Meet Emily-Jane Hills Orford, Author of To Be A Duke
EJHO: Who am I? It seems like a simple enough question and yet it’s amazing how often the answer changes. It’s a good way to start the writing stream, to make the ideas flow. It’s a good place to begin an introduction of who I am. So here’s one answer:
“I am a daughter, a granddaughter, a niece, a sister, a wife, a mother, an aunt, a cousin, a friend. I teach, I write, I study, I learn, I compose, I make music, I touch lives for better or worse. My life is complex, complicated, exhilarating and frustrating, all at once, and much more. My life is a gift from God, a spiritual and emotional treasure, an honour, a cherished compilation of memories: happy, sad, funny and tragic, serious and light-hearted. My life is full of honor, despair, pride, joy, disappointments and sorrow. My life is a story just beginning to unfold, its mysterious plot still labouring towards a climax, the highest point to which I am not in any rush to achieve. My life is a story. I am a storyteller.”
Simply put, I am a writer. Therefore I am immortal. Pretty powerful words for one such as I, relatively unknown (for now, but that will change, I hope). I am a storyteller, a descendent of many storytellers, a passionate believer in the simple fact that life is a story just waiting to be told. All that a life story needs is a writer to believe in the story, to believe in its worth, to write the story.
I come from a long line of storytellers: my parents, my grandparents. They were all wonderful storytellers. My grandmother (we called her Gran) was an exceptional storyteller. Everything in her life was a story and she made her life into a story. She was cute, too, always starting her story with the line: “You know, Jean” (if she was talking to her daughter, my mother) or “You know, Emily” (if she was talking to me). We always knew that a story was coming when Gran said those special words: “You know,” especially when it continued with: “You know when I was your age...”
Gran didn’t live with us. In fact, she lived in another town, about an hour-and-a-half away. She would come to visit about once or twice a month, taking the bus and, most likely, talking all the way to whomever she sat beside. (Needless to say we heard all about her travelling companion as soon as she stepped off the bus.) She would stay with us for several days, talking nonstop from the moment she arrived until she walked out the door, of course, always starting with, “You know”. One time, as she was leaving, she turned to Mom and said, “You know, Jean, maybe next time I visit we’ll have time to sit down and chat.” And this statement after a week of long, nonstop, storytelling, all starting with, “You know”.
In the end, yes, I did know a lot of Gran’s stories. By the time she was into her nineties, there were some stories that I knew better than others because she kept repeating them. It was at that point that I chose to write down what I remembered and to question Gran as much as I could to capture the other stories that she had shared so often in the past. I didn’t get them all and I’m still kicking myself today that I didn’t make a more permanent recording before she passed away. Sadly, some stories have been lost. Gran did keep a journal. We found some of them, dating as early as the 1920s, during her courting years, and others as late as the 1970s and 80s when she was doing a lot of traveling. There must have been more; but they are long gone. Gran believed in traveling light through life, a strong belief that you can’t take it with you so why keep it at all.
Using my grandmother’s journals and my mother’s memories, I wrote Gran’s story, calling it Personal Notes, the heading that I found on one of the notepads that contains her journal entries. My grandmother’s stories and my mother’s stories, F-Stop: A Life in Pictures, are important stories to share. My mother was a very energetic and creative individual. She raised a family, taught elementary school, did countless creative projects and inspired a whole generation of like-minded creative individuals. Her photography was her forte and I called her story F-Stop, using the lens adjustment of ‘real’ cameras (before digitals took over) as a metaphor for her life. In fact, F-Stop could be a metaphor of anyone’s life, as we all go through our lives making adjustments as we go along.
My grandmother and my parents were my foundation and my inspiration. I was brought up in a very musical family. Myself and my siblings were all expected to play at least one musical instrument. For me, it was the piano and the cello. My knowledge and my foundation in music prepared me for a career as a music teacher and allowed me the ability to write convincingly about music and growing up in a musical family, which I did in my first four novels: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Music also plays a part in To Be a Duke, as well as most of my other stories, fiction and creative nonfiction.
Perhaps the idea of writing what we know, writing about ourselves, our families, our lives, will not guarantee blockbuster book sales. However, it does guarantee that, in our writing, we are true to ourselves. We have to remember that what we write is permanent and we should ask ourselves if we want future generations to read, to really read, all that we have written. If we can truthfully answer ‘yes’, then we have found our inner voice, our writer’s voice.
