Throwback Q & A: Musical Youth

I got some promising news from the publisher of Musical Youth this past week. Can’t share it yet, but I can share this previously unpublished interview that I did shortly after the book’s launch.

Musical Youth

What inspired you to tell this story?

I’m a music lover. It was probably inevitable that I’d someday write a book inspired and driven by my love of music.

How did you begin? Did you research or do other prep work, or jump right in?

Jumped right in. Pretty sure I should have been asleep when these teens showed up one ‘foreday morning intent on telling me of their musical dreams, friendships, romantic entanglements, fears, families, discoveries, adventures, and the excitement of embarking on a summer production that would ultimately change their lives. They were persistent, and it was a matter of trying to keep up with them on what turned out to be kind of an epic but compacted writing binge.

What is your writing process like? What do you do when you feel stuck or stumped?

Well, I’m feeling stuck and stumped right now. Stuck because of time. Stumped because when I do make the time the snippets I’ve written aren’t quite fitting together into a narrative that makes sense. And that provides some hint of my process. I write to discover, so in that first draft I’m rushing forward or inching forward, but it’s forward, not all over the place like I am right now. Usually it starts with the character and different moments, feelings, impressions, ideas weave their way in; but I picture it as a character kind of taking me by the hand and pulling me into her/his story. Once I have a first full draft down, I tinker. With longer works, novels, because I also write stories and poems, it takes months, years to get that first draft down, so the tinkering happens as I dip back into the world of the story but then hopefully I keep moving forward until I figure out what the story is about. The redrafting and editing allows me to fine tune, rip out what doesn’t fit, shade in what needs colouring, texturing. If the story I’m working on isn’t happening, I’ll work on something else, just step away from it for a while. I write best at night, I don’t write best in absolute quiet – so music is a good companion, but I grew up having to write with life happening around me, so silence is actually quite distracting. I try to schedule writing time every day, and I try to do something writing related during that writing time even if the story I need to be working on isn’t happening.  The scheduling is more a reminder to myself to prioritize my writing even if the writing itself sees fit to rebel against being wrestled into a schedule; it comes best when I’m just walking or taking the bus or driving or feeling life – times when my brain is kind of just idling. I always have something to write with because of this. And I always have a book on go, because I also find reading not only entertaining but inspiring. Having goals is a motivator for me as well, if there’s somewhere I want to submit or just a workshop activity – oh working with other writers, as I do as a workshop facilitator and writing coach, is actually quite stimulating as well. But there’s no single thing I do to get myself out of the rut… whatever works.

What’s the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned about the creative process while writing your book?

Sometime after I wrote and published Musical Youth, I discovered an unfinished story called the Guitar Lessons, and I could see the link between my personal story and Guitar Lessons and Guitar Lessons and Musical Youth. It reminded me of this poem called Stealing Life that I’d written years earlier, about how we, writers, kind of snatch and store bits and pieces of things, pulling them out without realizing it like a seamstress digging through his or her basket of scraps while sewing a patchwork quilt. It wasn’t a discovery so much as  reminder but I did blog about it here  It’s a reminder as well that sometimes you have to push but sometimes the story will emerge when it’s ready.

I’m most surprised though that I was able to write a full first draft in roughly two weeks. Not recommended by the way, but maybe the fact that the scraps were already scattered inside me waiting to be sewn together is what made it doable. The story was ready to be told and the characters thankfully were a joy to be with so the telling though …feverish… and tightly focused was fun.

What was the hardest part, and what was your favorite part?

Plotting is always a struggle for me. There has to be an internal coherence to the story, a logic to the flow of the narrative.  Character, voice, pacing, tone, these things came fairly easily – the chemistry between the characters, Shaka and Zahara as young love blossomed, Shaka and his crew, their camaraderie, the melding of kids from different backgrounds as they take on a challenge, a number of challenges, was actually fun. But this particular story had some underlying themes and some reveals that required careful handling in the case of the plot, making sure the backstory is consistent with what’s now being revealed etc. Thank God for editing and at the same time editing was my personal hell – so much to do in a very tight window because the original draft had been so rough and the publishing deadline was so tight, the book having been fast tracked after the manuscript placed second for the Burt Award for Young Adult Caribbean literature. In the end, I’m happy with how it turned out – but between addressing structural issues and fighting for what I felt was essential and picking my way through the things that needed clipping and additional writing for texturing and to better connect certain dots – it was stressful.

