Interview: Beth Hilgartner


Vision 10


Beth Hilgartner


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2002, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved

Beth Hilgartner leads a varied life.  According to her home page, she writes books, is an ordained Episcopal priest, and makes classical music (singing soprano as well as playing recorders).  She also teaches private music students (beginning to intermediate piano, voice, and recorder), and makes recorders.  She runs a small-scale cut flower and seedling business.   One suspects she's also found a way to harness time and isn't telling the rest of us.  (Or perhaps Fluffy and PKP are helping her out?)

Beth has seen eight books printed, including A Parliament of Owls, the just-released sequel to A Business of Ferrets, as well as:



However, it is Cats in Cyberspace that fits so well into the theme of this month's Vision.  In this book she tells the story of two felines who learn the joys of the Internet and decide to help out their poor humans by doing a bit of stock trading.  Between that, ordering pizza, and then the problem Fluffy has with shrimp... Well, the book definitely repays the time spent reading it.


Vision:  The characters of Fluffy and Princess Killer Pinknose strike me as so true to life that I suspect they are based on real cats.  Did you find it difficult to get into their personality?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: Actually, it was surprisingly easy. I have always talked to my pets; I also have a tendency to answer for them (using special voices for each of them), so I had a ready-made interpretation for their characters.

Vision:  How did you come up with the idea of intelligent cats dealing with the Internet?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: Usually, I don't have a clue where my ideas come from, but this time, there's a fairly clear trail. I remember seeing -- some time ago now -- a cartoon in The New Yorker that showed two goofy looking dogs on a street corner. One was saying: "The great thing about the Internet is that no one knows you're a dog!" I smiled and thought to myself, "That would be really funny if it were cats. The Internet isn't really a dog thing." That wasn't quite enough, all by itself, but then, after I started working for Interactive Media Lab at Dartmouth Medical School, I came home from work one evening to find my three cats sitting on the kitchen table with that look of studied innocence that makes me instantly suspicious. I thought, "I wonder what you guys do all day while I'm at work..." and ...snap!... I realized that my cats get on the Internet and trade stocks and futures and get into trouble -- because no one can tell they are cats!


Vision:  Did you write this story on a whim, or did you have a market in mind?  Do you think the smaller presses like Meisha Merlin are more open to unusual stories?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: I wrote this story not so much as on a whim as in the grip of a compulsion. Typically, I don't think much about markets and audiences (must be why I have to do so many other things besides just write!), but I was (and remain) convinced that this story has wide appeal and would make a great live-action animated feature film. While I was working on the story, I tried to place it with a number of the bigger book houses; I got an amazing number of very flattering, personal rejection letters, but no one quite dared to take it on. When I sent the manuscript to Meisha Merlin, they snapped it right up -- even though they are dog people (they even have a dog on their logo!!).

Vision:  What tricks do you suggest for creating such creatures in fiction?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: My fiction is all -- in some sense -- autobiographical; not the situations, necessarily, but the characters all come out of my experience. Sometimes, they're pretty heavily edited -- and disguised -- but they often contain a seed of someone I've met. Fluffy and PKP are my cats (actually, two of my five cats, but that's part of another novel). The characters I portray in the story are quite lovingly drawn from life. (All right... Either they don't use my computer, or they're clever enough not to let me catch them at it, but otherwise, they really are just like in the book.) For me, characters have to be real (at least in my mind) before I can write about them, so I think the most important trick is to let them be real -- in the imagination, anyway.

Vision:  I just checked the Meisha Merlin Publication site and see that there is going to be a sequel to Cats in CyberspacePrey-Part Politics is due out in 2003. Congratulations!  Anything you want to tell us about the return of Fluffy and PKP?


Elizabeth Hilgartner: Well, not to spoil the story, or anything... When PKP begins to experience the down side of trading in a bear market, she has to broaden her horizons in order to stay amused. She discovers politics -- or more specifically, political invective. (Remember 'prey-part decorating' from the first book? Imagine PKP's visceral artistic instincts let loose on the world of politics!) She's very good at it, and it isn't long before she starts to attract some notice. Of course, she's deeply paranoid, so notice isn't quite what she wants -- especially since she's determined no one ever guess she's a cat. Fluffy has her paws full keeping the lid on the situation and restraining the worst of her rapidly-becoming-famous sister's excesses.

