EMILY-JANE HILLS ORFORD
- Guest Author -
Welcome to another interview conducted with a Canadian author - Emily-Jane Hills Orford. Many of Emily-Jane’s stories and novels reflect her national pride. She loves writing about Canada and the extra-ordinary Canadians who have made Canada a great nation. Emily-Jane’s stories have appeared in History Magazine, Canadian Stories Magazine, and Western People. She has written several fiction and non-fiction books: Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, Ukulele Yukon, Letters From Inside, The Creative Spirit, It Happened in Canada (Books 1, 2, and 3), Personal Notes, The Whistling Bishop, Songs of the Voyageurs and F-Stop: A Life in Pictures. An award-winning author, she was named a Finalist for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards with her book, The Whistling Bishop, and again in Finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards with her book, F-Stop: A Life in Pictures.
Welcome, Emily-Jane ...
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING JOURNEY.
I come from a long line of storytellers. My great-grandfather, my grandmother, my parents and even my siblings were wonderful storytellers. We also had a lot of interesting people visit us – all great storytellers. Growing up in the 1960s, that’s what we would do in the evenings: tell stories about our day, our lives, about anything, really. I grew up believing that life was a story just waiting to be told. As the youngest, I often had trouble getting a word in edgewise, so, as soon as I could, I started to write my own stories. As a child, I wrote mostly fiction, stories about horses and dogs. Much, much later, I realized that all of those stories that I had listened to as a child were really stories that needed to be written down or they would be lost forever. That’s when I started writing creative nonfiction, memoirs, stories about real people, stories about extra-ordinary people. I still write fiction, but somehow the real people in my real life find a place in my fiction stories as well.
WHAT TYPE OF PREPARATION DO YOU DO FOR A MANUSCRIPT? DO YOU PLAN EVERYTHING FIRST OR JUST SHOOT FROM THE HIP?
A little bit of both, I guess. I do some planning, mostly in my head and mostly when I’m walking the dog. It’s amazing what a quiet walk down my country road, with my mentor trotting alongside me, can do to clear my mind and help me focus on my story, or collection of stories.
WHAT DO YOU ENJOY MOST ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
The sense of freedom it gives me. I can write what I want, when I want, even if it’s not all for publication. I know that sometimes I have to write to sell. We all have to make an income somehow. I enjoy interacting with people when I’m out there promoting my books. I always end up with more possible story ideas after a book launch, than I had before. Everyone has a story and everyone wants to share their story, even if it’s just in the age-old format of verbal storytelling. I love to listen to people’s stories and I love to write them and see their pleasure in seeing their story in print.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST THING ABOUT BEING A WRITER?
Finding enough hours in the day to write – enough hours uninterrupted and without being too exhausted to think. Sometimes my brain works overtime and I keep working on my plots as I’m trying to settle down for the night. Sleep is usually elusive when the plots start to thicken in my head.
WHAT WERE YOU IN A PAST LIFE, BEFORE YOU BECAME A WRITER?
I was and I am a lot of things. I was and I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a sister, a wife, a mother, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. I teach, I write, I study, I learn, I compose, I make music, I touch lives for better or worse. My life is a complex, complicated, exhilarating and frustrating, all at once, and much more. My life is a gift from God, a spiritual and emotional treasure, an honour, a cherished compilation of memories: happy, sad, funny and tragic, serious and light-hearted. My life is full of honour, despair, pride, joy, disappointments and sorrow. My life is a story just beginning to unfold, its mysterious plot still labouring towards a climax, the highest point to which I am not in any rush to achieve. My life is a story. I am a storyteller
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST WRITING ACHIEVEMENT?
In my opinion? My grandmother’s story, “Personal Notes” (Moosehide Books, 2008). This book started me on my journey of compiling family stories and also encouraging others to look into their family stories. My grandmother was very special to me. When she passed away, I was in a state of shock and disbelief and sorrow for quite some time. Writing her story was my therapy. It was an emotional journey and I learned a lot about my grandmother, but also about myself.
WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT THE MOMENT?
I’m working a number of short stories, mostly family stories, as well as personal memories of growing up in the 1960s. We think that our past is so recent and not worthy of telling as a story, but a lot has changed since the 1960s. When I go into the schools to talk about my life and my writing, the students are fascinated by my stories of when I was there age – no computers, no techie games, very little television. It was a different world back then.
WHAT INSPIRES YOU?
Life inspires me. Quite simply, life is amazing and it’s so full of stories just waiting to be told. I guess I have always believed that all people are equally extra-ordinary.We may not all be famous, or rich; but we strive to make a good life for ourselves and, for the most part, we make a positive contribution to our communities. Extra-ordinary people are the thread and needle that make this world into a wonderful mosaic, rich in its diversities.
