and, if their thought provoking questions were any indication, were totally stimulated by it and invested in the characters – why did you have to kill Uncle Wellie?!? They were an actual delight to discuss my book with.

 

"I try to take every opportunity to learn; I believe that writing is part talent, instinct, intuition, whatever you want to call it, but I also have a healthy respect for craft."
Joanne Hillhouse

Have you ever received any tutoring for your writing?

I would say, yes, formally and informally. I read voraciously and learned a lot – about pacing, tension, plotting, creating atmosphere, characterization etc. – from reading. I’ve also been mentored by other writers, and taken writing courses at University of the West Indies and University of Miami; and I’ve done other writing workshops and/or master classes – not just on fiction writing but playwriting, screenwriting. When I earned a spot at Breadloaf in the U.S. on an international fellowship, in 2008, I attended as many of the technique classes and readings as my schedule allowed. I try to take every opportunity to learn; I believe that writing is part talent, instinct, intuition, whatever you want to call it, but I also have a healthy respect for craft. I’ve taught others through youth writing workshops, my freelance coaching services, and to some degree the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize, a programme I run here in Antigua and Barbuda, and it’s something I emphasize. You’re always learning.

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