creative:impact – Whether playwright or novelist, Hilary


Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich

Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Hilary U. Cohen

Hilary U. Cohen



Hilary U. Cohen

With A Turquoise Grave, Hilary Cohen embarks on mystery writing for the first time in a long career in the arts. She has worked in the theater as an actor, director, and playwright for more than 40 years, largely in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She has also published widely, writing about the arts and travel for numerous professional journals, magazines, and blogs. She is a passionate sailor and combined her love of storytelling, travel, and sailing in a piece she wrote for the New York Times Travel Section in 2017, the combination a hint of the mystery novel to come.

The seeds for A Turquoise Grave were actually planted many years ago. For decades, Hilary and her husband, Michael, explored the remote waters of St. Vincent and the Grenadines in the southern Caribbean by sailboat, combing its bays, and coves, and villages, when it occurred to her what a perfect setting this tiny island chain would be for a mystery.

Hilary felt she could combine her unique set of qualities in this new endeavor. From her years of playwrighting and working with actors and playwrights as a director in the theater, for Ann Arbor’s Wild Swan Theater as well as the University of Michigan’s Residential College and the Theater Department, she knew about developing characters, scenes, and plots. From her decades of sailing, she knew the milieu for her setting. And from her twenty years as a faculty member at the University of Michigan as well as Wild Swan projects involving other cultures as well as those with historical settings, she knew about the rigors of research.

The research proved to be fascinating, an unexpected pleasure. With her network of contacts built over the decades of visits to the Grenadines, 18 sailing trips in all, she was able to interview dozens of people on the various islands that make up the Grenadines chain: shopkeepers, bar and restaurant proprietors, taxi drivers, faith and holistic healers, market vendors, police detectives, innkeepers, lawyers. She studied the legal and political systems, court documents, and the unfolding political environment for building the new airport as well as its international political ramifications. She received permission to visit and was guided through several of the capital of St. Vincent’s key buildings: the Milton Cato Hospital, the High Court, the office of the Chief of Police, the city jail – the morgue.

Although the Grenadines are her first love, Hilary’s sailing adventures to other world destinations are part of the reservoir of experience that helped provide her with a strong seafaring background for A Turquoise Grave. For example, she has crisscrossed the Mediterranean back and forth between Turkey and Greece in an old, banged-up charter boat practically held together with duct tape, and sailed the Pacific from Tahiti to Hawaii in a 60-foot former round-the-world racer.

With A Turquoise Grave, Hilary is excited to start this new chapter in her story making career.


Wild Swan Theater

Hilary U. Cohen

About Hilary U. Cohen

Hilary U. Cohen Blog

“A Turquoise Grave” by Hilary U. Cohen


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I’m Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw and your host. Every Tuesday, creative:impact introduces us to the artists, creative people, businesses and organizations that add so much to Washtenaw County’s quality of life, place and the economy. Thanks for tuning in. Hilary Cohen is a familiar face to generations in our area. For more than 40 years, Hilary and her creative partner, Sandy Ryder, were the team behind Wild Swan Theater, a family theater company that entertained and enthralled audiences of all ages. Hilary has been on creative:impact with Sandy a couple of times. The last time was when they were here announcing the retirement or the closing of Wild Swan Theater. But we still completely miss that program. But we’re glad to know that Hilary’s back in another kind of incarnation. You know, because creative energy doesn’t evaporate, and Hilary’s moving on to the next thing, the next chapter, in her life. So, we’re here to hear about it. Hilary, welcome back to creative:impact.

Wild Swan Theater

Wild Swan Theater



Sandy Ryder (L) and Hilary Cohen, co-founders of the Wild Swan Theater.

Hilary Cohen: Thank you so much. I’m really delighted to be here.

Deb Polich: And we’re always delighted to have you on the air with us. So, playwright, actor, director are roles that we’re all familiar with in your regard. And, although, people may not recognize this about you, you’re also and have been a travel and arts writer. And you’ve been published widely for years, right?

Hilary Cohen: That’s true. I have been writing all the time I’ve been working with Wild Swan.

Deb Polich: And the fact that you’re also an accomplished sailor who sailed the world, right, and explored particularly the southern Caribbean region. Correct?

Hilary Cohen: Yup. Yup.

Deb Polich: And now you’ve found a way to bring all this together, all these talents and interest in your first novel, “A Turquoise Grave.” Tell us about it.

Hilary Cohen: Well, this has been such a pleasure. I’m so glad to have a chance to talk about it. “A Turquoise Grave” is a mystery novel, and it’s set in the southern Caribbean in these beautiful little islands called Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. They’re a very remote, tiny chain of islands that I’ve actually sailed in many, many times. And after sailing there a bunch of times, it occurred to me this is a beautiful place to set a novel and particularly a mystery novel. So, that’s what I’m doing. And, as you say, I’m bringing together a lot of things at once that I love. I love sailing. I love writing. And, in a way, this is related to something I’ve always done. I’ve always been a storyteller, a story maker. And this is a different opportunity, a different way, of doing what I’ve always done. So, hopefully, tell a very good story.

Deb Polich: Was the novel always lurking in there somewhere, or is this kind of a new thing that you found time for after Wild Swan closed its doors?

Hilary Cohen: Well, it’s a little bit of the latter, I would say. I would say I was always thinking about how to make good stories. And I do like reading mysteries. But just making–writing–a mystery, this is the first time I’ve done such a thing.

Deb Polich: And so, okay. You mentioned being a storyteller. Is there a difference between scriptwriting and novel writing and being a novelist?

