FQ: - Lost! is based on a true story. Would you tell our readers a bit about Wadadli, the hooded seal who inspired your tale?
HILLHOUSE: Wadadli, a baby hooded seal, actually landed here in 2001. He was already on or near the beach (a different beach from the one referenced in the story) and hanging on to life when a boy spotted him. He made the news for obvious reasons – the oddness of an arctic seal landing in warm Caribbean waters and more specifically right here in the waters off Antigua, the inevitable questions about how he’d managed to find himself so far from home, and the national and regional effort to get him back home. Given all of that, Wadadli, tagged with the indigenous name of Antigua, was for a brief time a bit of a local celebrity and just generally a curiousity. So, I was aware of his story in a general sense. I didn’t attempt to tell it literally but rather used it as a jump-off, taking the premise and weaving a fanciful ‘what if’ imagining what happened right up to him landing here and being discovered. As to what actually happened once he was discovered, here’s a link to an article by Martha Watkins-Gilkes re how Antigua and Barbuda rallied to get Wadadli (also called Lucky) home. You can learn more at: http://stromcarib.com
FQ: You've written many books, both fiction and non-fiction, on a wide variety of topics. What was it about Wadadli's story that drew you to him and made you want to turn his "mis-adventures" into a children's book?
HILLHOUSE: Well, certain things imprint and I suppose, without me realizing it, Wadadli did. It is quite the remarkable journey that he took and I suppose the unusualness of it, not to mention the way he inspired people to do all they could to help him get home, was part of what made it stick. So that when I challenged myself to write a children’s story, he was right there within reach. Though the details are different, the real life story and the fictional one have in common an unexpected adventure, being a fish outta water (i.e. at sea in a new and unfamiliar place), and finding that people (which, in this case, includes other sea creatures) can be friendly and helpful and kind.
FQ: Dolphin is an adorable seal with an unusual name. How did you come up with that name for your protagonist?
HILLHOUSE: Could just be my own fascination with dolphins; blame the Flipper re-runs that were so popular on local TV when I was a kid. One of my favourite days in recent-ish memory was spent on a circumnavigation tour around Antigua, on board Adventure Antigua, on which I got to see dolphins swimming in open sea and a whale breaching. Dolphins are beautiful and it’s ironic that the main character’s passing resemblance to bottlenose dolphins, via his funny looking nose, is the thing that gave him his name and fuels his imagination, but is also something for which he is teased. There’s a message about accepting your uniqueness, your quirkiness embedded in that. But also I just liked the juxtaposition of him being one thing and being called something else, and no one really being confused by that by the end.
FQ: You live in Antigua - what a beautiful island! Do you get your writing ideas while walking the beaches?
HILLHOUSE: We do have 365 beaches, one for each day of the year, so that’s a lot of walking, a lot of inspiration. But we also have a saying that the beach is just the beginning and there is much, on and off the beaches, that inspire me; just life...and, yes, lots of walking.
FQ: An important part of your book is to show the work that environmentalists are doing to save Arctic seals. Would you tell us a bit about what they do/how they do it? Have you ever participated in a rescue or is that not allowed?
HILLHOUSE: The only rescue I have ever specifically participated in is the baby birds that fell from a tree in my yard – I remember calling the Environmental Awareness Group (www.eagantigua.org) for advice on what to do, because I’d witnessed as a child how handling a bird even with good intentions can end badly. We don’t often have opportunity for big rescues like the one that inspired this tale, which is part of what makes it so fascinating. So I can’t speak broadly to the work being done in this area. But on an island, especially in this era where climate change is already wreaking havoc (our own sister island Barbuda felt the blows of a devastating hurricane season in 2017), environmental protection and biodiversity are keenly important. I have worked in environmental education and as a freelance writer have had the opportunity to work on projects for the EAG and the Ministry of Environment in terms of both documentation and advocacy; as a reporter, though I walked any number of news beats as one does in a small market, I once received a local award as Environmental Journalist of the Year for my reporting on a project to preserve the Hawksbill turtle (a project that has been instrumental in the survival of this species by preserving its nesting ground at Pasture Bay, the beach referenced in the story, as well as tagging and monitoring). I once spent a rain-soaked night over on that beach as part of the turtle watching project and have been fortunate to see the little ones break free and sprint toward the sea, all too aware that many will not make it, but hopeful. So, more than anything, capturing the stories (from traveling to Great Bird Island to write about the Antiguan Racer snake which the EAG brought literally from the brink of extinction to visiting the frigate bird sanctuary in Barbuda, from which many of the birds, much like the people of Barbuda, fled Barbuda, hopefully to return, during this harrowing hurricane season). And I’m fortunate that, though this is a work of speculative fiction, I have the opportunity to tell another story from our natural world with Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure.
