DAN & KATE PRESENT… THE JENNIFER HILLIER INTERVIEW

 

Dan & Kate: Congratulations on the release of your new thriller JAR OF HEARTS! This book has been getting tons of buzz. Please, tell the folks at home a bit about the book. What can readers expect when they meet Geo Shaw?

Jennifer Hillier: Thank you so much! I’m finally starting to become aware of the buzz, and it’s been exciting and terrifying all at the same time (but slightly more exciting than terrifying, thankfully). I’m super proud of this book. I feel like JAR OF HEARTS is the result of every lesson I’ve ever learned as a writer up until now. I know every book should feel that way, but sometimes they just don’t.

The story is about Georgina Shaw (Geo), a successful, thirty-year-old self-made executive at a Seattle pharmaceutical company. In exchange for a five-year prison sentence, she’s testifying at the trial of the Sweetbay Strangler, Calvin James, who’s been charged with the murders of four women. One of them is Angela Wong, a teenage girl who went missing while Geo was in high school. She also happened to be Geo’s best friend. And Geo knew what really happened to her and covered it up. Why? Because Calvin was her boyfriend at the time, and she loved him.

This is all in the first chapter, by the way. I remember describing the book just like this to a lady at the last Bouchercon, and she gave me an incredulous look and said, “Well, now you just told me the whole story.” No, I didn’t! Please read it! There’s three hundred more pages after this, I promise.

D&K: One of many aspects of the book that stuck with us after reading HEARTS was the intense psychological nature of the story. The oppressive guilt that Geo feels, plus the unfolding events of what happened leading up to Angela’s death was one of the most intense reads of 2018 so far! Please tell us a bit about the research that went into this story.

JH: My first thought is to say that I didn’t really do research, because off the top of my head, it doesn’t feel like I did. But that’s not fair to myself, because a lot did go into writing this story. It’s just that most of it happened long before I started writing the book.

JAR OF HEARTS is divided into five parts, each beginning with a stage of grief. I know a little something about grief, and while the grief that Geo feels and compartmentalizes throughout the novel stems from something very different than what I went through, I had to tap into those emotions. I had to move through all the stages of grief in order to come out the other side to a better place.

I also visited a women’s prison back in 2012. It was actually for research for FREAK, my second novel, but I kept all my notes and reread them while writing JAR OF HEARTS, as the entire first part is set in prison. I spent an entire day on a private tour of the Washington Corrections Center for Women, and what fascinated me the most was that the inmates looked so… ordinary. I mean, okay, some had serious face tattoos. But most of the women incarcerated there – for drugs, fraud, and assault, mostly – looked like they could work at the mall. Or answer phones at the doctor’s office. Or live next door to you. And their relationships with their fellow inmates were surprisingly intense.

The main idea for the story actually bloomed from an article I read about Karla Homolka. She was the wife of Paul Bernardo, a serial killer that murdered three young women back in the ’90s in Toronto. I was the same age as his victims back then. Karla testified against her husband in exchange for twelve years, which turned out to be a very lenient sentence once it was discovered what an instrumental role she played in helping Bernardo find his victims.

Homolka served her time, and then after twelve years, re-entered society. She seemed to disappear for a few years, only to be tracked down by a reporter, who found her living on a small Caribbean island, married to the brother of her lawyer, with three children. Eventually, they moved back to Canada, and right now they’re living in the suburbs of Montreal. The whole thing – the story after the story – blew my mind. How the hell could she possibly start over? But somehow, she did – or she thinks she has – and when I started asking those questions, JAR OF HEARTS was born.

D&K: The film rights to JAR OF HEARTS have been sold, so hopefully we will get to see Geo on the screen. With that in mind, do you mentally cast your characters? Who do you see as Geo, Angela, Calvin, and Kaiser in your mind’s eye?

JH: The faces I have in my head are vague as I’m writing the story, but then become pretty clear afterwards, especially when someone asks me to cast the imaginary movie. (Always my favorite question, by the way!).

For Geo, I would pick Meghan Markle. Geo is a woman of color, as all my protagonists are (she’s black, Filipino, and white), and I instantly pictured Meghan Markle when the film rights sold. But then I remembered that she got engaged to Prince Harry, and is now off doing princessy things, which is a real blow to my fantasy movie cast. My second choice would be Rashida Jones.

For Kaiser, the cop who puts Geo away and who worked the Calvin James murders, I would pick Tom Hardy. He’s intense and broody, and somehow, it’s easy imagine him as a geeky, awkward teenager in high school, back when he was in love with – but friend zoned by – Geo.

For Calvin, the serial killer and Geo’s first love, I would pick Charlie Hunnam. Calvin has that same Jax Teller/Sons of Anarchy swagger, minus the outlaw biker gang riding behind him.

Okay, so I actually just googled Tom and Charlie, and realized they kind of look alike and have the same appealing, cocky confidence. So how about this for the ultimate fantasy: we hire them both and let them pick.

D&K: You have spoken in the past about some interlocking aspects of your books. Do your thrillers share the same universe?

