Ronreads interview: Jennifer Hillier

Most everybody here in the Philippines knows that September is quite the busy month for bibliophiles. Because it’s the month when the Manila International Book Fair happens, September is the month where most of the local publishers bring out the big guns. It’s also the month where National Book Store brings a lot of foreign authors over.

One of the two authors that National Book Store brought to the country last month was Canada-based Filipino author Jennifer Hillier. The author of “Creep” and “Freak” was here for almost a month, squeezing in a vacation in between media interviews and a signing at the Manila International Book Fair with fellow Filipino author Alex Gilvarry.

Thanks to National Book Store, I got to spend a bit of time with Jennifer and ask her about making male readers uncomfortable, her writing playlists, and why you can’t have too much sex in a thriller.

RONREADS (RR): One of the things I really liked about the book was how diverse the cast of characters was. I don’t read a lot this genre, but those that I have read are usually made up of white guys.

JENNIFER HILLIER (JH): You’re right. It wasn’t something that I did consciously, but in my everyday life? I see so much diversity. I wanted that to be realistic in the book. I didn’t want everyone to be one race or one look. Sheila’s Chinese, Jerry’s African-American, and I even have a homosexual character. I really wanted it to have diversity.

RR: I wasn’t quite sure if Randall meant boyfriend when he said he had a “friend”.

JH: Randall’s gay. I think what I was trying to do with that was show that Morris waited by himself so long when his son wasn’t speaking to him. But it also had something to do with Randall having to go out into the world and find himself a little bit. And I also wanted to show that Morris is tolerant, even though he’s from Texas and even if he’s a good old boy. He loves his son enough to fix up their relationship.

RR: Did you have any apprehension about introducing something so different into the mainstream?

JH: A little. But as a reader? It was what I was craving. I’ve read a lot of thrillers, and like you said, most of the characters are white. It’s very homogenous that way. To me, I was craving for some diversity, and it was natural for me to include that in my books.

RR: Was it important for you that they remain the ethnicity they were? Would you have considered changing it if your editor had approached you and said that Sheila would be better as a white girl?

JH: It’s funny because my editor didn’t say that, but she did say that I should make it more clear that Sheila’s Asian. When she was reading the book initially, I never referred to Sheila as being Chinese, I never referred to her as being Asian, but I figure readers would know from her name. Sheila Tao, she must be some kind of Asian. But my editor, who is Caucasian, didn’t know for a fact, so she asked if I could drop in a little hint at the beginning so readers know. I think I made a mention of her dark Asian eyes early on in the book for the readers.

I think we as readers are programmed to expect that everyone is going to be white, unless we’re told otherwise. I made a point to make it clear to the readers that Sheila is ethnic. That she’s different from your usual character.

RR: There are conventions in thriller novels that its fans recognize and expect. How do you keep things fresh for you while at the same time fulfilling those genre expectations?

JH: That’s the thing with thrillers. Your average thriller fans expect a chase, expect a certain kind of bad guy, expects a twist at the end. The challenge is fulfilling this formula while at the same time keeping it new for me.

I thought that I’m a female writer, I’m going to show some of the sex, which a lot of thrillers don’t do. I’m curious to know what they do in the bedroom. I made the decision that I’m going to have ethnically-diverse characters and I’m not going to hold back. I think that’s what keeps it fresh, that I’m not holding back.

RR: Why can’t sex figure too much in a thriller?

JH: That’s a good question. I enjoy it myself, but I think the average thriller writer doesn’t expect to see a lot of sex. Most mainstream thrillers, when two characters are getting close, it fades to black. You don’t know what really happens. It’s close to being a taboo for me to do that, but I really wanted to stretch those boundaries.

I think it’s just something that readers don’t expect in a thriller. They expect murder, they expect violence, but when it comes to sex, “Too much! Too much!” (laughs) For me, I didn’t want to hold back. I think “Creep” is very voyeuristic. We see things we shouldn’t see. There’s a scene in “Creep” where she has an incident in the bathroom that Ethan witnesses. When my agent read that, she asked if we really needed that scene in the book. And I’m like, we do, because I’ve shown everything else, why would I hold that back? It’s demonstrating how long she’s been held up. She’s been tied to a bed, she hasn’t been able to go to a bathroom. I want people to see what happens (laughs).

RR: Growing up, what was your image of the Philippines having not been here?

JH: We had a pretty semi-traditional household. My mom cooked Filipino food for dinner every night. My parents spoke to each other in Cebuano. But at the same time, my parents wanted me to be Canadian. They spoke to me in English. I can understand a little Filipino but I never learned to speak it.

