Jill is one of the co-authors in Thinkerbeat’s anthology, The Art of Losing, just released. Her story The Shop of Lost Things was even up on Thinkerbeat the same month as my piece, so it’s almost like we’re in the same graduating class. I highly enjoyed the tale.
So Jill, what’s the craziest story idea you’ve ever had, and how did you write it?
I was in the basement doing laundry one day when the water heater made sort of a burbling, chuffing noise that for some reason put me in mind of the kind of sound that a dragon might make. It led me to wonder what would happen if tame dragons were used to heat hot water. I wrote a story in which a woman goes shopping for a new dragon. T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Fiction bought it. Mr. Davis is fond of magical realism, as am I. The key is adding the right touches of realism. Writing about elves setting out to battle a necromancer for possession of the Dread Stone of Agganzork is fine, but writing about elves who work as telemarketers is better.
What is the most memorable writing comment you’ve ever gotten?
Daniel Scott White, creator of the writing website Thinkerbeat, once remarked that my writing rolls off the page. Daniel is a fine writer and somewhat of a Renaissance man, so I treasure that comment coming from someone like him. I wrote a short piece called The Shop of Lost Things to be included in The Art of Losing 2015 anthology. It’s about a mysterious shop where customers are surprised to discover treasured objects that they lost. The subject of loss and reunion resonates with readers in a way that I find both touching and gratifying. People have told me that they wish such a shop really existed. Quite often they say they’d like to find a favorite childhood toy or stuffed animal there. That’s interesting, isn’t it?
Any basic writing philosophy or tips?
Writing is like playing a musical instrument. You have to keep at it to be any good. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but a writer should develop her own unique voice. A gentleman who’s a huge star in the world of fantasy and science fiction once told me that he liked my voice, meaning that he liked the way I come across on the page. That meant a lot to me. What other advice? Write every day. I start around 7 a.m. and keep at it until noon, drinking many cups of coffee. I just love a good cup of coffee. If I don’t write every day I get cranky. Really cranky. In the evenings I read. I find reading is a way to prime the creative pump. If I find a turn of phrase that I like, I mentally file it away for later use. I’m pretty sure my Kindle is going to explode someday, it’s got so many books stored on it.
Who are your writing heroes, and why?
I have lots of writing heroes. Shirley Jackson tops the list. Most people know her from The Haunting of Hill House, the opening of which contains the absolutely chilling words: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against the hills, holding darkness within.” I dare anybody to read that for the first time without feeling deeply disturbed by those words. I discovered Ms. Jackson’s writing when I was in elementary school and they were selling paperback copies of Raising Demons and Life Among the Savages at the Scholastic Book Fair. Both of those contain light-hearted tales of domestic turmoil that are very, very funny. That the same woman who could scare the pants off you with The Haunting of Hill House and write a short story like The Lottery could also write things that make you laugh out loud is remarkable. It’s a knack that not many writers have. Stephen King has it; he’s another of my writing heroes, as is Donna Tartt, Ray Bradbury, Kage Baker, James Thurber, M.R. James, William Thackeray (Vanity Fair may be my all-time favorite book), and H.P. Lovecraft, horrible racist and misogynist that he was. I give him props for inventing the Cthulhu Mythos. Writers are still riffing off those more than eighty years later.
Where do you come up with ideas for new characters or stories?
The idea of time travel has intrigued me ever since I read Jack Finney’s Time and Again when I was a teen. Maybe I should add here that I can barely remember a time when I couldn’t read. I taught myself to read when I was three, as a result of my father bringing home Little Golden Books from the newsstand where he bought his Newark Evening News. There was an abortive attempt to make me stop reading when a neighbor told my mother that the local kindergarten preferred its pupils to arrive as blank slates, to be taught to read by whatever method they used back then. It may have been phonics, which I never got the hang of. I still have no idea what a schwa is. It sounds like something Dr. Seuss made up. For a very grim month, I was denied access to books, just like those poor women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Then my mother figured the die was cast and she gave up and let me go ahead and read. Anyway, I’ve always liked the concept of time travel. I came up with the idea of The Blue Horse when I stumbled across something online about a hairless blue horse that belonged to an eccentric nineteenth-century English lord. I did some investigating and found out that he created a scandal by marrying a former circus bareback rider. You really can’t make this stuff up. My time travel novella is based on the true story of George Harry Booth-Grey, 7th Earl of Stamford, and his one-of-a-kind blue horse.
If your writing suddenly made you rich and famous, what would you do with your success?
Few people ever “suddenly” become rich and famous from writing; it’s generally a long, hard slog before dame fortune comes a-calling with a lucrative publishing contract. If it were to happen, I’d donate a large percentage of my earnings to charity. I’d also hire somebody to cook and clean, neither of which I like doing. My mother was a talented artist but an absolutely abysmal cook. Sadly, I inherited her lack of ability in the kitchen. She once crafted a full-sized turkey out of Spam, complete with drumsticks that made a memorable appearance on our Thanksgiving table one year.
What do you do when you get stuck writing your story?
Putting it down and doing something else generally works when I’m stuck. It helps to walk the dog or run an errand and let the story sort of marinate at the back of my brain. Sometimes I’ll go to sleep and wake up with an idea that solves the problem nicely, proving that our brains are always working, even when we’re not. When all else fails, I’ll take the story apart and attack it from another angle.
What’s your favorite movie?
I was hoping you’d ask that question. It’s Withnail and I. It’s a farce about two struggling young actors in 1969 London who take a trip to a remote, ramshackle farmhouse. It has some wonderful lines, including my favorite: “We’ve gone on holiday by mistake.” It’s equal parts poignant and funny, about friendship and the ending of an era and the grim reality of having to grow up.
Jill Hand’s The Blue Horse is available at www.Kellanpublishing.com.