New Voice: Tess Hilmo on With a Name Like Love

Tess Hilmo is the first-time author of With a Name Like Love (Farrar Straus Giroux/Macmillan, Margaret Ferguson Books, 2011)(author blog). From the promotional copy:

When Ollie’s daddy, the Reverend Everlasting Love, pulls their travel trailer into Binder to lead a three-day revival, Ollie knows that this town will be like all the others her daddy drags them through—it is exactly the kind of nothing Ollie has come to expect.

But on their first day in town, Ollie meets Jimmy Koppel, whose mother is in jail for murdering his father. Jimmy insists that his mother is innocent and Ollie believes him. 

Still, even if Ollie convinces her daddy to break his three-day rule and stay longer, how can two thirteen-year-olds free a woman who has signed a confession?

Ollie’s longing for a friend and her daddy’s penchant for searching out lost souls prove to be a formidable force in this tiny town where everyone seems bent on judging and jailing without a trial.

What were you like as a young reader and how did that influence the book you are debuting this year?

Tess Hilmo

I have a vivid memory of when I was six years old.

I was walking down the street with a friend, singing “This Little Light of Mine” at the top of my lungs. My friend turned to me and said, “You shouldn’t be singing that song. You are just a skinny white girl who can’t carry a tune.”

Well, she was right about the singing part…I really am horrible. But, she was wrong about the other part. I loved southern gospel music from a young age and could not stop singing those songs. They made me believe I could accomplish anything my heart desired. They made me feel special and wonderful and – most of all – capable.

I kept singing songs like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Go Down Moses” and “This Little Light of Mine.” Years later, I wrote a song patterned after those old spirituals called “Lead Me On.”

After hearing the song, my mother said, “You should write a story to go with that song.” And I did. With A Name Like Love is that story. It is a tribute to the music that made me believe in myself. Of course, I had to mix a little mystery into it in honor of my first favorite novel series, Nancy Drew. My original song, “Lead Me On,” is actually featured in the novel!

As a historical fiction writer, what drew you first: character, concept or historical period? How did you go about building your world? What were the special challenges? Where did you turn for inspiration and support?

Tess’s office chair: “Writing takes time and effort!”

Once I knew the novel had to contain those classic southern songs, the setting was pretty obvious. It had to be in the South.

I turned to my own family history for the rest…having a great uncle who was an itinerant preacher back in the 1950s helped. I read his writings, thought about his lifestyle, wondered what his children might have experienced.

My characters are all fictional, but having that family link really did assist me in my research. Also, I set the story in Arkansas because I had family records, diaries and pictures from relatives in Arkansas on my father’s side.

I knew I wanted to write a Southern murder mystery that would be both intriguing and, hopefully, uplifting. I simply tried to honor the people of that time period and explore how those special songs might have helped them through difficult situations.

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