Vision:  In A Business of Ferrets you created a group of street children with animal names, living by their wits. Does most of your work revolve around animal themes?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: I wouldn't have said so -- but the cat books certainly foster the impression. A number of years ago, I ran across the collective noun for a group of ferrets and thought that would make a good title. And somehow, if my main character was named Ferret, it made sense to have all her friends have animal nicknames, too; but I don't think of A Business of Ferrets (or any of the rest of the history) as revolving around animal themes; it's just the names the kids use.

Vision:  The sequel to A Business of Ferrets is due out this month.  A Parliament of Owls will be followed in 2004 by An Ambush of Tigers.  Did you always have these sequels in mind, or has the re-release of the original spurred you to write new material?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: Actually, Ferrets wasn't a re-release, as it had not been published before. I've always known that I had several books' worth of material in the history begun in A Business of Ferrets; and from the beginning, I planned to link the books by using animal collective nouns as titles. At this point, I'm not sure whether the history will be done with An Ambush of Tigers, or if there's another book beyond that.

Vision:  What other genres do you write in, and why?  And would you like to try your hand at any others?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: In addition to Ferrets (epic fantasy) and Cats in Cyberspace (sci fi? autobiography? humor?) I have written a picture book text, three children's fantasy books, and a juvenile historical fiction novel. I plan to write at least one more juvenile historical fiction (a prequel to A Murder for Her Majesty). To me, the line between fantasy and historical fiction is faint -- although historical fiction usually involves more time in the library. Occasionally, someone will ask me whether I plan to write "another murder mystery." Since I never considered A Murder for Her Majesty a murder mystery -- despite its title -- I don't count 'mystery' as one of my genres. I've toyed with the idea of writing a novel in the genre I, somewhat ironically, think of as 'art fiction' (the phrase Little Brown, my first publisher, imprinted indelibly on my mind was 'novels of lasting literary merit') but mostly this is a self-indulgent piece of revenge fantasy, and I doubt I'll ever seriously make the attempt.

Vision:  Who were your influences in writing?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: The biggest influence on my writing is J.R.R. Tolkien. I discovered The Lord of the Rings when I was in fifth grade and when I did start writing (later that same year, in fact), it was epic fantasy. In my own defense I will say I never used hobbits, and rapidly moved away from dwarves, orcs, and trolls. Elves took a little longer, but I finally decided I liked writing about people (and cats) more than I liked inventing ecologies that could support more than one species of Alpha-predator. Other influences include (but are hardly limited to) Rosemary Sutcliff, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Lewis Carroll, Patricia McKillip, T.H. White, Peter Beagle, Marguerite Youcenar, Evangeline Walton and Mary Renault.

Vision:  Any words of wisdom for new writers?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: Read. And write. Lots. Read some more. Analyze what you like, and why, in other people's writing. Rewrite the unsatisfying endings of other people's books (but don't try to publish them!). Cultivate interesting people. Have some things you like to do besides write (and read). Write letters (not email!) to imaginary people. Write their letters back. Read some more. And don't give up.

Vision:  What are your plans for the future?  What are you working on now?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: There are lots of plans -- and lots of competing demands on my time. I'm hard at work on Prey-Part Politics and An Ambush of Tigers. There are some other writing projects jostling for attention in my back brain, but I can't take any of them on until after my farming season is over.

Vision:  Any last things you'd like to cover?

Elizabeth Hilgartner: I used to imagine that the perfect writer's life would be to have time to write all day. But I've begun to realize that for me, if I didn't do other things, my writing would suffer. If I had never taken the job working for Interactive Media Lab at Dartmouth Medical School, I might never have written Cats in Cyberspace (and if I hadn't quit that job when I did, I'd either be a terminal basket case, or in jail for murder, but that's another story); there are similar connections of experience to output in my other books as well. Since so much of my work is based (however tenuously) on my experience, it behooves me to go out there and have some. Besides, it's fun -- and it gives Fluffy and PKP their time on my computer.

 Look for these other publications!

 From Meisha Merlin Publishing, Inc.

Fluffy and PKP:

Cats in Cyberspace

Beth Hilgartner

ISBN: 1-892065-44-4 Trade Edition: $16

Genre: Science Fiction

Publication Date: 9/01

Prey-Part Politics, 2003 Release

The Bharaghlaf Kingdom:

A Business of Ferrets

Beth Hilgartner

ISBN: 1-892065-18-5 Trade Edition: $14

Genre: Fantasy

Publication Date: 4/00


A Parliament of Owls

Beth Hilgartner

ISBN: 1-892065-63-0 Trade Edition: $14

Genre: Fantasy

Publication Date: 7/02

 An Ambush of Tigers, coming 2004