If you could meet three authors (living or not), who would you choose and why? OR What author do you read for inspiration? OR Who are three authors who inspire you?

Well, if I could have a lime without the social pressure of being chatty and interesting myself, I’d gladly sit over drinks and nibbles with Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Dandicat and Zora Neale Hurston soaking up their stories, and wisdom. I’ve actually met and had drinks with Jamaica, Edwidge is my literary crush – I love everything she writes especially Farming of Bones and Create Dangerously, and I’m fascinated by Zora’s adventures, in love with her spirit and talent, saddened by the arc of her life, and encouraged by the post-note to it, to which a lot of credit I think has to go to Alice Walker, another woman I would like at that lime. (lime: Antiguan for social gathering/hanging out).

What’s the best writing advice you have been given?

I honestly can’t think of one solo piece of advice off the top of my head; but you know which writing book I’ll be recommending forever and ever I think, Stephen King’s On Writing. Lots of good advice in that one. And for the mechanics, I always return to Janet Burraway’s Writing Fiction.

Please ask and answer one question you wish I’d asked.

Stumped again…  I suppose, since this is an American blog and I am a Caribbean writer, I could ask something like why would a reader from America be interested in books by a writer from Antigua. My answer, it’s an imaginative road trip to a different culture, and the realization at the end of it that wherever they rest their heads at night, people are, after all, just people. My characters for all their differences from your reality are still people – and I’ve found as a reader and writer that even within the differences it’s often possible to find something relatable. The best writing, in my view, doesn’t pander to that idea but lets its characters live and breathe, and the open reader can really have an enriching experience stepping into that other-world as it is and just breathing it in. If you’re anything like me, you’ll like the adventure of exploring a different world for a while, all without leaving home; though travel is fun too.

By the way, you can find out more about me and my books here


Both Sides

I should have posted this already but better late than never, I suppose. The delay is not a reflection of anything but not enough hours in the day. Something this Burt Award judging process reminded me of. I’ve judged writing contests, locally, before, but it was my first experience judging a book prize, and a regional one at that. I would learn that reading that many books on a schedule can have even a book lover whimpering, with no intended aspersions to the books themselves, please, no more. Interestingly, as the process narrows to the top contenders, you get a shot of adrenaline again as you spar with the other judges making a case for this choice over that until you arrive at as close to consensus as you can get with something as subjective as art. I’ve been on both sides of this process now and have intimate knowledge of how vulnerable you feel when you leap into this kind of thing, hoping they’ll pick you, steeling yourself for the probability that they won’t; and, as well, the grave responsibility you feel to give each writer a fair reading, to consider and re-consider. Hopeful on both sides of being surprised.

I remember receiving word a year ago around this time that my unpublished manuscript Musical Youth had been selected for the Burt short list; I remember it was maybe 3 in the morning and I called perhaps the only friend I can call at 3 in the morning without there being a life or death emergency. And the next time we fight, and we will, I have to remember that not only didn’t she immediately hang up the phone on me but she was right there with me, as awake as I was at the news. Musical Youth has been good to me and good for me as a writer, and I continued to do all I can to make sure it fulfills its potential as a book by reaching as many readers as it can. Books are meant to be read, right?
And these second set of Burt winners deserve an audience as well. In the end, I think all four judges agree on that. What’s more I think the core target audience, teens and young adults of the Caribbean, will enjoy the adventures these books take them on both in the moment, and later, on reflection. The top three haven’t been announced as yet (I know something you don’t know LOL) but you’ll see what I mean when they are and when, ultimately, you have the opportunity to read them. Meantime, big up to all who dared, big up to those on the short list, big up to the finalists and ultimate winners. To my fellow judges, it’s been real…seriously.
On the list are:
– Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh, Guyana (manuscript to be published)
– Putting Up a Resistance by Michael Cozier, Trinidad and Tobago (self-published book)
– Dancing in the Rain by Lynn Joseph, Trinidad and Tobago (manuscript to be published)
– Prayer to the Motivator by Kamau Mahakoe, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
– The Dolphin Catchers by Diana McCaulay, Jamaica (manuscript to be published)
For more, go here.

