Gigi and I had the pleasure of hosting Marilyn Hilton at the Girls of Summer live launch event in Charlottesville this year. Here we have a chance to talk about girls, grief, friendships – and how a writer can keep you on the edge of your seat.
1. Found Things is your debut novel. What kinds of writing were you doing that led up to this book? What have been some of your other jobs before becoming an author?
I had published two other books for girls (one was self-published), and several poems, short stories, and articles. And I have many, many beginnings of stories, full book manuscripts, and poems that may live forever on my computer’s hard drive but will never be published. All writing is good, whether it’s published or not, because it teaches you how to be a better writer and helps you discover who you are at your core.
Before I became an author, I sold shoes and accessories at a department store, worked as a secretary for college professors and corporate executives, and taught reading at a community college. Even as an author, I also have a “day job,” which is working as an editor and technical writer at a software firm. One of the great things about writing novels is that you can use every experience you’ve ever had in a story!
Writing mysteries, or stories with mysterious elements, is challenging because you want to give enough information to pique readers’ curiosity and detective skills, but not so much that they figure it out long before the story ends. Whether I’m writing a mystery story or not, I like characters to reveal information slowly, bit by bit, as if I’m getting to know them in real life. A new friend wouldn’t tell me every single thing about herself all at once, but would tell me a little bit one day, something new a week later, and so on, until I know her very well.
When you write a mystery story, you almost have to know how it ends when you start writing. Drop information here and there and be sure that all the hints and clues make sense with one another. It’s also important that the ending makes sense, given all the clues and hints and turns-of-event that have happened until that point. But make it a bit of a surprise as well, so that readers are satisfied with the ending but may also be delighted by your surprise. It’s a lot to keep track of!
3. One of the issues you handle so well is creating boundaries with others, particularly friends. Meadow Lark seems perfect, but soon enough she starts to be overbearing and bossy. What is it about the nature of friendships that you were exploring there?
I wanted to show the many facets of friendship, and that very few are perfect. But friends who are willing to talk about their differences and set their boundaries can find the deepest fulfillment in their friendship. River and Meadow Lark do become fast friends, but only after River talks about how she feels about Meadow Lark “taking over” her life that she feels they are equal in the friendship. And that plays into her finding her hope of finding her brother.
4. Grief runs on every page of this novel. What are the kinds of things that you take into account when you’re writing about something very tragic for young readers? (In this case, River’s brother who has gone missing.)
When I wrote this book, especially near the beginning, I struggled not to sob all over the pages. River was experiencing a very sad, tragic loss and I wanted to express that, but I didn’t want readers to get depressed over it. I tried to balance her grief with moments of joy, peace, and grace. Meadow Lark, Ms. Zucchero, Benjamin, Daniel’s little sister, the river and her treasures, and her hope of finding Theron bring her those moments. Ultimately, I think this story is about staying hopeful when having hope doesn’t make sense.
5. Which of the characters was the most fun for you to write? Which was the most challenging and why?
I’d say that Meadow Lark was the most fun to write. In some ways she’s so opposite River—she says what’s on her mind, she’s not afraid of anything, and she doesn’t care about obeying rules. But she was also the most challenging to write, because, with all her strong character traits, I had to be careful to make her still likeable, because she’s an important character in the story. (She comes close to being unlikeable, I think, when she starts invading River’s family.) Also, she’s a mysterious character and I wanted her to remain a mystery to let readers make up their own minds about who or what she was.
My next novel, which is also for readers ages 8-12, is Full Cicada Moon, will be published this September. It’s about Mimi, a girl whose mom is Japanese and whose dad is African American, who dreams of being an astronaut. But it’s 1969, a time when people thought there was something wrong with a girl who wanted to do something like that. Mimi is courageous and persistent, though, even when no one takes her dreams seriously. I loved writing this story!
7. Finish this sentence for me: Strong girls: always have something to hope for.