Thursday, July 29, 2004

Being in the Zone Pays Off for First-Time Novelist

Jul 27, 2004

Raelynn Hillhouse will soon break into print with Rift Zone (Forge), an end-of-the-Cold War thriller bearing enthusiastic blurbs from half a dozen masters of her chosen genre [that is sitting in my to-be-read pile, but near the top!--bookbitch]. And this debut author's first novel has been chosen as an August Book Sense Pick.

Such developments might startle any other beginning novelist, but the resourceful Hillhouse seems to be taking all this well in her stride.

"I spent all my life getting into places that other people don't get into!" she said recently, from her home in Hawaii. "So I just put those same skills to work."

Her most dramatic acts occurred as a student in divided Berlin in the 1980s -- a place and period that looms large in Rift Zone.

But Hillhouse's break-in to her own life's interests began much earlier, in the Ozarks of rural-southwest Missouri, where she grew up the child of parents who ran a company that produced etching equipment for newspapers.

Despite her family's word-related work, she was not especially encouraged to read as a child. "I was always a self-starter, so I did it on my own," Hillhouse said. "Ours was a small town of about 5,000 people; the nearest bookstore was 35 miles away.... I was famous for skipping high school and driving 30 miles to the nearest university and sitting in the library there all day reading. If I had missed one more day at school, I think, I wouldn't have graduated; but as it was, I was valedictorian. I've always loved to read."

Hillhouse went to college for two years at Washington University, in St. Louis ("150 miles and a world away from the rural Ozarks"). Then, inspired by the tales of people from other lands who had done business with her parents, she moved to Europe when she was 20 and lived in that part of the globe for the better part of six years. "I'm good at working various systems and things, and managed to finish my degree while abroad."

Divided Germany drew her: "The whole idea that you could take one culture and, as kind of an experiment, impose two very different social systems upon it, was very interesting intellectually." At different times, Hillhouse had a Fullbright research grant and a scholarship through East Germany's League for Friendship of the Peoples, which she called "a pure propaganda organization." The latter saw her living and studying in East Berlin, in the early 1980s.

"These are the days," she recalled, "when Reagan is in office, and the Cold War is heating up.... It was not a good time to be an American in Eastern Europe -- not even in Western Europe, for that matter, because of the missile buildup that we were doing. It was in a time of great suspicion: there was great tension. And that's part of what made it exciting -- because I was there in my 20s, looking around, trying to learn everything I could about those very unusual places."

Adding to the "excitement" were the ways Hillhouse found to supplement her East German scholarship money: by smuggling goods from East to West.

"What I found out worked best, in Berlin, was taking Cuban rum from East Berlin to West Berlin," she said. "Like soldiers everywhere, [the French soldiers stationed in West Berlin] weren't paid a whole lot, and not enough to be able to go out drinking to the amount that they wanted. So," Hillhouse concluded with a laugh, "I was using Fidel to support NATO, in a way."

Hillhouse also smuggled jewels out of the Soviet Union, hiding the gems in the hollow heads of little souvenir busts of Lenin.

"I've carried everything from computer boards to lingerie," she said. "One of the things I found with the highest return was condoms: because you couldn't get them in Eastern Europe, but the demand was still pretty darned high!"

During and after such extracurricular activity, Hillhouse earned her undergraduate degree from Washington University and a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Michigan. Back in the States, she had a faculty position and was on tenure-track at the University of Hawaii when the Communist system in Eastern Europe all of a sudden disintegrated.

"I used to be laughed at," Hillhouse remembered, "for saying that change was going on in East Germany; no one believed it of that 'ultimate Stalinist society.' I had an article and grant proposals arguing that, just at the time everything started falling apart. I was quite well funded, for the last year of my dissertation! I ended up having to change galleys of my article coming out in Slavic Review, to past tense,because everything (in Eastern Europe) was gone!"

After the reunification of Germany at the turn of the '90s, Hillhouse determined to write a work of fiction about that now-vanished place she'd known and liked so well.

"I've traveled in over 40 different countries and lived in six different foreign cities, but divided Berlin was without exception the single most exhilarating, electrifying experience of anywhere. I wanted to try and capture that somehow, in a way you couldn't do in academic books. I didn't want to create something where readers are just going to read about Checkpoint Charlie. I wanted them to experience it."

Achieving her aim wasn't as simple as defining it, though. "I realized -- well after starting to recapture and create -- you really have to learn how to write, first," Hillhouse explained. She took several summer courses at Iowa and in Squaw Valley and (with Charlie Baxter) in Splitrock. When she at last felt prepared, Hillhouse wrote Rift Zone in about five months, and then spent another five months polishing and editing.

After that, Hillhouse (who holds an executive-level job now in Hawaii) put some of her system-working skills to work.

Author Gayle Lynds, whom Hillhouse had met at a writers' conference, put her in touch with an agent -- who, after four months, decided Rift Zone was not for him. Undeterred, Hillhouse sent e-mail queries to another group of reps.

"Within six hours, I had an offer from Bob Diforio, based on the first 50 pages," Hillhouse said. "Bob's the former president and chair of NAL, and I wanted an agent who was strong on the sales side; so that worked out really well."

Forge contracted to publish Rift Zone, and Hillhouse then went to work getting helpful blurbs from such star thriller-writers as Lynds, Nelson DeMille, Stephen Coonts, and Clive Cussler.

"I cold-contacted them," Hillhouse said. "Clive Cussler took three letters, though. The last one was two sentences long -- something like: 'No matter how insurmountable the odds, (Cussler series hero) Dirk Pitt will never give up; I know early in your career, you wouldn't either. I've learned from you both.' That was it. And he did it!"

But this new author thinks booksellers are the real key to whatever success her work will have: "The people who love books, and handsell them.

"It takes such strong motivation, and such love of books, to put one's whole self into creating a bookstore and to keep it running.... Those are the people that can really sell books with passion -- and that's what it takes, you know."

That's a quality the self-starting Raelynn Hillhouse can well relate to.

"This was a book written with a lot of passion," she said of Rift Zone (whose follow-up volume is well into its planning stage). "I hope that shows through." -- Tom Nolan

Bookselling This Week: Being in the Zone Pays Off for First-Time Novelist

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