Joanne Hillhouse author of With Grace talked us about her book, her inspiration and why a fairie tale.
Tell us what inspired you to write With Grace?
Writing is how I engage with the world, and while it is not just emotional impulse, it can be an emotional release. Such was the case With Grace. I was blindsided by a negative encounter… and it was taking up entirely too much mental space. While the circumstances in the story are fictional, With Grace came out of my desire to purge those feelings. I’m really happy that a character so full of grace emerged, like sunshine chasing out the negativity.
Was there a “first” idea or incident that served as catalyst?
Reflection on the mentioned encounter, on how we treat people when we have some perceived measure of privilege over them – even if only in our minds, on defeating bad mindedness with good intention.
With that in mind, I’d like to know who was born first to battle those negative feelings that you mentioned, the faerie or the character of Grace?
I didn’t set out to write a faerie story, just write myself out of the headspace I’d landed in because of this unexpected negative encounter. As I wrote, I was drawn in by the challenge of doing something I hadn’t done, I enjoy experimentation, and something about taking this negative and working through it in a genre where typically good and bad are clear, and they all lived happily ever after, appealed. Also appealing was this idea of how passion for something can help it flourish, and how good can attract good, do good and good will follow you; and then the faerie was there awakened by, responding to the goodness that this girl was sending her way. It was an interesting development, and I enjoyed exploring it – and that this became a faerie story is the thing I’m most excited about. I like when something I’m writing surprises me.
Your faerie is very unique, not a traditional “ask me for a wish” fairie.
In some ways, on revision, because you’re not always conscious of these things when you’re writing, I realized what appealed to me was that the magic is not some nebulous thing out there doing good or evil releasing you from the consequences of your choices and actions – but that you choose, your intention matters, and magic such as it exists is within you. So, I think with the faerie and the other magical being/s in the story, while it’s clear magic exists because they exist, it’s less about the DOING of magic and more about witnessing and reflecting the individual’s heart and intention back on to them.
The faerie represents the magic in everything, the Obeah man our lack of faith in ourselves and the solution to what we cannot solve, or think we can’t. Do you think they compliment each other?
I do because like I said it’s all about intention. The faerie responds to the positive energy coming her way, the Obeah man’s power such as it is in the context of the story really comes down to the person seeking his/her intervention and what kind of energy they are putting out into the world. And neither absolves the individual of the consequences of their choices. Just because he’s an obeah man doesn’t mean he likes ugly; I feel, in the context of the story, that both he and the faerie are rooting for good in the world.
With Grace is a story about our search for the most basic of human needs: food and love.
It is amazing in how many ways we can tell such a tale and still keep it fresh.
Well, they are essentials of life aren’t they – food and love, the only missing essentials there are air and water, am I right? I suspect there are as many different ways to explore life’s essentials as there are people in the world. More, even, as many moods as can be experienced by those people as many thoughts and impulses as their beings can contain. To infinity. Think of how many love songs we’ve heard and how we still haven’t heard every love song there is to be heard, and the many more yet to be written because it all comes down to people and their unique engagement with these essentials of life.
You have created a group of characters that are vivid, and that readers will remember for a long time. The illustrator had to interpret your text and visualize it. Can you comment on the illustrations?
I love them. I had to reach out to the illustrator to tell her so. I had an illustrator in mind when I started this journey – I was familiar with her work and was sure her aesthetic lent itself to creating the faerie in a way that captured her…magic. Plus, I always favour recommending local artists for my projects where I can. She wasn’t able to do it and the publisher went with a different artist, Barbadian artist Cherise Harris. I didn’t know who had been selected nor what to expect. The suspense was heightened by not getting to see any previews. *laugh* But from the time I saw the proofs, after I squealed, I knew that Cherise was intended to do this project. And while I had to attend to the business of suggesting certain tweaks, generally the characters are as they are, there was no conflict in my spirit between what I had imagined and what she had created. She and I had never spoken, she had no idea what I had imagined apart from what was on the page; and yet there they were looking like themselves, and there was the tree faerie looking as only she could look. I love everything about her and love how Cherise re-imagined the world of the story – I especially love how she captured the main characters and how colourfully she rendered the world. People have been responding very enthusiastically to the cover since I started posting it on social media.
Are you considering, or already wrote a With Grace part 2?
I have a bad habit of being done with stories when I’m done with them. Not that I haven’t attempted sequels – The Boy from Willow Bend jump-forward that’s been gathering dust for some time, the follow-up to Musical Youth that remains a work in slow progress. Usually I’ve told the story and moved on by the time the book hits the market.
So, so far no Grace 2 is planned but who knows…not me.
Any final thoughts?
Apart from you can turn a negative in to a positive, in life and on the page?
I hope readers respond to With Grace. I hope it’s a bestseller – I’m speaking it! – not just because of the potential return on investment for me and the publisher, though that’s not a small consideration, but because there’s something about writing a book like this that reminds you of your first reading experiences, and that this could become a first and beloved book for new readers, tickles me. I just look forward to readers engaging with and, hopefully, falling in love with the girl as they have Cinderella and Snow White and Ariel and Mulan and Elsa, and of course with our own faerie (Tinkerbell who?).
I hope With Grace brings readers all the delight and positivity writing it brought me.
And it’s an example, though not planned as such, of one of the core principles of the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (the program I run to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda, which in its annual writing Challenge insists that entries have a Caribbean aesthetic) that our culture can feed our creative imagination – that stories, even fairytales, don’t just come from out there, but within our world, within us. Who are the holders of magic in our Caribbean – not witches and wizards but obeah men and women, but dare I go there, in a children’s story and trust readers, well, their parents, to see past the taboo and understand that I’m exploring our lore in the way that European writers have the freedom to explore theirs; as someone who grew up hearing jumbie stories as part of the oral tradition, embracing our culture, I did and we’ll see.
I also want to say thanks to the first group of youngsters I worked with in my 2013 Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project –the first writing camp I not only facilitated but conceived, got funding for, organized, and executed. I snuck it in among the other pieces I was having them critique that summer without telling them who the author was…and then I took notes. It helped.