Sunday, April 15, 2012

Guest author Joanne C. Hillhouse: Love and Literature

Photo by Emile Hill
Antiguan and Barbudan author Joanne C. Hillhouse is the author of Oh Gad! – a novel scheduled for publication by Simon and Schuster in 2012. Her previous books are The Boy from Willow Bend and Dancing Nude in the Moonlight. She’s published in various literary journals, and her literary prizes include a UNESCO Honour Award, the Michael and Marilee Fairbanks international fellowship to participate in the Breadloaf Writers Conference, and the David Hough Literary Prize from the Caribbean Writer. Her activities include youth writing programme the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize.

As I wrote Aeden, I found myself crushing on him a little bit. Before you ask, nooo, I don’t go around crushing on random fictional characters. That would be weird, right?  Okay, true the Twi-hards do seem to crush hard on the vampire and the werewolf, or maybe just the actors who play them. But I’m not a teen anymore.

Full disclosure, though, I did have a thing for Cloud Racer, the Iroquois Chief in Kate Cameron’s historical romance Orenda, and Fire, the JAmerican writer in Colin Channer’s contemporary romance Waiting in Vain. I had a thing for these men; with Cloud Racer it was his physicality and strength coupled with his gentle spirit, and with Fire, the fact that he was literary and literally hot. I can hear you now. How shallow! But we all have our guilty pleasures, right? Books come alive for me; is it any wonder that these men would too. I prefer to look at it as a testimony to the skill of these writers that I could allow myself the fantasy because they made it so real.

Aeden is nothing like Cloud Racer or Fire. He’s a twig of a man that moves through life like driftwood, shore to shore; not any woman’s dream man. But I had an attraction for him from the time I pictured him and his scraggly locks and mismatched clothes before writing a single word about him. I liked his spirit. I liked that he was unruffled by life and believed that, laid back as he was, if properly motivated, he’d fight for what mattered to him. Early readers of Oh Gad! my new book didn’t get him and I didn’t try to sell them on him, but I did take up the challenge to get readers (and Nikki, a character that also proved challenging for some readers yet was even more skeptical of Aeden) to see what I saw in him in spite of how infuriating he could be. Did I succeed? Well, readers will weigh in on that (and you’ll have to read the book to see how things shake out between him and Nikki) but my affection for him has only grown.

The thing was I didn’t try to make him perfect (never try to make your characters something they’re not). And if conflict is the lifeblood of fiction then writing characters who are perfect leeches all the life out of the process. Characters need the challenge of themselves, of the elements (man, nature, whatever), of the divide between the thing they want and the thing they have; the tragedy may lie in them not getting it. But where’s the challenge in perfection. So, I wasn’t worried about him not being perfect; I wasn’t even worried about him not being likable, a character can be interesting without being likable in my view. And it was important to me that he be interesting, that he not just be wallpaper or a stereotypical Caribbean fantasy. It helped that physically he wasn’t fantasy material if you’re into the tall, dark and handsome type. It helped that he had a certain je ne sais quoi that challenged me as the reader/writer to dig.

One of the things I obsessed about in this digging was his name. Aeden didn’t start out as Aeden. But as I reconfigured his family history, I came across Aeden – Gaelic, meaning little fire or fiery spirit, and intuitively I knew it was his name. Writing him with this new moniker, he settled more comfortably into his skin, and one of the early readers who’d previously dismissed him, sat up and took notice. Who knew a name could make such a difference, not in a superficial way but to the way you write the character and the way readers engage with the character?

Writing remains a learning process for me and as my Aeden chapter reveals, it involves a mix of imagination, reimagining real life, research, creative use of that research, and surrendering to the process. You also have to be sufficiently intrigued by these people to spend as much time with them as you will during the writing of a book; if they’re boring you, they’ll probably bore your reader. I feel fairly confident that whatever else you can say about Aeden, he’s not boring.

In fact, with Cloud Racer and Fire, he completes (for now) my trifecta of literary crushes.


Charles Gramlich said...

I think I was most attracted to the wicked sorceresses in the fantasy fiction I read. They'd have been bad for me, I'm sure. :)

Liane Spicer said...

I'm intrigued by Aeden already. Have a thing for the offbeat guys with that fire in the belly, I suppose. :)

You capture so well the complexity of characterisation. Names are powerful indeed, which is why so many of us agonise over names of characters, names of settings and titles of books.