FQ: As I mentioned in my review, I love the illustrations for your book - they're so bright and lively. Would you tell our readers a little about the process of working with your illustrator? Did you go over details of each illustration before she set to work, or did you discuss the overall feeling of the book and let her get creative? What was the process?
HILLHOUSE: Aren’t they beautiful? Thanks for the positive review, by the way; I’m happy and relieved to read it. Believe it or not, Danielle (Boodoo-Fortune) who is located in Trinidad in the southern Caribbean while I am in Antigua in the eastern Caribbean, literally several plane hops away, worked primarily from the story...and from one or two reference images I provided to the publisher from my research, for example, a picture of Wadadli. I recommended her to the publisher, because I not only knew and loved her work but thought her aesthetic would be a good fit for the world of Lost! She was contracted by Caribbean Reads and given her instructions by them. My involvement beyond that was limited to offering feedback when invited to do so, which I have to say was fairly often as this or that character was drawn or this or that scene realized, by the publisher. So Danielle and I had no direct interaction during the creative process and it was only on launch day, during a live chat, now archived here https://wadalipen.wordpress.com, that we got to talk some about our creative processes. Quoting from Danielle, during that chat, re how she approached the project: “Dolphin’s daydreaminess really helps define him, I think. It was the first thing that struck me when I started doing concept sketches of each of the characters. It set him apart from his friends...aside from his nose of course. In the illustrations, I wanted his eyes to always be wide and filled with wonder...I wanted to get a feel for all the characters’ personalities, especially Dolphin. I wanted to bring out those qualities of curiousity and playfulness that make him so endearing in the book. It was a joy to illustrate because the underwater setting made it the perfect fit for watercolours, my medium of choice.”
FQ: Your book is published by CaribbeanReads - a publisher specializing in books, for all ages, centered around the Caribbean. What a great concept! Would you tell us a bit about them and how/why they got started? What has been the reception, both from people living in the Caribbean as well as those who live quite far away, when they discover a place devoted to books about the Caribbean?
HILLHOUSE: Caribbean Reads can best speak to their genesis but I knew Carol Mitchell, the lady who founded Caribbean Reads, as a writer first of the Caribbean Adventure series. I want to believe that the challenges experienced by voices from the edges trying to insert themselves in to the main narrative, notwithstanding the conversations about the need for more diversity in the world of publishing, was part of her motivation when she moved from self-published to independent press. There is so much talent in the Caribbean and a very narrow path to being published via the traditional route. I have been fortunate, to some degree, in that regard, having had my books (https://jhodadli.wordpress.com) published with several international publishers, even so still a writer from a small place, even so still a writer jumping and waving her arms to be seen. So, it’s been a joy to have two – Musical Youth, a finalist for the Burt Award for teen/young adult Caribbean fiction, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure – published by Caribbean Reads, an independent press that centres and hustles hard for Caribbean literature. I think for writers and readers of the Caribbean this and other emerging small presses are welcomed because it means a diversity of stories flowing out of the region, contributing to the diversification of the publishing marketplace, and, within the region, where so much of what is read comes from outside, more and more stories reflective of self.
FQ: Please tell our readers a little about the Wadadli Youth Pen Prize that you run.
HILLHOUSE: The Wadadli Youth Pen Prize (http:"//wadadlipen.wordpress.com) is a project that I started in 2004 to nurture and showcase the literary arts in Antigua and Barbuda. Its main project is an annual writing challenge targeted at young people; through that we help bring fresh voices and fresh stories in to the world and help young people generally realize the power of their own voice. The project has done other things such as workshops and recordings, and notably created an online platform which also acts as a gateway to Antiguan and Barbudan literature, where all, or as many as I can find, of our published works and the emerging arts scene is documented. And it’s all voluntary; just my attempt with help from various partners and patrons over the years to create an enabling environment for creativity – something that was lacking during my coming of age.
FQ: You wrote a poem, "Children Melee," that stems from your love of Carnival and Calypso. Any chance you'll be writing a book about Carnival?
HILLHOUSE: LOL. Would you believe someone asked me about this just recently – identifying that as a gap in the children’s picture book market. Food for thought.
FQ: You write poetry as well as fiction/non-fiction books. Do you find one style more satisfying for you to work with, or do they all offer something important, and perhaps different?
HILLHOUSE: I am most passionate about fiction, reading it, writing it. But I enjoy experimenting so I’ve tried my hand at many genres and sub-genres: screen and play writing to fiction and poetry and, of course, non-fiction, with journalism and feature writing being a part of that; and from bildungsroman to romance to adult dramas to noir to jumbie (ghost) stories and so on, including as demonstrated by With Grace, my Caribbean fairytale published by Little Bell Caribbean, and Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure, children’s picture books.
To learn more about Lost! A Caribbean Sea Adventure please read the review.