A little bit about Bill...
Bill Higgs is a recovering academic, former broadcasting engineer, and avid storyteller. He also admits to being a nostalgic baby boomer with a keen interest in how things from the past can teach lessons for the present. He lives in Kentucky with his wife, author Liz Curtis Higgs, and their two cats. Eden Hill is his first novel.
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You and Writing
Tell us a little bit about yourself and writing...
How did you start writing?
While I had written academically (a doctoral dissertation) and a few technical articles (as a one-time broadcast engineer), there were stories banging around in my head. Eden Hill started as a short story, and just got out of hand.
What has kept you writing?
Over the years since I began Eden Hill, I often wondered if I would ever finish. The story became something of an addiction. I suppose I finished the book because I was deep enough into it that I wanted to know how it would end!
What or who is the biggest influence in your writing?
Probably Garrison Keillor, who mastered the art of telling deep truth through humor. His writing also taught me the power of simplicity, that life in a small town could have a huge impact on those of us who wish to uncomplicated our lives.
Why do you write?
I’ve always considered myself more a storyteller than a writer, but certain stories need to be told through the written word. And as the son of an English teacher and the husband of an author, I suppose I had little choice.
Let's talk about your book...
Why did you write it?
I was thinking one day about the “gas wars” of the early sixties, when service stations would undercut each other to gain a competitive edge. This usually ended up harming both businesses, and possibly causing one to fail. Success came at a price.
My grandfather worked at a local auto dealership which had a couple of gasoline pumps (rare today), and his job was to pump the gas. He became a powerful role model. He preferred to live his life simply, defining success differently.
I came to the realization that there was a story in his life and example, one that exemplified Gospel truth.
Do you have a favorite character in this work? If so, why?
Interestingly, my favorite character has become Reverend Eugene Caudill. While our protagonist Virgil T. Osgood is the central character, the good pastor undergoes as much change throughout the story. He becomes embroiled in the conflict by choice, and learns something of his inner struggles in the process.
Was there a passage of scripture you came across or used while writing it that you’d like to share?
The Parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37. If not before me in printed form, it was always in my mind.
What’s the theme? How did you come up with it?
While some have identified the central theme as the Parable of the Good Samaritan—and that’s certainly a strong thread in the novel—I was striving for something broader. Namely, where does our ambition and striving for material success come into conflict with Biblical values? (tweet this) This is subtler, and perhaps more timely in our present culture.
What is one take-away from your book that you hope readers identify with?
For one who takes the name of Christ, being a good neighbor is not optional. It’s what we’re called to do, and we’re richer for it.
What was a challenge you faced while writing it?
Other than the challenge of time, which is always present, the biggest hurdle was getting a grip on the pervasive and compelling striving for success that our culture honors. It’s everywhere, from graduation speeches to television commercials. Get ahead, we’re told.
I often wondered while writing Eden Hill if I would be able to avoid the definition of success so often assumed by writers: sales numbers, awards, accolades, and the like. I suppose I’ll find out.
What did you learn while writing it?
Writing is at the same time both difficult and transformative. If an author takes as a premise that one can live a practical life along Biblical principles, then the writing has to follow. So does the author’s life. Can it be done? Yes, and I’m trying to get there.
Is there a funny story associated with writing the book?
As I was growing up, my parents often patronized the local Gulf service station in my hometown, which offered three grades of gasoline, tires and belts, and general service. The owner was an affable fellow who went by the name of “Poochie.” It was not until after the manuscript was completed that I learned his real first name was “Virgil.”
Another interesting thing concerns the book’s cover, which features a baby blue 1953 Chevrolet with a white visor, presumably driven by our antagonist, Cornelius Alexander. When the art director showed me the sample cover, I went wild. I’d tried to find such a photo, to no avail. When I asked where he was able to find the image, he said the car belonged to his aunt, and he’d driven over to her house and snapped the picture in her driveway.
I was so blown away by the photo, I changed the story to have Cornelius drive a ’53 instead of the ’55 so the story would agree with the cover!
Did you get to do any fun research for the book?
I think it was all fun. Having spent some time as an academic, poring over scholarly journals and arcane university publications, it was a pleasant change to research old Life, Pageant and Coronet magazines, television shows, and general culture from the 1950s and early 1960s.
We're your characters easy to pin down or did you discover them along the way as you wrote the book?
I had a vision for most of the main characters, especially Virgil, but the others tended to pick up nuances and quirks along the way. It was something like seeing an out-of-focus image; I knew, for example, that Arlie was wearing overalls and a gimmie cap, but I didn’t see the baling wire and chewing tobacco until I moved in closer.
What made you choose the setting for the book?
Arguably, the Fabulous Fifties ended in 1963 with the assassination of Kennedy. The era was, until then, an optimistic time, when we all felt as though things were getting better. We were beyond “duck and cover,” and ahead of Vietnam and “tune in, turn on, drop out.” I wanted a simpler nostalgic period for the backdrop, where the national story would not trump the local one. I suspect those who write Amish romances are striving for much the same thing, but in a contemporary setting.
What's the most random thing you had to Google for the story?
“Mark Eden bust developer.” No contest.
