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'Shooting For Happiness' - Joanne C. Hillhouse talks about writing and more

Joanne C. Hillhouse

Joanne C. Hillhouse is an Antiguan writer. Her novel Oh Gad! is a Zane Presents work, published by Strebor Books. She is the author of The Boy From Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She talks to Susumba about the novel, writing and the route to publication when you are writing from a small island.
S: Some writers say you should write what you know, others argue that you write what you read. What do you think?
JH: I think my writing is grounded in what I know but driven by what I want to know. Writing a story is a process of discovery for me driven by an impulse to get inside of the something – the emotion, the situation, the character, the relationship, the choices, the circumstance that I’m on some level struggling to understand.

S: What inspired/ motivated you to write Oh Gad?
JH: Every answer I give to this feels false or inexact, the process of writing this book and then redrafting and redrafting and putting it down and taking it up again and finding an agent and then a publisher and then getting it to print has been so long, I feel like anything I say is partly an invention. What will I say is that family dynamics, the tensions that exist in the domestic space, and especially between mothers and daughters, and sisters and sisters, compel me – somehow I keep coming back to them; to people trying to understand each other and understand themselves, probably a reflection of my own journey as well – a woman who feels a bit like an alien in her own life trying to figure out, okay, so now what.

Oh Gad! by Joanne C. HillhouseS: Can you elaborate on the title? Is it a yell of frustration or one of exultation?
JH: Once I knew that the coal pot or pottery making culture – very much a part of my family history on my father’s side and very much a part of the Antiguan folk tradition – was going to figure so much in the book, Oh Gad! fell naturally into place as the title. Oh Gad! is a colloquialism for the coal pot which, as I wrote, was a reminder to me of the sort of imperfect beauty and fragility of life, and something so grounded, literally from the ground, that it came to reflect the essence of what Nikki must come to terms with back at me. It works well as exclamation as well – given the emotional chaos of the characters’ and especially Nikki’s life – but it started with the coal pot.

S: What were the major hurdles toward being picked up by a major publisher?
JH: Getting your foot in the door when you’re ‘nobody’ from a small island can be discouraging. So much rejection, that’s a writer’s yolk, finding a way to shake it off and keep going; that’s the hardest because we do have feelings after all and we do get discouraged.

S: Tell me about the route to publication.
JH: Once I felt I had a manuscript worth selling, I did research online mostly trying to find somewhere to sell it. I tried to find publishers and/or agents who were open to taking risks on new writers, who represented any of the niches I might fit into – female, black etc. ... The hardest kind of pitch I remember having to do was an oral pitch – how to verbalize what makes your story different or something the market needs. Networking also helped; and networking isn’t just about hitting up other writers but building relationships and putting yourself in situations where your writing can grow.

S: What advice would you give to up and coming writers from the region about getting published by a mainstream publishing house?
JH: Honestly, I think it comes down to the material. I see publishing as the end game not the first step. Develop your craft, read a lot, experience life, write; these are more important. And when you’re ready do your research... take your shot, and don’t give up.

S: Are there aspects of you and your personal experiences in the novel?
JH: Probably; that’s never a deliberate thing and Nikki is not biographical by any stretch of the imagination. But I do relate to her sense of feeling out of place because I guess I’ve kind of always been that girl, always been a bit outside the lines, and that’s what I drew on to try to navigate the geographic distance she had from home, a geographic distance I didn’t have. The Boy From Willow Bend

S: Nikki, the protagonist, is on a journey to finding her place in the world and comfort in her own skin, is this a journey that you have had to go on?
JH: I think in some ways it’s a journey everyone has to go on whether they actually leave home or not, they have to figure out who am I? where do I fit? what do I want? why am I the way I am? I suppose I’ve asked myself all those questions at some time or other.

S: After Nikki has started to identify with Antigua, she explains to Jazz that an Antiguan would never refer to the space as “the islands”, is it important to you how outsiders view the Caribbean in general and Antigua in particular?
JH: I honestly don’t think about it a lot when I’m writing. Or at least I haven’t generally, I try to shut off the censors and agendas when I’m in the creative space. [W]hat I feel is that if you render the world richly and the reader comes inside of it for a while, then it has to include an acceptance of the nuances of that world, the rules and the history of that world, if you’ve contextualized the story well then you’ve done a good job of helping them do that.

S: Do you identify Oh Gad! as an Antiguan novel?
JH: It is. What I hope it is beyond that is a compelling story that any one can relate to. I’m hoping that it’s not pigeon-holed as any one thing to the exclusion of other things.

S: The Caribbean seems to be going through its second literary Renaissance. Would you agree with that and if so, what do you think has caused it?
JH: When I was coming up, I didn’t know any Antiguan writers, outside of the calypso writers. I had never read or seen a book published in Antigua, written by an Antiguan... in my late teens I discovered Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid. It’s amazing how affirming that was, how seeing someone so close to your world go there makes it seem more possible.  Between that time and now there’s been so much more literary activity...  Part of it is the technology that has made self publishing so much easier. Part of it is that younger writers are able to say boldly, ‘I want to write a book’, if that’s what they want; when in my teens, I couldn’t even admit it out loud... it was not something people did, certainly nobody I knew.
As far as it being a renaissance, I think it’s still extremely challenging to get published, and stay published once you do; there is still a lack of infrastructure to nurture young writers (which is what I try to do with Wadadli Pen) still a lack of assistance for writers looking to get their stories out.

S: What writing projects are you currently working on?
JH: I’ve started work on a new novel; it’s going slowly and it’s too early to discuss though I did workshop it this past summer as well. I’m always working on new stories and poems just because and for journal and contest submissions; and of course I freelance as a writer and editor, and now writing coach, so I’m always writing or interacting with the written word in some way. I need some paid, uninterrupted time and space to give to the creative process though, that’s a challenge.

S: What are you looking forward to most in 2013?
JH: Happiness in whatever form it may come.