A Conversation with Hilary Sloin

Hilary Sloin, essayist, playwright, and novelist, has a great deal to say—and says a lot with her recent Bywater Books release, Art on Fire, a faux biography of fictional painter Francesca deSilva. We recently reviewed this terrific book and thought our readers might also enjoy hearing a bit from the author herself, so we sent Hilary some questions and received some great responses. 

Out in Print: The back of Art on Fire indicates the book was “mistakenly awarded
the non-fiction prize at the Amherst Book and Plow Competition.” There must be
a story there. Please tell it. 
Hilary Sloin: Indeed, it is quite a story. I entered the Book and Plow festival, a fairly
Big deal locally, with an excerpt from the book where Isabella has her book celebration
party, gets drunk on champagne at age 13, and swallows her tooth, winds up in the
emergency room. It is a fairly over-the-top scene, comical, not one I would expect to find
in a biography. At the time the book was called The Unfinished Life of Francesca deSilva
(a pseudo-biography), but I had clearly marked Fiction Submission on the manila
envelope. Apparently, no one on the committee bothered to do any research, which of
course would have let them know that Francesca and her sister did not exist. Instead, they
awarded me the non-fiction prize! Well, authors love prizes… we live for them, really.
But I had to call them up and tell them that it was a mistake. So what they decided to do,
quite abashedly, was to have me submit some of my essays—thank goodness, I write
essays—and they gave the prize to those essays. I was scheduled to be in France during
the reading of the award winning pieces, so my dear friend Meredith Rose read the
“winning” essays for me at the Lord Jeffrey Inn. 
OiP: For those who haven’t read the book, the descriptions and criticisms of the
paintings between the chapters are a marvel. How did you come up with the
idea for that structure?
 
