Heidi Heilig Interview
Heidi Heilig grew up in Hawaii where she rode horses and raised peacocks. Then she moved to New York City and grew up even more, as one tends to do. Her favorite thing, outside of writing, is travel, and she has haggled for rugs in Morocco, hiked the trails of the Ko’olau Valley, and huddled in a tent in Africa while lions roared in the dark.
She holds an MFA from New York University in Musical Theatre Writing, of all things, and she’s written books and lyrics for shows including The Time Travelers Convention, Under Construction, and The Hole. And today she is talking to us about her debut novel, The Girl From Everywhere.
Who is Heidi and what’s she likely to be doing on a rainy Wednesday in November or a sunny-but-blustery morning in April? Cats or dogs? Sword or lightsabre? Which three words best sum you up in a nutshell?
Sunny or blustering, rainy fall or windy spring, I’m most likely wandering the city without an umbrella. I love exploring—aka, walking aimlessly—passing strange people and new places and collecting them all into my head for lies to tell later. When I’m inside, I love books—both consuming and producing them—or arguing on the internet. That’s me, really, in four words (not three, sorry, I’m contrary): Reading, writing, roving, or ranting. I’d pick a sword over a lightsabre, and a pen over a sword, and a snake over a cat or a dog.
The Girl From Everywhere is a special adventure of time shenanigans and yet so much more—what can readers expect from a book with a boat that can travel to places that don’t exist and a girl who might just disappear?
With The Girl From Everywhere, you will visit foreign shores and fantastical places aboard the black ship. You will explore myth and history with Nix and the crew—from the markets of old Calcutta to the shores of 19th century Honolulu and beyond. You will likely hate the captain—I hope you also come to forgive him. And I’m sure you will fall in love with Kashmir, the charming Persian thief. He’s really good at stealing hearts.
What made The Girl From Everywhere possible? Was there any particular seed of inspiration or rather a merging of several themes that came together to create the finished idea? Is there anything that, without it, this book would not exist as it does? Why was this thing so important, if so?
The spark of inspiration came from an 1884 article in a newspaper called the Daily Alta 1884. “Piracy!” the headline read. “Honolulu sacked!” The paper claimed that a band of pirates, led by a mysterious man who seemed to know the city well, had sailed into the harbor and stolen three million dollars from the treasury and the bank, all without firing a single shot. They escaped scott-free and the gold was never recovered. Reading about this incredible heist, I knew I had to explain it in a story. Time traveling pirates was obviously the next logical step.
What kind of research—and level/depth of research—went into this book? How did you go about it?
Oh, I love research. I would get lost for days just trying to find out what sort of fruit would be on sale in a market in 18th century India in monsoon season. (And all for a brief paragraph where the characters are racing past baskets of produce.) I looked into the schedule of the waxing and waning of the moon, shipping manifests for imports and exports common in the era, and of course the history, appearance, and temperament of the famous figures mentioned in the book, including some of the royalty of Hawaii, and the sugar barons at the time. It’s so important when writing historical fiction to have a strong foundation of research to build on (or to intentionally play with.) The more I learned, the more the story took shape, and the easier it was to know what could or should happen.
If the main characters took the Jung personality test, what would they be? Does this differ from your own and would you say this made it easier or harder to get inside their heads?
Nix would very likely be an INTJ. She is much more introverted than I am, and she is also more practical—she has to come up with plans (and contingencies) because her father, the captain, is so unpredictable. It was challenging to write a character who is so different from my (ENFP, here, so almost completely opposite), then again, it’s a joy to escape from my own head and into someone else’s for a while.
Aside from the time-travelling, what is the stand-out theme(s) that runs through The Girl From Everywhere and was this something you were aware of and built into the story, or did it happen organically?
The themes of regret, choice, and uncertainty run through the piece; but of course they are so closely tied to my own feelings about time travel itself. I’ve always had a hard time making commitments set in stone, for fear that I would later wish I could choose the road untraveled. But that leaves me standing at the fork in the road, unable to choose either road. So in a way, the book is about learning to let go of the past, and to go forward boldly, no matter where the journey takes you.
