Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Q&A with Terry E. Hill

Terry E. Hill is the author most recently of the novel Come Sunday Morning Saga, which focuses on the pastor of a church in Los Angeles and his wife. Hill has worked on social services issues, including homelessness, for many years. He lives in Oakland, California.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Samantha Cleaveland?

A: Samantha is actually a composite of real people. I was raised in the black church, and it’s a kind of composite of a lot of pastors’ wives. She most resembles the pastor’s wife of the church I attended as a child.

Q: Was it a megachurch like the church you describe in the book?

A: It was a megachurch. Then, they weren’t called megachurches, but by definition it would be called one. It was very large, but had a small-church feeling to it. The pastors knew the congregants’ names. He was such a dynamic person that it kept growing and growing. There were 10-15,000 members.

Q: The story takes place in Los Angeles. Could it have taken place elsewhere, or is it an only-in-L.A. story?

A: It really is an intuitive question, because when I first wrote it, the story took place in San Francisco. I live in the Bay Area now, in Oakland, and as I was writing, I felt that I wasn’t able to capture the city and develop it as an independent character because I didn’t know it all that well.

I knew Los Angeles; I was born and raised there. I felt much more comfortable describing its ambience and feel.

It’s more personality- than story-driven. The characters drive the story, but I love context, and creating context.

Q: Did you know how the book would end, or did you make many changes as you went along?

A: I knew how it was going to end. My process in writing—I have a fear of going off on odd tangents. Before I write the first sentence, I have laid out the entire book.

As you’re writing, characters tell you their story. I’m flexible because I want to be true to the characters while sticking to the outline so the story flows. I do a little bit of both.

Q: Is this book a revision of an earlier book that’s the first in a trilogy?

A: It’s part of the original trilogy. The publishers made a unique decision. The saga was in three parts, Come Sunday Morning, When Sunday Comes Again, and The Last Sunday. The three books have already been released. They did really well. The publisher decided to consolidate the first two [into this new book] and release that. It’s an interesting move.

I think part of the reason is that a fourth book, coming out in December, brings back three of the main characters of the trilogy. There’s a connection.

Q: Will they also re-release the third book of the trilogy?

A: I’m not sure about the release date.

Q: Is the fourth book a sequel, then, or more separate?

A: The fourth book is a stand-alone. They’re all technically stand-alones. The fourth book has a whole new main character, a new villain. I used to work in politics in San Francisco, and I set this one in the political arena. I think it’s the best one I’ve written so far!

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: I’m a big follower of the mystery genre. I love a good mystery. I wish I could write a good mystery, but it’s a whole different skill set. 

I really love Agatha Christie. Most of her books—she’s so formulaic, but from book to book they’re so entertaining, so precise and clean. She doesn’t trick the reader. She gives the opportunity to the reader to deduce. You have the information required to solve this crime. That’s a definite skill. A shortcut is to introduce a new character in the last chapter.

[I also like] P.D. James, Conan Doyle, the classics.

Then, I’m a big fan of E. Lynn Harris. He’s so ground-breaking—not the best writer out there, but he was tackling topics that were not addressed before him. Terry McMillan—she’s a fabulous writer…

Q: One of the issues you deal with in the book is homelessness. How did your own work on issues relating to homelessness affect your decision to include that topic in the book?

A: I was the director of homeless services in San Francisco for two to three years. I spent my entire career working on that issue. I’m still very passionate about it. This gave me the opportunity to present the issue as a backdrop.

Q: You said the fourth book is coming out soon--what are you working on now?

A: The fourth book is the first book of another trilogy, so that’s three books. I’m still typing up the book that’s scheduled for release in December. I had started the second book, and my editor came back to me with some rewrites.

The title is The Committee. It’s about the first African American female mayor of Los Angeles. It takes place in the current day. She is identified by…a powerful group of men and women who run the country and have run it since the 1700s. They have picked her to be the first female African American president of the United States. In the final book she becomes president. It’s full of intrigue.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: They’re a fun read….The characters are fictional, though some are based on real people.

They’re for entertainment primarily, but there is a larger underlying message for me—the issue of homophobia, and the hypocrisy in the black church around that topic. It angers me, what I’ve witnessed in the black church. I hope the book will get people thinking and challenging their own views on the topic.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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