Writer’s Passport: Jennifer Hillier Talks with Andrew Pyper

By Jennifer Hillier

I was pretty stoked to land an interview with Andrew Pyper for our International Authors series, although it does kind of feel like I’m cheating since Andrew isn’t really international to me – he and I are both Canadian. But I had the privilege of hanging out with Andrew a little bit back in 2013 at the Book Lover’s Ball in Toronto, and he’s such a great guy that I was looking forward to catching up with him and talking about his experiences as a Canadian author. He did not disappoint – he’s as insightful and funny as I remember.

I first read Lost Girls back when it came out in 2001, and I remember being so excited to read a thriller set in Ontario, Canada. How did you first get published? Do you think there are any differences in getting published in Canada compared to the US?

My first book was a collection of short stories published with a small press here in Canada. I had been publishing stories in literary magazines and an editor of one of them contacted the editor at the press, and I was called at home (email was relatively newish) and asked if I wanted to publish a book. I hadn’t submitted a manuscript and didn’t have an agent so it was an unexpected invitation. Even then, however, I didn’t have a realistic notion of making my living as a fiction writer. It was just something I obsessively, happily, and relentlessly continued to do. When I finished law school I knew two things: I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and I would take some time to try writing a novel. Again, it wasn’t a gambit at a profession, just a – what would you call it? – a blind pursuit. Lost Girls was the result of that. As I was writing I was approached by Anne McDermid, a Toronto agent (who is still my agent) and she asked if I wanted representation. I told her I didn’t have a novel or anything else for her to sell. “You will,” she said.

As for publishing in Canada vs. US: there’s a book in that! It really is a pro-con list that goes on forever. I’ve had wonderful publishing experiences on both sides of the border, and the only essential insight I have is success comes down to people believing in the book. And if you’re lucky, those people convince other people to invest in it.

As a Canadian author who lived in Seattle for eight years, I never personally felt any pressure or expectation to set my books in Canada (and I’m wondering if that will change now that I’ve moved back home). For you, as a Canadian author living in Canada, did you ever feel any pressure to tell Canadian stories?

I think setting and nationalism can be awkward bedmates a lot of the time. The assumption that where an author situates her story says decisive things about her identity or the things that story may say is often wrong, or at least misleading. To me, no matter where I set my stories they’re Canadian stories. It’s the point of view that matters: the voice, the undercurrent, the way in. When I set a novel in the United States, for instance, I’m saying something about the US from a Canadian perspective – necessarily so, as that’s my perspective as a Canadian. Think about Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I often think about how that is such a Canadian book even though it is set in a dystopic US and deals with many of the tendencies of the American systems of power. Which is to say, it’s a novel about America, not an American novel.

What is your book writing process like? Do you have any rituals? Do you write at set times of the day? How many drafts do you typically do before your editor sees it?

I’m a morning person, which is odd to admit, seeing as I don’t jump out of bed at dawn and feel ill if I do more than the most basic physical exercise before noon. But when it comes to writing, I’ve found I get the best use of my mind first thing – or as close to first thing that making breakfast for two kids and rushing to catch the garbage truck before it goes by or life in general allows. No rituals other than The Making of Coffee. And the number of drafts is determined by the book. Some come without too much coaxing, others are a war of the kind you’re not sure who’s won even when it’s all over.

I know that for me, writing characters is easier than coming up with a good plot, especially since I don’t outline. Is there anything you still struggle with as a writer, or have you got it all down to science?

There’s nothing but struggle! I feel like I’m learning as I go along, but what I’m learning isn’t really the mastery of the form but rather my own strengths and weaknesses. Mostly weaknesses. You get a handle on what you can’t do and sometimes it helps point out where you’re good, which is the next best thing to knowing which way to go.

Do you ever go back and reread your older novels? How do you think your writing has evolved (assuming you feel it has)?

I only reread my older books if there’s a reason to, and generally the only reason is to work on adaptations of the stories for TV or film. Even then, I try to keep the study of my own work to a minimum, not because it’s painful to revisit previous work, but to preserve the freshness of whatever new approach I’m bringing to the adaptation. I certainly have never reread any of my novels just for the hell of it. I’m proud of them all, they’re all close to me, and I’m prepared to defend their merits as well acknowledge their flaws. But too much looking back can be dangerous. Just think of the lives lost to those wallowing over lost high school sweethearts on Facebook.

How did you fall into your genre? Mind you, as a fan of yours, I think you’re in a category all your own as your novels are equal parts thrilling, mysterious, horrific, gothic, and literary.

That’s very kind of you to say. But to answer your question is difficult for me. I’ve never made any conscious decisions with regard to genre, never engineered the stories using that particular scaffolding. To me they were always just novels. Stories. It was naive of me for me to be surprised by the questions about category and genre that came my way after Lost Girls was published, but I’d really never thought about it. Was it crime fiction? Horror? Literary? “I hope it’s all that,” was my honest answer, and continues to be. More recently, some readers have referred to the books as “mash-ups,” but again, it feels like being referred to by a name not your own, as if someone ran up to you, Jennifer, pointing at you excitedly and yelling “Rachel! Hey! Rachel, there you are!” It’s the experience of being recognized without being known.

