Fil-Canadian thriller writer confesses she’s ‘the biggest chicken’ | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022


She does not belong in the shadows. With her expressive eyes, vibrant voice and bright smile, Jennifer Hillier stands out amid the many angles and corners of the Best Western Premier F1 Hotel in Taguig City.


But the shadows are a place Hillier, who is Canadian but born to Filipino parents, is familiar with. She has channeled darker human instincts into two popular thrillers, “Creep” and Freak.”


She’s in town as guest of National Book Store, and she’s giving local readers a chance to walk a bit on the dark side of the page. She tells her stories with gusto and detail. “Just hearing people call me a full-time writer, it’s crazy,” she says.  Getting there starts with freshly minted stories told at home.


Jennifer Lynn Pestaño Hillier’s father Roberto “Bob” Pestaño is a golf instructor in Cebu while her mother Nida is a retiree in Canada. She is the elder of two siblings.


Born in Ontario, she remembers that, growing up, she had a lot of books at home, but her father thought he could do better, so he made up his own stories for her bedtime.


“It turned into a bedtime ritual where he would sit with me and tell me the grandest of stories until I fell asleep,” she recalls. “I think I get my storytelling desire from him because he knew how to keep me engaged.”


Hillier wrote her first story at age 5, when she was in first grade; it was her scary version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” At the end of the tale, the queen dies a very painful death.


“My teacher was a little shocked, she went: ‘You got revenge on the evil queen, gold star but weird.’ I’ve been writing ever since.”


She then began crafting short stories throughout grade and high schools, and took up Mass Communications and Psychology at York University and the University of Waterloo.


Her writing, however, screeched to a halt when she was in her 20s.


“I thought, I don’t know if I’m any good at this and if I want to keep doing this,” she says, reflecting on how difficult it was to keep writing. So she stopped for 10 years, working in finance.


“I liked my job but I always felt there was something else for me out there.”


That something else came when her husband Steve got transferred to Seattle, Washington, in 2007.


“I jumped at it,” she remembers, thinking of the change in their lives. “I needed an excuse to leave this life and try something else.”


When she arrived in Seattle, she decided it was time to try writing again, and the Pacific Northwest gave her the gift of rediscovering words.


Because Homeland Security lost her paperwork, she could not be employed so Hillier found herself with ample time,  and this marked a return to writing.


“When I began writing  ‘Creep,’ I just had the feeling that I could just finish it, it might not be terrible,” she says; her husband proved very supportive.


Dangerous liaison


“Creep,” which first came out in 2010, revolves around a Seattle psychology professor Sheila Tao, who is secretly a sex addict and is having an affair with her teaching assistant Ethan Wolfe. But when Tao breaks up with Wolfe because she is getting married, the body of a student is found and Wolfe turns out to be far more dangerous than Tao expected.



When Wolfe carries out his perverted plans, it becomes a race against time to somehow save Tao and stop a murdering psychopath.


Full of dark details and sharp, edgy scenes, “Creep” is a page-turner dripping with rather graphic sex and violence.


A claustrophobic reading experience, it grips and disturbs because the characters feel real, as does the danger.


Her first scene alone was rewritten 50 times. “I had a dream about ‘Creep’ and I hate saying that because it’s a cliché but it’s true. I dreamt about the villain, I dreamt about Ethan being this very personable, very bright, very good-looking college student who happens to masquerade as a serial killer. I thought that’s interesting because he’s so young and he’s on campus every day. Imagine what he has access to.”


What she thought was going to be a short story turned out to be a novel. Sheila Tao, originally a minor character, grew into interesting dimensions.


“Creep” sets up the tension well, then plunges into a furiously frightening ending.


It took her 14 months to write “Creep” and she found an agent shortly afterwards. From the working title of “serial killer book,” she was inspired by the Radiohead song, and thus branded it “Creep” instead.


The manuscript was sent to  big publishing houses and she got three crushing rejection letters. “I felt terrible,” Hillier says.


Then, her agent got an offer from Simon & Schuster. Her novel finally creeped onto bookshelves and into the very competitive thriller book market.




With the success of “Creep,” Hillier had only seven months to write the sequel “Freak,” which came out in 2011. In this sequel, Wolfe’s girlfriend, the out-of-control Abby Maddox, is behind bars but police may need her help because someone is staging copycat murders of the ones Wolfe was accused of.


Now even Jerry Isaac, the private investigator badly wounded in “Creep,” must return to try and solve this new wave of deaths.


Hillier describes her time finishing “Freak” as a very stressful because she didn’t have the luxury of time like she did with “Creep.” She still wishes she had a couple of more months to polish “Freak.”


Nevertheless, “Freak” has also proven to be popular and Hillier has begun attracting a following for the dark places she visits.


There have even been a few calls about adapting “Creep” for the screen and Hillier is keeping her fingers crossed for a mini-series, TV show or even a movie. She hopes Ryan Gosling stars as Ethan Wolfe.


Despite the darkness in her work, Hillier admits to being “the biggest chicken”—she’s afraid of practically everything: walking on see-through stairs or subway grates, heights, spiders and porcelain dolls.


“I believe everyone’s a serial killer. I have all these fears, and I think I manage them by writing about them.”


To Toronto


Like her characters, Hillier lives an eventful life.


In December  2011, she and her husband moved to Toronto—with apprehension. It was then that she got the tattoo on her left arm, a quote from “Let it Be” by the Beatles: “whisper words of wisdom.”


She wasn’t sure she would be ready but she’s settled in and returned to writing full-time, something Hillier welcomes. She works every day, getting up around 9 a.m. and working from four to 14 hours. “It’s because I’m afraid I won’t finish.”


Hillier works on long drafts. “My whole first drafts are written by fear,” she explains. “The key to a thriller is pacing, and it’s hard to get right.”


An admirer of the work of Stephen King, Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain, Hillier describes herself as being girly, loves manicures, listening to music and hanging out with friends and her three cats. “I’m a huge chocolate fan and I’m always looking for a new chocolate to try.”


In the long term, she sees a lot of work ahead of her. “I actually have written my own obituary, as a writing exercise, and it said, ‘deceased at age 90 of natural causes—no one murdered me—author of 20 best-selling novels. My next goal is to sell my third book, then my fourth and my fifth.”


A big part of Hillier’s creative process is simply meeting and asking questions of new people. “I’m always interested in what motivates people.”


Despite the return to Canada, she will continue to write about the Seattle area. “It just speaks to me, there is something about the place that just makes me feel creative,” she says.


Though she misses working on short fiction, Hillier is at work on her next novel, also set in the same universe as “Creep” and “Freak.”


She won’t be working during her visit here—only her second ever—and she’ll be at the Manila International Bookfair on Sept. 16  as National’s guest.


In the meantime, she’ll visit her father in Cebu, going to the beach and enjoying the mangoes. “We have mangoes in Canada, but there’s just no comparison.”


There’s more than fruit to be found here. Hillier is always brimming with ideas, including perhaps a prequel to “Creep,” but she might just have a great idea away from Seattle.


“I think I would like to set a book in Manila,” she says. “I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last couple of days. I think that would be kind of neat.”


Then she pauses and asks rather seriously, “Do you think people will be offended if I kill Filipinos in my book because I’m not a citizen?”


Assured that it would be fine as long as it’s fictional, Jennifer Hillier absorbs this particular idea and begins thinking up another scary story to tell.