After they divorced, my mom remarried and my dad moved back to the Philippines. I lost more of the sense of what Filipinos are like. My daily life is so multicultural — I have Filipino friends, white friends, black friends. But as for the Philippines? I just knew that it was really, really far away. I had pictured it being busy, population-wise. Canada is a huge country, but not that many people. Based on family gatherings, I knew that there was a lot of singing (laughs). Every party we went to, there was always karaoke, there was always singing. Everyone had a singing machine (laughs). Food was really good, we had rice with every meal. The rice cooker was always full of rice. It wouldn’t be good if the rice cooker was empty (laughs).

There was just lots of laughter. My family was always close and connected. My mom would tell me stories about growing up in the Philippines and growing up with so many siblings. Whereas in Canada, it was just me and my brother. We had a lot of space. It was not busy in the house. My dad had 10 brothers, my mom had six brothers, so it was different for them growing up. But I had a very good sense of family and lots of laughter, food, and singing (laughs).

RR: Did you ever feel the need when you were growing up to write an “expat” novel, the one where you long for the motherland, so to speak?

JH: I write what I fell compelled to write. Parts of myself come out in the characters. I didn’t feel an obligation to write about the Philippines, although I think I would like to someday. I think it would be interesting to set a psychological thriller here in the Philippines. That would be really cool. I would really love an old school serial killer thriller set in Manila. I think it would be interesting to have a killer who travels back and forth, or a killer who is Filipino. I don’t know what the Filipinos will think, though (laughs). I’ll probably be so worried that I’m insulting someone.

RR: You talk about your father’s stories in the acknowledgement for “Creep”. Could you talk about them?

JH: When I was growing up, my dad didn’t like to read books to me for bedtime because he thought he could do better (laughs). Part of our bedtime ritual was that he would tell me a bedtime story that he would make up. It would have fantasy, magic, and it would go for as long as I wanted it. He would tell the story until I fell asleep. Sometimes I wouldn’t get the ending because I would fall asleep halfway. But I think that I got my storytelling abilities from him. I don’t know where I get my writing ability from, but I think in a thriller, as important as the writing is, the story is the most important thing. You never want the language to get in the way of the story. My dad had a great ability to tell a good story, and that’s what I try to do with my writing.

RR: You were here 16 years ago. Is there anything striking you remember from that time?

JH: When I was here 16 years ago, I only went to Cebu because that’s where my dad was living at the time. I wasn’t allowed to come to Manila because my dad was worried that I would get lost (laughs). My dad is so protective! I never saw Manila, I only saw Cebu. Cebu at the time was very quiet. It was very rustic and wasn’t super busy.

When I was coming back for this trip and I knew that I was going to be in Manila I was really excited because I heard that it’s a big city and that it’s got tall buildings and that it was busy. It sounds like New York, I want to see it (laughs)! So far it’s been everything I thought it would be! It really is. It’s got everything. There are certain parts where I don’t even know where I am. I could be in California right now. I see all the trees and then suddenly there’s a McDonalds (laughs). And there’s a mall! It’s amazing. It’s different this time. The last time I was here, I was 20. It’s been a beautiful experience. But now it’s much different. I’m also here for the book and not just family. It’s a different vibe.

RR: Could you talk about your journey to getting published?

JH: I was rejected so many times. Fifty-one! I have every single one and every time I would see an agent name, I would go, “Yep, rejected me.” (Laughs) When I finished, it took me about a year and two months to write the book and revise it as many times as I needed to. I made a list of agents that I thought would be interested and would pick up the novel and sell it to a publisher. I queried 100 agents and I got 48 rejections. Over half didn’t even respond, which is equivalent to a rejection, the fact that they didn’t even respond. I got 10 requests, which means the agent read my pitch letter and thought it sounded interesting and wanted to read my manuscript. Of the 10, one read my manuscript and she became my agent. She wanted to represent my book and it took about three months before I found her. Three months and 48 rejections.

With her, I revised the book a little bit more according to what she thought could improve it. she submitted it to the publishing houses in New York and I got three rejections before I got my offer from Simon and Schuster.

I was in Seattle when I finally got the offer and she called me at seven in the morning. I’m not a morning person. I write at night. I think I had gone to bed at about four in the morning. I was dead to the world. New York time is three hours ahead, so it’s 10 o’ clock. I’m lying in bed, thinking no one would call me at seven in the morning, so it’s probably a wrong number. But the call display talks to me, and I heard my agent’s name and I’m instantly waking up. She’s like “Are you lying down?” “Actually, I am.” (Laughs) She says she has amazing news and that Simon and Schuster has offered to buy my book. I asked her to say it again because I didn’t know if I was dreaming or not.

