Next Chapters: Hilary Isabelle Lahan

Having grown up in Singapore, Kenya, Taiwan, and Jordan, Hilary Lahan can tell you what it’s like to be a “third culture kid.” She also played percussion and steelpan in college ensembles and minored in ethnomusicology. Talk to her about teaching Zumba or dancing in parades!

Novel Incubator Year: 11 

Current Project: upmarket fiction about a Filipino-American cafe owner torn between lifelong loyalty to the community she serves and mounting pressure to run away with her secret lover, the town’s mayor.

Photo credit: Anne Acquaintance

What writers have most influenced your writing?

One of my childhood favorites was Anne of Green Gables. L. M. Montgomery and the world of Anne Shirley have greatly inspired my love for writing small, loving, emotionally complex communities.

In college, I was consumed by Beat poetry (I wrote a lot of experimental poetry). I was especially drawn to Joe Brainard, who actually arrived a little after the Beat Generation. In my current novel, I have a chapter that is loosely influenced by aspects of his I Remember.

Andrea Cohen is my favorite writer. Her poetry is stunning. Her shorter poems—my favorites—use simple language, yet they are so moving, surprising, and powerful. When I’m trying to compose an unexpected analogy or turn of phrase, I think, “How would Andrea Cohen do this?”

How have you changed as a writer from 10 years ago?

I’m still trying to do what I was trying to do 10 years ago—take eccentric characters who are a little sad and wrap them in a story that’s (hopefully) a little funny. In my current novel, there’s a Broadway has-been who tap dances on a frozen pond and an aimless art professor who insists on storing nude self-portraits in her friend’s kitchen.

But in 10 years, a lot has changed, too. Grief—more specifically, the experience of losing a mother—is at the root of much of my writing. And my relationship to and understanding of that grief have evolved over the years. These new perspectives have impacted all aspects of my novel.

I also spent many years without a writing community. Joining the Incubator changed everything. Receiving actual feedback! Having writer friends who “get” the joys and aches of our art! Feeling so supported by a group of unbelievable talent! It’s been a gift.

What’s your greatest struggle on the page? What would others say is your strength?

My struggle is I can be passive: passive plot, passive protagonist, passive voice… (Wow, my writing sounds fantastic!) A strength would be my secondary characters. They have arcs! They make actual decisions! They’re funny and bizarre! In my next book, my protagonist will be a secondary character.

What motivates you to get out of a writing rut?

Establishing a routine and not being overly precious about when/where/how much I write each day. When I’m in a rut, it’s often because I’m simply not writing. Then when I make time to write, I overthink about how little I’ve been writing. Then I decide I’m in a rut, and I stop writing. In that headspace, I know I need to get back to a routine. I try to write every morning before work. Sometimes it’s a productive two hours. Sometimes it’s 45 minutes spent Thesaurus-ing the word “sigh.” As long as I know I’ll be back the next morning, I can usually push through.

If you could ban one word or phrase from the language, what would it be?

I would ban the misuse of the word “I.”

“Send it to Jane and I,” they say.

I have no words. Actually, I have one: me.

Or a classic from The Bachelor franchise: “I feel confident about Adam and I’s relationship.”

That’s right! The Loch Ness Monster of the English language: the possessive I. It can’t be real, and yet…

Here’s a bonus: “I feel confident about him and I’s relationship.”

Him and I’s. HIM and I’s! This is a thing actual people say. But I also just admitted to watching The Bachelor, so who am I to judge?


Hilary Isabelle Lahan’s novel-in-progress, Pollen Mitt, was a 2023 Top Ten Finalist for Reese’s Book Club’s Lit Up Fellowship. In 2021-2022, she attended GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program as a Pauline Scheer Fellow. Previously, she graduated with honors in creative writing and literature from Wheaton College (Norton, MA), where she received the Helen Myers Tate Memorial Prize for Original Verse. For more information, visit

Next Chapters is a biweekly feature spotlighting graduates of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, which has been running since 2011.



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