Hilary Cohen: Yeah. You know, I think about that a lot, Deb, It’s a great question because, yes, when you’re writing a script, you’re always writing in the present tense. And what you’re focusing on is the dialog and the scenes. And when you’re writing a novel, you can write much more descriptively. And there’s less dialog and more of all of the big picture. And you can bring in a lot more things like the setting. And that was something I really wanted to do in this mystery novel. The mystery, yes, but also the location. I wanted to bring people to this beautiful set of islands.

Happy Island as afternoon begins to ebb

Hilary U. Cohen



Happy Island as afternoon begins to ebb

Deb Polich: So, character development–kind of the same. But everything else that surrounds it and the depth of those characters are different. I’m really curious. Why a murder mystery?

Hilary Cohen: Oh, yeah. You know, I love the form. I think a lot of people do. I think it’s really fun. That’s one thing. It’s really fun. And I like the puzzle of it. I like the challenge of seeing if I could figure out how to plot it. I thought the plotting was really interesting and then how to figure out a bunch of really good characters that you’re drawn to. But one of them is the culprit. How do you do that? So, I like that part of it, too.

Deb Polich: Well, I’ll have to ask you. You know, they say you should write about what you know. So it doesn’t sound like you know much about being an actual murderer or bad, let’s hope or even being a culprit. So, how did you get inside those heads?

Hilary Cohen: Well, that, I think, goes back to my theater background. When you’re creating plays, creating characters, you have to all the time. That’s what you’re doing all the time. You’re saying, “What if?” What if you were in this situation? What if you encountered this? And that’s what people in the theater are always doing. So, I use that set of techniques for the creation of the characters and of the plotting. Okay, so this is the circumstances. Now start to think, “What if?” What would happen? What’s next, given what you’ve sort of set in motion?

Deb Polich: 89-1 WEMU’s creative:impact continues. I’m Deb Polich. And my guest is Hilary Cohen, playwright turned novelist whose first murder mystery, “A Turquoise Grave,” is now available in bookstores. So, one more question about characters. You know, there’s lots of people in your book, but I find that the island and the island lifestyle with all the boats that connect this necklace of landmasses is also a character of sorts. Do you think of it that way?

Hilary Cohen: Yes. Yes, absolutely. I’m glad you asked that, because these islands are very charming. They’re very sweet. They’re super simple, but they’re really lovely. And several of these islands each have their own personality. And I was hoping in the writing that I could convey something of that: that you just feel settled in this place through the writing. The lovely villages, the market vendors, the warmth of the people who live there and their generosity. So, yes, absolutely.

Water taxi "The Blessing"

Hilary U. Cohen



Water taxi “The Blessing”

Deb Polich: So, there’s, you know, the story, the characters, the setting and all of that. But there’s also the business of publishing, and that’s changed a lot over the last year or few years. You know, and there’s still publishing houses and agents and big book deals. But self-publishing is possible. Yours is the third book in the last three weeks that I have purchased that have been written by friends. And I think that it’s really cool for me to read these books that are both enjoyable, but also because I kind of get this inside glimpse of the people that I know and this kind of talent. So, for you as an author, what are the pluses or minuses of self-publishing?

Hilary Cohen: Well, I had to learn a lot. It was a steep learning curve, I would say. And then, there were some things that were figuring out how do you…all that the business side of it. But it meant that you could go faster in bringing the book to the readers. And that really mattered to me to get on with that part, to reach readers. Because….I guess, again, because I’m a theater person, I really wanted to connect with my audience, to connect with my readers. And so, that was a real plus of self-publishing. Also, there’s parts of it that sometimes get taken out of your hand if you’re not self-publishing.

Deb Polich: Okay.

Hilary Cohen: I think…I hope you like the book cover that I created for “A Turquoise Grave.”

Deb Polich: Oh, it’s beautiful.

Hilary Cohen: Thank you. I could work with my own graphic designer, Mike Savitski, who’s a wonderful local graphic designer. And I’d worked with him a long time. And so, I went to Mike and I said, “Can you work with me on this?” We had such a nice time. And for those of you who are listening, if you have a chance to look at the cover of “A Turquoise Grave” and you feel right away what this book is about through the cover. And I thought I had a lot of control by doing it myself.

Deb Polich: And we’ll have pictures of that up on the Web. So, tell me in our last minute here, as a self-publish publisher, what do you use as your measure of success?

Hilary Cohen: How many readers I can reach and the kind of contact that I can have with them. So, I guess there are some numbers, too. I hope that I’m going to reach a large number of readers, but I’m already hearing from so many people who are reading the novel in a very enthusiastic way. And I also have a nice website, which is a helpful way for people to connect to me and get a taste of what this world is about. So, I feel like I have this kind of connection with my readers that is important to me and that I can have this really lovely dialog. And people are asking me a lot of questions about how I did this and about how I did the writing, what the novel itself is about, who these people are and how I thought about them. And that part I feel like I didn’t know I could have so much freedom to have such a lovely connection with my readers.

Twilight in Saltwhistle Bay.

Hilary U. Cohen



Twilight in Saltwhistle Bay.

Deb Polich: Well, you can certainly hear the excitement in your voice. Congrats on the book. And thanks for being with us today.

Hilary Cohen: Thank you very much for having me.

Deb Polich: That’s Hilary Cohen, playwright turned novelist, whose first murder mystery, “A Turquoise Grave,” is now out in paperback. Find out more about Hillary and her book at WEMU dot org. You’ve been listening to creative:impact. I’m Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. We invite you to join us every Tuesday to meet the people who make Washtenaw creative. This is 89-1 WEMU-FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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