In September my book club studied Kate Hilton’s book Just Like Family. Our discussion was passion-filled as always, people arguing to the very end about character motivations, author choices, etc. So, you can imagine my delight when I had the opportunity to interview Kate myself! I was able to get some answers to some of the more burning questions that I was left with after the book club discussion. I’ve also thrown in a few for budding authors out there, because Kate is a best-selling author and has some great advice for people trying to get into the ‘biz’.
Q: Can you give us a short description of Just Like Family for my readers?
A: Avery Graham has built a life that anyone would admire. She has a brilliant career as chief of staff to Peter Haines, the charismatic mayor of Toronto. She has a devoted partner in Matt, her live-in boyfriend of fourteen years. And she has a loving family and deep friendships that stretch back to childhood summers at the cottage.
But when Matt proposes, Avery’s past threatens to engulf her present. Can she contemplate a lifetime commitment to Matt after her disastrous first marriage to Hugh? And is Matt really the love of her life, when she has spent so much of it by Peter’s side? Avery could use some good advice from the women who know her best, but her closest friends, Jenny and Tara, have drifted away over the years.
When a scandal erupts at city hall, Avery must overcome her deepest fears about love and loss and discover what it means to be a family.
Q: Your protagonist Avery Graham struggles to maintain her work life balance. This topic is also addressed in your youtube videos (which people love, by the way), and touched upon in your first book The Hole in the Middle. Why is this issue important to you right now, and how does Just Like Family further the topic of balance that Hole in the Middle introduced?
A: I’m so glad to hear that people like the YouTube videos!
In The Hole in the Middle, I was writing about a working mother, and I wondered (fictionally) if the concept of work-life balance could ever be anything but theoretical. In Just Like Family, I wanted to think about work-life balance from the perspective of a character without children, because the conversation is almost always about how we keep female parents at full participation in the workforce.
To me, the larger philosophical question is how all of us – male, female, parents, non-parents – ought to allocate our time in order to live the best, healthiest, most fulfilled lives we can. I think meaningful work is essential to a happy life, but I so often see it consume available time out of all proportion to other, equally essential components. And it isn’t a topic that appears in fiction very often.
Q: The two main settings for this book are Toronto and Ontario Cottage Country. Having grown up just outside of Toronto and having a family cottage in Muskoka made me the perfect candidate for this book. The scenes at the cottage are by far my favourite, and you so beautifully portray that unique part of people’s lives; the relationships that are built there, the way we pass our days doing the same things over and over, the special, unexplainable way our cottages and cabins figure into our emotional make-up. Why was it important to you to bring in that aspect of Avery’s life in this book?
A: I’m so glad that you enjoyed the cottage scenes. I loved writing them, and in fact, I wrote many of them up north at my family cottage, where I’ve spent part of every summer since birth. What I like about summer traditions is that they allow us to revisit our past selves every year. Each summer, we arrive as new people, with a whole year of growth and experience behind us, and are, in the same moment, reminded of the parts of us that remain the same. It is comforting and aggravating all at once. Since Just Like Family is a book about identity and memory and personal history, and since the narrative jumps around in time, it made sense to have a point of return that would allow both the character and reader to measure progress and failure.
Q: So as you know my book club read Just Like Family, and we had a very lively discussion about it. We had one question in particular for you that I promised to relay: For a book that is called “Just Like Family”, there isn’t a lot of family in it. We don’t hear much from Avery’s Mom (who everyone loved!) and Avery seems to avoid her family when possible. What does the title “Just Like Family” mean to you?
A: I like Avery’s mom also. I enjoy writing older female characters who are comfortable with themselves and what they know.
One aspect of modern (Western) life that differentiates it from the past is, I think, the move away from having one’s family of origin at the centre of one’s social circle. We are told to privilege many other relationships over our family relationships – the friends we choose, the romantic partners, and even our work colleagues. It’s common to hear any of these groups described as being ‘just like family’. But obviously, they aren’t family, and we mistake them for our family at our peril.
In the context of work, I’m interested in how we can justify harmful work addictions (in extreme cases) by characterizing our work community as family. I see workplaces encouraging this fantasy in a variety of self-serving ways. I’m also interested in how we give ourselves permission to treat friends and romantic partners poorly by telling ourselves that they are ‘just like family’; what we mean is that they’ll tolerate our mistreatment because our relationship with them is deep and longstanding, and, we imagine, permanent.
Q: In an interview you gave awhile back, you mentioned that you have one shelf of books that takes your breath away. What are some of the books on this shelf?
A: By Grand Central Station, I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart
In The Skin Of A Lion, Michael Ondaatje
The Ghost Road, Pat Barker
The Golden Gate, Vikram Seth
One Day, David Nicholls
Possession, A.S. Byatt
The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Q: Compared to many other writers, you are very accessible. You’ve got lots of social media channels that you frequently interact with, you have these great youtube videos and reading guides available, and you even give instructions on your website on how to get a signed copy of your book. Why do you think these things are important to do as an author, and what do you do on your own, unprompted vs. what your publisher expects/asks you to do?
A: Before becoming a writer, I worked in several other fields, including fundraising and public relations. As a result, I came into the writing business feeling fairly comfortable with marketing and promotion.
I’m quite social on a personal level, so I don’t mind sharing aspects of my life with readers, at least to a point. There are parts of my life that remain unequivocally private. But as a reader myself, I think it’s fun to get to know the person behind the work, and to guess at the influences that have shaped the books that I’ve loved. And since I’m incredibly grateful to readers for supporting my career, I like to offer them a few glimpses here and there.
Virtually all of my promotional efforts on social media are self-directed. My wonderful publisher (HarperCollins Canada) is unfailingly supportive and appreciative, but I don’t think they expect me to do anything in particular. They have great suggestions that take advantage of my social media platforms, and that’s terrific. Book promotion is a team effort these days, and I really see my active participation in marketing as part of my responsibility to my publisher.
Q: On your goodreads site, it says you’re working on your third novel. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you’re working on now?
A: I’m working on a divorce comedy called Better Luck Next Time. It brings back a few of my favourite secondary characters from The Hole in the Middle. I’m having so much fun writing it!
Big thank you to Kate for her wonderful, open answers. The book Smokey is pictured with at the top is the advanced reading copy of Just Like Family, and I’m giving it away! To enter your name in the draw, simply comment below.