The Demonologist is one of my favorite books of all time. Which book of yours was your favorite to write?

The books are like my children, and like my children, I love them equally (this is a terrible cliché, but also true). Then again, you’re not asking about my sense of ranking the books in terms of quality, but the pleasure I took in writing them. Which is a bit easier to access, because the circumstances of each book’s writing brings to mind different moments of my life, and my emotional state at the time. And then there’s the personality of the books themselves, which can be thought of as friends who’ve drifted away over the years. So looking at them from this perspective, I remember the ridiculous excitement of writing Lost Girls, the love for my daughter that raised the stakes (for me, anyway) and broke my heart every other day writing The Demonologist, and the intensity of physical experience through which I wrote The Wildfire Season. But in many ways the most tender and autobiographical of all the books is The Guardians.

Your new book, The Only Child, is about a forensic psychiatrist who meets a man who claims he’s over 200 years old and the inspiration behind the works of Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind writing it?

I started out thinking about sociopaths. How we all seemed to be talking about sociopaths, how many people around us were acting like sociopaths, how our corporate and political leaders often succeeded not despite of but because of their being sociopaths. I had this idea of a novel about a virus that was a global epidemic that took people’s empathy away, turned them into sociopaths. How far along would such a plague have to go before we even noticed? And how would we combat it? How would certain characters I had in mind set about making the world feel again, instead of just performing rituals of feeling?

Okay, so that didn’t get too far. It was interesting. But too…internal.

Still, all this thinking I was doing about a plague of sociopaths got me thinking about monsters. Where they came from. Which got me re-reading a bunch of books from the nineteenth century, whittled down to three that I felt, together, are the source of all monstrous characteristics in the modern Western tradition, namely Frankenstein (undead), Dracula (vampire/parasite) and Jekyll and Hyde (violent split-personality/psycho). And then I wondered: what if one figure had all three monster qualities? And what if that figure was alive today? What it would be like to be the monster-of-monsters? That’s where the novel starts out from conceptually. But the true jump-off point is the notion of someone who has walked among people for over two centuries but is essentially alone. The Only Child is novel of the gothic, but its emotional concerns have to do with finding someone to live your life with, and the journeys we all embark on to not be alone.

Which authors are your biggest influences? Which three authors would you love to have dinner with, living or dead?

It’s hard to name influences when I’m constantly discovering – to my enormous surprise – where some of my ideas have partly come from. Old TV shows from childhood. A Supertramp song. Buried memory clips from my own life. The story I overheard some guy telling someone at the end of the bar. But as for novelists, I’ve got to mention Stephen King, Henry James and Alice Munro. My weird trio.

Having dinner with people is of course a different matter from influence. I think Oscar Wilde, John the Baptist and Mary Shelley would make a charming table.

What percentage of time do you spend writing vs. promoting your novels? And is there any type of marketing or promotion you find works best? Is there anything you’ve tried that hasn’t worked?

Expressed as a percentage, I’d say 80% writing to 20% promoting (where “promoting” includes everything that’s writing-related but not actually writing). I haven’t a clue what works. Not totally true: my current publisher in Canada has been very successful in positioning my books across a broad range of outlets, and I think the number of places a book shows itself really helps it ultimately get into people’s hands. (I apologize for the obviousness of this point, but there you have it). In my opinion, one’s time is better spent thinking about the story and trying to make it explode in your mind – and then on the page – than in self-marketing. In other words, if the story is really good, other people with real influence or power in the marketplace will find it and push it in ways you personally never could. (Again, apologies for the obviousness, but it’s the only insight I can stand behind with any confidence).

Is there anything you that know now, as a veteran author, that you wished you had known when you were just starting out?

So much. And next to nothing. (The paradox of “wisdom”).

Last question! If you were in a karaoke bar, what would you drink, and what song would you sing?

Draft beer with bourbon shots. And I can tell what song I wouldn’t sing: Roxanne, by The Police. It’s the only karaoke I’ve performed to a largish audience, an occasion when I realized, far too late, that the song is technically un-singable.

Jennifer Hillier is a novelist who writes about dark, twisted people who do dark, twisted things. She was born and raised in Toronto but spent eight years in Seattle, which is where all her books are set. She loves her son, her husband, the Seahawks, and Stephen King (not equally, but close) and is the author of five psychological thrillers. Her newest novel, Jar of Hearts, will be out in 2018 from Minotaur Books. Find her on the web at jenniferhillier.ca.

To learn more about Jennifer Hillier’s newest novel, click on the cover below:

Previously in Writers’ Passport:

Jenny Milchman talks with Sophie Hannah

Tom Sweterlitsch talks with Israel Centeno

Rob Brunet talks with John Burdett

E.A. Aymar talks with Leye Adenle

S.J.I. Holliday talks with Alexandra Sokoloff

Mark Pryor talks with Tana French

J.J. Hensley talks with Ian Rankin