Interview: Richard Tillotson (Malaysia 1967-69) Author of Acts of God While On Vacation

Interview: Richard Tillotson, Author of Acts of God While On Vacation

Published 09:00 p.m., Sunday, February 12, 2012

tillotson-rRichard Tillotson has been a Peace Corps volunteer, a playwright in New York, a copywriter in Hawaii, and is a relative of an English Lord, all of which helped him write Acts of God While on Vacation, a National Semi-Finalist for the 2009 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and named “Hawaii’s best fiction book of 2011” by The Honolulu Star-Advertiser. He works in Honolulu and vacations in Washington DC.

Please tell us a bit about your book and what you hope readers take away from reading it.

acts-god-vacationThe novel begins with a death threat received by a philandering general manager of a lavish Hawaii resort, jumps to an anthropologist researching headhunters in the jungles of Borneo, then to a demonic, scandal-mongering paparazzo in New York, and on to a gorgeous, party-loving English aristocrat in London. The characters are all drawn to Waikiki, where their arrival coincides with an international conference on shamanism and a catastrophic, force-five hurricane. I only discovered what was to become of these people while I was writing (and reading) about them, and I found their various adventures alternately desperate, thought-provoking, and hilarious. I hope readers will be able to take away a smile and some new ideas.

Who are your favorite characters in the story?

This of course is like asking a mother or father which one of her/his children she/he loves most, which is an impossible question. The best answer I ever heard to that question was by a mother who said “The one who hurts or who needs me the most.” For an author — at least this one — it is the character someone is asking me about. In the last few days, I’ve received several questions about Kip Stallybrass, the character who is a graduate student anthropologist researching the spiritual beliefs of the Iban, one of the indigenous peoples on the island of Borneo. In decades past the Iban were known as headhunters. I know something about all this because I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Borneo and worked with the Iban myself. (Doesn’t mean that Kip is me, however.) I have also received several questions about Glynis Mortimer, another character in the novel. She’s a remarkably competent Englishwoman, known in her circle as “the world’s foremost executive secretary.” (I’m not her either.)

Do you have a favorite line or excerpt from your book?

Another impossible question. The first thing that popped into my head was a line that quotes a subway poster attempting to combat the problem of illiteracy. It reads, “Illiterate? Can’t read? Call this number!”

If your current release were to be turned into a movie, who would you love to see play what characters and why?

I’ve actually had a number of people come up to me with their own ideas on this subject. I think Matt Damon would do a great job as Gordon Coburn, General Manager of the Earl Court Waikiki Hotel. He has a wonderful range and would be able to move from the comic to the serious, making both sets of circumstances entirely believable. Meryl Streep would be terrific as the above-mentioned Englishwoman, Glynnis Mortimer, “the world’s foremost executive secretary.” But of course, Meryl Streep can play anything. Gwyneth Paltrow would be excellent as Glynnis’ boss, Lady Gloria Ryder. Kip Stalleybrass the graduate student in Borneo . hummm . Maybe Jesse Eisenberg who played Mark Zukerberg in The Social Network. And for Mislov Ropolovitch, the “demonic, scandal-mongering paparazzo,” how about Wily E. Coyote from the Roadrunner cartoons? Getting him is not a great deal more unlikely than actually getting the rest of that cast.

What are your favorite aspects of writing?

Discovering what’s going to happen. Discovering what I didn’t know I knew.

Your least favorite aspects of writing?

When I’m not writing, I find I become generally dissatisfied and progressively more and more inefficient. So I think my least favorite aspect of writing is not writing.

Who are some of your favorite authors/books?

I’m very eclectic. I still enjoy browsing bookstores and library shelves, pulling down a book that looks interesting, and I’ll wind up reading it for the very reason that I haven’t read anything like it before. I enjoy comic novels (I wrote one, after all), but I also greatly enjoy authors like Jane Austen, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens, and – moving over to our continent, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mark Twain, and – moving back to the UK of the present day – David Lodge, Michael Frayn, David Mitchell, and – moving back over here – Alan Furst, Tom Wolfe. You get the idea. Those are the writers who floated through my top of mind at the moment. I also enjoy reading The New Yorker every week, and I’ve got a complete collection of all the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe novels.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished The Untouchable by John Banville and I’m starting Isaacson’s Steve Jobs biography. I’m looking forward to Stephen Greenblatt‘s Swerve. I usually read poetry for a while before going to sleep, and at present I’m working through Garrison Keillor‘s latest collection, Good Poems, American Places.

If you could have a dinner party and invite five authors — dead or alive — who would they be and what would you serve them?

I guess it would be a few of the authors mentioned in the earlier question, but I’d want to add Chaucer and Shakespeare. So those two plus Jane Austen, Mark Twain, and David Lodge. Since I would be terrified to sit at that table, I’d go hide in the corner and take notes, giving up my place to Rex Stout. I’d serve take-out from a really good Thai restaurant. (What a bizarre evening!)

What is the one book that you wish you could say that you wrote?

The Art of Fiction by David Lodge. I’ve read it more than a dozen times and will probably return to it several times more in the course of writing my next novel. In addition to being witty and charming and containing enormously useful advice on how to write novels, the book also demonstrates an intimate knowledge and appreciation of dozens of classic novels, many of which I’ll probably never get around to reading myself.

What is the greatest piece of advice (for writing and/or just living) that you have heard?

For writing, see above: The Art of Fiction. For living: “Be brave, giving due honor and respect to every person.”

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