A novel approach

Nothing went according to script for Mars Hill, whose first novel will be published in the fall

PAUL GRONDAHL
Staff writer

At the age of 75, after a career as a civil engineer with the state and a variety of entrepreneurial business ventures in retirement, Mars Hill is adding another accomplishment to his varied resume: published novelist.

Nothing about the genesis of "The Moaner's Bench,'' however, a coming-of-age story about a black boy in Depression-era Arkansas, being published in September, went according to the script for the Albany man.

"I had always dreamed about writing a great play and getting it produced on Broadway,'' said Hill, well-known in the Capital Region as a playwright and guiding force behind a local theater group, the Black Experience Ensemble.

In fact, Hill had his heart set on a playwriting workshop in 1987 during the summer Writers Institute he attended at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. But the playwriting unit was filled, and Hill was placed in the fiction section with novelist Russell Banks.

"I said I wasn't interested in writing fiction,'' Hill recalled.

He was told that Banks author of the acclaimed novels "Continental Drift,'' "The Sweet Hereafter'' and "Cloudsplitter'' was a fine teacher. Hill said he'd never heard of Banks. Hill became a reluctant fiction student anyway.

First assignment

The first assignment was to write five different openings to a novel of five pages each. Due tomorrow. "I thought, is this Banks fellow crazy?'' Hill recalled.

He struggled, recycled some old material, and more or less completed the assignment. Banks and the other students then critiqued the five openings and the group voted on the one they thought best, the one Hill should continue for the workshop.

"I kept saying I wanted to write the one about the railroad, and Banks and the others said my best was the opening for 'The Moaner's Bench,' said Hill, who finally relented and accepted the teacher's advice.

In Banks a white novelist who has probed black-white relations and race in America perhaps more deeply than any other novelist of his generation the African-American writer and social activist Hill found a mentor.

"Banks turned out to be right,'' Hill said. "He was very encouraging and got this book going for me.''

But real life got in the way of the novel about the segregated South of the '20s and '30s, begun that summer of 1987. The opening chapter of "The Moaner's Bench'' sat on a shelf in Hill's third-story attic writing space in his Pine Hills home for years as he got on with the present.

Trying new things

Retiring in 1983 after a 25-year career as an engineer in the bridge unit of state transportation, Hill tried a succession of start-ups. He was a partner in a fledgling short-line railroad, opened a store of art objects imported from the Caribbean and ran a construction company.

"I've never been afraid to try new things,'' Hill said. None of the ventures lasted long or struck gold for Hill and his wife, Alvania, a retired teacher at Arbor Hill Elementary School.

He kept writing plays, which now number in the dozens. He also began coursework for a Ph.D. program in humanistic studies at the University at Albany. He returned to "The Moaner's Bench'' as part of his Ph.D. dissertation and chipped away at the manuscript over the years.

Each morning, Hill trudged up four flights of stairs in the back of their elegant Greek Revival home. At the top landing, Hill ducked slightly under the attic doorway. His tall frame is topped with a leonine head and a cloud of white hair that ends in soft cascades of dreadlocks at the shoulder.

Each morning, he cleared a space at the desk amid unruly piles of papers and books and Jet magazines and went to work beneath posters of Malcolm X and Gandhi. Hill trained his eyes on a computer monitor and tried to conjure the Arkansas he knew as a boy.

"Mars has always had a lot of discipline and has been able to accomplish any goal when he sets his mind to it,'' his wife said. "He'd go up to that attic to write like he was going to a job every morning.''

Starting out

It took nearly a decade of fits and starts for Hill to complete the manuscript of "The Moaner's Bench.'' In 1996, he decided it was ready to send out to publishers. Only he did not have a literary agent and he had never published a novel.

He sought out the advice of William Kennedy and the writer Peter Burchard, of Williamstown, Mass., both of whom gave Hill contacts. Retired UAlbany English professors and novelists Gene Garber and Gene Mirabelli also read Hill's manuscript and gave him their critiques.

Hill continued to rewrite the novel with criticism from other aspiring local authors in a fiction writers workshop of the Hudson Valley Writers Guild.

He sent out 10 unsolicited query letters to major publishers. He got one mixed up, though, so that inside the envelope addressed to HarperCollins was a letter with the name of a Morrow editor. The fluky clerical error was just the break Hill needed.

Hill's letter languished in the stack of unsolicited queries known as "the slush pile'' until it caught the attention of a HarperCollins editor intrigued by the address error.

