Nancy HAYES Kilgore '65, Writer

While at Ellis, Nancy HAYES Kilgore ’65 fell in love with the books assigned to her in English class and realized she wanted to become a novelist. Her dream came true, and today Nancy is preparing to publish her third novel, Bitter Magic, later this summer. Now, along with being a writer, she works as a pastoral psychotherapist in Burlington, Vermont, and leads writing workshops for people to write and reflect on their own lives in a safe and welcoming space. 
Years at Ellis
Grade 10 to Grade 12
B.A., Columbia University; M.Div., Pittsburgh Theological Seminary; D.Min., Boston University School of Theology
Burlington, VT
Writer, Pastoral Counselor

How did you get into writing?
It was at Ellis! I loved the novels that were introduced in English class, and I immersed myself in them – George Elliot, Thomas Hardy, Tolstoy, the Brontés. I developed a secret desire to be a novelist. It was such a secret, though, that I hid it from myself. Being a writer was just not something you did, I thought. 

I had one English teacher I loved, Miss Hickman. She was quirky and kooky and completely opinionated. One day she told me I’d written the best essay she’d ever seen. I kept that comment in my secret memory box and pulled it out whenever I felt discouraged.

I didn’t think about becoming a writer until much later when, in my first church as an interim pastor, I began to write a story. For the first time, I had the luxury of a day to myself, completely alone and quiet, for working on sermons. Later, when I moved to Boston and started a doctorate in pastoral psychology, I suddenly realized that I could do an arts project instead of the research dissertation I was growing weary of. I turned my story into a novel and finished my degree.
Is there a project or accomplishment that you consider to be the most significant in your career?
When I finished that first draft of the novel, I’d never studied fiction writing, and an editor suggested I enroll in a fiction-writing class. I then spent two years in the Radcliffe Writing Seminars to rewrite it. After countless rewrites and revisions, many, many rejections, and ten more years, Sea Level was published. 

What do you love most about your job?
For many years, I’ve had two jobs – pastoral psychotherapist and writer. The two intersect and overlap. Psychotherapy is really about being with another person and hearing their story. The pastoral part means we can explore the spiritual, and there is always a spiritual dimension to our life stories. In novel-writing I try to include this dimension, whether as described in a funeral where the ancestors appear in Sea Level or in a character, like the mountain hermit who experiences the presence of the goddess in Wild Mountain. In my latest, Bitter Magic, inspired by Isobel Gowdie, a 17th century witch, the spiritual overlaps with the paranormal. Isobel visits the “otherworld” of fairies, sees the dead with her second sight, and flies through the night with her fairy lover. (These are all things that the real Isobel confessed to – I didn’t make them up!)
Can you recall a time in your life when you have been brave and bold?
Pushing past all the negative self-talk (what makes you think you can write? Who are you fooling? Put this away and never look at it again!) to write a novel. That took some guts.
What is your best memory of Ellis?
I was a Sewickley girl, so discovering and exploring Walnut Street and Squirrel Hill with my sophisticated Ellis Pittsburgh friends was so much fun. Tasting my first cheese blintz at the Jewish deli on Forbes Avenue was a delight!
We often talk about girls developing their voice at Ellis, what does that mean to you? How do you use your voice?
In writing we talk a lot about voice. Each writer has a unique voice, and the more that’s developed to be authentic, the more the reader is moved and her world is enlarged. Finding, developing, and trusting our own voice is an ongoing process, one that I’m still working on!
What is the last book you read?
I’m still immersing myself in novels and read at least one a week. A recent favorite was Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. It’s a delightful romp in a quirky adolescent voice, a classic treasure published in 1948 that I never heard about until this year. I recommend it to anyone, young or old.