Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Interview & excerpt ~ Tim Stutler author of Hillari's Head.

About Tim.

Tim Stutler was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. Immediately after high school he enlisted in the United States Navy for five years, sailing the Pacific on a destroyer. Following his honorable discharge, Mr. Stutler earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University, Fullerton, graduating in three years and first in his class with Highest Honors. He then attended UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, earning a Juris Doctorate degree there after completing his 3L year at Harvard Law School. Mr. Stutler served as a member of the California Law Review and an editor of the Harvard Environmental Law Review.

He is presently an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California. He has held a number of other positions over his career, including dishwasher, burger flipper, taxi driver, office clerk, law firm partner, Judge Advocate in the United States Army Reserve, California Administrative Law Judge, and Municipal Court Judge pro tempore.

Mr. Stutler's new novel, Hillari's Head, will be released August 1, 2013. His first novel, Dead Hand Control, was released in paperback and dust jacket in 2003 and as an e-book in 2011. Mr. Stutler has also edited or contributed to several professional and scholarly publications. He and his wife, Marilyn, now live in San Diego. They have an adult son. In addition to writing, Mr. Stutler is a distance bicyclist and amateur cook.


When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I was a ravenous reader growing up and loved submerging myself in the worlds my favorite authors created. And I've always enjoyed writing short pieces to entertain my friends. But until I took a creative writing course in college, I'd never put together a complete story. Entering new and infinitely malleable worlds of my own creation was like discovering a legal, non-toxic amphetamine. But college papers don't feed the hounds, and I was too risk-averse to pursue writing full time. So I studied law, joined the bar, and became a lawyer. Only after I was established in my profession did I indulge my desire to write fiction.

I became a competent writer only after I started practicing law. I know lawyers who complain that the law sucks the imagination out of them, but I don't agree with them. Litigation is all about creativity. A skilled litigator must take a bunch of facts, which can be quite complex; figure out which ones help his case, which hurt him, which are useful as background, and which are irrelevant; and create the strongest story he can tell for his client. It has to be compelling, and it has to ring true; a lawyer cannot make things up. The art is in deciding which facts to focus on, figuring out how to interpret them, constructing an explanation for negative facts that minimizes their impact, and assembling it all together into an understandable, persuasive tale. And then the lawyer has to apply the law to those facts. It's a highly creative process.

Who are your influences?

I am a huge fan of Mark Twain. I can't think of another writer as insightful, concise and downright funny. As for books that have influenced my writing other than Twain's, I'd include: Two Years Before The Mast (Richard Henry Dana, Jr.), To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee), Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes), and The World According To Garp (John Irving). I'm also a sucker for great speakers who can move their audience, such as Lincoln and Churchill.

Who is your favorite author? What is your favorite book?

I mentioned Mark Twain, who is my all-time favorite. Among living writers, John Irving tops my list. This sounds like hyperbole, but I think his A Prayer for Owen Meany is one of the most amazing novels I've read. As for best endings to a novel, Anne Tyler's Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant gets my vote.

What do you like to do when you're not writing?

What I like to do is different from what I usually end up doing! I'm a distance cyclist and enjoy a hard 12 to 16-hour ride. I also like cooking and entertaining (and eating), reading, blogging (something new for me), and traveling with my wife of nearly 30 years, Marilyn. In a perfect world, I'd find a nice balance between all those activities. Lately though, my day job dominates my days, evenings and weekends. But my work brings its own rewards, not to mention a steady paycheck.

What inspired you to write Hillari's Head?

I’m inspired by individuals who overcome physical or emotional challenges that would cripple others. And I’m fascinated by how one's face influences every aspect of her life, including self-esteem, mood, family relationships, friendships, romance, and even career success. I first learned of Hillari's condition, which is called oligodontia (the most severe form of hypodontia), through pieces in the local newspaper. The pictures mesmerized me. Before researching oligodontia, I had never considered how a toothless visage would affect one's core self-identity. And I was surprised by the number of people I know who suffer from hypodontia, or know someone else who does. After learning more about the condition and its effect on those afflicted and their families, I knew I had to write about it.

