Writers and Their Readers: In Conversation with William St. Hilaire

William St. Hilaire is artistic director of Montreal’s literary festival Blue Metropolis, but she is also an author. Director and author, reader and writer, she has a somewhat privileged vantage point for experiencing and observing the relationship between writers and their readers.

I met up with St. Hilaire to talk about this very relationship. We spoke broadly on the subject: authors in relation to the general public, to friends, to publishers, and even to reviewers. We also discussed the relationship specific to her own situation as a writer of erotic fiction. Appropriate for the director of a literary festival, she professed an appreciation for a range of books. And while her own erotic fiction has garnered her readers, it has also evoked a certain reaction from some readers. “The fact that I wrote erotic fiction has changed the perception that people have of me … people just freeze and they don’t know what to say,” she explained. “It’s been a while that I haven’t published anything. My last book was released in 2010. But it was not erotic and I didn’t sell many copies, so I have to think about going back into hardcore writing.”

In terms of a personal readership it seems St. Hilaire would rather not have one. “I hope my friends and acquaintances don’t read my books. Sometimes I don’t even read my own books. On the off-chance I’ve had to go through my files, I’ve been horrified. I cannot believe I went to school in a nunnery and played the harpsichord. And this is what I write? Oh, man!”

Why write at all and where do the words come from? “I write out of rage, or anger, or out of fear of being abandoned. It’s all therapy. I don’t care much about other people’s opinion of my work. If it gets published, fine. If it doesn’t, fine. Once it’s done, I don’t want to talk about it. I can’t be very satisfied and happy about my writing. A few people that I really value told me that I have talent; I don’t need general approbation, I don’t need praise, I don’t need recognition. It’s very personal, because if my entire life was about writing, it would be pure pain, you know? I would expect something more.”

She mostly works on her books by herself, without feedback from other authors. “I will accept a few recommendations from publishers, but the recommendations are not all good. If you trust one, that’s enough. It’s like a psychologist. I don’t need ten people to psychoanalyze me.”

St. Hilaire spoke a bit about the person behind the erotic novel, satisfying a personal curiosity I’m sure I share with many. “Erotic writers are usually people who have their own story. Maybe they were abandoned or rejected, or have body-image problems. Or at least they need a great deal of attention. You don’t choose to write erotic literature if you want to go unnoticed. Readers sometimes get upset, or they feel challenged because of the nature of my work. But nobody is obliged to read it, or even like it.”

Our talk of readers prompted me to inquire who she writes for when she’s working on her erotic fiction. “I’ve been writing for men I loved, for men I could not have in my life. There was always someone I was sharing my thoughts with. And some of my books were written based on an exchange with a muse.”

We moved onto the subject of another kind of reader, a contentious one: the reviewer. “Even if you don’t read the newspaper,” says St. Hilaire, “and I used to never, never read any review of my books, there’s always someone who will say, ‘Oh, that was such a bad review.’ I value the work of journalists and critics, they’re part of the system, as long as they don’t destroy people’s lives.”

When it comes to finding out more about an author, St. Hilaire isn’t interested in the how-to of writing and books, but, whether she’s the author or the reader, she is interested in talking about the person behind the writer. “I like human beings, I like their stories, their kids, their favourite food. The worst thing for me is to start asking technical questions, like at [Blue Met] events where we asked people ‘How do you write?’ The how-to doesn’t interest me, it’s the who-are-you, really? What brought you here? What’s the story behind your writing?”

St. Hilaire cares about the author’s story, which isn’t necessarily revealed through their books. “If you write thrillers, dark books like Patrick Senécal, people will not ask you, ‘Oh, do you torture people in your basement?’ So don’t expect erotic writers to be having wild sex on the counter every five minutes. Probably it’s because they’re not having wild sex that they have the time to write.”

William St. Hilaire is president-general manager and artistic director of Blue Metropolis Foundation. A harpsichordist by training, St. Hilaire completed studies in public relations at HEC Montréal. She began as a manager, notably for Bob Walsh and the Arthur Leblanc Quartet, before being hired as general manager of Montreal’s I Musici chamber orchestra. She then worked in communications for ten years at Radio-Canada. St. Hilaire has sat on the board of the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, of the Salle Pierre-Mercure, and of the Association pour la création et la recherche en électroacoustiques du Québec. She is the author of eight books. Les femmes planètes (VLB, 2010) is her first novel.

Interview by Vanessa Bonneau on June 20, 2013, in Montreal.

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