Eileen Patricia Curran, HUNGRY HILL

Eileen Patricia Curran, HUNGRY HILL

Zibby is joined by Eileen Patricia Curran to discuss her debut novel, Hungry Hill, which she self-published. Eileen shares what that journey has been like, from assembling a team of passionate experts to distributing her books as far as she can, as well as why she decided to start her own independent imprint. Eileen also tells Zibby about how her own family’s connection to the Hungry Hill neighborhood inspired the setting for this story, which parts of her career set her up for success in writing, and what she is planning on publishing next.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eileen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Hungry Hill.

Eileen Patricia Curran: It’s very nice to meet you. Thank you for inviting me to speak with you.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Would you mind telling listeners what Hungry Hill is about? Then what inspired you to write it?

Eileen: Hungry Hill, it’s a multi-generational story about two women. One is Grace Cavanaugh. She a great-niece to Maggie Reilly. They’re both in a personal crisis. They haven’t seen each other in years, but they were close decades ago. The story is about how Maggie reaches out to Grace after Grace loses her husband and is wallowing in her grief and can’t seem to get beyond it. Maggie convinces Grace to move in with her to help her while she is very ill with metastatic breast cancer and to take care of her. Maggie is someone who never married. She’s lived alone in the house that she grew up in in Hungry Hill, which is an Irish Catholic neighborhood in the Springfield area. Maggie and Grace live together. They bond and reconnect. They help each other through what they’re both going through. They kind of build a village of people in the neighborhood to help them both with what they’re dealing with. I decided to write novel-length fiction a few years ago. I really wanted to use a setting and people that I felt like I understood and could write about. My dad actually grew up in Hungry Hill. I used to go there all the time when I was a kid.

I had a great-aunt, Catherine Curran, who lived in the same house she was born in. My dad was actually the third generation to live in the house. He grew up there. My Great-Aunt Catherine raised him. I knew the neighborhood really well. I lived in the Springfield area when I was young. I certainly knew the character of Catherine Curran. She was quite a piece of work. She was really somebody who was . She had a huge personality. It was very easy to draw on her personality to create a fictional character. I put myself in the situation of Grace Cavanaugh mentally. What would happen if I lost someone who was my great love and I couldn’t move on, I really got stuck emotionally? What could I do about that? She kind of gives into the idea of taking care of somebody, to put aside her own grief, and to see what happens. I just decided, okay, I’m going to imagine I have lost my great love. I’m moving from a very posh town, Greenwich, Connecticut, to a very blue-collar, Irish Catholic neighborhood to move in with my great-aunt. What would that be like? What would the relationship be like? How could they nurture each other? That’s why I chose the setting and chose this story.

Zibby: Do you live in Greenwich?

Eileen: No, but I did for quite a long time. I’m from Connecticut as an adult. I grew up in Springfield as a kid. Then my family moved to Connecticut. I kind of lived all over the place, Dallas, LA, Boston, and ended up in Connecticut for a number of years and lived in Greenwich and loved the town and thought it would make a great dichotomy for my story as I compare it to Hungry Hill.

Zibby: What did it feel like to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has lost their great love? That is not an easy place to be emotionally.

Eileen: No, but I’ve had my share of loss. I think everybody experiences some loss. As you get older, you experience more and different types of loss. It was pretty easy for me to imagine being alone, being devastated by losing somebody that I really cared about. I did think from the beginning that I personally would use a lot of humor to get through it, so there’s a lot of humor in the novel. I think people don’t expect that it’s really supposed to be a funny novel. I get there as quickly as I can after I create the setting. I let the readers know that Grace is going through this sort of personal trauma and that she’s moved to Hungry Hill to take care of her great-aunt. Then I tried very quickly to get into what was funny about the situation. I have a very funny family. My Great-Aunt Catherine was hysterically funny. My dad was a funny guy. It was easy for me to see how people would use humor to tease each other, to become intimate with each other, to sort of put their circumstances into a place that they could both tolerate. That’s what I went with, humor. There’s a lot of angst, but I like to think that the humor definitely mitigates it quite often in the novel.

Zibby: Even as you set up the setting originally, you have Maggie coming in with her giant dogs and her aunt being totally taken aback in some sort of headscarf on the roof trying to clean. This giant dog, and she’s like, oh, my gosh, what’s she going to think about my other dog if this little dog a problem? She has a human-sized animal, some Afghan or something, right? Wasn’t it an Afghan?