Some studies show that “beautiful” people earn more and are even considered more trustworthy than ordinary-looking folks. I know how a man’s looks affect him. But personal appearance seems a much bigger issue for women. The market confirms that. Just look at any women’s magazine at the grocery checkout. Who’s on the cover? How are they dressed? What are the topics in this month’s issue? Now compare that to the covers of men’s magazines. Very few discuss how a man can improve his looks – his fitness maybe, or his car’s appearance, but not his hair or his face and certainly not his butt. And judging by how much my female friends and my wife (whose spending is comparatively modest) spend on cosmetics, clothing and haircuts, there’s no comparison.

Hillari's Head addresses these subjects. Kristina the protagonist, has self-image issues. But they pale compared to Hillari’s. Hillari had a big head, but nobody ever noticed that, because she was also practically toothless. If you’ve ever looked in the mirror after losing or just chipping a front tooth, you have some idea of how being toothless would shape the entire universe of a girl moving from childhood to womanhood. Hillari’s plight was painful. And Kristina had her own problems as a child; she was isolated from the rest of the world and had an embarrassing speech impediment. The book explores how these characters deal (or dealt) with such issues.

Which of the characters you've created in Hillari's Head is your favorite?

The two main characters, Gideon Ducker and Kristina Orris, but for different reasons. Gideon is the kind of person you love to have around, with his quick wit, intelligence, strong character and self-deprecating personality. But Kristina is someone I think more people can identify with and admire. She's an every-woman who has conquered numerous obstacles in her life, and must surmount more in order to succeed. I feel a paternalistic bond with her character.

You mentioned in the afterword that you have an over sized head and a love of recumbent bikes. Are there any other aspects of you in the book?

I'd say there's a little of the author in every character -- even the antagonists. But you'd also see friends, family members and even acquaintances in the characters. I share some of Duck's personality traits, but he's a much better trial attorney. And although I've never been tested as Duck ultimately is, I suspect he's more courageous. It might come as a shock that Kristina and I share many traits too. In your review, Scout, you registered some surprise that a male author could create "such a realistic female character," and figured that I must have researched female protagonists. You were right! (Thank you for that generous compliment, by the way.)

I did have a tough time getting inside Kristina's head. I decided early on that trying to write from a woman's perspective would prove a doomed adventure, so I wrote about a woman -- one specific, unique and somewhat odd woman. And you correctly guessed that I did my research, devouring everything from Little Women to self-improvement titles like If I'm So Wonderful, Why Am I Still Single?: Ten Strategies That Will Change Your Love Life Forever (an excellent book by Susan Page). But books can only teach so much. I think that writers, the good ones, are students of human behavior: listening, studying, and analyzing. As a lawyer, I can be irritatingly persistent and inquisitive. I believe my female friends started avoiding my notepad and me after I'd been working on Hillari's Head a few months. And I know my poor wife now prefers a semi-oblivious husband to one who constantly wants to know what she's thinking, how she's feeling and why she does things the way she does.

Even after extensive research, personal observation and analysis, I think it's fair to say that I can never fully appreciate what it's like to be a woman. But I can also never fully appreciate what it's like to be another man. Most people have trouble understanding even themselves much of the time! A writer can only observe others and create unique personalities using the filter of his own life experiences. For me, that effort is one of the most enjoyable parts of writing: creating a world and populating it with characters of the writer's own invention.

What is your favorite thing about writing?

I love the creative process of constructing entire worlds, but my favorite thing is connecting with the reader. I mentioned above that as a younger person I enjoyed entertaining others with my writing. That's still true. While crafting a story, I like bouncing ideas off my friends and family and getting their feedback on different passages. But I'm thrilled to connect with a reader I don't know. In your review, you say, "I actually think I'm going to read this book again in a couple of years; it was really touching and will stay with me for a while." That's what keeps me writing.

What don't you like about writing?

Starting a chapter, section or paragraph when the ideas just aren't flowing. But when the blockage washes away, the resulting rush can be one of the most rewarding aspects of the writing process.

Does it annoy you when people assume Hillari's Head is like Law and Order (like I did)?

