The average author may not live to see an original work garner any recognition – no awards, international translations or on-screen adaptations. Former Oklahoman and author Hillary Jordan, however, accomplished all that and more … on her first try.
Jordan, born in Dallas, spent many of her formative years in Muskogee – an upbringing that influenced the characters and setting of her debut novel, Mudbound. The book, along with winning a bevy of literary awards, was adapted for the silver screen in 2017 with a stellar cast, including Carey Mulligan and Mary J. Blige. The film has been nominated for four Academy Awards, including best adapted screenplay and best supporting actress (Blige). The awards are March 4.
It seems obvious that Jordan was born to tell stories, but it took her awhile to embrace the calling. After graduating from Wellesley College, she spent 15 years as a copywriter before experiencing what she describes as a “personal insurrection,” when she decided to pursue writing full time. That insurrection was well worth it; during her rigorous master of fine arts program at Columbia University, Mudbound was born.
“It took me six years and 11 full drafts and was finally published in 2008,” she says.
The novel, set in the 1940s, tells the story of two families – one white, the McAllans, and one black, the Jacksons – living on a desolate farm in the Mississippi Delta during World War II. The McAllans own the farm while the Jacksons work it. Harrowing racism, unlikely friendships, the horrors of war and dangerous romance combine to create a compelling narrative, pieced together through both intensive research and familial anecdotes.
“Mudbound was inspired by stories I heard growing up about my grandparents’ farm, which was in Lake Village, Arkansas. It was a primitive place, an unpainted shotgun shack with no electricity, running water or telephone,” Jordan says. “They named it ‘Mudbound’ because whenever it rained, the roads would flood and they’d be stranded for days.”
Tackling such a heavy subject matter could make for a depressing journey, but Jordan’s addition of an inter-racial friendship between the story’s two war veterans – Jamie McAllan and Ronsel Jackson – adds a glimmer of hope that Jordan finds almost requisite in today’s politically charged atmosphere.
“Both the book and film portray the cruelty and insanity of racism, but they also offer, in the friendship between Jamie and Ronsel, a hopeful vision of where we might go if we can overcome prejudice and recognize our common humanity,” she says. “It’s a message that I think is desperately needed right now.”
Book-to-screen adaptations sometimes disappoint, with bad casting and an unfaithful retelling, but Jordan says the film’s director, Dee Rees, did just the opposite.
“I was a little nervous initially – I know very few authors who like their adaptations, but Dee did a fantastic job of bringing my story to life,” she says. “A riveting script, superb acting, gorgeous cinematography, four Oscar nominations … who gets this?”
Jordan lives in Brooklyn and is concurrently working on a sequel to Mudbound and adaptations of her other works, Aftermirth and When She Woke. Visit hillaryjordan.com for more.