Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier blends a murder, cover-up, and twisted relationships. Through manipulated lives, prison hardships, abuse, friendship, and wrecked futures readers understand how someone’s life can go so wrong.
The story centers on Georgina (Geo) Shaw, someone who had to deal with the grief of losing her mother and two best friends. But it appeared she overcame it, becoming a successful, thirty-year-old self-made executive at a Seattle pharmaceutical company. That is until she was arrested at a board meeting and charged with being an accomplice in Angela Wong’s murder, her high school best friend. She makes a plea deal, to testify against her former abusive boyfriend and the actual killer, Sweetbay Strangler, Calvin James. Not only did he choke Angela to death, but also killed three others. Georgina is sentenced to five years in prison for her role. After she is released from prison, new killings of mothers and their children start piling up, and Geo, unable to escape her past, is suspected of knowing something about the new murders.
It is a riveting story that readers will not want to put down. Just when people think they have the plot figured out Hillier throws a curve ball with an even more sinister and darker plot. Murder, lies, grief, obsession, guilt, friendship, and distorted love add up to make a gripping story.
Elise Cooper: How did you get the idea for the story?
Jennifer Hillier: It started with an article I read about the wife of a serial killer that was released from prison and re-invented her life. Karla Homolka was the wife of Paul Bernardo, a serial killer that murdered three young women back in the ’90s in Toronto. Karla testified against her husband in exchange for twelve years, which turned out to be a very lenient sentence once it was discovered what an instrumental role she played in helping Bernardo find his victims. Her sentence was not harsh because she claimed he was abusive and she became a victim of his as well. After serving her time she re-married, had children of her own, and became a PTA mom. For me this is just mind blowing.
EC: Do you think Geo was a sympathetic character?
JH: I want readers to be unsure if they liked, disliked, or are somewhere in between with Geo. After all she was only sixteen when her friend was murdered and she was scared of Calvin and scared about going to prison with a feeling that her life would be ruined. Because Angela was already dead she felt it would not matter if she came forward. As days went by it became harder and harder for her to get out of the lies. The secrets just pile up. How do you go back and undue all of that?
EC: Can you answer that question?
JH: Since no one specifically asked her she was hoping it would just go away. She basically learned how to compartmentalize. I do think she felt if someone had asked her that she would have told them and confessed. She became entrapped by her own secrets. Her moral code shut down and her survival mode took over. She did not think of the other consequences, that more women could die and Angela’s family would never have closure. I hope readers think what would they do if they were put in that position? I would have probably gone to the police.
EC: Did you have sympathy for Geo?
JH: She dealt with a lot of guilt after losing her mother, best friend, and her friend in prison. She also lost her innocence. What she wanted to do is to build a life even though it was filled with holes. I do think her grief is relatable to people since many of us have lost someone.
EC: You have a book quote, “In every story there is a hero and a villain, but sometimes one person can be both.” Please explain.
JH: Detective Kaiser Brody is the moral compass to remind us what is OK and what in not OK. Having a character like him is needed. He is probably the most upright of all the characters, but even he is not perfect and is a flawed person because he is having an affair with his partner who is married.
Angel Wong was bossy and moody. She was a ‘mean girl.’ If she chose to be your friend the light would shine on you, but when she was mad at you she was cold and would cut you off. She always thought of herself as the leading lady and that Geo rode shotgun in Angela’s life.
Calvin is a man-child. He is twenty-one to Geo’s sixteen, the older boy who Geo thought was cool and hot. He was certainly not good for her: abusive, manipulative, and someone who wanted to be in control. He is meant to be a bad guy through and through. But even he has a moment when he leans on Geo and breaks down. He also loved her in a creepy way.
Geo is someone I cannot say if she is a hero or a villain or both. I write in the book how Kaiser views her, that she goes through three versions to her life. As a teenager, she was sweet and wanted to succeed. After she met Calvin she became distracted, consumed, and selfish. The third version happened shortly before her arrest: successful, mature, and remorseful.
EC: Do you think Geo was able to re-invent herself?
JH: We are all an accumulation of all of our mistakes and life lessons. She tried to use the reset button many times.
EC: This is not a black and white story?
JH: There are a lot of blurry lines. Everything changes from chapter to chapter. When I read a thriller, I do not always know how I feel about a character. Geo is the most interesting I have ever written. I wondered about the real-life Karla and Geo, what would have happened to them if they never met their boyfriends. Would they have turned out differently? When writing thrillers, I concentrate on the dark side of human nature.
EC: Calvin and Geo had an abusive relationship?
JH: He picked Geo because he thought he could control her. At the initial meeting, he sized up Angela and Geo because he knew that Angela would not take his abuse. She would have walked and told people.
EC: There was also rape in the story?
JH: I tried to imagine the impact rape would have on someone’s life. It is more than just the physicality of it. There is the violation and dominance that makes someone feel inconsequential and insignificant. The body might heal, but the spirit would be affected forever. I put in the book quote, ‘Taking something he wanted that she didn’t want to give. Taking the best parts of a person and leaving the empty shell behind.’
EC: The jar of cinnamon hearts had some sort of symbolism?
JH: It is a gift that is not a gift. Calvin is the only one that eats the hearts. It is a gift she did not want, an empty gesture. The symbolism is that the jar became empty because what Calvin gave her he also took away. It is a metaphor for their relationship. His attitude, ‘I am not going to give you what you really want, but what I want to give you, and then I will take it back.’ By the time the jar was empty, she was empty, left with only the guilt.
EC: Did you do any research for the prison scenes?
JH: For years I was obsessed with the TV show Lock Up. I spent a day taking a tour of a correction facility for women outside Seattle to see how they lived and interacted. It has its own world that can be very bleak and monotonous. I think I would be like Geo and adapt to the situation because we are both scrappy. Just as she did I would make friends with the right people. I also talked with someone who used to work in corrections. She told me how manipulative inmates are, many deviate and evil. Given the right circumstances it could bring out the worst in people.
EC: Can you give a heads up about your next book?
JH: It will be another stand-alone thriller that explores a bad marriage. It is about two years away.
Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier (Goodreads Author)
When she was sixteen years old, Angela Wong—one of the most popular girls in school—disappeared without a trace. Nobody ever suspected that her best friend, Georgina Shaw, now an executive and rising star at her Seattle pharmaceutical company, was involved in any way. Certainly not Kaiser Brody, who was close with both girls back in high school.
But fourteen years later, Angela Wong’s remains are discovered in the woods near Geo’s childhood home. And Kaiser—now a detective with Seattle PD—finally learns the truth: Angela was a victim of Calvin James. The same Calvin James who murdered at least three other women.
To the authorities, Calvin is a serial killer. But to Geo, he’s something else entirely. Back in high school, Calvin was Geo’s first love. Turbulent and often volatile, their relationship bordered on obsession from the moment they met right up until the night Angela was killed.
For fourteen years, Geo knew what happened to Angela and told no one. For fourteen years, she carried the secret of Angela’s death until Geo was arrested and sent to prison.
While everyone thinks they finally know the truth, there are dark secrets buried deep. And what happened that fateful night is more complex and more chilling than anyone really knows. Now the obsessive past catches up with the deadly present when new bodies begin to turn up, killed in the exact same manner as Angela Wong.
How far will someone go to bury her secrets and hide her grief? How long can you get away with a lie? How long can you live with it?
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