Another theme in the piece is one of colonialism, and what happens to places and cultures where the victors are rewriting history. This was more intentional—I’ve thought about it in some way on and off ever since I first learned about the annexation of Hawaii, when I was a small girl living in Kailua.
Talking about uncertainty—this actually isn’t something that I’ve personally seen often in the fantasy (mostly YA) I read. Characters seem to just always know what they’re going to do, or they charge headlong from one situation or decision to the next. Do you think it’s sometimes important to at least be aware that you’re uncertain, that you don’t know what to do, so that there’s the awareness of the time spent deciding?
The awareness of hesitation was definitely important to me, especially for this character and this particular book, because the paradoxes inherent in time travel. I think a lot of the fantasy of time travel is that one could go back in time with perfect hind sight and undo a tragedy. But in studying history—or even in considering personal series of events—it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint a single moment where everything changed. I think, particularly in our country, personal responsibility is often touted as the antidote for cultural, systematic failures of society, and so the tension between personal choice and the epic scope of consequences for any choice is an interesting struggle to me.
It sounds like The Girl From Everywhere is a lot about courage, too: courage to decide and to not look back. To begin that journey. Would you say you’re a courageous person? What does courage mean to you?
I think I am a person with poor impulse control and a protective streak, which sometimes looks like courage to other people. But if I am courageous, it’s not when I stand up for ideas, it’s when I sit down with criticism. Some of the moments I feel bravest involve working through things after a disagreement—or sticking with a project after the shine wears off. I think courage is a measured choice to face difficulty, and it’s something I try to perform, rather than something I am.
Reading about colonialism in depth sounds difficult, especially involving somewhere close to your heart. Was there anything in the research that especially stuck with you, one way or another, and do you think that had an impact on the story you set out to tell?
One thing that has really stuck with me all my life is how the battle for sovereignty still continues to this day. Hawaii is the only US state that was once a kingdom, and yet there are no native Hawaiian sovereign lands. Often people seem to think that this history all happened very long ago, but Hawaii only became a state in 1959.
On the road to publication, did you experience any difficult moments, both when seeking an agent and after? Such as, but not limited to, the old line of “not a good fit” or that elements of your work were too “different” for the current market?
I really like telling people how my book sold two months before WNDB was born. Obviously, there was already discussion in the air that lead to agents and editors seeking out and acquiring new works about and by people of color, and so I feel very lucky that I came to publishing on the shoulders of the hard work of many people, mostly women of color, who pointed out the need for diverse books.
I have sometimes seen reviewers or readers complaining about the cast being so diverse—speaking as though there needs to be a reason to justify the existence of various marginalized folks, or saying they find it unrealistic—which I find funny (and sad, but funny) as though people of color didn’t exist or go on adventures in the past? Or more compellingly, that someone could believe in time traveling pirates but NOT time traveling pirates of color! It goes to show how conditioned we are, culturally, to erase marginalized people from any narrative that doesn’t specifically require their marginalization as a plot point.
Was there ever a time whilst writing The Girl From Everywhere when you thought: this is it—this is the story that’s going to really sing? Or were you constantly plagued by self-doubt? A mixture of the two? How was the experience of writing this book for you, and if you looked back, before writing it, did it go as planned, or was it a completely different animal altogether?
Ha! Well, you know, TGFE was my first ever novel, and I actually never hoped to publish it until after it was done and my mother said I should look into that sort of thing. I was only writing it for pleasure, so I didn’t doubt anything, I was just having fun. Now, book two was a completely different beast. Nothing about that book went as planned. I’m plagued with doubt–even now, despite great reviews from readers! I’m definitely getting payback. Hopefully we’ll find some sort of happy equilibrium with the next book I have due (the start of a new series!)
Heidi’s debut novel, The Girl From Everywhere is available now. The sequel, The Ship Beyond Time, is due out this year and is available for pre-order. Heidi was nominated for the Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award for “Debut Author” and was robbed when she did not win. You can find Heidi on Twitter where she very regularly advocates for much-needed diversity in books and very rarely ever misses a chance to shout about other authors’ books.