Antiguan and Barbudan writer Joanne C. Hillhouse wrote The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight (since re-issued as Dancing Nude in the Moonlight 10th Anniversary Edition and Other Writings), Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and Musical Youth, which placed second for the Burt Award for YA Caribbean Literature in 2014. Her writing fiction and/or poetry have appeared in Pepperpot: Best New Writing from the Caribbean, In the Black: New African Canadian Literature, and other journals and/or anthologies. She runs the Wadadli Pen writing programme (http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com). For more: http://jhohadli.wordpress.com orhttp://www.facebook.com/JoanneCHillhouse
Geosi Gyasi: What is the inspiration behind your book, “Musical Youth”?
Joanne Hillhouse: There wasn’t a single inspiration. It was a combination of things that I didn’t even realize I was pulling together, as I blogged about here (https://jhohadli.wordpress.com/2014/08/17/the-waiting-game-or-the-scraps-of-things). I love music. I played guitar all through my teens. I drew on the reflections of the camaraderie that exists between you and your friends at that time in your life. I run a writing programme for young people, Wadadli Pen (http://wadadlipen.wordpress.com) so obviously I believe in the power of the arts to give young people a voice. That any of this worked its way in to Musical Youth didn’t happen consciously. One night these kids showed up and I started writing, quickly realizing that if I pushed myself I could make the deadline for the Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean literature, which was like two weeks away. It’s a good thing that I was enjoying hanging out with these characters as they discovered music, themselves, each other, the world of musical theatre, and the mysteries linking their families because, impossible as it seemed, I made the deadline and the manuscript I hadn’t even had time to edit placed second for the prize.
Geosi Gyasi: You were born in Ottos, Antigua. Could you tell us a little about your birthplace?
Joanne Hillhouse: Antigua is the most beautiful island that ever islanded. Jokes aside, if you look at the tourist brochures we’re a small island surrounded by some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. No exaggeration. But, my earliest memories are of the willow tree lined dead end alley I used as the setting for my first book The Boy from Willow Bend. That our population includes a mix of people from different places, including the Dominican Republic is something I touch on in Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, my second book, recently reissued as a 10th anniversary edition with other writings. My paternal family’s involvement in pottery making, an island folk tradition reaching back to the pre-Columbian era and forward to the period of African enslavement to the bursts of independence and the birth of villages worked its way into my novel Oh Gad! That and things like pepperpot, our national dish, a mix of things, a credit to the Antiguan/Caribbean cut and contrive sensibility of making something, in this case something really tasty, out of nothing. My children’s picture book explores the wonderful marine life, the coral reefs and such from the perspective of a stranded arctic seal. And in Musical Youth the production they’re working on features the West African trickster Anansi, the tales of which we all grew up hearing… I mention all of that to say that we are mix of influences and if you read my books, I kind of shine a light on the corners of my world – from memories of climbing trees and chasing butterflies as a child to the indescribable, though I’m still trying, beauty of our sunsets. There’s sugar cake and pepperpot, and mas, and calypso, the politics and the struggle, and hurricanes and just life as simple and complex as life anywhere …except every day, to reference a local calypso, we wake up to the sun.
Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “The Boy From Willow Bend”?
Joanne Hillhouse: I was at the University of Miami, at my first writers’ workshop, and my manuscript, the same manuscript I’d used to get myself into the workshop had just been ripped to shreds and was still settling like confetti around me when the boy showed up. A product of memory, invention, and the tools I was learning to apply in that very workshop in crafting character, he was there suddenly and I was curious about him. The world he inhabited was just familiar enough – including his tanty being modelled on my late grandmother, my tanty, and the willow trees, and the struggle and uncertainty, and the adventures that children will find no matter their circumstances – that I could imagine it. It started there, with me spending time with the boy in this world that was familiar to us both and at the same time a discovery, and really coming to care for him.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you manage to write for both adults and children?
Joanne Hillhouse: I don’t think about it like that. I just tell the story. Sometimes the protagonist is a child, sometimes a teen, sometimes an adult, sometimes an old person, sometimes a jelly fish named Coral. The writing is always character first, not audience. During the editing process that’s when I’m challenged, often by the assigned editor, to think about things like can the target age group for this picture book understand abstract thinking, do I maybe need to be more literal, more detailed, more specific, provide clearer resolution, like that.
Geosi Gyasi: Is there any major difference between fiction and non-fiction?
Joanne Hillhouse: Fiction is fun. I don’t write – or read – a lot of non-fiction for so. As a trained journalist and a columnist, I got into writing non-fiction, and I do so mostly on my paid assignments – since I freelance these days as a writer and editor working on different types of content for different types of clientele, but fiction is what I love. It’s complete freedom – freedom from self-censorship, from your inhibitions, freedom to be vulnerable and bold, and to unleash the imagination like you would in a dream, freedom to be creative. The beauty about being a fiction writer and poet who also writes non-fiction is when writing the non-fiction the creativity is still there, there’s always that sense of creating, finding a way to make even the driest topic something people want to read about, by first making it something I want to read about.
Geosi Gyasi: You graduated with a degree in Mass Communications from University of the West Indies (Mona). Why did you choose to study at the University of the West Indies?
Joanne Hillhouse: I’d love to be able to say that I chose it. But really I come from a working class background, and didn’t have certain advantages. I’d been out of school/college and working for a year when a scholarship opportunity opened up. That it was specific to UWI was really how I landed there. I don’t know when I would have been able to do university otherwise. Having said that, it was the best place for me, one of the best experiences of my life, and I don’t regret it for a minute.
