After winning the Montegrappa Writing Prize at the 2018 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature for her mythical tale, Otherworld, this Abu Dhabi-based teacher talks to deputy editor Hayley Skirka about the impact on her students and finding inspiration for future stories
How did it feel when you won the Montegrappa writing prize?
I originally entered in 2013 and didn’t even place, but in January, when I was doing the final residency for my Masters of Fine Arts, I applied again. A few weeks later, I got an email inviting me to the prize-giving, and then another one, so I began to get excited.
I couldn’t believe it when (literary agent) Luigi [Bonomi] read out my story.
Tell us about the story of Otherworld…
In many ways, it’s like lots of young adult plots as it’s about a young girl who doesn’t feel like she fits in. It’s a fantasy – as a teacher I really believe in the power of fantasy – but it’s also historical and explores Irish mythology.
Where did the idea come from?
The original idea comes not only from my studies in Irish literature, but also an old family tale that says my very distant grandparents on my mother’s side were Irish orphans who found each other and then invented their own last name. My great aunts are still trying to piece together the truth of it, but my story is a take on C.S. Lewis’s supposal theory…suppose I wrote a story about what it would have been like to have lived through the Great Famine. And, suppose my character had all the power in the world, but she was powerless to stop it.
You’re originally from Canada but have been an expat for years. Do you think your travels inspired your work?
My husband and I have always had a bi-cultural draw. His father is Kiwi and I grew up in French schooling in Canada. That sense of adventure has stayed with us –we’ve been here for six years and before this we were in China, and before that Egypt. I’m sure it’s had an impact on my work.
Has your success inspired your students in Abu Dhabi?
Lots of my students were excited for me and some of them were even keen to get involved in the Oxford University Short Story competition at the festival. I ran some lunchtime creative writing classes to help them and I really hope that, in this short space of time, I’ve had an impact on them.
What have been your UAE highlights and how has it impacted your writing?
Going to the lit fest every year and meeting amazing writers like Garth Nix and Anthony Horowitz. All the cultural events like the camel festival, Qasr Al Hosn and the date festival. I also got the chance to be an extra in Brad Pitt’s movie (War Machine) and to sing in the choir for [Andrea] Bocelli – things that probably wouldn’t happen elsewhere. This really adds to the ‘mythical’ image that many people have of the city. In reality, it’s normal life – groceries, work, errands – but then these occasional things come our way. I’ve had such an eclectic, crazy, beautiful experience… I’d love to let all of my experiences here seep into some of my future story ideas.
To keep up to date with what’s going on in Jillian’s world, check out her Twitter handle @jillianafox