HS: I wish I had some brilliant answer for this question, but the truth is it just came to
me. I was writing about Francesca and Isabella and their screwed up family, and all at
once it came to me that Francesca was an artist and that I would write these satirical
analyses of her paintings in order to form a sort of “metatext” for the narrative. I wrote
drafts of “Woman With Stool” and “Rake” in the same afternoon… and I was hooked. I
had never had so much fun writing anything. It just seemed an interesting way to tell the
story of a reticent artist—through interpretations and misinterpretations of her work.
After all, for any artist who manages to succeed in the public eye, all that will be left
when she is gone is her work and what people have to say about it. I studied literature in
college and I always hated literary criticism. Yet it amused me. What did Yeats mean
when he used the image of a rose? Why did Nabokov, a married, presumably
heterosexual non-pedophile, write about such incorrigible perverts? We can never know
the answer to these questions. So I really enjoyed making them up and having some fun
with the people who make them up. 
OiP: What inspired these fictional paintings? Do you see them or have them
sketched out somewhere? 
HS: I’ve twice gone through periods where I’ve painted almost fanatically. I’m not really
any good, and I’ve had no training, but I really enjoy it when I do it, mainly because it
doesn’t involve words. So I had a bit of a handle on what it felt like to paint, to try to tell
a story through images. And then I put that together with the character of Francesca and I
tried to imagine what she would paint, the stories she would tell. And then those stories
helped me to shape the narrative structure of the book. They added information that she
wouldn’t supply; they filled out the story and, at the same time, confused it. I guess I
found it very playful and I definitely consider myself a playful writer. 
OiP: Are you more like Francesca or Isabella? 
HS: Both and neither. I am pretty much an introvert, like Francesca. I have a lifelong
cigarette habit (though not as bad as Francesca’s). I was pretty much ignored by my
family in favor of a very talented sister (she is a singer), and I love tiny, grungy cabins
where I can be alone. But I am a far cry from a butch. But I love, love, love butch women
and I feel I understand them. And then, as far as Isabella goes, there are many similarities
between us. I am volatile and tormented and have been a writer for as long as I can
remember. When I was in sixth grade I wrote a book called Maybe Tomorrow Will Be a
Better Day. It never was, which was the whole point of the book. It was a sad little
coming-of-age tale about a boy hitting puberty. Of course, it never got published as
Isabella’s much more scholarly work did, but the writing bug bit me young. It is the one
pursuit I have stayed with my whole life. So I can honestly say I am like and unlike both
of them. Also, Lisa Sinsong. She has a lot of me in her as well. 
OiP: Your bio indicates you’re also a playwright. Are you more partial to
dramaturgy than fiction, or do you have a preference? 
HS: I loved writing plays but I found the lifestyle prohibitive. All that socializing and
schmoozing and having to be in the right place at the right time, having to be cool and
stay out until three in the morning every night. But I think I was a better playwright than I
will ever be a fiction writer. I love telling a story through dialogue and action, having the
truth revealed through what characters are unwilling or unable to say. I love the stage and
seeing my work come to life. I am quite the critic of theatre, film, and TV, actually,
hypocritical as that may be. And I love actors. I adored the actors I worked with. They are
such a fun, wacky lot, so devoted to their craft. And actors always want to please the
playwright which, of course, was very flattering and fun. But I do love writing fiction and I’ve been at it a while now. I find the quietness of it manageable and meditative, and I love working a story until I finally feel it says what I am trying to say in the most competent and interesting way possible. 
OiP: What’s your creative process like? 
HS: I drink a lot of coffee. I usually start out writing either long-hand with a fountain pen (I have three, two antiques and one new one, and they never leave the house because I am so attached to them, I fear losing them). Sometimes I write on my manual typewriter, a very sexy Olivetti Lettera 35. This is hard work, writing on a typewriter, but sometimes I have so much trouble reading my writing that writing on a typewriter is more practical. I am a very fast writer. I get it all out as quickly as I can and then I go in and perform major surgery over and over again. 
OiP: You also run a business restoring and selling antiques—does this inform your
writing at all or is it an escape from it
HS: Great question. I love antiques. They fascinate me. And I love the physical aspect of
restoring, carrying, buying, moving, arranging, and selling antiques. At this point I am
struggling to find a way to do both since a girl’s got to make a living and working with
antiques is the first job I’ve ever loved that brings me any money. I worked as an editor
for years and I finally just completely burned out on it. My next manuscript, still
unwritten though beginning to leak out in dribs and drabs, is called Pimpin’ the Frontier.
it is, I think, about a woman who lives in a camper and travels from antique show to
antique show and all the bizarre and totally unusual characters she meets. It’s so-named
because I drive a Nissan Frontier pickup which is like my newest and favorite girlfriend,
and the word pimpin’ just seems to suit the idea of looking for things that already exist
and trying to make money off of them. Plus, I just think it’s a fun title. 
OiP: Art on Fire works, in part, because it’s satirical biography. Was there a
particular biographer or biography you were aiming at, or was your shot more
general? 
HS: Definitely, I was not aiming at anyone. I was really processing all the biographies
I’ve read about complex women artists of one sort or another: Diane Arbus, Virginia
Woolf, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O’Keefe, Flannery O’Connor, and so forth. But it was really
borne out of fiction. I just wanted to write about a painter because I think painting is the
most exciting art form. And this format was the best way for me to accomplish that. 
OiP: Who are your literary influences? 
HS: So many… Raymond Carver has had a huge influence on my short fiction, which is
much less verbose than Art on Fire. In fact, I’ve become something of a minimalist,
which makes sense because I began as a poet and in theatre I was always concerned with
economizing language. Annie Proulx, The Shipping News, was the last book I read before
I began Art on Fire. She had a huge influence on me. I thought that book was simply
brilliant: stirring, gentle, grotesque, cruel, linguistically supreme, and her description of
place was stunning. Art on Fire sounded an awful lot like a bad Annie Proulx imitation
when I first started it. Then my own voice stepped in and it began to take shape. I am also
a huge appreciator of Tolstoy (sublime angst and tragedy). And Nabokov, perversion,
misogyny and all, is probably my all-time favorite writer. I think he is an unrivaled
genius. The Color Purple is also one of my favorite books. 
OiP: What are you currently working on? 
HS: I am in the process of completing a collection of stories entitled The Cure for
Unhappiness. And, as I said earlier, I am dabbling in Pimpin’ the Frontier. In July I will
be doing a residency at the Cottages at Hedgebrook, so who knows? Something entirely
unexpected could rear its head. 
OiP: What do you want readers to take away from Art on Fire? 
HS: I set out to write a funny, compelling, dark book about art, family, love, and death. I
hope that people who read it—and please do read it, I need all the readers I can get—will
identify with some aspects of the characters and that they will gain insight into what it
means to be highly, sometimes destructively creative. Also, I really wanted to poke fun at
criticism. I think it’s so ridiculous so much of the time and that it perverts the artist’s
intention. I also really like to make people laugh.
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