Watch Emily-Jane Hills Orford's live interview with author Qais Ghanem
I have to believe that I am being true to myself as I venture from one story-writing adventure to another. The world is full of stories just waiting to be told. On a recent CBC radio interview, I was asked why I thought my mother’s story was so important, why my mother’s life was so significant that I should write an entire book. I answered quite simply: “I believe that everyone’s story deserves an entire book and I hope that by writing my mother’s story, I am, in some way, encouraging others to writer theirs.”
When I was submitting my grandmother’s story, years ago, I frequently received rejection letters from big-name publishers telling me that they would only consider a biography of a famous person. My argument since then has
Our word, our written word is eternal. As we reach out to find our inner voice, our own unique, individual voice, we might ask, what is it that makes a life so special? For me, all life is special. Neither my mother nor my grandmother were rich and famous. Perhaps the ‘special’-ness of these people is the simple act of someone believing in them enough to write that person’s story, making that special person immortal.
EJHO: I love animals, dogs in particular. I didn’t have pets growing up; we weren’t allowed animals in the house. And, in fact, now that I know more about caring for dogs, I understand my mother’s reasoning. We were such a busy family, we would never have been home to care for a pet.
To Be a Duke was inspired by the family dog, Duke, the second dog that my husband and I introduced into our young family and cherished for many years. Misty was our first dog and he lived for thirteen wonderful years. I hope Duke lives just as long. Duke is a Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix with no tail. Misty was rescued from a local shelter. Duke was rescued from an abusive home. For a dog who experienced so much rejection and abuse in his early life, he is so full of love, compassion and enthusiasm for life. Duke is an inspiration, really, to all of us. He certainly jumped right into our family and our hearts and helped us heal after the sorrow of losing Misty to cancer.
This is Duke’s story and I thought I would write it from Duke’s perspective so that he could be everyone’s inspiration, the way that he was (and continues to be) ours.
There are other books on the market about dogs, about a dog’s life, about a dog’s relationship with humans. There are even books written in first person (or first dog?), talking from the dog’s point of view. These are similar concepts to my book, To Be a Duke. What differs is the message. To Be a Duke encourages excellence and positive attitudes; it presents life as one to be lived with great dignity and great joy; it teaches us as humans to be as good as our dog(s), to be kind, caring and loving to all of the living creatures around us.
To Be a Duke is ageless in its appeal. It is a true story, which makes it even more appealing. Duke was adopted from a local dog rescue group. Duke’s story awakens our compassion for ‘man’s best friend’ and bears witness to the tragedy that often befalls these beloved pets. As reviewer Mamta Madhavan wrote for Readers' Favorite, To Be a Duke “is a story with a message that tells us how love can bring out the best in not only humans but also animals.”
As a dog-lover, animal-lover, I am mindful of the care and compassion and lots of work required to lovingly care for a dog. These are important qualities of a responsible dog-owner (or pet-owner of any kind). I actively support various rescue groups and would only consider adopting a rescued dog, rather than purchasing a purebred. However, I also believe that it’s important to honor the commitment that one makes when inviting a pet into the family.
To Be A Duke Book Video
BBB: Tell us about your main character.
EJHO: Duke is the main character. He endures an early life of abuse before finding his forever family, his forever home. He’s a medium-sized Border Collie/Australian Shepherd mix. He doesn’t have a tail. The vet is unsure as to whether he was born without a tail, or he had it surgically removed. When dogs are happy, they usually wag their tails. When Duke is happy, he wiggles his butt. And this is one happy dog. He loves to run; he’s full of energy. His passion is being with his forever family and running the agility course, whether for competition or just in the backyard for fun. He has his issues as well, health issues, but don’t we all?
EJHO: I am currently writing a young adult novel, “Gerlinda’s Wish”. It’s the story of a young girl growing up in an abusive home, and how she copes with the abuse at home, and the bullying at school. It’s a very relevant theme for our time, but the story is actually set in the 1960s and Gerlinda, the main character, is the daughter of a former Nazi Youth.
Do I have another dog story in the works? Perhaps. There are still lots of stories to write, stories to share.
BBB: How can readers discover more about you and your work?
EJHO: Readers can connect with me on the following sites:
Book purchasing info: