Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
An Interview with Beth Hilgartner
By Lazette Gifford
2002, Lazette Gifford
Beth Hilgartner leads a varied life.
According to her home page, she writes books, is an ordained Episcopal
priest, and makes classical music (singing soprano as well as playing
recorders). She also teaches
private music students (beginning to intermediate piano, voice, and recorder),
and makes recorders. She runs a
small-scale cut flower and seedling business.
One suspects she's also found a way to harness time and isn't telling the
rest of us. (Or perhaps Fluffy and
PKP are helping her out?)
Beth has seen eight books printed, including A Parliament of Owls,
the just-released sequel to A
Business of Ferrets, as well as:
However, it is Cats
in Cyberspace that fits so well into the theme of this
month's Vision. In this book
she tells the story of two felines who learn the joys of the Internet and decide
to help out their poor humans by doing a bit of stock trading.
Between that, ordering pizza, and then the problem Fluffy has with
shrimp... Well, the book definitely repays the time spent reading it.
characters of Fluffy and Princess Killer Pinknose strike me as so true to life
that I suspect they are based on real cats.
Did you find it difficult to get into their personality?
Actually, it was surprisingly easy. I have always talked to my pets; I also have
a tendency to answer for them (using special voices for each of them), so I had
a ready-made interpretation for their characters.
did you come up with the idea of intelligent cats dealing with the Internet?
Usually, I don't have a clue where my ideas come from, but this time, there's a
fairly clear trail. I remember seeing -- some time ago now -- a cartoon in The
New Yorker that showed two goofy looking dogs on a street corner. One was
saying: "The great thing about the Internet is that no one knows you're a
dog!" I smiled and thought to myself, "That would be really funny if
it were cats. The Internet isn't really a dog thing." That wasn't quite
enough, all by itself, but then, after I started working for Interactive Media
Lab at Dartmouth Medical School, I came home from work one evening to find my
three cats sitting on the kitchen table with that look of studied innocence that
makes me instantly suspicious. I thought, "I wonder what you guys do all
day while I'm at work..." and ...snap!... I realized that my cats
get on the Internet and trade stocks and futures and get into trouble -- because
no one can tell they are cats!
you write this story on a whim, or did you have a market in mind?
Do you think the smaller presses like Meisha Merlin are more open to
I wrote this story not so much as on a whim as in the grip of a compulsion.
Typically, I don't think much about markets and audiences (must be why I have to
do so many other things besides just write!), but I was (and remain)
convinced that this story has wide appeal and would make a great live-action
animated feature film. While I was working on the story, I tried to place it
with a number of the bigger book houses; I got an amazing number of very
flattering, personal rejection letters, but no one quite dared to take it on.
When I sent the manuscript to Meisha Merlin, they snapped it right up -- even
though they are dog people (they even have a dog on their logo!!).
tricks do you suggest for creating such creatures in fiction?
My fiction is all -- in some sense -- autobiographical; not the situations,
necessarily, but the characters all come out of my experience. Sometimes,
they're pretty heavily edited -- and disguised -- but they often contain a seed
of someone I've met. Fluffy and PKP are my cats (actually, two of my five cats,
but that's part of another novel). The characters I portray in the story are
quite lovingly drawn from life. (All right... Either they don't use my computer,
or they're clever enough not to let me catch them at it, but otherwise, they
really are just like in the book.) For me, characters have to be real (at least
in my mind) before I can write about them, so I think the most important trick
is to let them be real -- in the imagination, anyway.
just checked the Meisha Merlin Publication site and see that there is going to
be a sequel to Cats
in Cyberspace! Prey-Part
due out in 2003. Congratulations! Anything
you want to tell us about the return of Fluffy and PKP?
Well, not to spoil the story, or anything... When PKP begins to experience the
down side of trading in a bear market, she has to broaden her horizons in order
to stay amused. She discovers politics -- or more specifically, political
invective. (Remember 'prey-part decorating' from the first book? Imagine PKP's
visceral artistic instincts let loose on the world of politics!) She's very good
at it, and it isn't long before she starts to attract some notice. Of course,
she's deeply paranoid, so notice isn't quite what she wants -- especially since
she's determined no one ever guess she's a cat. Fluffy has her paws full
keeping the lid on the situation and restraining the worst of her
rapidly-becoming-famous sister's excesses.
