Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a west coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship.
Here are some things you may not know abut Robert.
1) Why did you become a Writer? How did you get started?
I initially became a writer because it was a way to connect with my mother who was a writer. Later, I became a writer because it was a profound way to connect with myself.
Early on I wrote great 2-page murder and mayhem stories for class assignments in which all my classmates (and myself) met with horrific ends on school field trips to haunted houses. I think I learned how to captivate an audience doing those. Later, I wrote clever (if I say so myself) verse in the vein of Ogden Nash and Dorothy Parker (yeah, dream on, Robert), some of which got printed in small, off-beat literary magazines that have since become bird cage liners. Professionally, I wrote advertising copy for over 20 years, first for general merchandise, then for movies (trailers, posters, home video package copy), plus a few “edutainment” software learning games, and then moved on to writing grants for non-profits. I didn’t sit down to write my first novel until I was 42, and that was the first fiction I’d written in more than 20 years. (Unless you count grant writing, which is 90% fiction. Ahem.)
2) What is your writing routine? How do you discipline yourself to keep at it?
My writing routine is to avoid writing as much as possible until I burst like a boil and have to get it out and onto the page. Once I sit down to it, I have to stick with whatever the arc is that I’m working on, be it a sentence or paragraph or chapter, and I cannot get up from it until I feel I’ve landed it. This can take a long time. I write out loud, often speaking the words as my fingers type them, but always reading everything back out loud many times, because I need to hear where the voice carries a word or clause, how two particular words rub up against one another, and especially, I have to hear the whole thing move towards the landing. It’s a kind of OCD, but until I hear these things the way my brain dictates they have to sound, I can’t get up from the keyboard.
3) How many drafts before you feel the book is finished?
I’m constantly editing as I’m writing, so I don’t think in terms of drafts so much. Sometimes the editing is about shifting blocks of things around, moving moments from early on to later, things like that. More often than not I kill a few darlings (always a painful thing to do) in the revision process when I see that they do not serve the whole piece. After that, editing is more or less on the micro level – a word here, a clause there.
4) What was the best thing that happened with regard to your writing career? The worst?
The best thing was discovering that I had a particular voice, which I did not realize I had. In fact, I don’t think I ever really knew to have a voice until I was in Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writers workshop and the emphasis was totally on voice. Tom and the other writers in the room saw what I could do, encouraged me to push it, and helped me realize something surprising in myself. I don’t think I’ve had a “worst” moment in my writing career. It’s writing. It’s putting words on a page, hopefully with emotion, that readers will enjoy. Neither my life nor anyone else’s is on the line, though. If no one wants to publish it, it’s not the end of the world. It’s not like going hungry, or having a terminal illness. There’s always another blank page and new words to start over with.
5) What part of your job do you love the most? Hate or dislike the most?
I love when something surprising comes out of me that I did not know was in me. I hate when something totally banal comes out; but then love comes back when I toss out the banal and start over and something wonderful takes its place.
6) What do you like to read? Do you read while working on a novel? Favorite authors?
I read mostly literary fiction. I belong to a book group that’s been meeting for close to 15 years. About half the group are writers; all are serious literature lovers. So we read as much for content as style and try to expand our horizons with international writers as often as possible. I say that, but give me an American novel about the dark side of the American Dream and I couldn’t be happier. I’m always reading. I read more than I write. Some favorite authors, in no particular order: John Cheever, Willa Cather, Elena Ferranti, Nelson Algren, Philip Roth, Dawn Powell, J. M. Coetzee, James Salter, Christopher Isherwood, George Saunders, Edith Wharton…
7) What was the best advice you received as a writer? The worst?
Best: shut up and write.
Worst: you should read x book which tells you how to write a best-selling novel.
8) Who has influenced you the most in terms of developing your personal writing style?
Probably John Cheever. He wrote poetry disguised as prose and I admire that.
9) Do you have a good luck charm or superstition?
No, none. No, none. No, none. (Unless having to say or do things three times could be considered a superstition.)
10) If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?
I used to want to be an architect, and maybe somewhere deep in me I still do. Although, to be honest, I no longer think in those terms of “if I could do it over again, I’d do X or Y…” If I really wanted to do X or Y, I’d do X or Y. But I enjoy writing. I’m good at it. It’s brought lovely things to my life – people, experiences. I have no desire to fold back time and erase what I’ve come to love.
11) What quote or personal saying do you live by?
“I’ll have a tall dark roast, no room, please.”
12) What’s next up for you, writing-wise?
I’m working on a novel about a middle aged man who discovers that the mother he thought had been executed for murder when he was a small child has been in jail all this time, and is now being paroled into his custody. The novel follows how they develop a relationship at such a late stage in life, how it affects the relationships he has with the aunt and grandfather who raised him, and about who he is as a man. It’s very much an exploration of self-identity. The working title is Unfinished.
13) If you could do anything over again, would you and what would it be?
I’m tempted to say I would have started writing fiction sooner, but honestly, I wasn’t mature enough to write about relationships, death, complicated emotions when I was in my 20s, nor yet in my 30s. I guess I was a late bloomer. So it’s not really something I could change.
14) What advice would you give beginning writers?
Write what you want to write because you love the craft of writing, not because you have dreams of fame and riches. You spend an awful lot of time alone in your head to create, so you better enjoy the process. Thinking about having to sell your work will only get in the way of creating your work, so stop it! Also, because it’s just you at that keyboard, you can say anything you want to say. No one has to ever read it if you don’t want it read. Push yourself to be honest, if that’s what you’re striving for. Don’t grind axes, nor sugar coat anything. And if you’re sitting down to write the story of your childhood/marriage/break-up/whatever, because you’ve told yourself the story so many times there will be no surprise in it for you if you write it as you’ve always thought it in your head. So do this instead: write it from another person’s point of view. Write the story you don’t know and you’ll discover something profound in the process.
15) Something we don’t know about you?
I am on dialysis, and awaiting a kidney transplant. Any 0-positive donors out there…?
And: what would you like us to know about your latest release?
The Remnants is about people in a small town who’ve spent their lives trying to connect in whatever way they can, all the while knowing that theirs is the last generation and after they are gone, their town, their history, the memories of them, will be gone forever. It’s sad and funny, hopeful, spiritual, and full of my favorite kind of writing: the run-on sentence. To me, the story of mankind, as it is manifest in the novel, is one long run-on sentence, with the past, present and future alive in a single moment.
The Remnants (Forest Avenue, 2016) follows When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf, 2006), Robert’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.