Interview with Emily-Jane Hills Orford, author of “To Be a Duke”

An interview with award-winning author, Emily-Jane Hills Orford:

Who am I? I like to ask my aspiring writing students, young and old, that very question. Why? As writers we reveal ourselves to the world in so many ways, it doesn’t hurt ourselves to sit down and assess from time to time who we are and who we think we are. It changes over time, too. So, my latest answer to the Who am I? question is:

I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a sister, a wife, a mother, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. I teach, I write, I study, I learn, I compose, I make music, I touch lives for better or worse. My life is a complex, complicated, exhilarating and frustrating, all at once, and much more. My life is a gift from God, a spiritual and emotional treasure, an honor, a cherished compilation of memories: happy, sad, funny and tragic, serious and light-hearted. My life is full of honor, despair, pride, joy, disappointments and sorrow. My life is a story just beginning to unfold, its mysterious plot still laboring towards a climax, the highest point to which I am not in any rush to achieve. My life is a story. I am a storyteller. I am a writer and through my written words, I will live forever.

How important is research to you when writing a book?

Very important. I want my plot, my settings, and my characters to be realistic, so I’m constantly looking things up, reading, studying documentations and maps, looking at people all around me, listening to how they talk, what they talk about. I have a notebook with me at all times and I write down important information that I pick up here and there, as well as jotting down plot lines and character and/or scene descriptions. Writing and research very much go hand in hand. A writer is nothing without the ability and the willingness to do thorough research, to get things right. Readers these days are very astute and they know when a writer is just making things up. Writers have to be thorough in their knowledge of what they’re writing about, even in fiction.

What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?

I have a really old Underwood manual typewriter that I love to use on occasion. There’s nothing like the sound of the keys clacking to make a writer feel really alive. I don’t like fountain pens; never have. They tend to be messy. I don’t dictate, as I once worked as a dicta typist and, to this day, I hate transcribing from the taped voice, although I do just that whenever I conduct an interview. Longhand? Yes! There’s something quite satisfying in seeing a page fill up with cursive scribble. I carry a notebook with me always, taking down notes whenever I have to sit and wait, particular in a doctor’s or a dentist’s office. The computer? Well, it’s kind of difficult to make one’s way doing anything these days without a computer. So, yes, I use the computer and I love the sound of the keys clacking on that machine as well. Though I would still prefer my old Underwood any day, if only editors would consider a hardcopy manuscript.

When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?

I know this might sound kind of cliché, but really, I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer. I come from a long line of storytellers and, being the youngest, I had a hard time getting a word in edgewise at the dinner table (those were the days when we always congregated as a family at dinner time to share stories). Consequently, not being heard by my family, as soon as I could write, I was writing. I shared my love of writing with both my parents, though my mother was more the fiction and creative nonfiction writer who encouraged my love of books and writing.

What inspires you to write?

Anything and everything, I guess. I’m particularly interested in real live people and listening to their stories. I like to write stories about real people. The most interesting stories, I believe, are my family stories, my neighbour’s stories, my friend’s stories, and also your family stories, your neighbour’s stories, your friend’s stories. These are the stories that matter. These are the stories that shape the world in which we live. It all matters. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone’s story is important. Why? Because life matters.

How often do you write?

Every day I write something. A day without writing, to me, is like a day without sunshine. Writing is very important to me.

Do you think writers have a normal life like others?

Oh dear! That kind of begs the question: what’s normal? Is there any such thing as normal? A writer is like any other artist. We struggle to create and we struggle to make a living with what we create. Why do we do it? Because we love it. That’s why. Is that normal? Well, it should be normal. We should all be given the opportunities to do what we love to do best. Sadly, that’s not always the case. And, like all artists, writers need another source of income to survive. Very few writers can make a sustainable living off their writing.

Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?

A bit of both. I do an outline and continually jot notes to elaborate the outline as I proceed with my writing. However, I don’t always stick with my outline as plots often have a life of their own and can lead the writer in a totally different direction than the writer originally intended. When I started writing, Gerlinda (CFA Publishing: 2016), I had the idea of plotting the tragic life of a childhood friend. As I proceeded with my story, I realized that her life would be better honored by giving it some meaning, allowing a lesson to be learned in the process, the lesson being that everyone needs to feel wanted, to feel like they belong somewhere, that someone really cares about them. Like I wrote in the synopsis for Gerlinda

All Gerlinda wanted was to be like every other girl in her class. She wanted to be accepted. … And all she really wanted was to belong.

What, according to you, is the hardest thing about writing?

Stopping. Once I get started, I don’t want to stop and I hate being interrupted, especially when the ideas are flowing well and the creativity is well stoked.

Have you ever experienced “Writer’s Block”? How long do they usually last?

