Interview: Hillary Jordan

Hillary Jordan grew up in Dallas, Texas and Muskogee, Oklahoma. She received her BA in English and Political Science from Wellesley College and spent fifteen years working as an advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. She got her MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She talks about the importance of having support from other writers, which is such a great point. There are times when only another writer will be able to understand where you are coming from. Enjoy this interview.

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Your first novel, Mudbound, has been very well received. What inspired you to write this story?

My grandparents had a farm in Lake Village, Arkansas just after World War II, and I grew up hearing stories about it. It was a primitive place, an unpainted shotgun shack with no electricity, running water, or telephone. They named it “Mudbound” because whenever it rained, the roads would flood and they’d be stranded for days.

Though they only lived there for a year, my mother, aunt and grandmother spoke of the farm often, laughing and shaking their heads by turns, depending on whether the story in question was funny or horrifying. Often they were both, as Southern stories tend to be. I loved listening to them, even the ones I’d heard dozens of times before. They were a peephole into a strange and marvelous world, a world full of contradictions, of terrible beauty. The stories revealed things about my family, especially about my grandmother, who was the heroine of most of them for the simple reason that when calamity struck, my grandfather was inevitably elsewhere.

To my mother and aunt, the year the spent at Mudbound was a grand adventure; and indeed, that was how all their stories portrayed it. It was not until much later that I realized what an ordeal that year must have been for my grandmother—a city-bred woman with two young children—and that, in fact, these were stories of survival.

I began the novel (without knowing I was doing any such thing) in grad school. I had an assignment to write a few pages in the voice of a family member, and I decided to write about the farm from my grandmother’s point of view. But what came out was not a merry adventure story, but something darker and more complex. What came out was, “When I think of the farm, I think of mud.”

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

The best definition I ever heard of literature is that it’s “writing that pierces the soul.” That pretty much sums up my goal: to pierce a whole bunch of souls. Right now I’m working like mad to finish my second novel, RED, which is set 30 years from now in a right-wing dystopia. I hope America in 2040 is a much nicer place than in my novel, and that I’m still here writing books.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

Wow, that’s a tough one. My favorite book is Pride & Prejudice, but for interesting I guess I’d have to go with the Bible. That Genesis, the Song of Solomon, the Book of Job, the Gospels, and Revelations can all coexist in one book is nothing short of fascinating.

Favorite Authors?

Shakespeare, Austen, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, James Cañón, Jennifer Epstein, Barbara Kingsolver, Didion, Ishiguro, C.S. Lewis, Andre Dubus Sr., Marilynne Robinson, Tolkien, Styron, Michael Cunningham, James Baldwin, Dumas, Ethan Canin, Valerie Martin, George R. R. Martin, Lorrie Moore, Maggie Gee…

Book you’re currently reading?

I’m on the last story of Ben Percy’s amazing collection Refresh, Refresh. Am halfway through Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, which is disappointing. And I just started Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

Not really. I’m more of a sprinter than a plodder. I tend to write in bursts of intensity lasting several weeks, followed by stretches of non-writing. At home, I generally write for 3-4 hours between 10:30 and 5:00 while drinking copious amounts of Earl Gray. When I’m at an artists’ colony I can easily write for 6-7 hours a day.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

We all have days when it comes slowly, badly, and painfully. Sometimes you have to step away and go refill the well — take a walk somewhere beautiful, see a play, go shoe shopping. But in the end there’s no cure but sitting down with that pristine white page and mucking it up with words.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer?

The number of souls she has pierced. In the best possible scenario, one would skewer enough to change the world a little for the better.

Advice for other writers?

Find two or at most three really good readers with whom you can share your work in progress. People who get what you’re trying to do and are capable of giving you criticism that will help you do it (as opposed to people who want to shape your book according to their idea of what it should be). For me, those two invaluable people are James Cañón, author of Tales from the Town of Widows, and Jenn Epstein, author of The Painter from Shanghai.

Where can we learn more about you?

www.hillaryjordan.com

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