In April 2013, after several rejections by literary agents, Toronto author Kate Hilton chose to self-publish her debut novel, The Hole in the Middle. The book received enthusiastic praise from readers, garnering 13,000 downloads in the first three months following publication, and caught the eye of HarperCollins Canada, who re-published it in November 2013. The novel was featured as Walmart Canada’s “Read of the Month” for April 2014 and spent 11 weeks on The Globe and Mail bestseller list. In January 2016, New American Library (Penguin Random House) released the novel in the United States.
In addition to novel writing, Hilton blogs for The Huffington Post, maintains a personal blog, and collaborates with fellow writer, Reva Seth, on The Pen Pal Project, an online correspondence between the two women that has discussed, among other topics, marriage, motherhood, work, sex, life changes, and failure. In a conversation with Literary Mama Profiles Editor Christina Consolino, Hilton talks about “the hole in the middle” metaphor, the difficulty of writing honestly, and having the courage to reinvent oneself midway through life.
Christina Consolino: Sophie Whelan is a character many readers will relate to because of her harried work life, a somewhat strained relationship with her mother, and her quest to find a balance between her job and her family. What makes Sophie unique?
Kate Hilton: I don’t think Sophie is unique, actually. I think she represents the great majority of women who push themselves awfully hard to live up to an impossible standard. What makes The Hole in the Middle unique (I hope) is its uncompromising look at what “having it all” means for a generation of women who were raised to believe that they should and could aspire to perfection on all fronts.
CC: The title of the book first appears on page six, when Sophie describes her anxiety as “. . . the hole in the middle of a donut: empty but for the wind whistling through it.” Toward the end of the novel, Sophie’s friend Lil talks about a different sort of donut hole: “. . . Just when you’ve established yourself as a full-fledged adult, a hole opens up in the middle of life and the past comes rushing back in.” Where did this metaphor of the donut hole come from?
KH: I love questions like this one, because they are the most difficult to answer. There are mysterious moments in writing, when a metaphor or a critical bit of dialogue or a plot device just clicks into place in your mind. The “hole in the middle” metaphor was one such moment for me. It creates a link between two stages in Sophie’s development in the novel. In the beginning, the stress of Sophie’s multiple roles and responsibilities generates an acute anxiety, which she experiences as a physical sensation of emptiness. Later in the book, the metaphor returns and signals Sophie’s growing acceptance both of her own limitations and of the disappointments of her past.
CC: In my opinion, one of the most poignant points in the story arrives when Sophie questions herself, asking: “What do I want? I have a long and growing list of things I don’t want, like turning for forty and having a fifteen-year-old cancer survivor know more about achieving happiness than I do, but my desires are harder to pinpoint.” Many women of Sophie’s age find themselves asking that same question and wondering about their own answer. How important, do you think, is it for women especially to ask that question and try to find the answer?
KH: I think it is incredibly important, and not just for women! We all get stuck from time to time, but the pace of daily life eats away at any time or energy we might have to reflect on whether we are investing in the things that really matter to us. Simply asking the question is the beginning of a conversation that we all should have with ourselves.
CC: The National Post book review stated that your novel speaks of “things that are not said enough” and that “Hilton captures and distils the slight but constant ripping at the seams that can happen in a marriage when there is simply no time to nurture it. She writes about matrimony with rare honesty.” Was it difficult for you to write so honestly?
KH: Yes and no. I’m a very direct person. I tend to call it as I see it. And I think that any writing worth reading comes from a place of uncompromising honesty. But putting that perspective on paper was more difficult than I expected. And, of course, when you write in the first person, readers tend to assume that the work is autobiographical, so that created some awkward moments here and there.
CC: In addition to addressing marriage, the novel speaks of the mother-daughter dynamic. Toward the end of the book, Sophie says (in reference to her mother): “Why do I cast her as someone who wants far more from me than I can possibly give, when she wants so little?” Sophie goes on to apologize to her mother for being distant and, in her own words, “dismissive.” I think many readers will identify themselves in that instant.
KH: I have a close relationship with my own mother. But mother-daughter relationships have a particular intensity, and I think that intensity is heightened when the daughter becomes a mother herself. So many issues come into play when a new generation of children is introduced: clashes of parenting expectations and models; the desire to establish oneself as an independent, capable grown-up; the unavoidable dependence on others for advice and childcare assistance; the insecurity of a new role and the fear of criticism; and the need for parental approval. I think most women (both mothers and daughters) would say that this is a complex set of emotions.
CC: Your website features the fantastic quote: “Life may not begin at 40, but it’s an excellent time to consider a second (or third, or fourth) act.” How did you come to that conclusion and do you think that Sophie embodies that same spirit? What act are you personally experiencing right now?
KH: I’ve lost count! I’ve always taken risks in my professional life and changed careers several times. I started my career as an editor, and then went to law school and qualified as a lawyer. I then went to work at my law school as an administrator and eventually moved into major fundraising for the same school. As I was coming into my 40s, I started writing fiction on weekends, and that creative outlet carried me into yet another new professional stage. And no catalog would be complete without mentioning that I’m a mother, which is a central role in my life.
For me, fresh experiences are invigorating, and I’ve pursued them when they have presented themselves. I think many people begin to feel restless around the age of 40, and Sophie exemplifies that sense of frustration and helplessness. My own view is that midlife is a wonderful time to try something new. It doesn’t have to be a complete life renovation. It can be as simple as volunteering for a community organization or taking an art class.
CC: Your background has definitely been varied! How have your experiences in law, higher education, and public relations impacted your writing and how has life changed since leaving them? How is your family adjusting?
KH: In law, I learned how to be incredibly disciplined and efficient. In higher education, I learned how to write for different audiences. In public relations and fundraising, I learned how to market an idea. All of these skills have been invaluable to my work as a writer. My life has changed enormously in some ways, because I now work for myself (which I love, by the way). I still go into my office and keep regular hours, even though my office is in my home. My kids love that I’m around the house more, and that part is a huge benefit.
CC: In February of 2015, you and Reva Seth began The Pen Pal Project. Can you tell us a little bit about the project, how it is going, and what you’ve gained from it? What do you hope others will gain from reading your letters?
KH: My friend Reva Seth and I were chatting one day about our next writing projects, and it turned out that we both wanted to write about midlife transitions. We got excited about a possible collaboration, and in those discussions the idea of an old-fashioned pen pal correspondence emerged. We had both written to pen pals as children and teenagers, and remembered the pleasure of sending and receiving those letters. We thought it might be interesting to explore our own midlife transitions with each other in this way.
We agreed that we would make the correspondence public on Facebook, because we wanted the letters to be a kind of antidote to the air-brushed, chirpy posts that usually appear there (and I say that as someone who absolutely loves Facebook). As it turns out, the letters have recorded a unique period in my life, marked by some huge life events. And the letters have become part of the way in which I’ve processed these experiences. My hope is that The Pen Pal Project will give readers permission to talk about their own midlife struggles, perhaps through a pen pal correspondence of their own!
CC: What can we expect in the future from you?
KH: I’ve just completed my second novel, Just Like Family, which should appear sometime in 2017. And I’m getting started on the outline for my third book.