Up from the slush pile Hill's letter rose, phoenix-like, against all odds. A HarperCollins editor contacted him and asked to see the manuscript.

Hill, leaning back in his battered desk chair recently, sipped pineapple-orange juice and paused for effect in his molasses-paced, husky-voiced narrative.

The editor, he said, called a few days later, breathless. "Did you sell it yet?''

Hill said he had not. "I'll be up on the train to Albany tomorrow morning with a contract,'' the editor said.

Celebration

The strands of Hill's serendipitous tale came together this spring aboard a river cruise on the Hudson. His wife threw the party for about 200 friends and family to celebrate the book contract and her husband's Ph.D. and UAlbany graduation.

"It was a great party to celebrate Mars' achievements and our family was very proud,'' his wife said. Their only child, a son, Joffrey, and his wife, Vernita, of Plainfield, N.J., both attorneys, attended with their children, Imani, 7, and Kieara, 6 months.

"The story behind the book is amazing,'' said Betsy Areddy, senior publicist with HarperCollins.

"The Moaner's Bench'' ($24) will go on sale nationwide in late September under the HarperCollins literary imprint, HarperFlamingo, the imprint for best-sellers Barbara Kingsolver, Isabel Allende and Louise Erdrich.

Hill was given an advance double the average amount paid for a first novel, he was told, but neither the author nor the publisher would reveal the figure. The size of the first printing has not been set yet, Areddy said, but a national marketing campaign is planned as well as an author's tour to Chicago, New York and Arkansas.

He'll return to Pine Bluff, Ark., where Mars Hill III was born in the forest lands about 30 miles from Little Rock. Two siblings died young and seven survived, five girls and two boys. Hill's father was a merchant who ran a grocery store.

"We were never slaves. My ancestors were free people,'' Hill said. "We were in the forest, where timber was big business. My grandfather owned 1,000 acres of land and gave property to each of his children when they got married. We weren't cotton farmers in the river bottom land. My childhood wasn't Richard Wright's story.''

Hill's father died of complications from diabetes when Mars was 11 and the boy was placed in the care of a rich uncle.

"He was a disciplinarian, a real Southern Baptist,'' Hill said. "He drilled into me duty, religion and work. My life became a Bildungsroman.''

A life in fiction

It's that life Hill fictionalizes in "The Moaner's Bench,'' told in the voice of a boy much like himself looking back to the fire-and-brimstone rearing by Uncle Pet.

The title comes from the term in the Southern Baptist tradition where sinners must kneel until the spirit moves them to admit wrongdoing, leaving them open to redemption.

"Oh, sure, I spent some time on the moaner's bench as a boy in Pine Bluff,'' Hill said with a throaty laugh.

He said he hopes his book is about redemption in metaphorical terms. "The racial problems in this country stem from the fact we don't admit slavery was wrong,'' Hill said.

"We can't get past that until we admit a crime was committed against a people,'' he said. "The country won't heal until we make that admission. That old racial baggage will pull us down until America does its time on the moaner's bench.''

Hill's vocal pattern shifts dramatically at this point, from a meandering river into the forceful torrent of a Baptist preacher. "We're going to keep getting situations like the Texas killing until we stop tap-dancing around slavery and face it as the cancer it was and is,'' Hill said. In the Texas case, a black man was dragged to his death behind a truck. The three white suspects in the case are believed to have ties to white supremacist groups.

Into the theater

After his father died, Hill's mother remarried and the seven kids were split up, with Hill and a sister going to Chicago to live with relatives. Hill was drafted as a teenager into the Army during World War II. He finished high school in Chicago after his discharge and later studied engineering at the University of Illinois.

Hill got a job with Boeing in Seattle, where he got involved in theater accidentally in the early '60s. "My wife went to the Y, where they were rehearsing 'Emperor Jones,' he recalled. "The director saw me and recruited me to play the engineer. I told him I was an engineer, not an actor. He kept after me and I finally said yes.''

Hill and his wife moved to Albany in the mid-'60s. Hill established the Black Experience Ensemble here shortly after he arrived.

Fact is often stranger than fiction, Hill has decided. Readers can decide for themselves when "The Moaner's Bench'' hits bookstores in the fall.

First published on Monday, June 22, 1998

Life & Leisure


Copyright 1998, Capital Newspapers Division
of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Mars Hill

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