Eileen: Irish wolfhound.

Zibby: Sorry.

Eileen: That’s okay. Big, big dog, you’re right.

Zibby: Big, big dog. There’s a playfulness to the whole thing right away. You just know that antics will ensue. What will happen with these women? All of that.

Eileen: I think in real life, even when we go through things that are horribly traumatic, whether it’s death or divorce or problems with our children, there are always things about it that are hysterically funny. Maybe not all the time. Maybe they’re just moments where we think, there is humor in this. Because I personally like to focus on that and I find that that gets me through so much, I tried to do a lot of setups for some warm, soft humor. The dogs, for me, were very important. I’m very much a dog person. They all have their personalities. They’re just like people. It was pretty easy to take the two dogs she ended up in Hungry Hill with and give them personalities that help support the relationship between the great-aunt and the great-niece. A lot of the way I wrote was very organic. I didn’t really realize until I was getting into the story that Maggie and Stogie, who’s the mut, would become very close and inseparable, really, and how much that would mean to Maggie and that Ellen, who’s the wolfhound, would become a calming influence for everybody. She was just this steady, sweet, good-natured force. I used those as mechanisms to sort of take things down a notch or make things more intimate and to bridge the gap between Grace and Maggie. That was fun.

Zibby: Do you have kids? How old are your kids?

Eileen: I have one son. He’s twenty-four. I can tell you as a mother of a grown son that it does get quieter and easier over time. One certainly is easier than four, but children, they take effort and work to raise. It actually wasn’t until my son was out of the house — he was in boarding school — that I really started to write. For me, I’m just a very, very busy person. To clear the headspace that it takes to write, to focus, to really think about how I want to write and what I want to write, I can’t have huge distractions. It actually took me quite a long time to write Hungry Hill. I wrote the first draft and finished maybe three or four years ago. Then I worked with a professional editor. Then I really spent two years just learning how to write fiction properly. Even though I’m an avid reader and have read hundreds of novels, it’s still different when you sit down. There are all of these rules to follow and things to think about. I love that process. I loved learned how to write. My background is actually in finance and marketing, so it didn’t come as naturally to me as someone who has an MFA or who’s degreed in creative writing. It was a lot of fun. I really had the time, when the COVID came along, to kind of clear the decks and figure out what I wanted to do with my finished manuscript. That was more fun than writing the novel, probably, trying to figure out the whole publishing process and how to put — I wanted to do it myself. Just to have creative control over everything was a joy. I really loved it. There’s so many resources right now to writers if they really want to self-publish. You can find really talented people to work with. Fortunately, I found just wonderful interior book designers and book cover designers and had a lot of fun with all of that. My background is also in design, so all of that was probably, like I said, as much fun as writing the novel.

Zibby: I have to say, I love how it looks. I was literally looking at it the other day and I was trying to analyze, what is it I love so much about the cover? Is it the font? Would it be the same if it didn’t have these little flourishes on the bottom of the letters? All these things are decisions.

Eileen: Sans serif. I had to learn about that and think about that. I wanted it to look quite modern but not too modern. We went through a pile of fonts.

Zibby: It does not look self-published at all.

Eileen: Thank you for saying that.

Zibby: I feel like many self-published books have a — first of all, a lot of them are paperback, I would say. How did you go about choosing which service even to use? Then I want to go back to teaching yourself how to write a novel in two years because that’s also so fascinating.

Eileen: Print-on-demand is a fairly new thing. The biggest in the industry is IngramSpark, so I looked at them. I was more concerned about quality, really, than anything. Although, I knew, ultimately, e-books would be more important to me than anything. For the most part, all of these beautiful, little hardcover versions are either gifts to people or the people that I know that love the way it looks have ordered them. The vast majority of sales that I’ve had have been e-books. You kind of miss out on the experience of the beautiful hardcover novel. Like you, I love actual, real books. I read on my iPad all the time when I travel, if I’m going to be reading at night. I use it a lot, but if I really love a novel, sometimes I buy it in hardcover version just so I can go back, read it again, make notes, think about it. I thought I really wanted a beautiful hardcover novel. It’s pretty easy to find quality printers right now. IngramSpark is definitely one of them.

