Interview with Kathy Hepinstall, Author of Blue Asylum
Jaime Boler: You grew up in Texas. Did you always want to be a writer?
Kathy Hepinstall: Yes, I think so, but it took different forms. As a girl, I wrote mostly poems. Later, I wrote short stories and went into advertising writing. After a few years in that career, I decided I wanted to try a novel.
JB: In your opinion, what is the most difficult think about being an author? And what is the most rewarding?
KH: The most difficult thing is navigating the often challenging waters of the business of publishing. The most rewarding is being able to bring a story to life and have it resonate with other people.
JB: Your last novel, Prince of Lost Places, came out in 2003. What have you been doing since then?
KH: Mostly freelancing in advertising. Wrote some more novels, but didn’t success [in] publishing [anything] until Blue Asylum.
JB: How did you come up with the idea for Blue Asylum?
KH: I’d been wanting to write a love story set in an insane asylum. Just really liked all the inherent tensions in those two intersecting realities: Love and Insanity.
JB: What kind of research did you do for Blue Asylum?
KH: I was on Sanibel Island for six weeks doing research and starting the first draft. I also learned about mental asylums of the day.
JB: I have a PhD in American history and wrote a dissertation on slave resistance in Natchez, Mississippi. I never found any white plantation mistress who ran away with the slaves, but that’s not to say it NEVER happened. Such a thing would have been deeply buried by the whites. Did you find anything in your research about white women taking flight with slaves?
KH: No, that was purely imaginative. But it made me like Iris to think she could do that.
JB: Are any characters in Blue Asylum loosely based on you or people you know?
KH: Mary, the doctor’s wife, was based on Mary Lincoln. Ambrose was based on someone I loved and still do. And I see Wendell in all good people.
JB: Do you think there were actual people like Iris who were declared insane and put into asylums who really were not insane? Perhaps wives put there by their husbands?
KH: Yes, that came up in my research. Victorian men would get rid of their wives that way.
JB: Was the water treatment historically accurate?
KH: I’m trying to remember now..I think cold water was used in some supposedly curative way at some point in the history of asylums. But the water treatment also came from a description I read of a plantation owner who would punish his slaves by putting them in a hole and pouring water on them until it became terribly painful.
JB: In this novel, you create the quirkiest and most unforgettable characters. Did their insanity give you license to really play with them, to really make them stand out?
KH: Yes, that was very liberating creatively, especially with characters like Penelope and Lydia Helms Truman.
JB: Do you have a favorite character in this book? (I think mine is Wendell.)
KH: I do love beautiful tortured lamb-saving Wendell. I also like Lydia and, curiously, both the Cowells.
JB: In every one of your stories, you manage to provide unexpected twists. I never see them coming. How do you always do this? And how difficult is it?
KH: Thank you so much. I really like being surprised as a reader, so I try to surprise readers of my novels. Sometimes I wonder, have I given too many clues? Too few? I regret I wasn’t clearer about the ending to The House of Gentle Men.
JB: What advice would you give anyone working on a first novel?
KH: Find a really great editor. That’s really hard to do but it may come as a surprise and be someone you know. Also, finish it. Finish even a terrible first draft. Finishing is a good habit to impress upon the brain.
JB: Who are your favorite authors?
KH: Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje, poets like Lorca and Vallejo.
JB: Out of all the novels you’ve written, do you have a favorite?
KH: Absence of Nectar, most likely forever.
JB: I saw on your blog where you are trying to get Oprah to read your book. You even left a signed copy of Blue Asylum for her. Could you talk a little about that?
KH: I wanted to get Oprah’s attention in a playful, respectful way so a friend of mine and I buried a copy of Blue Asylum in the foothills of Montecito, where she lives, then took out an ad to her in the Montecito Journal with a treasure map. So far, no response but I understand – people wanting her attention are legion.
JB: Will you go on a book tour for Blue Asylum? Which cities will you visit? Any chance you might stop in Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS?
KH: I’ve done readings/book parties in Portland, LA, New York, Virginia Beach and will visit San Francisco later in May. Love Lemuria Books. May not be able to get down there this year but some day soon I’d like to return. I’ll always remember their kindness and warmth and humor.
JB: What do you hope readers take with them after reading Blue Asylum?
KH: Just some kind of resonance in their own lives, and I hope, a greater love and respect for lunatics and lambs.
JB: What’s next for you? Are you working on anything new?
KH: My sister and I plan to rewrite a novel of ours called Girls of Shiloh, about two sisters who join the Confederate army as men.
JB: Thanks so much, Kathy, for agreeing to answer my questions. I really appreciate it!