Hillary Jordan: Lessons From Advertising

Guest blog by Hillary Jordan, author of Mudbound.
Hillary can be found online at hillaryjordan.com


Before I was a novelist, I was clever for a living. I was an advertising copywriter for twenty some-odd years, first for various agencies and then, eventually, freelance. I'm in recovery now, although I confess I still take on the occasional assignment when I need a quick infusion of cash. In my long career, I conceived, wrote and produced TV and radio commercials, print ads, billboards, web banners, table tents, door hangers, and sundry for everything from Acura to Zoloft: cars, batteries, chicken parts, dog food, sneakers, shampoo, Champagne, paper towels ("It's quilted once, then quilted again!"), perfume, tortellini, vacuum cleaners, blue jeans, tacos, antacids (one of my favorite spots for this product was a horror spoof called "Children of the Corn Dog"), men's leisure wear, chocolates, home theater systems, hair gel, beer, banks, sanitary napkins (the dreaded briefing for that one took place on what I called "Tuesday Bloody Tuesday"), Texas Tourism, an English cider, a Korean cosmetics line, a Russian oil company, and various prescription drugs ("Side effects may include dry mouth, insomnia, sleepiness, nausea and diarrhea"). And this is just the tip of a massive adberg.

I didn't start writing fiction until my mid-thirties, and when I finally made that leap and enrolled in the MFA program at Columbia, I felt behind from day one. I was older than eighty percent of my classmates, some of whom were barely legal drinking age. Why, oh why, had I wasted all those years writing ad copy, when I should have been writing Lit-ra-ture? And how could I keep my finely honed commercial instincts (which were as sharp as ever, because I was still freelancing to pay the rent) from infecting my fiction writing? I decided I would put a wall - a high, dense hedge of wicked thorns - between those two parts of my brain. I would keep my bag of marketing tricks zipped firmly shut. I would not think about my potential readers and what they wanted to hear. Above all, I would not allow myself to be clever.

When I finished Mudbound, I believed I had succeeded in leaving every vestige of my advertising past behind. The book was published, and I started getting feedback from readers and reviewers. Many people commented on the succinctness of the novel, and some even complained that it was too short. "A spare effort that wastes no words," wrote one reviewer. It sounded suspiciously like the description of a good ad. Sure, I'd been trained to tell a story in thirty seconds, but that had no bearing whatsoever on the writing of Mudbound. "Sucks readers in from its opening scene," wrote another reviewer.  Well, certainly it's true that with an ad, you only have a few seconds to capture someone's attention before they change the channel or turn the page, but again - nothing to do with my extremely literary novel. Equally irrelevant was the praise I received about the authenticity of the dialogue in Mudbound. So what if I'd written, cast and recorded literally thousands of scripts? And as for comments like, "A package of smooth, accessible storytelling that goes down easily, sticking to your ribs," and "Hillary Jordan is happily a writer who puts her duty to entertain first," well, those were just plain hurtful.

Could it be that my hedge of thorns was less impenetrable that I thought, and that all those years in advertising not only influenced but actually benefited my fiction writing? What an absurd notion.

Hi Hillary, I loved 'Mudbound' - thanks so much for sharing your story about it.
# Posted By Leslie | 4/28/09 11:48 AM
Mudbound is our book club's selection for May. 14 women.
# Posted By Suzanne Watt | 5/12/09 10:07 PM
Thanks for the book Hillary, my 8th grade class is reading it as our first book. I loved the book!
# Posted By Cameron | 8/20/09 5:10 PM
You have much more to say in your 30s than in your 20s, and I believe trained ad writers and journalists make the best novelists. They self-edit all the extraneous stuff.
# Posted By R D McDonald | 4/4/10 9:07 AM
Just finished Mudbound, it trapped me for 12 solid hours, gave me an inspirational break from doing my 4th rewrite of my novel. I'm thrilled to know that a former journalist scored with such a powerful debut novel. Hope to do the same! Thanks for your work.
# Posted By C.H. Kuespert | 7/26/10 1:56 PM
Mudbound is our book club's selection for February 2010
# Posted By Maria | 1/27/11 10:22 AM
I liked your book on so many levels: the story, voices and complexity of characters, WWII information to name a few. It will be a good book group discussion...thank you for writing !
# Posted By Shirley | 9/13/12 1:56 PM
Hiliary, Mudbound is our bnook of choice for this month's book club of 12 women.
We meet each month and when someone recommended your book, we all agreed to read it. I especially loved the book, the way you wrote it and enjoyed thoroughly the story. I have also read Kingsolver's book The Poisonwood Bible and when I saw her comment on your book, it drew me in. Opening the book, I realized the same type chapter writting was there and I happened to love the way you used your characters.
Thank You - can't wait til next week Tuesday when we meet to share our thoughts about the book.
# Posted By Patricia Masucci | 2/7/13 7:59 AM
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