Posted on 08/31/2018 at 08:00 AM by Sadye Scott-Hainchek
Sometimes you wonder, as a reader, how the fantastical stories authors tell pop into their brains.
Other times, you glance at their biographies and know exactly where they find their inspiration.
Hilary Shepherd falls into the latter category.
Having left her home of Wales to live in Ghana, Sudan, and Spain at varying points, she has set each of her novels in those locations.
We spoke with her recently about the other aspects of her writing career.
SADYE: How long have you been writing or wanting to write?
HILARY: Like lots of people, I’d always wanted to write, but I didn’t get round to it very often.
I was too busy running a small farm and raising a family, and besides I never liked anything I actually wrote.
And then twenty years ago (a long story, I’ll keep it short) a boil, a tractor, and an emotional crisis combined to set me off writing what rapidly turned into a full-length novel, and mysteriously I’d found a voice I was happy with.
Mind you, I had also defaulted on a whole lot of other obligations: next spring I found a bucket full of peas abandoned in the middle of the vegetable plot when I'd run indoors to write down another idea.
And I’ve never written quite like that since.
SADYE: How did you land in Ghana and Sudan? And were there any memorable experiences that didn't make your novels In a Foreign Country and Animated Baggage?
HILARY: I landed in both places as a trailing wife: My husband’s work took him, so the children and I followed.
I distilled the experiences into my writing a long time afterwards, so what stood out for me at the time was my subject matter later.
What was wonderful, though, was being allowed to revisit those memories through a different viewpoint thirty years on. That was cathartic.
SADYE: You’ve said that if you “follow your nose,” a storyline will often emerge from an idea — have you honed your instinct for when an idea will yield that storyline?
HILARY: I wish I could say yes, but I still go up a lot of dead ends.
Some ideas don’t yield enough to support a full-length novel, and sometimes it’s the reverse: The ideas I’m playing with for my new book might be interlocking stories in one novel, or they might be two completely separate books.
It will take a while exploring the characters and what happens to them before I know the answer.
Put like that, it doesn’t sound the slightest bit honed.
SADYE: You’ve also said that the best thing about being a writer is connecting with people — can you tell us a particularly special instance of this?
HILARY: Publishing a book is very solitary on one level — putting it out into the public sphere doesn’t mean anyone will take any notice — but then connections start happening.
The most special for me was a Sudanese reader contacting me out of the blue to say how much he’d enjoyed reading my first novel, set in the Sudan, and how strongly he related to it.
It was a wonderful and unlooked-for endorsement just at a moment when I was feeling particularly exposed and bruised by the publishing process.
SADYE: Your latest novel, Albi, made the longlist for the Not the Booker Prize. Take us through your reaction to this honor.
HILARY: Delight — it’s so hard to be visible in the seething crowd of new books on the market.
Relief — because I didn’t make the shortlist so was spared the harsh scrutiny that comes with it.
Huge disappointment — because I was only a few votes short and a lot of people, as I am now, will be reading their way through that shortlist, which must increase profile and sales considerably.
But I’m enjoying assessing the merits of the novels that did make it, and it’s been heart-warming to glimpse the dynamic community of readers that exists out there in the real world, with all their different tastes and enthusiasms.
SADYE: What’s the next foreign destination to inspire you?
HILARY: India in 1989, in the company of two runaways. She’s sixteen, he is thirty-five and her art teacher, but nothing is what it seems.
This book is currently with my editor, and I’ve started on a new novel set in modern Spain.
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Categories: Author Interview