Monday, August 15, 2011

Interview with Noelle Hancock

Earlier this summer, I read and was absolutely charmed by My Year With Eleanor, Noelle Hancock's memoir about overcoming her fears the year she was laid off and facing 30. It was an unexpectedly moving read, one I still think about -- in fact, I have to credit her with introducing 'time-release weirdo' into my vocabulary.  Read on to learn more about Ms. Hancock's transition from web blogger to memoirist, what element she didn't expect to include in her memoir, and what she's been reading lately.

Can you recall the subject or plot of the first piece of writing you did, whether as a kid or an adult, that you felt was the start of your writing career?

When I was in fourth grade, my teacher had us tear out a picture from a magazine and make up a story about it. I found a picture in Highlights of a puppy holding a fedora in his mouth. I made up a story about a burglar who’d robbed a house but dropped his hat on the way out. (Why I thought a burglar would be wearing a fedora, I have no idea. Maybe I thought all criminals dressed like Hamburglar?) Anyway, the family puppy found the hat and when the cops arrived, the puppy carried to hat to a policeman, who discovered the crook had written his name on the tag inside, and solved the case. My teacher said my story was the best in the class and posted it on the bulletin board. It was a thrilling moment.

Was My Year With Eleanor the original title of your book?

Originally I titled it ‘The Eleanor Roosevelt Experiment’. But a week after my agent sent the partial manuscript to all the publishing houses, she called me and said, “I have to tell you: Everyone is really hating ‘The Eleanor Roosevelt Experiment’. They find it cold and they think it lacks heart. They don’t think it works at all.” She went on like this for a few more minutes; meanwhile I’m tearing up because I think she’s talking about the book itself. Finally she said, “So I think we should change the title to My Year With Eleanor. It’s warmer, don’t you think?” Then I realized she’d been referring to the title, not the book.

As you were writing My Year With Eleanor, was there a particular moment or person that you were surprised to find you included?

Initially I didn’t intend to write about my family, especially my little sister who was only fourteen at the time. It felt exploitative, mining their private lives for my memoir and offering it up to the public. I thought I could tell my story without them. But when my editor, Lee Boudreaux, read the manuscript she said, “Something is missing. Where are your parents in all this? Surely they have some thoughts about their daughter embarking upon this wild project.” She was right. Without my family, the story lacked depth. So I asked their permission and they agreed to be in the book. I let them read it before I turned it in, and they thought it was great. “You captured me perfectly!” my mom said.

Was the switch from writing for blogs to writing a memoir difficult or challenging?

Oh man, it’s like a track & field sprinter deciding to run a marathon! Before writing this book, the longest paper I’d written was maybe 15 pages, and I’d probably secretly narrowed margins and bumped up the line spacing to 2.5.

But the lessons I learned during my year of fear-conquering were surprisingly applicable to the writing process.

In the book I recount a conversation I had with my guide on Mt. Kilimanjaro. We were about to start our final day of climbing -- the hike to the summit -- and I asked the guide why we were starting the hike at midnight. It seemed counterproductive. Isn’t it harder climbing a mountain in the dark? He said that when people try hiking to the summit during the day, all they see is how steep the mountain is and how much farther they have to go. Most of the time they give up and quit before they reach the top. But if you’re hiking at night with a flashlight, all you can see is the small circle of light at your feet. When all your focus is on putting one foot in front of the other, the task seems smaller, more manageable. Just take it one step at a time, and eventually you’ll reach where you’re trying to go.

The same is true for writing a book. To avoid getting overwhelmed, I focus on what is exactly in front of me. Rather than worrying about the hundreds of pages I need to write, I focus on one chapter at a time, or even one page at a time. Writing an entire book sounds like this arduous task, but if you write just one page a day, in ten months you’ll have finished a book. When you think about it that way, it’s not so insurmountable.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

When I write at home I end up procrastinating, checking email, browsing websites, playing with my pets, etc. I also have a nervous habit of biting my nails and fiddling with my hair when I’m trying to write (my therapist, who’s also in my memoir, thinks it’s another means of procrastination -- a subconscious way of keeping my fingers off the keyboard so I have an excuse not to write). So I started writing a coffee shop that didn’t have wi-fi, so I couldn’t distract myself with the internet. To keep myself from fiddling with my hair, I’d cover it with a ski cap while I wrote. I covered my fingernails with band-aids so I couldn’t bite them. Ridiculous, I know. But it worked! I stopped procrastinating and started cranking out chapters. Then one day as I was writing I accidentally hit the webcam button on my Macbook and suddenly there I was, filling the entire screen. And as I looked at myself -- wild-eyed, surrounded by four empty coffee cups, wearing a ski cap indoors, fingers bandaged -- I thought, "Oh girl, it’s time to dial it back.” The only thing missing was a collection of Troll Dolls across my computer. And maybe a court order ruling me mentally incompetent. I still prefer writing at coffee shops because it keeps me on task -- I just try not to look like a total lunatic.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I’ve caught the travel bug! Before I wrote my book, I wasn’t much of a traveler because it was out of my comfort zone. And I certainly wasn’t impulsive. But after my year of fear, I was craving more adventure. So I left Manhattan and moved to this small Caribbean island with a population of 5,000, got a job and an apartment there. Next I’m thinking I’ll move to Ireland or Australia in October.

Read any good books recently?

I just finished Bossypants and am currently reading A Visit from the Goon Squad. Next I’ll probably read either Unbroken or Room. At some point I’ll probably have to give in and read The Hunger Games, right?

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My thanks to Ms. Hancock for her time! If you'd like, you can follow her on Twitter. Check out the blog tour for My Year With Eleanor for more reviews and see my review for why you need to read this entertaining memoir!


  1. I love what her mountain climbing guide said. What a wonderful philosophy!

  2. Kathy: Isn't it? It's a good mantra to remember for just about anything -- especially as I'm one to get overwhelmed by the big picture.

  3. I can say I know much about E.R..ok make that nothing at all

    Lol, I liked the webcam incident ;)

  4. I wanted to read this one the moment I saw the trailer (and I'm not usually a fan of trailers). This is a fantastic interview!

  5. I kind of love Noelle for her answer to your last question. :)

    Fascinating interview! I hope Noelle keeps writing.

  6. What great advice about writing a novel...and I love that she wasn't afraid to look like a loony in public. I vote for her to move to Ireland next...maybe she'll write about that next.