And given that it’s awards season, I’ll also mention that the Hollick Arvon long list has been announced, and the Bocas long and short list – special congratulations to Dorbrene O’Marde who’s Short Shirt biography Nobody Go Run Me made the long list of the latter. And let’s not forget the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, with four Caribbean writers claiming a spot.
All but one of these will be announced during the Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad. Wishing all contenders success.

And since we’re talking prizes, I should mention that I have already been announced as one of the winners of the Caribbean Writer’s Flash Fiction Prize; and on April 11th, I will be announcing, during the awards ceremony at the Best of Books, the winner takes all winner of the Wadadli Pen 2015 challenge which I coordinate.

Gratitude for both – the opportunity to reap and to plant, the opportunity to see things from both sides. And to all who dare to leap, including myself, continue as Zora Neale Hurston’s mother said to her children to “’jump at the sun. We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.’”

Oh Gad! Snapshot Reader Reviews

Oh Gad snapshot review

In 2012, my novel Oh Gad! debuted. In July 2014, the mass market paperback edition was released. Above is a snapshot of customer reviews from the book’s Amazon page. I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to weigh in and am relieved that the vast majority actually seem to like it. I will continue striving to tell my stories, and hopefully tell them well. Meanwhile, help a writer out by spreading the word won’t you? Mad love and thanks.

acwws2012 106

Go here for more reviews from readers and critics.


Events page updated; check it out.

Newest addition:

Participation in the PEN World Voices Festival in New York. This is the list of festival participants; explore the site for events schedule and more.

The Burt Award Finals and Panel at the Bocas Fest.

A Commonwealth Writers Conversation (involving me with another Caribbean writer and a Gaelic writer in conversation with Dr. Gemma Robinson) in partnership with the British Council and in association with The Gaelic Book Council.

This panel seeks to bring together two contemporary authors from the Caribbean with a Scots Gaelic author, whose short stories all stem from a place of rich multilingual traditions. The authors’ relationship to language and literary inheritance will raise questions about the choices and responsibilities facing them. Is work from ‘lesser heard’ communities translatable in current market conditions? How and for whom do they speak, and why? MORE

Caribbean Woman

woman post

Caribbean Woman

By jhohadli

Her voice has a
Like a bass drum
Or a cannon
It tek up space
Hugging the hyped-up wind
To itself
And engaging it in
A duet
A riot of noise and motion
Like protopunk
Only without the aggression
For her voice bubbles
Like bennalypsoca or a heaping cauldron
Of near-done red bean soup
Well-seasoned and fragrant
It has the heft of a full bodied woman
The type you imagine
Fans the coal pot arch –
You know the type I mean
She might be skinny like Squeeze
(Who knows?)
But her voice has body
And the joyous lilt of a woman at ease
In her own skin
The kind of woman who
When grudgeful smadee
Skin teet’ and sneeze
“You get fat eeeeh!”
Look the joy-snatcher in the eye
And show them she steel
Because her voice might laugh –
Yes, it blast a good belly laugh –
But she, she don’t play.

copyright belongs to Joanne C. Hillhouse.

See other journaled poems and short stories.

The Hustle

Writing is how I make life, but it’s also how I make a living. When I started this site, it was primarily to promote my books


and connect with readers, but as it’s evolved, other bits of my personal and professional life have migrated here as well. The work I do for hire as writer and editor is the most obvious example of this; a blatant push to use this platform to attract clients. That’s my hustle; writers have to make a living too and I’m happy even with the ups and downs that I can make it doing what I love. As with my own writing, I do my best for my clients. So, if you’re in the market for a writer, editor, or writing coach, here’s some inspiration via client reviews and personal notes related to some past assignments:

1. “I am pleased with the work you did on the manuscript. I have made good progress with my review…I appreciate your suggestions, ideas, and advice… The quality of your work and your professionalism deserves recommendation.” – My note: Editing books can be a tedious process; slow going and hell on the eyes. I try to be as honest as possible, as specific as possible, and as helpful as possible – letting the writer know what works and what doesn’t in my opinion. As a writer myself, I also try to be extremely sensitive; I don’t want to cause the pen to permanently drop from any writer’s hand because of a careless word. But I’m also not being paid to just tell them what they want to hear. It’s a fine line and I try to walk it well.