Zibby: I started a publishing business that I announced last month or two months ago.

Eileen: I’m very excited for you. Congratulations.

Zibby: Thank you. We’re distributing through Ingram, but we’re not printing there. That’s interesting.

Eileen: Okay, so you’re distributing through them. They’ve got a great network, for sure, libraries, bookstores, you name it.

Zibby: Is that how you distributed? Did they distribute your book? Do they do that?

Eileen: Oh, yeah.

Zibby: They did it for you?

Eileen: Right. I think the first time I googled my novel, it was before the official launch date, which was June 1st of this last summer, it was already selling somewhere in Australia.

Zibby: What? No way.

Eileen: That’s what I said. What? They send out notices to everybody on the planet. They’re a global company. Anybody anywhere can order your novel if you sign up for that marketing package with them. It was pretty cool. I really enjoyed that.

Zibby: They put it in bookstores for you as well?

Eileen: If a bookstore orders it, absolutely.

Zibby: That’s great. This is great to know for people interested in self-publishing.

Eileen: There’s so much to learn, but it’s a really fun, creative business. There are so many aspects to it that require that you really get up to speed with technology. You have to do a lot of research about how to go forward with creating something. I found it really, really enjoyable.

Zibby: I think one thing people think is that by going with a traditional publisher, you get all the services associated with that, publicity and marketing and all of that. How do you do it successfully when you’re in charge only yourself?

Eileen: It’s obviously much harder. I don’t have the resources of a major publishing house behind me. I’ve had to learn how to do everything, which was something I wanted to do anyway. I hired a marketing professional who was in publishing for many years. I hired a PR guy who was in publishing for many years. They have both worked with me to teach me about how to market. Actually, we’re all kind of learning together at the same time about some things. Zoom is a pretty new thing for doing interviews and posting on Instagram and all of that. Some things, we’re learning together. There are so many digital resources for writers. It helped to have professionals show me how to use them and manage a lot of it for me. I’ve had to kind of build a team, but it’s possible to do it as an individual. I started my own little imprint, one book and one coming, one in the pipe, my next novel.

Zibby: Ooh, what’s your next novel?

Eileen: I’ve been in Florida for ten years now. Has it been that long? Maybe a little longer. Coming from New England to Florida was a real shock. I was originally on the east coast of Florida, which is where most people from the East Coast of the country go to. Then I ended up moving to the Orlando area. I have to say, Florida is the weirdest melting pot on the planet. There is so much going on on a daily basis that is just off the charts. You would never see this stuff happening in Connecticut. New York is a little different. You see everything in New York. I decided that it would be fun to write a Florida-based novel. I love Carl Hiaasen. He’s someone who’s written satire about Florida for a long time. He was born and raised in Miami. I thought it would be fun to sort of move in that direction as far as a genre is concerned because I prefer the humor anyway. It comes more naturally to me. I like to research, so I thought it would be really fun to do a sort of murder mystery where I put myself in the shoes of the protagonist who just happens to be a Connecticut transplant in a fictional town in Florida. She buys a bar in a little motel and gets involved in a really weird murder. That, for me, has been a lot of fun because instead of trying to do the angst and the intimacy and all those things that I really loved when writing Hungry Hill — it really made me think about who I am as a person and how I wanted people to treat me and how I would like to treat people. That’s kind of what Hungry Hill was an exercise in, how to be decent, how to be a kind and decent person. Actually, everybody in the novel has to be kind and decent. I made them that way. Nice to have that kind of control. Gator Land is just a little bit more of a free-for-all.

Zibby: That’s what it’s called? Gator Land?

Eileen: Yeah. I am enjoying that. Although, I have to say, I’m spending more time on Hungry Hill right now than I am on Gator Land. Eventually, I’ll sit down and start pounding the keys and adding to my new novel.

Zibby: I love it. You’ve essentially done what I’m doing. You’ve started your own publishing company. That’s pretty awesome. You could just start bringing in other authors and doing the same thing.

Eileen: I could. I really could. I don’t know if I want to work as hard as you work. I love it. I almost would just give it away. It was so much fun. I had such a great time. Here are all the great people I’ve been working with. I really do enjoy that. I think it would be much easier right now to help somebody through the process because I worked so hard to understand it and make it work for me. I’m sure that you’re going to enjoy it very much.