Business of Ferrets
you created a group of street children with animal names, living by their wits.
Does most of your work revolve around animal themes?
I wouldn't have said so -- but the cat books certainly foster the impression. A
number of years ago, I ran across the collective noun for a group of ferrets and
thought that would make a good title. And somehow, if my main character was
named Ferret, it made sense to have all her friends have animal nicknames, too;
but I don't think of A
Business of Ferrets
(or any of the rest of the history) as revolving around animal themes; it's just
the names the kids use.
sequel to A Business of Ferrets is due out this month. A
Parliament of Owls
will be followed in 2004 by An
Ambush of Tigers. Did you always have these
sequels in mind, or has the re-release of the original spurred you to write new
wasn't a re-release, as it had not been published before. I've always known that
I had several books' worth of material in the history begun in A
Business of Ferrets;
and from the beginning, I planned to link the books by using animal collective
nouns as titles. At this point, I'm not sure whether the history will be done
Ambush of Tigers,
or if there's another book beyond that.
other genres do you write in, and why? And
would you like to try your hand at any others?
In addition to Ferrets
(epic fantasy) and Cats
(sci fi? autobiography? humor?) I have written a picture book text, three
children's fantasy books, and a juvenile historical fiction novel. I plan to
write at least one more juvenile historical fiction (a prequel to A
Murder for Her Majesty). To me, the line between fantasy and historical fiction is faint --
although historical fiction usually involves more time in the library.
Occasionally, someone will ask me whether I plan to write "another murder
mystery." Since I never considered A Murder for Her Majesty
a murder mystery -- despite its title -- I don't count 'mystery' as one of my
genres. I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel in the genre I, somewhat
ironically, think of as 'art fiction' (the phrase Little Brown, my first
publisher, imprinted indelibly on my mind was 'novels of lasting literary
merit') but mostly this is a self-indulgent piece of revenge fantasy, and I
doubt I'll ever seriously make the attempt.
were your influences in writing?
The biggest influence on my writing is J.R.R. Tolkien. I discovered The Lord of the Rings
when I was in fifth grade and when I did start writing (later that same year, in
fact), it was epic fantasy. In my own defense I will say I never used hobbits,
and rapidly moved away from dwarves, orcs, and trolls. Elves took a little
longer, but I finally decided I liked writing about people (and cats) more than
I liked inventing ecologies that could support more than one species of
Alpha-predator. Other influences include (but are hardly limited to) Rosemary
Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Lewis Carroll,
Patricia McKillip, T.H. White, Peter Beagle, Marguerite Youcenar, Evangeline
Walton and Mary Renault.
words of wisdom for new writers?
Read. And write. Lots. Read some more. Analyze what you like, and why, in other
people's writing. Rewrite the unsatisfying endings of other people's books (but
don't try to publish them!). Cultivate interesting people. Have some things you
like to do besides write (and read). Write letters (not email!) to imaginary
people. Write their letters back. Read some more. And don't give up.
are your plans for the future? What
are you working on now?
There are lots of plans -- and lots of competing demands on my time. I'm hard at
work on Prey-Part
and An Ambush of Tigers. There are some other writing projects jostling for attention in my back
brain, but I can't take any of them on until after my farming season is over.
last things you'd like to cover?
I used to imagine that the perfect writer's life would be to have time to write
all day. But I've begun to realize that for me, if I didn't do other things, my
writing would suffer. If I had never taken the job working for Interactive Media
Lab at Dartmouth Medical School, I might never have written Cats
in Cyberspace (and if I hadn't quit that job when I did, I'd
either be a terminal basket case, or in jail for murder, but that's another
story); there are similar connections of experience to output in my other books
as well. Since so much of my work is based (however tenuously) on my experience,
it behooves me to go out there and have some. Besides, it's fun -- and it gives
Fluffy and PKP their time on my computer.
Look for these other publications!