I think I was in shock. But mainly my overwhelming feeling was relief because my big fear was that nobody would buy it. That happens all the time. Even if you sign with a great agent, and you have connections, and you know how to talk to the editors, there’s no surety. And fiction is such a hard sell in today’s climate especially, especially if you’re a new, unpublished, untested author. I was relieved that Simon and Schuster had made an offer. And the next day I was happy after I had a chance to think about it. I was just glad that the book didn’t disappear.

RR: Did you have any preconceived notions about the publishing industry before being accepted?

JH: I never thought much about what would happen after the book came out. I had a pretty good idea that I would work with my editor and that she would make the book better and that I would get my cover art and I’m going to love it and it’s going to get published and be in stores. That’s only as far as I thought.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the reviews. Even though overwhelmingly the reviews were good, there’s always someone who isn’t going to like it. Of course. It’s a work of fiction, it’s subjective, but I wasn’t prepared about how that was going to make me feel. You can’t know until somebody says “This is the worst book ever!” It killed me! There’s no way to prepare for that feeling. I could read 10 good reviews and the one bad one ruined my whole week. That was the hardest thing. There’s no way to get through that except to experience it (laughs).

RR: Is that something you still do?

JH: Three months I read every single thing that came for “Creep”. I was addicted. I couldn’t stop checking and reading. And I was trying to write the second book and I was like “You know what? I’ve got to get all of that conversation out of my head and focus on writing my new book.” Even if you hated “Creep”, even if you hated the twist, there’s nothing I can do.

What I do now is I don’t google myself. I don’t obsessively check Amazon and Goodreads anymore. I’ll pop in once in a while to get some sense of what people are saying because I want to get better for my next book, but mainly my publicist sends me my reviews. I let her screen which ones she thinks I would want to read (laughs). The ones she thinks are really mean, she doesn’t send out, which is nice. But I can look for them if I want to and sometimes I do when I’m in the mood.

RR: When you were writing “Creep”, did you just go into it full blast or where there moments where you tried to censor yourself?

JH: “Creep”, I wrote it in its entirety before it was sold. As I was writing that first book, I didn’t have a publisher, I didn’t have an agent. I wrote the story that I wanted to write without worrying about what someone else would say. When I finally did get an agent and she was going through the book with me, we were getting it ready to be submitted to all the different publishing houses, she was questioning me about particular scenes. Did we really need this much profanity? We made some compromises on some things, but I was fortunate that I was able to write the book exactly as I wanted to.

RR: So the editing process usually involves interaction between you and your agent?

JH: The first book, most of my interaction was with my agent because she wanted to make sure that it was as polished as possible before she proposed it to all the different editors and try to sell it. For “Freak”, it was bought under approval. It was contracted, I had a deadline. That was different. My editor and I had a lot of conversations on what direction the story should go. I enjoyed that as well.

RR: Do you think there’s an advantage to you being an Asian woman when it comes to writing thrillers since you’re coming from a different perspective than a white guy?

JH: I think the thriller has traditionally been dominated by white men. My first writing conference back in 2009, I looked around and realized that I really stood out. Most of these people are older than me and male and they’re white. And then there’s this younger Asian girl! Everyone knew me! I felt like the foreign exchange girl (laughs)! But I see a lot of changes happening. I don’t feel like I have to do anything other than what I do, but I feel that I have an opportunity to promote women in the genre and promote ethnic diversity in the genre. I have no problem doing that.

RR: How did you make the decision to make Abby the villain?  To me, it always seem that the villains are always male.

JH: I love the idea of women being able to do what a man can do. But we can’t cherry-pick what we want women to be good at. They can’t always be positive things. If men can be serial killers, why can’t women?

Sheila Tao is a very strong female character but she’s flawed. Abby Maddox is a strong female character but she’s lost. I like the parallel of that, that they’re two strong women who go head to head, especially in “Freak”. I love how that plays out. With Abby, because she’s a woman, she would have different weapons than a man would have. She uses sex, she uses her body, she’s manipulative in a very different way than a man would be.

RR: Is there really a lack of female villains in thrillers?

JH: They’re more prevalent now. I think when I was younger and i was reading a lot of crime fiction, I didn’t think there were as many. Now there’s definitely a trend where a lot of serial killers are females, women who do bad things. One of my favorite authors is Chelsea Cain and she has a whole series starring a killer named Gretchen and she’s a bad lady (laughs). She’s a serial killer and she’s worse than Hannibal Lecter. I love that we can have characters like that in crime fiction.