Geosi Gyasi: Did you know as a child that you would one day become a writer?
Joanne Hillhouse: That I would become one? No. I didn’t have context or language for it, models or much to encourage me in that direction. It’s one of the reasons I do Wadadli Pen, to encourage. I knew I loved to read, I knew I had a vivid imagination, and that writing was how I process the world, I knew certainly by my teens that I loved to write but I didn’t know or maybe believe that this was something I could do. It was a slow awakening as a teen and young adult to giving voice to this dream I’d secreted away even from myself because I didn’t know how to believe in it. Through it all though, I never stopped writing. I only wish I had claimed it as a child, maybe everything would have happened earlier, or maybe it is as it was meant to be.
Geosi Gyasi: How do you know when a story you’re writing is not going well?
Joanne Hillhouse: When I feel disconnected from the material, that’s usually a sign. When I find myself leaning on certain crutches or being dishonest on the page, those are signs.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you show your works-in-progress to friends before you send them out to publishers?
Joanne Hillhouse: Well, I wouldn’t be sending works in progress out to publishers, so no. I do have people that I get feedback from, sometimes not every time, when I feel the work is ready to go out. With my first two books, The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, my friend, who was also editor at the newspaper I worked at at the time, and who red inks anything I show her, anyway, whether I ask her to or not, thoroughly edited both for me before they went off for publication consideration. With Oh Gad! I had a friend who when my spirits were flagging, somewhere around the second draft, became the book’s cheerleader, I would read bits and pieces to her and her reaction or lack thereof was very helpful. She wasn’t a writer so she wasn’t about telling me what worked and what didn’t, and I only shared bits and pieces anyway, but she believed in the work early and that helped me not give up on it. With Fish Outta Water my first test audience was children, during school visits and at the Cushion Club, the kids reading club I volunteer with. With Musical Youth, the only person who read it, and not in its entirety, before it went off to the contest was my teenage niece because I wanted to get a teenage perspective on it… and I had no time to get it critiqued or edited. My next picture book for which I recently signed a contract, I tested it at the tail end of my Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project, a tween/teen writing workshop I started two summers ago. I didn’t tell them it was mine though; we’d been doing critiques of different works all week and I just snuck it in there for some honest feedback. I wanted to test it with an audience close to the target audience. I have people not a big group, sometimes people I’ve connected with at workshops with whom I sometimes do exchanges…can you look at this for me and vice versa …not to abuse it though…and again not while it’s in progress…pretty much when I think it’s done….and then of course they come back with notes that debunk that whole done theory.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you come from a family of writers?
Joanne Hillhouse: No.
Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your writing?
Joanne Hillhouse: I want to be true to my characters; I want to tell good stories.
Geosi Gyasi: Where does your love for reading come from?
Joanne Hillhouse: I don’t know. It baffles me that everybody else doesn’t love reading so that might be my question, how can you not? I love stories whether they come to me in song, spoken word, on the screen, on stage, in my head, or in a book. It’s always been that way.
Geosi Gyasi: What books did you read growing up as a child?
Joanne Hillhouse: Oy, too many to mention, I remember a pig called Wilbur, a spider called Charlotte, a dog that could talk, Jo and her sisters, Jane, Noddie, Anansi, Margaret via Blume, Archie – always rooting for Betty, Scout, and the bag of Mills and Boon my mom kept in a plastic bag behind her bed. That was as close as we came to a home library. That and Uncle Arthur Bedtime Stories. Books were a luxury I didn’t have money for; so my reading was often whatever I could get my hands on from the Trixie Belden books and the Sweet Dreams in the dusty stacks in the clustered library space, to the Sweet Valley Highs and romances we traded at school, to whatever books were left behind by the tourists at the hotels my parents worked at. The first book I remember owning was a book I somehow acquired after a hurricane when I was six – it was an activity book thick with stories and poems from all parts of the world. Just anything. I still pretty much read anything.
Geosi Gyasi: From where do you get the names of your characters?
Joanne Hillhouse: They have their names…and they generally don’t cooperate until I listen good and get it right. Seriously, one of the characters in Oh Gad! – Aeden, couldn’t get him righto save my life but when I figured out I wasn’t calling him by his right name, then I had to research, based on his ancestry what his name might be (usually it doesn’t take all that research; usually it feels wrong until I get it right), but once I got it, him and me, we clicked.
Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any secret flaw as a writer?
Joanne Hillhouse: Multiple, no doubt. I remain a work in progress. And that’s no secret.
Geosi Gyasi: What are you currently reading?
Joanne Hillhouse: Finally, an easy question. I’m actively reading Maeve Binchy’s Evening Class, Mio’s Kingdom by Astrid Lindgren, the Caribbean Writer (a literary journal) Volume 29, Singles Holiday by Elaine Spires, Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan, The Art of Mali Olatunji by Mali Olatunji and Paget Henry, the latest edition of the Antigua and Barbuda Review of Books, All Over Again by A-dZiko Simba Gegele, and The Book – the Essential Guide to Publishing for Children
Geosi Gyasi: Do you care to ask me any question?
Joanne Hillhouse: I’m curious about your name…
Geosi Gyasi: Great question. I have a wonderful poem published here that tells all about my name, Geosi. Thanks for asking.
Thanks for the interview, Geosi.
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