What was one thing (or character) that surprised you while writing this book?
I originally introduced the character of Sam Wright as more comic relief than anything else—sort of like Otis in the Andy Griffith show. He was a target for the other characters to bounce off. But in spite of his eccentricities (some would say, as Gladys did, “half blind, whole nuts”), he spoke truth. And Biblical truth can come from unlikely places.
What’s your favorite snack while writing?
Whoever invented pretzel nuggets with peanut butter inside deserves an award. Addictive.
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Let’s talk about your writing life....
How long did you write before you got published?
Part of my story is that I worked on Eden Hill for over 25 years before it finally found a home. I often joke that it was contemporary when I started, but historical by the time I finished.
What’s your encouragement for younger writers aside from “keep writing”?
At writer’s conferences or in magazines that cater to authors, we often hear or read something like “Write to Sell!” I suppose I could have taken that as a goal, but I’m not sure Eden Hill would have been better for it. Rather, make your writing a personal project. I found that my best motivation was to set my own standard high, and try to write to that.
How many rejection letters did you get before being accepted by a publisher?
I have a collection (including one from the person who was later to become my editor!). I suspect my agent has a pile as well.
Are you a Pantser or Plotter?
Pantser, definitely, although I often have some concluding goal in mind.
What does your writing process look like?
It’s ugly. Eden Hill was written in fits and spurts over a long period of time. A couple of times, I’d swear off writing for several months at a time, only to have to reread what I’d written to familiarize myself with the characters and story again. I tend to go over the story in my head before committing it to words on a page. Unlike some, I have found I can write almost anywhere, from the kitchen table to a quiet cabin in the woods somewhere.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process?
My favorite part is when a new story line or character quirk pops into my head. I love the little internal backs-and-forths in my mind, and then writing it down. The least favorite part—and I suspect many authors would agree—is the promotion and mechanics involved in publication. Sometimes I think the unpublished author may have an easier go of it.
How long did it take to publish your first book?
From its inception as a short story about 1988 to publication in 2016, twenty-eight years! From the acceptance by a publisher to its place on bookstore shelves, about eighteen months.
What did you learn along the path to publishing that you’d care to share as encouragement? Corny as it sounds, I learned to be patient (not a natural virtue for me). It also helps to be flexible, as the publishing world is changing constantly. I’ve also had several strokes of good luck along the way.
Where do you find inspiration for your story/characters?
I simply look around, and in the case of Eden Hill, drew on my memories of quirky real life characters from my past. Maybe it’s just me, but I look at a scenario, say a young man on a skateboard being pulled by a huskie (actually happened), and I want to know all the story behind it. And if I can’t find out (I couldn’t), then I make up a logical if screwball back story.
Do you listen to music when you write? If so, have a favorite artist or playlist to share?
I tried this once, and found I couldn’t concentrate on anything but the music. Having once worked in radio where I was bombarded with music eight hours per day, I may have fried the part of my brain that can separate music from the little story voices in my head.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors for writing and/or publishing?
I’m convinced that Eden Hill was picked up by both my agent and publisher because it was something different, and not another prophetic-apocalyptic-end-times-thriller. Strive for that uniqueness, and your manuscript may just float to the top in the sea of “me-toos” on an editor’s or agent’s desk.
Are there any books or resources you could recommend to younger writers looking to grow in their craft?
I’m currently working through (again) the classic The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler. Also on my desk, and frequently consulted, is James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. Two different approaches, but they play nicely together.
How do you grow in your writing craft?
I try to balance my reading between contemporary authors, and the classics (just read Moby Dick again—too much of an “info dump” for a modern reader). Still, I learn something from both. I’d also mention the place of spiritual growth for any author who writes from a perspective of faith. As one’s faith grows, so does one’s motivations and literary expression.
How do you balance your writing life with “real” life? Any tips or tricks to share?
It helps to be married to another writer, who “gets it.” As any author can attest, the demands of writing, particularly after publication is achieved, can be severe and straining on relationships. Time apart from writing must be intentional, something not easily learned. Yet we try, and we’re a happier couple (and probably better writers) for it.
Have you ever attended a writer’s conference? If so, which one(s) and what were most helpful about it?
I’ve attended the former Christian Writers Guild conferences (where I was fortunate enough to connect with my agent), as well as American Christian Fiction Writers. ACFW was extremely helpful in terms of the craft of writing. One of these days, I hope to attend the conference at Mount Hermon, which I’ve heard is extraordinary.
Apparently August 15th is National Lemon Meringue Pie Day (who knew). What is your favorite dessert?
A couple of years ago for my birthday, my daughter-in-law made me a chocolate peanut butter cake—three full layers and frosted with pure sugar heaven. Best dessert ever, bar none!
What are you currently reading?
I usually have several books going at once. I just finished The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, by Jonathan Gotschall (good material, but skeptical in terms of faith), and Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs is about half-done. I’m several chapters into Small Victories by Anne Lamott.
Emilie here: Thank you so much for this great interview Bill! I'm excited to have you on the blog and, readers, make sure you check out his new book! Enter to win as well, but if you don't win - hop on over and pick up a copy!