2. “Joanne’s coaching has been practical, resourceful and supportive. The feedback she gives is amazing in the way that she makes strong suggestions while allowing me to maintain my voice. As a writing newbie, working with Joanne has been a great boost to my confidence and she challenges me to explore styles and perspectives that I would never have tackled on my own. She is also very flexible with my schedule to keep me on track.” – My note: This client works in awareness/education and wanted to make her writing stronger. We worked a lot of the themes of her actual work into our exercises, and pushed beyond the boundaries of what her work might traditionally require while allowing her to flex new writing muscles. I offered this one on one coaching service as a jump-off from the writing workshops I offered from time to time as a way of giving more focused and flexible support to other writers.

3. “During the editing process Joanne handled my writing with respect not only to personal style but that the voice be authentic. It was always about what is right for me. She was also meticulous with checking historical dates, adding facts to clarify a reference.” – Note: This client was one of my first book editing assignments, a new path for me at the time. I appreciate her for that and for presenting me with a manuscript that had been prepared with care, making it a joy to edit. This review, like some others, mentioned me respecting the author’s personal style, something I’m always careful to do even as I review cover to cover for consistency with respect to everything from character to grammar, plot to, yes, style.

4. “I appreciated that my ‘tutor’ made it clear to me that she had observed the way I did things when we were given certain exercises, and she paid attention to not only what I wrote but how she picked up on how I came about writing it. She observed my process, what I spent too much focus on, and not enough focus on. …the fact that she referenced things she had seen me do or say and not say throughout the workshop made me feel like I was a speaking to a person who, not only knew her craft, but genuinely cared or was interested about mine.” Note: This is from a participant in a writers’ workshop at which I was one of the mentors. To be honest, it’s a bit unsettling being on that side of the relationship. I don’t have the letters behind my name nor significant critical notice (even within my Caribbean space). But I don’t pretend to know what I don’t and, though I’ve been doing this for a good long while, I remain ever a student of this craft. What she described is pretty much what I try to do and it seems to work.

5. “Joanne came up with an amazing concept…she was very professional when it came to making any amendments to the script, she was great at hitting deadlines; and she was an overall joy to work with.” – This review refers to an ad campaign I worked on. I had to come up with the tag line, jingle copy, and TV ad – later even script a documentary. It was fun to work on because it required me to be creative, because the subject was something I cared about (love when that happens), because the client was open, and because the production company was very talented and collaborative. Communication was good; always a plus. It wasn’t smooth sailing the entire time few projects are; but, in the end, for the reasons given, I feel we got it right.

That’s all I want to do, really, get it right. What I like about freelancing, among other things, is the variety of projects I get to work on and the fact that when it works, it’s about the work; not personalities and office politics. I’ve been there and done that, and I prefer this.

As a writer, I tackle projects big and small. I’ve written and/or edited articles, letters, press releases, brochures, blogs, biographies, histories, ad copy, newsletters, newspaper supplements, magazines, special editions, web content, public service announcements, TV shows, infomercials, advertorials, and more for clients ranging from media houses, to individuals and artistes, to non profits and associations, small to big business. I’ve coached writers one on one; I’ve taught writing and communications; I’ve run and/or co-facilitated writing workshops. And if there’s a type of project not listed, as long as it’s writing related, I’m interested in hearing about it.

See the following links for more about the other side of my writing life, the hustle:

Do you need a writing coach?