Every extra-ordinary person has a story to tell, to share. Every life has a story; all it needs is a writer to write the story. I grew up in a family of storytellers. My grandmother was a wonderful storyteller. She would talk non-stop from the moment she walked in the door for a week’s visit until the moment she left. Every part of her life was a story. My parents were also storytellers. We had interesting people visit us: missionaries from India, missionaries from the north. They all had stories to share. I didn’t need television or computer games when I was growing up – good thing, since we didn’t have either. We would sit around the dinner table for hours after supper finished, listening with rapt attention to the stories being shared. These people: my parents, my grandmother, the friends who visited us – these people were all extra-ordinary. They all were giving, caring people who worked hard for the good and well-being of others. And, their stories are a part of our heritage, our history. We need to keep and preserve these stories for future generations.
WHAT GENRE DO YOU WRITE?
Mostly creative nonfiction and memoirs – all in a storytelling form. But I also write fiction. Even my fiction contains stories of people, places and events from my own life. My grandmother always said that we’d soon forget her once she was dead and gone. Not so. I wrote her story, Personal Notes. But I also included her in my novels, Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Mrs. Downer (my grandmother) is just the same endearing character in my stories as she was in real life and her appearance in my novels is a source of much amusement amongst my Downer cousins.
DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR NEW WRITERS?
Just write. Don’t worry about what others think about your writing. Write for yourself and let your inner voice reveal itself. Not everyone is going to like your writing; not everyone is going to say nice things about your work. It doesn’t matter what others think. What matters is what you think about your work. Remember, that you as a reader, don’t like everything that you read. So, don’t expect everyone to like what you’ve written. As writers, we have to be thick-skinned so that we can take the bad with the good. Also, don’t ever give up.
Find that special time each day to write. I tell my students to start with five minutes a day. We can all find five minutes in our busy schedules. Also, I carry a notebook with me at all times, so that if I’m stuck in a doctor’s office or on a bus, I can do some writing, even if it’s just jotting down some notes.
DO YOU SUFFER FROM WRITER’S BLOCK?
I don’t know if it’s writer’s block, or just too much else in my life that needs attention or that I think needs attention. There are so many ways I can and do write, even if I’m not working on my next best-seller. Keeping a journal, writing short stories, mentoring young writers – everything you do helps you create, helps you write.
DO YOU HAVE A PREFERRED WRITING SCHEDULE?
My preference is to write first thing in the morning while my mind’s usually fresh. It doesn’t always work that way.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE WRITING PLACE?
I have a family heirloom, an old spinet desk (probably late 1800s). It’s situated in front of a large picture window looking out on my wooded area out front and my bird feeders. When I sit at this desk and write, I feel a little bit like Jane Austen, although it’s a modern version of Jane Austen, as the spinet desk, shockingly, supports my laptop on which I do most of my writing. I also carry a notebook with me everywhere and whenever I have to sit and wait, I sit and write (longhand) in my notebook. Time is too precious to waste.
WHAT IS YOUR GREATEST JOY IN WRITING?
The power of the written word and the freedom to express myself in some permanent form of communication. The written word, after all, is eternal and thus, through my written word, I can fantasize a little that I will live forever.
WHO IS YOUR FAVOURITE AUTHOR AND WHY?
That’s a hard question. I have a lot of favourite authors. I like Sharon Kay Penman, Tracie Chevalier, and Ken Follett for their mastery of historical fiction. I like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Anne Perry, and Charles Dickens for their mastery of description. I love Jodi Picoult for her style of writing through multiple voices and her ability to tackle difficult issues. I love the humour David Rosenfelt, R. F. Delderfield and W. Bruce Cameron, the intricate cleverness of John Grisham, J.L. Carr, Matthew Pearl, and Rachel Joyce , the storytelling creative nonfiction memoirs of Jeannette Walls, the historical travelogues of Simon Winchester and the list goes on and on. I belong to a literary club which meets once a month and I write book reviews for several online sites. So, I am constantly being introduced to new and fascinating authors and they’re not all big name authors being published by big name publishing houses. There’s a lot of talent out there and I like to think that I’m learning from all of this wonderful literary talent.
WHAT’S THE GREATEST COMPLIMENT YOU EVER RECEIVED FROM A READER?
“I can’t wait for your next book.” What better compliment does a writer need?
WHAT WAS THE WORST COMMENT FROM A READER?
“It reads like a ‘See Spot Run’ story.”
WRITERS ARE SOMETIMES INFLUENCED BY THINGS THAT HAPPEN IN THEIR OWN LIVES. ARE YOU?
Always – both my creative nonfiction and my fiction have scenes, characters and events from my life. I don’t think we can truly escape our lives when we write. Our lives are such intricate parts of who we are and writing is our way of expressing who we are.
OTHER THAN WRITING, WHAT ELSE DO YOU LOVE?
