Kathy Hepinstall





UT Radio TV Film - Master's Degree in Composition and Rhetoric

Oprah's show and book club may be over, but writer Kathy Hepinstall isn't giving up on getting her "call" from the talk show host. She's set up scavenger hunts near Oprah's home and taken out ads in the local paper. Her goal: that fateful moment when Oprah calls to voice her approval; something Kathy describes as " like being gently poked in the back by a unicorn while you were taking out the trash."

That anecdote is a nice introduction into the passion and imagination Kathy brings to her work. Drawn by the creativity and people, Kathy started her career as a copywriter. Then, after working at several L.A. agencies, she went out on her own and freelanced for several years, during which time she wrote her first two novels. Her third novel, "Prince of Lost Places", has been optioned as a movie, along with her book "The House of Gentle Men".

Be ferocious in gaining knowledge and honing your craft.

How did you discover your current job?

Well, I really have two -- as an advertising writer and novelist. Advertising writing came first. I took a portfolio class in college and loved the creativity and the people. As for writing, it began early in the form of poetry. My mother dutifully cried. Later, I wrote short stories, and after a few years in advertising, the thought began to grow that it was time to write a novel. I moved to Austin, Texas and spent a lot of time holed up in my house, learning that skill, while continuing to work freelance in advertising.

What does your typical workday look like?

I work on a project basis for advertising agencies and write and promote my books. Often, in advertising, I write remotely. I work from home, in an environment as quiet as possible, and usually write very intensely in relatively short amounts of time. The same goes for writing novels. I still write novels from home, though I do enjoy writing in different locales -- I worked on one novel in Mexico, another on Sanibel Island.

We heard you pulled a stunt to get attention from Oprah for your historical novel, “Blue Asylum." Can you tell us more about that?

For many years, a call from Oprah had an almost mystical significance. It meant that a writer was accepted into her book club, and no matter how obscure they were before, they would now be making an immediate leap onto the bestseller list. It was like being gently poked in the back by a unicorn while you were taking out the trash. That fateful meeting of magical and everyday. Of course, I never got the call. Now that Oprah no longer has a book club or a show, I still want the call. I still want that unicorn poke.

By happenstance, I moved to Santa Barbara a few years after she moved to Montecito, a mere six miles away. Then my new novel, "Blue Asylum", came out April 10. So many writers have flooded Oprah with books over the years. I wanted to do something different; something creative and playful that would give her, or whoever happened upon it, a laugh at the very least.

So I buried a copy of "Blue Asylum: in the foothills of Montecito and took an ad out in Oprah’s local paper, the Montecito Journal, with a map to the treasure, while instructing everyone but Oprah not to look at the map. No one dug up the book, but some thieving Montecito hiker stole the shovel I had left for her.

So I bought a safe from Home Depot and put another copy of "Blue Asylum" in it and took out another ad with the combination of the safe, but only Oprah was supposed to memorize it. We left the safe by the side of the road with an Oprah’s book sign. Within a day or two the whole set-up was gone. I don’t know if it was the work of the shovel thief or some roving gang of thieves, but there’s only one more thing to do -- take out ad No. 3, which will be my last, because I’m running out of money.

No word from Oprah yet, but a girl can dream.

What is the most rewarding aspect of writing novels?

I used to think I could teach the world a lesson: to learn how to be better. That was but the hubris of my youth. What I wish for now is a resonance, a recognition. And I like the parties when the book comes out. The generosity of friends. The joy, the tequila, the reunions. I also take joy in writing the books. That feeling of striking the right note as it happens, or reading back over what I’ve written.

What challenges keep you awake at night?

Both publishing and advertising have undergone sea changes in the past few years. Negotiating these changes; the desire not to just keep afloat but soar past the waterline into worlds unknown – this is the challenge and opportunity. But really, at the end of the day, you just need to ask yourself, "Was I kind? Was I surprising? Was I generous? Did I work hard? Was I young?" And if I accomplished all these things, I have to remember that I’m not responsible for the world’s response. And if I attempt to evoke magic from time to time, I must remember that magic lies not just in the reception, but in the act of creation.

Is work/life balance ever a problem with you? If so, what is one no-fail tactic you use to create balance?

Work and life balance is always a problem. It’s just the hours in the day thing. (I once tried to develop a 26 hour watch with a friend. It had two extra hours.)

A couple of things: I’m fascinated by books about maximizing energy, efficiency and brain function. And when I undertake a great task, like writing a novel, I assume that for a certain period of time there will not be a balance, at least not for me. Instead, there will be a sacrifice. And I’ll try to make the novel, or whatever it is, worthy of the sacrifice I’m making.

What is one lesson you've learned in your job that sticks with you?

To surprise people. People love to be surprised, for the most part. A generous surprise. Not filling their office with shaving cream. And not to be cynical. Cynicism is so easy and it makes a person seem brittle, like a beetle. Don’t be a beetle. Be a salamander. Or a meerkat or a panther.

Where – and how – do you find inspiration?

Among the young people. Those kids quivering with creativity and exuberance and longing. When they're in their early twenties and up for anything; scheming and plotting to get ahead. Some of the greatest ideas were hatched while someone was scheming and plotting and I never want to forget how to do it.

What are some of the rules you live by?

Use the word “unless” when you need to. It’s the great U-turn word of the universe. I’m going to have a bad day, unless (U-turn) it turns around and I have a great day. I’m going to die alone, clutching the paw of my neutered Burmese, unless (U-turn) I die instead in the arms of Oprah. I mean, the man I love.

Also, Matt Damon taught me a great lesson in "The Departed" when Mark Wahlberg was about to shoot him in the head. He put down his bag of groceries and he said, “Okay.” That’s it. “Okay.” And Mark Wahlberg shot him in the head and a great lesson was learned. Sometimes when something’s happened or going to happen that I can’t control, that’s what I say: okay.

What qualities does it take for someone to be successful as an author?

That is a really hard question to answer, because some people are successful that seem to have nothing but luck. I’m not saying that in a bitter way at all. More power to them and more power to the people who seem to enjoy their books. But if you don’t have luck, you have to write that book that no one else can write. (I stole this? Okay? I stole it.) You also have to market the heck out of your book. And I lied. Okay? I lied. You still need luck! Even if just having your massive talent is lucky.

What advice do you have for women who want your job?

Let’s take advertising first. Let me just say, welcome. Advertising loves women writers and wants more of them, especially women with power and surprise and humor in their work. So yes, welcome: read the award show books and keep up with the changing mediums. Advertising is still a great business for a woman and a springboard to so many other things -- screenplays, photography, directing, novel writing, etc.

And women writers: be ferocious in gaining knowledge and honing your craft. Know that there are still books being published and that you can still put your first sentence down one morning and see your book in print in the not so distant future. Know that each sentence in a novel is an advertisement for the next.

Where do you see yourself five years from now?

I hope to be kinder.

I hope to have more readership.

I have some other plans, more private.