RR: How do you keep your women women? When it comes to portraying strong women, what happens is they’re turned masculine. How do you maintain their femininity?

JH: I think my characters play up on their feminine qualities. Sheila being a sex addict obviously. She’s an attractive woman in a position of authority. She has an affair with her student in “Creep”. Nothing about her is not feminine. But she also makes bad decisions, sexual urges, she has an affair. These are things that traditionally are what we think men would do. But I liked the idea that she can retain her feminine side and still do as much damage to herself and her relationship as a man could. It’s the same thing with Abby. In that sense, they’re much like me because I can be very girly, but I can also be not girly (laughs). And I think a lot of girls are like that.

RR: I know you didn’t plan for Sheila to be a sex addict, but did you have any apprehension once it was on the page? Asian women are so fetishized, and having her be a sex addict kind of plays into that.

JH: I know. There were so many readers who were offended that I had created a lead character who’s a sex addict. It wasn’t a conscious choice. She revealed that to me in the course of writing the story. I was like “Oh no, did you have to be a sex addict?” (Laughs)

But it does sort of explain her motivations and the decisions that ruin her relationship and damage her career. It was a risk. Some of the women readers identify with Sheila, with the fact that she’s made some really bad decisions and she’s trying to make up for that. But other women get turned off at the thought of a woman being a sex addict. They find it disgusting and not ideal. I knew that it was risky but I wanted to be true to the character.

RR: Is that negative reaction from women across the board?

JH: I haven’t noticed any feedback from Asian women in particular. But I will say the feedback from women in general has been mixed. A lot of women, even if they enjoy the story and enjoy reading the book, found the sex addict part a little hard. You root for the heroine, you want her to survive, but she brought all of this on to herself to an extent. She cheated on her fiance with a guy who happens to be a serial killer. What did she expect was going to go down there? I think women in general were mixed about it.

RR: Do you think it’s because it’s a Western audience? For someone who’s always been reading about female characters as prim and proper, I found it refreshing that Sheila was flawed and strong at the same time.

JH: Thank you. I think that being raised in Canada myself, I feel like I’m a very strong woman. I don’t fit into the stereotype of Asian women being submissive. I wanted Sheila to be a reflection of that. The fact that she was Asian wasn’t a defining characteristic of her personality. To me, her being Asian was like me saying another character is blonde. It’s who she is, she can’t control it, that’s how I saw her. I wasn’t trying to make a statement by making her an Asian sex addict. That was just how it worked out.

RR: Radiohead plays a starring role in “Creep”. Do you listen to music when you write? Is it part of your writing process?

JH: It is. Music is very inspiring but I can’t listen to it while I’m actually writing or else I’ll start writing the lyrics (laughs). But in between or after writing sessions, I listen to a lot of music.

I was very angsty and kind of emo five years ago. That was just where I was five years ago. I had just moved to Seattle and didn’t have any friends and I was lonely. I was listening to a lot of Radiohead and I was listening to “Creep” and I thought it was interesting how the song deals with obsessive love, unrequited love, rejection, feelings of not fitting in. As I was writing “Creep” I could imagine Ethan listening to this. That’s why I wrote the song into the book and made it the title. It just fit the theme of the book.

RR: What were you listening to when you were writing “Freak”?

JH: I have a playlist actually. Adele, Foo Fighters, Lady Gaga (laughs). Lifehouse. Nine inch Nails. Pearl Jam. Prince. Smashing Pumpkins.

RR: How do they shape what you write?

JH: I think when I’m writing I picture my stories as movies. When I need to have a conversation where the main character reveals this information, I picture how that would play out in my head. I picture the room, I picture what they’re wearing, I picture what it smells like. And then I add a soundtrack to help with the mood.

“Freak” is a different book than “Creep”. It’s not as heavy. It’s a faster read in some ways, and I think that’s why the playlist is more energetic. My playlist for “Creep” is very emo (laughs). But music just helps me create the mood and helps me feel like i’m there. Almost every song that I’ve heard is attached to a memory of some kind. Music sticks to my head and I can always equate it with something.

RR: You write them as if they were a movie, but do you also write them with the thought in mind that they might become movies?

JH: Every writer dreams of having their book turned into a movie, and I would love it if that would happen, but I have no expectations. If it happens I would do cartwheels. But the chance of that is really small. I just want it to be the best book that it can be and if someone happens to come along and wants to turn it into a movie, I would never say no to that.

Obligatory picture with visiting author

RR: What’s the best reaction you’ve gotten from a fan?