Reading, of course, and music. I’m a retired music teacher and I have had a life-long love affair with music – all kinds of music. My mother was the music teacher. She wanted us to all have a sound, musical education, something she never really had. When she was growing up, there was no money for music lessons. Yet, she loved music. She basically taught herself how to play the piano and the violin. When she was a teenager, she did babysitting to pay for a few music lessons. Mom was very talented. She studied music at the University of Toronto in the late 1940s, when Sir Ernest MacMillan was head of the music department and some of the music greats of Canadian music were studying there. So, when we came along, she sacrificed a lot to make sure that we had regular music instruction from the time we were about six. Music has been a fundamental part of my life – very important. My sister, Peggy Hills, is a concert violinist. She plays Principal Second Violin for the Mississauga Symphony Orchestra. She takes music into the schools in the Toronto area and she has made several children’s recordings, including “Peggy’s Violin” which was nominated for Juno. I remember one year, sometime in the 1970s, the London Free Press (London, Ontario, Canada) was doing a series of stories about musical families in our community. Our family was chosen and there was a full-page write-up on the Hills family, my family. With ‘Hills’ being the family name, the reporter dubbed us, “The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Music”, using the famous title from the hit musical, “The Sound of Music”.
I guess my background has defined me. I have an extensive music background and it has influenced my writing in many ways. It appears in much of my written work. As well, I do some composing, mostly for piano and some for the cello.
DID YOU HAVE YOUR BOOK / BOOKS PROFESSIONALLY EDITED BEFORE PUBLICATION?
DESCRIBE YOUR PERFECT DAY.
The sun is shining. I can sit at my spinet desk and look out at the birds feasting at the feeders. There are no interruptions and no other responsibilities. I can write to my heart’s content.
IF YOU WERE STUCK ON A DESERT ISLAND WITH ONE PERSON, WHO WOULD IT BE? WHY?
My husband, of course. He’s been my soul mate and my biggest fan for over thirty years.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IF YOU HAD THE CHANCE TO SPEAK TO WORLD LEADERS?
Read more. Read my books. Read books by other beginning authors, other authors that have not yet made the spotlight.
WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS FOR THE FUTURE?
To read and write until I can no longer do either.
WHAT FIVE BOOKS WOULD YOU TAKE TO HEAVEN?
None. The good books are already there as well as the good authors who wrote them.
DO YOU SEE YOURSELF IN ANY OF YOUR CHARACTERS?
DOES THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY FRUSTRATE YOU?
All the time. But what frustrates me more is that the majority of the population is no longer reading for pleasure or reading at all. And, if they are reading, they’re only reading cheap pulp fiction and usually on e-readers. Do readers not realize that e-book sales do not help writers financially? I have some books as e-books and I have yet to receive any royalties on my e-book sales.
DID YOU EVER THINK OF QUITTING?
Why? Quitting means defeat. It means failure. I will never admit to either of those.
WHAT WAS YOUR FAVOURITE MANUSCRIPT TO WRITE? WHY?
Actually, I think every manuscript is my favourite when I’m writing it. The one’s that have already been published have been edited and re-read so many times, not to mention all the promotional book readings, that authors tend to tire of the old stuff. Something new to write is always an exciting adventure.
HOW WOULD YOU DEFINE ‘SUCCESS’ AS A WRITER?
Success in writing is really defined by the readers. If a writer has a good following, than that writer is successful. It doesn’t take big name publishing houses, big royalties (though that would be nice once in a while) and lots of good reviews in big name tabloids to be successful. Being read is success enough, don’t you think?
WHAT SHOULD READERS WALK AWAY FROM YOUR BOOKS KNOWING? HOW SHOULD THEY FEEL?
I hope my readers enjoy my books and that they feel good after reading them. I also hope that my creative nonfiction and memoirs inspire readers to look into their own family stories and start writing some of them down for future generations.
HOW MUCH THOUGHT GOES INTO DESIGNING A BOOK COVER?
I design my own book covers. I usually have a good idea of what I want as I’m working on the book.
WHAT’S YOUR ULTIMATE DREAM?
I guess like any writer, I dream of writing and publishing that ‘big seller’. Which, would mean, having a big name publishing house actually read some of my stuff instead of sending me countless rejection letters. I know my writing is good, like so many other writers who work with small independent publishing houses. But, it would be nice to be really recognized by the big names and have a big (good) review in the New York Times and maybe even have a movie made out of the book. We can all dream, can’t we?
WRITING IS ONE THING. WHAT ABOUT MARKETING YOU, YOUR BOOKS AND YOUR BRAND? ANY THOUGHTS?
It takes up too much of my time, but it is a necessary evil. I want my written word out there, being read, but at the same time, I have to tell people about it and I have to convince people to buy my books so that I can make some sort of an income.
ARE YOUR BOOKS SELF-PUBLISHED?
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN FIVE WORDS.
Creative, dedicated, caring, industrious, studious
WHAT IS THE TITLE OF THE LAST BOOK YOU READ? GOOD ONE?
J.L. Carr’s “A Month in the Country”
WHAT WOULD BE THE VERY LAST SENTENCE YOU’D WRITE?
“I was trying.”
Clancy's comment: Many thanks, Emily-Jane. Sounds like your story-telling is in your genes. Well done. Keep going.
Think about this!