The Jack is, of course, Jack Hillman. Who else would it be? Jack’s been with us for quite a while and although a lot of us know him, we don’t know everything about him, so I thought I’d do an interview with him. He’s been a great member of Pennwriters, holding various positions in the hierarchy and lending support to us newbies. And he’s a lot of fun to talk to. Below is our recent email conversation.
Sue Lange: How long have you been writing and what do you write about?
Jack Hillman: I’ve been writing most of my life. My first published piece of work was in 1969 but I had a long hiatus where I “tried to get a real job” as all too many people told me to do. When I married Bonnie in 1988 she quickly got tired of me talking about the poor level of craftsmanship in the books I was reading and told me to go write one myself. Since then I’ve been a journalist, playwright, novelist, short story writer, and pretty much a bit of everything. I write about the world as I see it (which gives you an idea what kind of skewed view I have) as well as those strange ideas that pop up when I read someone else’s works. As with most writers, I do a lot of “What if…?” and “Well, why not…?” and that keeps my fingers flying on the keyboard.
S.L.: Expand on “the world as I see it.” Where do you specifically get your inspiration?
J.H.: The shorter answer would be “where DON’T I get my inspiration?” It comes from the world around me, the world inside me, and not so occasionally the world some one else shows me, one way or another. I could never list all the places where an idea has pushed its way into my consciousness, so I won’t. Let’s just say that any writer who tells you they are out of inspiration, is walking around wearing dark goggles and ear plugs. And those two thousand books that surround my desk help a lot, too. Same amazing things have happened in our world and they make such good stories!
S.L.: You mentioned having been a journalist. Did you start there and move into fiction or did you do both non-fiction and fiction simultaneously? I guess what I’m asking is how did you learn to write?
J.H.: I started my formal writing career with a couple of business writing sessions at my place of employment. I did a lot of writing in my job so the training came in handy every day. From there I branched out to some freelance work with a couple of local newspapers and some local non-profit organizations. That gave me a chance to collect some clips, both paid and non-paid — and to learn how to conduct interviews as well as how to cover new events (meetings, political speeches, local newsworthy events, etc.). During that time I was doing some investigative reporting for one local newspaper and won a Keystone Press Award in 1998 for my efforts. At the same time I was doing this (as well as holding down a full-time job), I was also writing fiction. From 1992 to 2000 I had published or had produced sixteen short stories, two poems, four murder mystery stage plays and two e-books, as well as about a dozen specialty non-fiction pieces for specific markets (mostly in the insurance field). At about that time I started to get serious on writing novels and cut back on my non-fiction work. But I’ve published another twenty-two short pieces since then, in addition to two more novels, and have several more stories out for consideration at the moment.
S.L: Wow, that’s amazing. And so diversified. Talk about your experience in theatre.
J.L.: From 1996 to 1999, I wrote and directed four stage plays, all murder mystery dinner theater shows, for a local production company here in the Lehigh Valley.
S.L.: What’s the process for someone who wants to write a play? Where would they submit?
Writing a play is in a lot of ways much like writing a novel: you come up with an idea, do either a mental outline of where you want the story to go, or else write out an outline, and then write the script. There are some obvious differences in writing plays — such as not writing things people are thinking — but most of it is just a different format rather than something entirely different. The biggest difference is that everything is pretty much done in dialogue rather than in prose. And you do a lot of “showing” in your stage directions. I never pursued other venues for my plays, mostly because the mystery market sort of dried up for a while, but there are places out there that will accept scripts for plays — most notably Samuel French and Co. — where playwrights can try and sell their works.
S.L: And your books: what are their titles and genres? What are they about?
J.H.: My four published novels are all young adult fantasies. They include Three Challenges For Thor, Field Trip, and the first two books in my Giant’s War trilogy — There Are Giants In This Valley and Giants Want The Lost River. Three Challenges and Field Trip were published as e-books from a company that went out of business almost as soon as my books hit the shelves. Field Trip is about a group of young teens who fall through a hole in space and wind up on an alien planet where the intelligent life form is six-foot tall frogs. Three Challenges actually became the first half of There Are Giants In This Valley, and this trilogy is about a young boy from Philadelphia who moves to the country after the death of his parents and gets involved in a war between the Norse gods and the Frost Giants. Volume three is almost completed and should be out in a year or so, depending on how the publisher works it into the schedule. As for unpublished stuff, I have that one novel every writer has — you know, the one you keep in a trunk and don’t ever let see the light of day — that is a High Fantasy. I’m also working on a new young adult series — science fiction this time — set on an alien planet, an urban fantasy set in Pennsylvania about where the elves went and why they’re coming back, a mystery involving the insurance industry and a serial killer, a horror novel with an unusual monster who lives in an old slate quarry, and a science fiction novel about the colonists from a “generation ship” with a new twist to that idea. Nothing like keeping busy.