This question made me chuckle. You're referring to the humorous (I hope) blog I wrote about book reviews, which mentioned that some reviewers enjoyed Hillari's Head because it is similar to Law and Order, while others -- like you -- enjoyed it because it is nothing like that series. I am not at all annoyed by the comparison. Comparing Hillari's Head to a series or show or another book would trouble me only if it discouraged a reader from looking inside.

I'm learning that different readers do not always interpret a book as the writer intended. But I'm also coming to see that this is not particularly important to me; I want them to make the story theirs, drawing their own conclusions based on their own life experiences. What matters most to me is whether the readers enjoy the read, and perhaps take away something of value.

Have you got another project in the works?

My previous two novels were mainstream fiction. The next, titled Saga, is historical fiction. The story begins in present-day California, where Katie Matsunaga-Bishop, a thirty-something writer, is experiencing an existential crisis. She has taken sanctuary in the home of her aging grandfather, Hank. In his effort to help his despondent granddaughter make sense of her recent tragedies, Hank shares details of his own past that he’s never before disclosed. Katie’s grandfather was part of a storied Japanese-American U.S. Army unit in World War II, the 442d Regimental Combat Team. He relates an intriguing tale of his bond with two other Nisei soldiers, an irrepressible young Hawaiian and a more enigmatic soldier named Herman Saga. Saga saved his friends' lives in the mountains around Bruyeres, France in 1944. But his own fate is a mystery. Katie journeys to France, hoping to answer seventy-year-old questions still haunting her grandfather. What the grieving woman doesn't realize is that the answers she seeks may do more than bring Hank peace; they may save a life – Katie’s.

About the book! 

Hillari’s Head is a character-driven novel about Kristina Orris, a 26-year-old paralegal who has moved to San Diego seeking a new life—a normal life. She is burdened by the memory of Hillari, a sister with an oversized head and disfigured face. Home-schooled by a protective single father, Kristina herself had a vexing speech impediment and rarely left the house while growing up. But after her dad died, she knew she couldn’t stay. Kristina dreamed of being a lawyer. Pursuing such a goal might prove painful for any cloistered, mumbling orphan; but it would be impossible yoked to Hillari. At 18, Kristina abandoned her home, her past – and Hillari.
Now, eight years later, Kristina meets attorney Gideon “Duck” Ducker, “the single homeliest man she had ever laid eyes on.” But she instantly bonds with the warm, self-effacing lawyer. Kristina takes a paralegal job at Duck’s law firm, where the two are thrown into the most tumultuous and intriguing case of their lives. Kristina thrives. Only one thing prevents her from becoming the confident, fulfilled woman she longs to be: the swelling burden of guilt and shame over her past. But is it too late to redeem herself?

Alternately touching, humorous and heart wrenching, Hillari’s Head is about family, intimacy, resilience and, ultimately, acceptance. With its intriguing characters and elements of comedy and tragedy, Hillari’s Head will appeal to fans of Nora Ephron (Heartburn) and John Irving (A Prayer For Owen Meany).


Hillari’s head was huge. I’m not talking 

Elephant-Man huge or anything 

like that. But it was unnaturally 
large—bigger than any other girl’s head I've 
ever seen. Bigger than most guys’, too. And it 
caused her lots of problems. She had to wear 
pullover blouses with big neck holes or shirts 
that buttoned, because her head stretched out 
everything else. And she always said those 
“one size fits all” hats were a cruel hoax. Hill 
did not like hats.
Kristina Orris cradled her chin in her hand and read what 
she had typed. She had never blogged before, and wanted 
to avoid the subjects that girls her age usually wrote about: 
careers, personal growth, fashion, and men. Kristina didn't 
feel she knew enough about those topics to say anything 
insightful or even particularly interesting. But she knew 
Hillari, and wanted to get her story right.
She began tapping on the keyboard again. The strokes 
were slow, deliberate, as she sounded out each word.


Thank you Tim for the awesome interview, great thoughtful answers!
 What did you think? I love the sound of his next project as well, I'm definitely intrigued!

Don't forget to check out my review of Hillari's Head HERE!