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July 27, 2018

Hill dazzles with a dystopian steampunk novel full of spirits.

What is the story behind The Engine Woman’s Light—why and how did you write it?

Around 1993, I had a dream about an elderly woman who rode a “death train” toward an asylum for thrown-away people. An attendant gave her an abandoned infant to babysit during the journey. The spirit of the old woman’s deceased husband appeared to her and said, “This is our great-granddaughter.” The woman, carrying the baby in a basket, escaped the train and walked toward a distant light.

Within weeks of the dream, several characters sprang to life inside my head—all determined to convince me to tell their tale. I wrote a short story about them. An editor suggested writing a novel instead. A few years later, I took her advice.

Who do you like to imagine reading The Engline Woman’s Light?

The Engine Woman’s Light is a dystopian spirits-meet-steampunk tale. My ideal reader can deal with gadgets and grit. A mature teen or an adult who enjoys fantasy with a diverse cast of characters will love this book.

What makes this book relevant right now?

The Engine Woman’s Light is a coming-of-age novel about a young Latina that delves into dark and painful issues: rape, abuse, child abandonment, murder, and the loss of loved ones. It also addresses love, loyalty, honor, family, forgiveness, and redemption. The topics are timeless. I wanted to write directly to the human experience.

To what extent do you draw from real life, and what responsibility do you feel to reimagine or change characters who are based on real people?

When writing The Engine Woman’s Light, I drew upon the love of my husband, the strength of my mother and her parents, the stories about my paternal Mexican great-grandparents, and the behavior of every chauvinistic man I’ve ever met. I also drew upon adventures I’ve had, such as operating a steam locomotive, climbing and almost falling off the side of a cliff, and being swept under a large inflatable river raft in white water. Still, I let my characters establish their own personalities within my mind and on the page. I always insist on my characters remaining true to themselves.

Steampunk figures prominently in The Engine Woman’s Light. What about this aesthetic inspired you?

I love steam-powered machinery: steam locomotives, steamboats, and steam calliopes. The power of steam is almost sexual in nature. I also love windup clockwork. None of these devices contain black box technology, which gave me a lot to work with as a writer. I can look at them and understand how they work and invite the reader into this fascination.

What is the one thing you most want to tell readers, other writers, booksellers, publishers, or agents about you or your book?

I spent 20 years creating The Engine Woman’s Light. Now this novel has received a total of 10 honors and awards, including a 2017 Independent Press Award and a 2018 San Francisco Book Festival award. Writers, never discard your failed manuscripts. Your time of insight may come.

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