Author’s story-telling fascinates crowd at GCC

 Posted: Thursday, March 10, 2011
By Mike Pettinella Daily News Correspondent The Daily News Online

BATAVIA – As her fans held copies of the book, “Mudbound,” in their hands, author Hillary Jordan grabbed their attention by reading excerpts of her award-winning novel Thursday afternoon at a “Meet the Author” session and book signing at Genesee Community College.

The diminutive Jordan spoke with a Southern drawl in distinguishing cadences as she read the first-person accounts of three of the book’s main characters — Jamie, Ronsel and Laura.

About 115 students, faculty, staff and community members attended the 50-minute presentation, which included a question-and-answer period following her 25-minute reading.

The novel explores racial tension and prejudice through the eyes of two families — the white landowner McAllans, and the black sharecropper Jacksons – who struggle to survive on a farm in the Mississippi Delta in the years following the end of World War II.

It took Jordan, who said that she is part of a bi-racial family (“my mother’s partner of 30 years is black,” she said), seven years and 11 drafts to complete it.

“I wanted to make all of the six narrators’ voices distinct and real. That’s why it took me seven years to write this book,” she said.

The author exuded confidence and openness as she shared her thoughts and emotions during the process of writing the book, which was based upon stories she heard of her grandparents’ yearlong experiences on a farm in Arkansas.

When a military veteran in the audience mentioned that her depiction of the “brotherhood between former WWII soldiers Jamie (who is white) and Ronsel (who is black) spoke to me,” she replied:

“My first love was a Marine, so I knew a little bit about that. What you do is project yourself out of your own head and into someone else’s, and imagine what it would be like to be them.”

Jordan said she doesn’t write an outline of the book first, as is the case with many authors.

“I don’t know a lot at the beginning as to how the book will turn out,” she said. “I just pull it out of my head. With Ronsel, I didn’t know for sure, but I just knew that in the end it would be something bad.

“It’s a spontaneous process. There’s a quote from E.L. Doctorow, ‘Writing is like a long car trip at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’”

Jordan grew up in Dallas and Muskogee, Okla., and now resides in New York City. She said her writing took her to artists’ colonies “all over the place.”

“I wrote some of the book in Virginia, Maine, Spain and the Adirondacks,” she said. “None of it in Mississippi. Artists colonies are so great because there’s nowhere to run, nowhere to hide from your book.”

She said her second book, “When She Woke,” – a story about a stigmatized woman’s fight for survival in a world 35 years from now – is scheduled to come out on Oct. 4, 2011. She also is working on a sequel to “Mudbound,” which will tell the story of Ronsel’s illegitimate German son’s journey to America at the height of the civil rights era to find his father.

But, for now, she is enjoying the success of this year’s A Tale for Three Counties’ selection.

“When I held it in my hand – the (finished) galley – it was the most magical moment,” she said. “It’s done much better than I’ve ever dreamed.”

Tale author finds magic in writing journey

By Ben Beagle, bbeagle@batavianews.com

Writing is hard work, Hillary Jordan said, as she explained the years-long process it took to becoming a published novelist.

Jordan, whose acclaimed debut “Mudbound” is this year’s selection in the “A Tale for Three Counties” community reading project, began a series of talks and book signings with a reception at Genesee Community College this morning.

“Mudbound” is the story of two families — one black, one white — struggling to survive on a ramshackle cotton farm in the Mississippi Delta just after World War II.

Jordan, whose novel was inspired by family stories, shared her journey during an invitation-only luncheon attended by about 20 faculty, staff, students and Tale representatives.

The luncheon was followed by the first of four talks and book signings. Jordan is at GCC this afternoon, where he talk is being video-linked to the college’s Lima Campus Center where several students from the center’s reading group are able to participate, including asking questions.

At the luncheon, Jordan offered an inside look at the publishing process.

“I thought I was gong to be a lawyer, but I realized I didn’t want to do it,” she said. “I wanted to write, but I wanted to make money. So I went into advertising.”

After 15 years as an advertising copywriter, Jordan was ready for a change.

“I like being able to make stuff up,” said Jordan, who began to write short fiction. “Short stories are a great way to explore different voices, and styles without committing the years that you would to a book.”

Her efforts received encouraging feedback, including a friend who suggested she pursue a master’s degree.

A college writing assignment eventually led to “Mudbound,” but that was only the beginning of the journey. After securing an agent, Jordan’s manuscript underwent some revision.

Later, it won the Bellwether Prize, an award for manuscripts about social issues, which includes a publishing deal. The publisher wanted additional rewrites, including a major change — instead of the six narrative voices, the publisher wanted Jordan to write a single narrative from Laura’s perspective.

“That wasn’t my book,” said Jordan, who made some changes, but kept her narratives. The publishing house passed.

A short time later, “Mudbound,” was picked up by Algonquin. Some more rewrites and after 7 years and 11 drafts, Jordan had her book.

The frequent rewrites were very hard, Jordan said.

“But that’s where the magic happens,” she said, noting good editors and an agent — who was another agent’s former secretary who championed Jordan’s manuscript — helped make the book better.

“You have to learn to be able to open yourself to criticism, especially after producing your ‘baby,’ ” Jordan said.

Subsequent works — her second novel, now called “When She Woke,” arrives in October — have been easier, Jordan said.

Two students in attendance at the luncheon were winners of an essay contest organized by GCC’s in-house Tale committee.

Chris Abdella Jr. won first place for his essay about how the character of Ronsel, a black veteran of World War II, overcame the oppression he faced in the South after returning to home.

Abdella, a freshman who wants to be a writer, picked up the book on his own after he and his girlfriend saw a promotional poster for the program.

“It’s a gripping book. I was really pulled in by the writing,” he said. “I liked the many different voices she used.”

Second-place winner Matthew Bilohlavek submitted an essay after reading the book in his English 105 class. Bilchlarek wrote about how his life resembled that of the charming but troubled character of Jamie, a war veteran.

“My life has had some demons,” Bilohlavek said, noting a difficult family relationship.

Bilohlavek also connected with Jamie and Ronsel through his own experiences in the Army. He served four years, though he never saw combat.

“After being in the service I can really relate to their problems coming back and trying to get back in to the whole civilian thing,” he said.

This evening, Jordan presents a talk and book siginging at 7 p.m. at Richmond Memorial Library, 19 Ross St., Batavia.

At GCC, Jordan planned to read selections from her book and then take audience questions.

She said she plans to read different selections at tonight’s Richmond presentation.

Jordan’s visit continues Friday with a lunch-time discussion with winners of this year’s Tale writing contest and a 7 p.m. program at Lee-Whedon Memorial Library, 620 West Ave., Medina. She is also scheduled to present a program 2 p.m. Saturday at Perry Elementary/Middle School, 50 Olin Ave., Perry.

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Courtesy of Batavia Newspapers Corporation

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