S.L.: You betcha. What do you do to market your books?
J.H.: I’ve spoken at schools, libraries, other writers groups, book stores and the occasional personal interview (like this one).
S.L.: How do you get your speaking engagements?
J.H.: Most of my speaking engagements have been by word of mouth — either my mouth or someone else’s. I’ve been stopping by book stores to arrange signings, stopping at schools or libraries to arrange presentations on various subjects (like writing or mythology or something else related to my writing) or in some cases someone I know has passed the word to a store or a school and I get invited. I’ve even been invited to science fiction and fantasy conferences outside Pennsylvania as a guest speaker. The bottom line is that most of them have been by personal contact rather than letters or announcements on websites.
S.L.: Do you do any online marketing?
J.H.: I do online marketing, with my website, my publisher’s website and a few other places like Amazon (where I also have some short stories), Polka Dot Banner and Author’s Den. But most of the people who go out to find my works do so because they’re spoken to me or heard me talk. With a bigger budget, I might do more, but writers tend to watch their pennies and I’m no exception.
S.L.: What are your thoughts on writing online vs. for print? Where do you think the future of books lies?
J.H.: I’ve written for both online and print magazines, as well as non-fiction online and print formats. I think there will always be a place for hard copies of print, either fiction or non-fiction, but the electronic versions are growing and can cover a wider audience than print. The biggest problem with electronic media is the lack of portability (although that is changing) and the lack of a way to read that is as comfortable as printed books and magazines (which is also changing these days). You really can’t put an electronic book up on a shelf and look at it, and some of older readers like to do that. And it’s very hard to read an electronic book if the batteries in your reader are shot. In the future, I think there will be better electronic book readers, for travelers and people who just like to read, but there will also be print books for those people who like to collect.
But then I also go very low tech as well. I have a sign at the end of my driveway with fliers for my new book. That’s not as weird as it sounds since the local school bus stops there each day to pick-up and drop off students in the age range of my readership. Blatant self-promotion does work sometimes!
S.L.: I think it always works, actually. Changing the subject: What has your involvement with Pennwriters been?
J.H.: I joined Pennwriters around 1993, back when there were only four Areas. I was quickly drafted… I mean elected to be an area rep and from there went on to vice president. Since then I’ve been off and on the board several times and now serve as the Published Pennwriter Approval Director. I’ve spoken at many conferences on a variety of subjects, most often on antique weapons and such, and for some reason everyone is careful around me on those days I have to walk with a cane. I don’t know why (he said facetiously).
S.L.: I can’t imagine. How has Pennwriters changed since you started? Also, how has the group helped in your writing/getting published efforts?
J.H.: The biggest change is in how Pennwriters has grown. Pennwriters had about two hundred members when I joined and we’re now over four hundred, as well as having members in fifteen or sixteen other states. We’ve even had members overseas at one time or another. And the group has branched out into many more types of writers than ever before. From a group predominately made up of novelists, we now include many more journalists, magazine writer, playwrights and business writers (including our illustrious president).
As for how Pennwriters has helped me, the biggest way was an opportunity to talk to other writers doing the same sort of things I was doing, so I didn’t make the same mistake someone else had already done. I could make my own mistakes and pass along my knowledge to some other person to help them out. And my contacts through Pennwriters gained me an agent and my first two hardcover book printings, along with several other smaller sales over the years from the market information in the newsletter or discussed at the conferences. Networking is the key for any processional, in any profession, and it is even more important for writers, especially these days.
S.L.: You’ve done so many different types of things with your writing. Is there anything left you’d like to tackle?
J.H.: Oh, definitely. There’s always something more to try. But my next major project will be after I finish the Giant’s War trilogy. I’m going to take all three books and turn them into a screenplay and see if I can find some interest in Hollywood. I’ll invite all of you to the opening!
S.L.: I’ll definitely be there! Before we wrap this up is there anything you’d like to add? Any appearances coming up?
J.H.: On January 17 I’ll be in Tamaqua, PA speaking at the local library around 11:00 AM. And I’m scheduled for SheVaCon in Roanoke, VA on February 27th. If any of our Area Seven members are down that way, drop in and see me.
Jack, thanks for conversating with me. Good luck with the trilogy. I’m looking forward to the next event we have.