Yes, we all do. Sometimes, though, I think it’s more a case of dragging one’s heels. All that’s needed is a little boost to get the creative juices flowing again. To give myself a boost start, I use the exercise I share with my writing students. I pick a noun and start listing as many adjectives as I can think of to describe that noun and then I either write a poem or a descriptive narrative about that noun.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

Seriously? You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. I read a lot of genres and I’m always looking for new talent to study. I write book reviews for several online and print publications and I enjoy studying the work of others, both classic authors like Jane Austen, and new, yet-to-be-discovered authors like David Litwack and Nicole Evelina. Favorites? Jeanette Walls, Tracy Chevalier, Sharon Kay Penman, Susan Vreeland and many more.

What is your take on the importance of a good cover and title?

Very important. In order to entice readers, you have to sell the book, quite literally. This is what I wrote about book covers for

There is a real art in designing the perfect cover for a book. It’s all about what will attract potential readers and make someone want to read the book. Artists and marketers know that specific colours and images definitely attract potential buyers. There are even colours that turn people away.

Historically, books were once just pages bound together with a firm cover to offer support. Nowadays, books require colorful images to attract would-be readers. The most uninspiring book cover I came across was solid orange. The book was a mystery, very good, but the cover did not attract notice or interest. As I quoted in my article:

Books are like small posters for themselves,” says Suzanne Dean, creative director at Random House, told The Independent.We have roughly a two-minute window to seduce the reader and bookshop browser.

Have you ever designed your own book cover?

Yes. Most of my books use my own cover designs. The covers of the two most recent books, To Be A Duke and Gerlinda, were designed with my input.

Do your novels carry a message?

I’d like to think so. Certainly my two recent books To Be A Duke and Gerlinda, are full of messages. To Be A Duke was inspired by our own dog, Duke, who was rescued from an abusive home. I wanted to teach people about the importance of being a responsible dog owner, one who is willing to take the time to not only love, but also to care for, train and play with their dog. It’s not enough to be kind hearted and rescue an abandoned or abused dog (or any pet for that matter). You must be responsible for the pet as the pet does become a vital part of the family. Gerlinda is a story about abuse and bullying and what it does to a person. Everyone wants to feel loved, to feel like they belong. This story emphasizes this point and also reveals some of the trauma that is left behind by abuse and bullying.

How much of yourself do you put into your books?

A lot. Since most of my stories are about people I knew, I can’t help but put myself into the story. The reader would have to look hard to find the clues, but I know where I am in each story.

Have you ever incorporated something that happened to you in real life into your novels?

To Be A Duke and Gerlinda include events from my own life.

Who are your books mostly dedicated to?

Family members, people important in my life, people who influenced or became a part of the story being told. I try to make my dedication sound interesting as well, a story between the lines, so to speak. The dedication for To Be A Duke reads:

To both Duke and Misty, two amazing Border Collie rescues that opened our hearts to an unchallenged and unbiased outpouring of unconditional love.

The dedication for Gerlinda reads:

To a childhood friend, may she rest in peace.

Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?

My husband of 35 years.

How do you see writing? As a hobby or a passion?

The question challenges one’s concept of the true meaning of the word ‘hobby’. It’s a bit of a misnomer really; something to contradict one’s perception of what one does. Too many people believe that a hobby is something only done for fun, only in one’s spare time and nothing to be taken seriously. Wrong! A hobby is everything about a person and everything that a person enjoys doing. So to say my writing is a passion, I would also have to say that it’s a hobby, because I also write for fun and during those preciously scarce moments that others would define as ‘spare time’. I don’t really have any spare time as I’m always doing something, always creating something, always working on a new story idea or actually writing. To me, writing is my life. It is who I am. It defines me and it defines my purpose.

Which of your books took you the most time to write?

My first book, Spring. Why? Because I lacked confidence in my writing abilities. Confidence is something a writer needs to work on just as much as their writing skills.

Do you keep a diary?

Yes. It’s essential as a writer. It helps keep the simple facts of everyday life clear and focused. It also helps us remember what happened when in our lives. Not to mention the fact that it’s a great place to vent our most private secrets, passions and frustrations.

Are you working on something new at the moment?

Always. I have a Middle Grade Fantasy novel, Mrs. Murray’s Ghost undergoing edits. And I have an historical fiction in the beginning stages. Not to mention short stories and articles and poetry that I like to write from time to time.

Have you received any awards for your literary works?

Yes: Finalist for the 2009 Next Generation Indie Book Awards with her book, The Whistling Bishop (Baico), Finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards with her book, F-Stop: A Life in Pictures (Baico), and again Finalist in the 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards with her book, To Be a Duke (Christine F. Anderson Publishing), as well as Honorable Mention in the 2015 Readers’ Favorite Book Award. Some of my short stories and essays have also won awards.

Do you mentor?

Yes, I teach and run workshops locally for aspiring writers of all ages. I also teach writing online through the Creative Writing Institute (

Do you blog?


How active are you on social media? And how do you think it affects the way you write?

Unfortunately, it’s a necessary evil these days. And a terrible time waster if you allow yourself to fall into that trap. But social media is the way people promote their writing. It certainly doesn’t influence or affect my writing, other than taking away precious moments from actually writing.

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