I want to thank Joanne for participating in the “Meet the Writer” series. You can read more about Joanne on her blog or Facebook page. Also, check out the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize – a writing programme Joanne C. Hillhouse founded in 2004 in Antigua and Barbuda.
What kinds of writing do you do? What kinds of writing do you wish you did more of?
I do a bit of everything; as a freelance writer, you kind of have to be open to taking on different types of writing projects. What I really love, though, is creative writing – fiction and poetry, and especially fiction. Not just the books I’ve written (The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Fish Outta Water, Oh Gad! and coming soon Musical Youth) but I just enjoy experimenting within the story writing form, short and long. Much of what I write is character driven and distinctively Caribbean with (I like to believe) universal resonance – because I do believe the stories that are about the human condition can cross over without having to be diluted. I want to keep telling those stories, tell them more. But I also want to continue experimenting, challenging myself. So I’ve tried my hand, within the short story format especially, at everything from noir to fairy tale. And that’s what I wish I could do more of…just new and interesting things. Like fantasy; how cool and what an interesting challenge it would be to create a wholly distinct and totally believable world from scratch. I’d like to try that someday. I hate boxes, labels, limitations, so I just want to keep being creative.
In what ways has academia shaped your writing?
I’m not sure. I mean, I’m not a product of an MFA programme, but my love affair with literature has been a lifelong one, fed inside and outside of the classroom. At the tertiary level, I’ve done writing and literature courses, though my Bachelors is in Communications, and post-tertiary I’ve done workshops like the Caribbean Fiction Writers Summer Institute at the University of Miami, the Breadloaf Writers Conference at Middlebury College, and Texas A & M Callaloo Writers workshop at Brown University. And I hope to do more of that kind of thing. But I think more important than “academia,” for me, has been this passion for reading and writing, and growing and being open to the opportunities to be mentored in person or on the page…because I do believe a lot of what I’ve learned about writing I’ve learned from reading…I love to read.
In what ways has life outside of academia shaped your writing?
I wrote a poem once called “Stealing Life,” and that’s it in a nutshell. It’s not a conscious act, most of the time, and it’s not a linear relationship, but life feeds my writing; without life there’s nothing to write, is there?
What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?
I’ll let you know when that happens.
What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
At some point, you have to let it go, happy or not; at some point, you’ve done all you can with it. Sometimes that means filing it, never to be seen by the public; and sometimes that means putting it out there and letting it continue on its journey without you. The thing is, though, the act of writing is what makes me happy; I feel so blessed (okay, sometimes cursed, but mostly blessed) that I have this talent and I want to keep growing it. So, when I half-joke about not being happy with what I’ve written, it’s not meant to be falsely humble or overly critical, it’s a reflection of my desire to keep surprising myself. So, in that sense, I’ve been happy with everything, but I’m not satisfied. I do a fairy tale, for instance, and I try it out on the kids, and I take their feedback to heart and I work it out, and I submit it to a contest, and it earns honourable mention…and I’m happy, happy happy happy….but what more could I have done, you know. Or, I do a young adult script and its second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean fiction…and I’m happy, happy happy happy…but what more could I have done? I’m very driven…and it’s not about what tier I’m on because I’m still very much a writer on the hustle… it’s about feeling like I heard the character right and told her or his story right; that’s what matters to me, and I’ll fight for that. That someone read something I wrote and was moved by it is what matters to me, and I’ll treasure that…but I’m always about, “What more could I have done?” I’m far from feeling comfortable.
How do your friends and family respond to your writing?
Until Oh Gad! I had pretty much convinced myself that my family didn’t read my writing, or at least had the grace not to discuss it with me if they did, so that I could pretend they didn’t…that’s changing, and all the uncomfortableness that comes with that, especially when the realism has them, and this applies to friends and family and random strangers, giving me the side eye…the hmmm… though truthfully that type of response goes all the way back to my first book, The Boy from Willow Bend…from my sister telling me how much the tanty character, modelled on our tanty, made her cry, one of my favourite responses to date, and not because I like to make people cry, but because I like when readers have a real moment with what I’ve written… to people asking if the boy’s story was my story, though I’m clearly a girl…so on the one hand, yay, you’ve done your job, but on the other hand, hello, it’s fiction. But I have to say, in my world (Antigua and Barbuda, in the Caribbean), being a writer, wanting to be a writer, it takes a bit of going against the grain, and I have to say both friends and family have been supportive… even when they don’t get me…or understand this journey I’m on.
I really like the questions you asked in this interview (especially the two about happiness/comfort with her own writing). I love how Hillhouse describes her work as “distinctively Caribbean with universal resonance”, because I feel that good fiction, regardless of how specific the topic, always has that “universal resonance”. Very interesting; Hillhouse sounds like a true storyteller.
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I haven’t read any of her books, but really should, based on her answers!
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Yes! Looking forward to those reviews. I’d be particularly interested in reading her fairytales.
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I had to Google Barbuda – a tropical island, pop. 1800, who wouldn’t want to live there! (Antigua I knew. Australians and Antiguans share a love of cricket). Love too Hillhouse’s enthusiasm for writing.
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Just 1800 people….sounds like Prince Edward Island from Anne of Green Gables!
Nope, just checked; PEI had 146,000+ people. Maybe Barbuda is more like Avonlea!
[…] Joanne C. Hillhouse in the Meet the Writer series at Grab Life by the Lapels: “I just enjoy experimenting within the story writing form, short and long. Much of what I write is character driven and distinctively Caribbean with (I like to believe) universal resonance – because I do believe the stories that are about the human condition can cross over without having to be diluted.” Full interview. […]
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