JH: I was just touched when there was so many people that came and had me sign their books for them and asked to take a picture with them. I think the reception overall has been so warm, but I think that’s indicative of the Philippines. The Philippines has to be the most hospitable, welcoming place. My family’s like that, but coming to a country full of people like that? i don’t know why everybody doesn’t come here. I felt so welcome when I came here.

RR: Do male and female fans react differently to “Creep”? It’s told very much from a female perspective, and the men are even objectified.

JH: (Laughs). “Creep” did really well with women. “Freak” is doing well with men because it’s a different vibe. I think men were irritated with “Creep” because you’re right, men were objectified. Ethan was kind of a sex object for Sheila. And Sheila’s a sex addict and they think it’s gross because they don’t want their women to be sex addicts. They kind of do, but they really don’t. The reaction from men was really mixed but the reaction from women was that it was a cool story.

Men were like “I don’t know if Morris would take her back. He would never forgive that.” Or “Why would Ethan go for an older woman? Come on!” Men were taking it very personally (laughs). But I enjoyed hearing that because at least I got a reaction out of you. I think the worst thing is when a reader is indifferent. It’s better that you feel something rather than have you feel nothing.

RR: How do you keep social media from being a distraction to you, since it’s such a big part of being an author today?

JH: That’s the hard part. You don’t want to be that author who isn’t on Twitter, and when you’re on Twitter, you want to make friends, and when you have friends, they expect to hear from you. I’m trying to tweet as much as I can just to keep people informed about what’s going on.

But when I’m writing, it’s so distracting! I have a rule that I can’t check anything social media-wise until after I’ve finished a page. I will typically write 2,000 in a writing session. That’s usually five pages worth. When I finish a page I can take a short break, I can go to the bathroom or whatever and I can check Twitter and Facebook. Twitter I find is not so bad. Facebook is worse because you can look at whole photo albums. Twitter is quick.

Blogging is one thing I don’t do because blogging takes up so much more time to put the whole post together. I don’t blog until I finish my quota for that. It takes a lot of discipline to balance all of that out. There are days, honestly, where I wish I could just unplug and not do it, but it’s not realistic in this day and age. We all have to remind people that we’re here, if not, people will forget.

RR: What’s the best part about writing for you and what’s the worst?

JH: The best part is being surprised by your own work. I don’t outline, so every single thing that happens is a surprise to me as it is to the reader. I didn’t know that the twist at the end of the book was coming. That’s the best part, having that moment.

The worst part is the self-doubt. You can have a perfectly good writing day, thinking that what you wrote was kick-ass, and then you come back the next day, read it back, and start thinking it doesn’t work. It’s hard having to shut that off. To finish the first draft, you can’t let those negative voice talk to you so much or you’ll never finish it. You have to shut that off and write that book to the best of your ability, as best as you can. When you go back for the second draft, that’s when you can nitpick about what you like and what you don’t like.

RR: What advice would you give to young writers trying to come up with their own book?

JH: Write everyday. Write in all forms. Journalling really helps keep my mind open. Write as much as you can and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Don’t feel like everything you write has to be perfect. Don’t be shy about writing what you like because when I started writing thrillers I was almost embarrassed to tell people that I wrote books about murder and sex and violence because their faces would be like “Why?” I can’t explain why, really. But when I let go of that fear that’s when I felt that I could really do this.

I think as a kid we’re so insecure. I didn’t show my writing to anyone for a long time. Other than my English teacher, no one had read my stuff. If I had opened myself to people earlier, maybe i would have been able to do this a little earlier.

RR: But do you feel that all of this happened to you at the right time?

JH: Yeah. As much as I would have wanted to be a phenom at 20, I needed a little life experience first. I had to move around a little bit. I had to experience kinds of relationships. I had to work at a job that I knew wasn’t for me so that I would get hungry enough to do this.

I was working at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. It was a perfectly good job. I had an office, nice view. I had a really great boss who was supportive of me. It was a very secure job. I could have been there for years. At my evaluation, she told me that I had a very wonderful year and that she was impressed with me. She told me that she could see me as director of the department one day. and when she said that, instead of feeling happy, I felt like I was going to cry. This cannot be my life. I totally get that you’re complimenting me right now, but I didn’t want to wake up at 65 having retired from this place. Is this really what I grew up for. I came home from work and thought that there’s got to be something more than that.

A few months later, we got transferred to Seattle and I saw it as my chance to get out of that life and do something that I’ve always wanted to try. I felt that the university job was my plan B, but I hadn’t even given my plan A a shot. If worse comes to worst, I could go back to my university job. That was my defining moment.

(Photos from the National Book Store Facebook page)

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