On this cold, snowy day in Stockholm, when the streets are slick with ice and you just want to curl up with a good book, it seems fitting that you should meet the author of the beautifully-written Hating Heidi Foster, Jeffrey Blount. Jeffrey and I have a lot in common: we both have roots in historic Smithfield, Virginia; his grandmother and my grandmother were sisters; and we’re both writers.
Jeffrey is an Emmy-winning director of Meet the Press, the Chris Matthews Show and other NBC programs. He’s also an award-winning scriptwriter for several documentaries.
When did you first realize you wanted to write a novel?
Many, many years ago! I can remember very well the moment I knew I wanted to write. I was in a high school English Literature class and we were given the assignment of writing a descriptive paragraph. I don’t remember why I made this particular choice, but I chose to write about a homeless man and his environment. After reading my paragraph to the class, I noticed that everyone was silent. The teacher smiled and nodded at me. I had always loved reading and realized at that moment if I could emotionally touch very smart and very cynical teenagers with my own words, then maybe I could be a writer as well as a reader. That day, I decided that I wanted to write short stories and novels. In college, I wrote my way out of my freshman English class and then met one on one with my professor for the rest of that year as she guided me through the process of writing my first real novel. It was called Freshman Year.
Hating Heidi Foster was inspired by the friendship between my daughter, Julia and her best friend, Emily. They had been friends since early elementary school. On weekend night, in the fall of their senior year of high school, Julia had a gathering of friends at our home. At one point, she and Emily passed each other and I saw them speak and laugh briefly as they quickly crossed paths. But it was a special moment, shared in the way that only best friends could share it. I recognized an amazing connection. In a few months they would be graduating and probably not going to college together and maybe even studying a full country apart. And I wondered what would happen to this friendship once life got in the way. Would they drift apart like so many old high school friends? It made me sad to think that this was a possibility. So, I decided to write them a story about the importance of friendship with the hope that in the years to come, just a glance at this book would remind them of the wonderful and powerful friendship they had.
The story grew out of the selection of a major event, which was the death of Mae’s father. I wanted an event that would test the relationship of the best friends, but that would also highlight the depth of the connection between them. Their struggle, as painful as it is, brings to light how much they’ve meant to each other. If they didn’t care so much, couldn’t they easily let go and move on? Didn’t they need to find that out? After finding the big event to hold the center of the story, I had to find a way to provide some closure for many characters in the book, but mainly the two girls. I used a device based on a favorite pastime of my daughter’s as she grew up. The rest of the story grew easily around those two events. I had a story synopsis in mind, but not an outline and every time that I sat down to write, I allowed Mae to take the story in new directions.
Is Hating Heidi Foster your first novel?
No, it isn’t. The first was in 1991 and it was called Almost Snow White. It was an exploration of race relations in the 1940’s United States. One day I listened to my father and my grandmother, also named Julia, discuss African-American people who had passed as white. They wondered what would happen if those people were found out. How would they survive? Could they come back home after turning their backs on the community that raised them? Almost Snow White follows Precious Sprately, a young Virginia woman, on such a journey of discovery.
Has your background in broadcast journalism influenced your writing style?
No, because I wouldn’t let it. The style of writing I learned in my college journalism school was extremely fact based, with little room for personal style or expression. I was able to do both. At the same time I was writing for media, I was in creative writing classes.
I really like the immediacy of the first person narrative. Did you know from the very beginning that you would tell Mae and Heidi’s story in first person?
Yes, because I wanted it to be a very, very intimate story. For me, novels written in the first person allow the reader to go deeper into the personality of the main character. I needed the readers to be totally invested in the character in order to feel her pain in the way I wanted them to. Creating an emotional attachment was critical to the story’s success. Being inside Mae’s head and heart was the best way to achieve that.
How long did it take to complete the first draft of Hating Heidi Foster? How long did it take to reach the point when you were satisfied with your final draft?
It took about six months. I had a deadline. The moment of inspiration occurred in the fall of their senior year and I had to have it ready to deliver as a graduation present by late May of the following spring. I was satisfied with my final draft about three years later after I decided to move forward with the book and after a very helpful editing process.
What’s a typical writing day like for you? Do you have a special place that you feel is most conducive to writing?
I write in the mornings and late at night. After taking my son to school and my wife leaves for work, I hit the office. Then after everyone is in bed, I hit the office. I can write anywhere really, but I love my office and I like to write mostly at night.
What books would you say are on your must-read list? What book are you currently reading?
The Round House by Louise Erdrich, The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, The Cove by Ron Rash and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I am currently reading The Tree of Everlasting Knowledge by Christine Nolfi.
Have you already begun working on your next novel? Could you tell us a little about your new project?
I have two ideas and I am in the process of deciding which one I’m more prepared to write. Emotionally and intellectually. That’s all I’m really prepared to say right now.
What was the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? What was the best? The worst piece of advice is in order to find success, you need to consider the market and write to it. The best piece of advice was to write, first and foremost, for yourself.
Thanks to Jeffrey for taking the time for this interview. I look forward to reading your next novel and meeting the next time I am in the US so we can talk books and writing. 🙂 And for those of you who are curious–a review of Hating Heidi Foster will be online later this week!
Hope everyone had a wonderful Christmas! And now it’s time for me to get back to the revision process.