JH: All of my books are set in the same fictional Seattle world. I didn’t set out to do this on purpose; more, it seemed prudent to re-use some of the same places I created for CREEP, my first novel. Puget Sound State University, for instance, is totally invented (and I still get reader emails that go, “Are you aware that PSSU doesn’t actually exist?” Yes, I do! Because I made it up!). But it has its own school colors (emerald green and gold – or is it silver? Crap, I’d have to look it up) and a school mascot (a steelhead fish) so it seemed like a shame not to refer to PSSU in the next book, and the one after that, and all the rest after that.

Old characters, too, often make surprise appearances. I wrote a cop character in CREEP (Kim Kellogg, who my agent thought I should kill off because she was super annoying), who then showed up in JAR OF HEARTS. Characters do that sometimes. Just wish they’d call first, give me a heads up.

D&K: You are very active on social media. In fact, the online mystery community is how we first became aware of your work. Tell us a little bit about how you see social media as an author in the 21st century.

JH: Thank you for saying I’m active! Most days I don’t feel like I’m there nearly enough compared to other authors. Social media is a funny place; it’s equal parts addicting and exhausting. I feel like Facebook is where we brag, Twitter is where we complain, and Instagram is where we indulge. (I do also use Snapchat, but only because the animal face filters make my three-year-old laugh).

There isn’t a week that goes by where I don’t fantasize about quitting all forms of social media. However, there always seems to be an immediate reason not to – “I have this new book thing to announce” or “I’ll wait until after the trip because my mom will want to see photos” – and so I promise myself that I’ll take a hiatus “next week.” But then I never do. Because there’s always something new to talk about. And honestly, my FOMO (fear of missing out) is a real thing. I can’t stand not knowing everything that happens the minute it does.

When I was first starting out, there was a new-to-me writer I discovered whose books were massive bestsellers. They even spawned a hit TV show. But when I went to look him to up – to find out what else he’d written, and also a little bit more about him personally – there was almost no trace of him online. There was one lousy paragraph on his publisher’s site, and that was it. I was so annoyed! Because nosey, yo. I love digging deeper into the lives of creators I admire, even if it’s a highly filtered version. I find that stuff inspiring, plus the sense of connectedness and accessibility endears them to me, even if it’s not altogether real.

So, I find myself thinking about that whenever I fantasize about quitting Facebook or Twitter (but never Instagram, because I could never give up my daily dose of food photos, cat pics, and makeup tutorials). Readers like to know about their writers. And readers are incredibly generous, tweeting reviews and Instagramming photos of the books they read. Social media is a powerful tool, and I think it’s in the best interest of authors to figure out how to maximize it without overdoing it.

D&K: In the spirit of “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and the Bernard Pivot questions asked of every guest, we have our own set of questions we ask of every interviewee.

When did you finally say, “Yeah…I’m gonna write stuff for a living. And it will be AWESOME.”

JH: August 2008. I was writing the first draft of CREEP and watching Michael Phelps swim at the Beijing Olympics. He set a goal to win eight gold medals in eight events, and he did. I thought if he could do that, the least I could do was finish the damn book I was writing. After all, it wasn’t like I didn’t have the time. My work permit from Homeland Security (I had moved to Seattle from Toronto the summer before) had only just come through, and I hadn’t yet found a job.

I was about fifty pages in to what was shaping up to be a thriller (OMG I’m a thriller writer, not a horror writer! That was a massive revelation) when it suddenly became very clear to me what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I can still remember the conversation I had with my husband at the time when I informed him of this earth-shattering news – that I wanted to be a working writer. He was like, “I know.”

Clearly everyone knew except me.

I told myself it I would give it ten books or ten years. If I wasn’t published by the tenth book, or ten years had passed, I would go back to a regular nine-to-five job. Miraculously, CREEP sold.

D&K: What was your favorite moment in mystery writing? The moment that when you read it on the page, you smiled and said, “That was so cool!”

JH: Definitely when I wrote the ending of JAR OF HEARTS. As a reader, I loathe ambiguous endings. I don’t want to interpret what the hell that last scene was supposed to mean. No, I did not get your inference, so please explain it to me, because I’m dumb and pressed for time and I read this for entertainment and I don’t want to have to work so hard for it. (Let me clarify: this does not mean I need a happy ending, or even an ending where everything is resolved. Dead or not dead? is usually enough.)

That being said, I think I’m good at writing endings. I might not give you what you wanted, but you always know exactly what it is you have.

D&K: What was the moment that made you say, “Writing books is amazing”?

JH: That happened during my very first novel (which then became my trunk novel, which was then resurrected a few years later to become my third published book, THE BUTCHER). It happened somewhere in the middle, when I had about 40,000 words, and hadn’t noticed my word count had climbed that high. I was like, “Holy crap! I’m writing a book!” (Never mind that the book was absolutely terrible – my enthusiasm for it at the time could not be dampened with minor technicalities, such as cheesy prose and a nonsensical plot).

D&K: The standard Beatles or Rolling Stones question: Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett

 JH: Both!

D&K: Parting thoughts?

JH: I’ve blabbed long enough. Kate and Dan, thank you for having me! Your support and enthusiasm for me and my book – and so many other books and authors in the crime fiction community – can’t possibly be measured. We’re really lucky to have you guys.

JAR OF HEARTS will be available June 12, 2018, wherever books are sold!