Performance Reviews

Publications and Projects

Writing and Editing Services



The Freelancing Life

*I actually wrote this a little while ago (just so you know), thought I might try shopping it you know to markets that talk to freelancers or wanna be freelancers about the realities of the hustle; but it’s 2 in the morning on a Saturday morning and …eh, looks like I’m posting it. See update below the original article…it’ll make more sense if you read the whole thing.

So I’ve been thinking about this yesterday and today: how much of what I do is about selling what I do. As a creative writer, I research markets and I write poems, stories, books and I send them out with a hope and a query (and then if it does get picked up and published, more selling to attract readers). As a freelance writer, editor, and miscellaneous on the hustle, I research markets, I prep queries and I send them out with a hope and a query. Hell, this need to sell (my books, in this instance) is how I ended up blogging and on social media in the first place. The querying continues whether I have active projects or not. Because as a freelancer, the next job is not promised and so you’ve got to be job hunting even while you’re working. There is no security. But there is possibility and diversity and a certain freedom that keeps me clinging to this life in spite of the rejections. In fact, most times, the rhythm of looking for the next gig makes it easier to shake off the rejections because that rejection is not the end all and be all of anything. On the creative side, it can be a little harder, because it’s a critique of your work, one that finds it not good enough. In the midst of all this, did I mention this, you’ve got to find time to write. In fact, for a writer, it’s not so much an imperative as it is a compulsion, though thank God a productive one.  So, thinking on these things, I realize a  couple of things – this life isn’t for everyone (some days I’m not even sure it’s for me), and that every day I’ve got to wake up and strap on the following list of things (if I’m going to continue to choose it) and so I do:

Self-determination, self-motivation – free will and an internal impulse to get up and do not because there’s a guaranteed pay check at the end of it not even because there isn’t (though that’s a part of it), but because in spite of all you really do like what you do and want to be able to keep doing it.

Focus and drive – because some days you’ve got to work through things you can clock out from when you work for someone else, including just not wanting to be there anymore.

Resilience – because you really don’t have a huge amount of time to dwell on what isn’t working, or on why this or that isn’t working. You’ve got to bounce back and keep on bouncing.

Know-how – self doubt will creep in, it does with every project, that niggling can I do this, what makes me think I can do this sensation, the self doubt that could stop you if you let it. What’s going to get you through that is getting started until you find you’re not faking it anymore you actually do know what you’re doing.

Fear – Double take, right? Maybe I meant to type strength but see I believe in the strength to face your fear; but to access that strength you’ve first got to allow yourself to feel the fear; the fear of failure, the fear you’ll be exposed for the fraud you clearly are (all evidence to the contrary), the fear that everything you really want is passing you by while you keep busy with busy work. And that fear will make you prep that query letter, pitch that project, take that leap that you take every day by choosing to be free of the routine and embrace the daily uncertainty of the freelancing life.

An ability to check yourself – as in check yourself before you wreck yourself. Know when you’re too tired, too sleepy, too pained, too wound up to do any of the above, and can give yourself permission to put it down for a while and, I don’t know, spend the afternoon chatting with a friend on the phone or watching back to back to back episodes of Supernatural with your nephew (that was a fun afternoon), or go for a walk or to the beach or to Carnival, or turn up the music right there in your living room and dance. After all, you’ve worked through enough weekends and late nights to sleep in if you want to and scud when you need to; the idea is to push yourself, not kill yourself.

UPDATE! I’m updating this to add this link about the ones you’d be better off letting get away. It’s really about the bidding and negotiating process which is a part (one of the most awkward, tedious, infuriating, frustrating, and absolutely necessary parts) of the freelancing life. Sometimes you’ll bid and hear nothing. Sometimes you’ll feel optimistic and then…nothing. Sometimes they’ll try to bid you down…sometimes they’ll try to bully you down. But taking the time to talk it out and then write it down so you’re both clear beats jumping without a net and crashing hard (been there, it’s not fun). This article spoke to a lot of my experiences, some of the things I get right, some of the things I’m still struggling to get right. If you’re considering the freelancing life, it’s essential that you understand your worth, be willing to negotiate, but be prepared to walk away if there’s no respect there and/or the cost of doing the job is greater than the cost (to your pocket, mind, soul, spirit…did I mention pocket) of letting it go.