Interview with Chad Hautmann, author of Billie’s Ghost

The author of Billie’s Ghost talks about his his novel, his research, the process of getting published, about the relationship between teaching literature, and writing it, and his big literary influences.
Interview by Magdalena Ball

 Magdalena: Tell me about the background of Billie’s Ghost (what inspired you to write it)

Chad Hautmann: We had just moved into a house that had belonged to my wife’s grandmother, who had recently died. She’d been a compulsive collector, so we had to spend months sifting through the artifacts of a lifetime. Lots of fascinating stuff–old Florida memorabilia, books, “flapper” clothing and so forth. Almost immediately, unusual things happened: Items we thought we’d thrown out ended up back in the house. The refrigerator door would open and close when no one was in the kitchen. We’d misplace things only to find them again right in front of us. That sort of thing. Nothing bold enough to make you say, “Yahh, this joint’s haunted,” but enough to put ghosts in my mind. And I’ve always enjoyed jazz, particularly Billie Holiday, so I guess the two–jazz and ghosts–just came together.

Magdalena: Billie’s Ghost is your first novel. Had you done much writing prior to that?

Chad Hautmann: Like most people who write, I started pretty early. I think maybe you have to start young to get a lot of the bad writing out of your system. I’ve published poems and stories in literary magazines, freelanced for commercial mags, the usual stuff. But it’s all good practice.

Magdalena: Tell me about Casey Cooper. Is he based on yourself, or someone you know?

Chad Hautmann: Casey is a little bit like me but certainly not entirely. For one thing, I think I’d be more freaked out about a strange singing woman suddenly appearing in my home.

Magdalena: What about Billie Holiday? What made you choose this particular singer?

Chad Hautmann: Billie Holiday had a captivating persona. Her voice wasn’t the best or the strongest but it may have been the most soulful. To hear her sing is to feel that you know her, or that she knows you. The public perception of her is that she was a tragic, deeply flawed woman. But I think that at times she was also probably a lot of fun to hang around with. That’s the Billie Holiday I tried to convey in Billie’s Ghost.

Magdalena: Would you say that Billie’s Ghost is a ghost story? Did you set out to write a ghost story?

Chad Hautmann: I wouldn’t trust anyone who said he knew for sure that ghosts either exist or don’t exist. I think even if you were confronted with some pretty solid evidence, you’d still have doubts. Different readers seem to have different opinions about whether the Eleanora character in Billie’s Ghost is really a ghost, so maybe what I set out to do is immaterial. Personally, I’d like to believe that ghosts are possible.

Magdalena: Talk to me about some of the research you had to do.

Chad Hautmann: I read everything I could find about Billie Holiday, which, surprisingly, wasn’t all that much. I listened to certain songs over and over (until my
wife almost went nuts), trying to get a feel for her. But probably the best thing I stumbled upon was a collection of letters she’d written. They gave me a very real idea of how she must’ve talked and the slang and expressions she used. So in the novel, when Eleanora (Billie Holiday’s given name) throws some jazzy 1940’s vernacular at Casey, he has to scratch his head and say, “What are you talking about?”

Magdalena: Do you feel pressure to keep the momentum going – to write another novel?

Chad Hautmann: Yes, I feel pressure to write another novel. If I didn’t, Larry Myers at VanMeter, and Jeannie, my wife, would see to it. I’ve started on another, also set in South Florida, called Those Things Worth Saving. 

Magdalena: What about the promotional aspects of the book? In a world full of new book releases and ‘hot properties’, is it hard to get noticed?

Chad Hautmann: For every promotional avenue that might be closing to new authors or unconventional books, another seems to open up. There are so many readers looking for good books, and it’s a blessing for both readers and writers that outlets such as exist.

Magdalena: What process did you have to go through to get published?

Chad Hautmann: I thought I’d written a pretty decent book, so when I finished Billie’s Ghost I sent it to some of the top agents. A couple of them agreed to take it on with the caveat that first novels are extremely hard to place with the publishing conglomerates. So we got a good deal of interest but also a lot of foot-dragging, with one publisher even saying he would’ve bought it if he hadn’t just paid a huge advance to a sitcom star for his autobiography. So I researched the good small publishers and found VanMeter. 

Magdalena: You’re a college literature professor. Does having such a close understanding of literary processes help with writing, or did you find yourself becoming too self-critical too soon?

Chad Hautmann: The more exposure you have to good writing the better it is for your own work. When I taught literature and writing, I couldn’t help but take from the experience a deeper understanding of what makes for interesting dialogue, characters, and themes. On the other hand, if you start comparing yourself as a writer to the literary heavyweights, you’ll undoubtedly end up with paralyzed fingers and brain-freeze.

Magdalena: Who are your big literary influences? And who do you think are some of the more important authors producing fiction today (and why)?

Chad Hautmann: In grad school I really fell for the Romantic poets–Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron. There’s a Zen quality to their work, an appreciation for nature and the supernatural, that has stuck with me. Again, I think a writer takes something, intentionally or not, from everything he or she reads. When I was in school, and most easily influenced, I devoured stuff by Salinger, Steinbeck, Shirley Jackson, John Irving, and others. In a workshop I attended, Kurt Vonnegut told aspiring writers not to be afraid to explore the fantastic–or the humorous. That’s very good advice, I think. Shakespeare, for a grand example, is full of the fantastic, and even his tragedies are peppered with laugh-aloud lines. And there are so many good novelists writing today whose work can be inspiring and instructive. I think Dennis McFarland is one of the best, and, a few years ago, Donald Newlove, Frederick Exley, Mark Harris. And then there are all the great short-story writers, most of them women. The list goes on and on–thankfully.