Zibby: Yes. Maybe I’ll have you come talk to our authors or something. It’s so interesting, the experience you’ve had. It’s a very unique — not unique. It’s a very specific experience.

Eileen: I would love to do that. It really is enjoyable if you approach it with the idea that you want to learn something, you want to grow as a person, and you want to create something exceptional. It’s a great process.

Zibby: Do you know the author Deborah Royce by any chance?

Eileen: I know the name. I don’t know if I’ve read anything by her.

Zibby: I feel like I need to introduce the two of you. I just feel like you’d have a lot to chit-chat about.

Eileen: A lot in common? I’ll have to check her out.

Zibby: Yeah, I think you guys would have a nice lunch. I would like to join it.

Eileen: That would sound great.

Zibby: After going through this whole thing, I’m very curious as to what advice you have from, yes, the writing side, but also from the business side and taking your finance/marketing brain and what you feel that authors really should know as they’re getting into this.

Eileen: I think anybody approaching novel-length fiction has got to understand that it’s not easy, that there’s a pretty steep learning curve. There’s a lot of editing involved. Unless you come out of school with an MFA and you’ve been writing for years in college, undergrad and grad — which is a lot of people out there, but most of those people already have the tool set. If you don’t already have the tool set, you really need to teach yourself. You need to read a lot of books about writing. You have to plow through The Chicago Manual Book of Style. I spent a lot of time researching online. What do I do in this situation? What’s the best way to transition? How do I stay in tense? When if I want to mix my tenses or I want to do this or I want to do that? You have to educate yourself as a writer. It probably helps to have a professional editor. That, I highly recommend, someone who can say, this is not working because… They don’t have to write for you. They don’t have to tell you how to write. They can just help you with the mechanics. I was glad that I did that.

Then in terms of the financial aspects of writing, I would say you really have to expect to spend money to launch yourself as a writer. If you want to do it well, it’s not an inexpensive proposition. You need to have a website that looks beautiful. You need to have somebody manage it if that’s not in your wheelhouse. You have to decide if you want to find an agent. I did work with a couple of them. That process can be lengthy, to find an agent. Then you have to go through the process of deciding, do you want to work with a publishing house that will have a lot of control over the final product? For a lot of people, I think that’s fine. I think if you can find a publisher and they want to work with you, that’s probably the easiest route to go. In terms of cost, it’s certainly a whole different animal. If you really, really love to have control over every aspect of your writing, I highly recommend self-publishing, but it’s not inexpensive. If you really want things to look good — I think Hungry Hill is a pretty novel because I worked with people who knew what they were doing who could advise me and work with me and help my creative vision look professional. It’s not inexpensive if you want to self-publish. You can certainly team up. There are so many people now who are creating their own imprints. I would recommend doing that, teaming up with someone who’s already done it, who knows what they’re doing, who has a different cost structure, and who is someone who’s looking for writers. You probably, in that situation — I don’t know, you could speak to this better than I can. You probably have more creative control in that kind of situation too, if you’re working with a smaller imprint but they already have a marketing track. They know what they’re doing. They know how to get you up and running. They know how to support you, but they’re a smaller imprint. You probably would have more control, yes? Probably. I don’t know. Probably. Maybe. Again, it’s not inexpensive. It’s a lot of work, but it can certainly be worth the effort.

Zibby: Love it. I might follow up with you after this podcast for resources or recommendations or things that you thought were amazing.

Eileen: I would love that. It’s been a lot of fun.

Zibby: Great. Bravo to you. This is a total Eileen production here. Hats off for making this beautiful book. It must feel amazing to hold it in your hands and know that you had everything to do with every little piece of it and that it came out really, really, really well. It’s really great.

Eileen: Thank you, Zibby. Very kind of you to say that. I appreciate it.

Zibby: It’s really true. Thank you so much. It was great to meet you.

Eileen: My pleasure. It was nice to meet you.

Zibby: We’ll stay in touch.

Eileen: Thank you very much. Have a lovely day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Eileen: Thank you, Zibby.

Eileen Patricia Curran, HUNGRY HILL

HUNGRY HILL by Eileen Patricia Curran

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