Interview with Lilian Duval, author of 'You Never Know'

Lilian Duval has been fascinated with lottery winners for years, and they’re the inspiration for her intriguing novel You Never Know, which explores how an ordinary man copes with terrible luck, and later, amazing luck, when he wins the Mega-Millions lottery. Her story collection, Random Acts of Kindness, will be published in 2012.

Lilian and her husband are both survivors of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. They live in a small house in New Jersey overlooking a large county park. She’s an amateur classical guitarist and enjoys attending concerts, plays, and movies in New York City.

You can visit her website at or follow her at Twitter at!/lilianduval and Facebook at

Thank you for this interview, Lilian. Can you tell us what your latest book, You Never Know: Tales of Tobias, an Accidental Lottery Winner, is all about?
Tobias Hillyer had a promising future until a car accident claimed the lives of his parents. Abandoning his dreams, he dropped out of college to take care of his orphaned, brain-damaged younger brother. Now in his late thirties, Tobias struggles to provide for his family, working dead-end jobs that fall far short of the academic career he had imagined.

Then he wins the New Jersey Mega-Millions! His financial worries eliminated, Tobias anticipates nothing but smooth sailing ahead for himself and the people he loves. But he soon finds that his amazing stroke of luck may threaten everything he holds dear.

Over peaks and valleys, this uplifting journey challenges everything we think we know about luck, life, and what we value most.

Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
The main character, Tobias Hillyer, is tested with a tragic car accident that claims the lives of his parents and leaves his younger brother, Simeon, brain-damaged. This turn of events alters his life, but he perseveres despite the harsh reality.

After Tobias becomes an instant multi-millionaire, his troubles are far from over. Instead, a whole new set of problems confront him: family secrets, a strained marriage, broken friendships, and even a kidnapping. He must learn to readjust to his enormous stroke of luck, and quickly.

Carmela Liston: During regular hospital visits in support of Simeon’s recovery, Tobias befriends Carmela, an outstanding psychiatric nurse who is deeply devoted to Simeon’s case. Observing her tenderness and love for his ill-fated brother, Tobias falls in love with her, and eventually the two marry and start a family of their own.

Martin Scanlon: Tobias has a supportive yet competitive relationship with his best friend, Martin. A good-spirited man, Tobias endures surges of insecurity when he feels the need to outperform Martin, his old college roommate, who was able to finish school and pursue the ambitions they once shared.

Simeon Hillyer: The true gravitational center of the book is found in the complex, tragic, and ultimately triumphant figure of Simeon, who gradually emerges from the shadowland of his head injury and reclaims his artistic legacy. Simeon surfaces as the unexpected hero by realizing his own happiness and success. As he departs the nest to embark on his life journey, Simeon leaves behind a gift that brings his family full circle and finally grants Tobias inner peace.

Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
Both. The four main characters in this novel are all completely original. But if the author is hiding inside a character, it’s most likely Tobias; events that took place when I was his age at the beginning of the book changed my life forever.

One fleeting character in the book is based on a real person, an acquaintance from a few years ago who was always boasting about not owning a television. This trait was so irksome that I incorporated it into an annoying customer in my fictional bookstore, the Book Trove.

Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
Yes, absolutely. I plotted the main action of You Never Know before writing the first chapter. The elements were Tobias’s back story, his lottery win, and life as a newly wealthy man.

Most of the side plots came into being as I developed the characters and wrote each chapter.

Your book is set in Woodrock, New Jersey. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
This fictional suburban town is an amalgam of the actual New Jersey towns of Ridgewood and Glen Rock, with some creative frills added. Like many other writers, I enjoy the irony afforded by fiction set in the suburbs: these towns seem to be safe places where the characters can feel at home; and yet, dangers lurk in every corner, and even within the characters themselves.

Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
Very much so. In the beginning, the town of Woodrock is a trap. Tobias had returned home for a visit from college, only to end up living there for many years following the accident that killed his parents and injured his brother. A Woodrock bookstore, the Book Trove, offered Tobias his first job, and was his only means of support for many years. Tobias’s wife is a nurse in a Woodrock hospital, and his children are born there. Woodrock is the place where Simeon begins recovering from his injury. Woodrock’s proximity to New York City during the terrorist attacks of 2001 underscores its vulnerability.

Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
In the presence of their closest friends, Martin and Valerie, Carmela has just presented Tobias with a surprise: five tickets to the U.S. Open tennis competition in Flushing Meadows, Queens. An ardent amateur tennis player, Tobias is elated. It’s the first time since the traumatic accident that he overcomes his gloom: “He got up and pulled her out of her chair, hugging her and swaying with her. She had never before seen a smile of pure joy on his face.”

Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
[In the following excerpt, the newly wealthy family is returning home from a 6-star resort in Hawaii:]

Tobias, disliking contrived magic, cannot wait to leave a paradise that he did not earn, populated by tourists who don’t mingle, served by members of a working class trained to treat visitors like deities. He’s not sure about the math, but he guesses that the total cost of goods and services for one day in this resort would be enough to pay for a hundred new schools in some impoverished country. He keeps this cliché to himself, gives generous tips to their butler and chef, and gratefully escorts his family to the airport.

They fly home in business class to dirty old New York, where the people are rude, the streets are crowded, the weather is atrocious, and magic arises of its own accord, from ordinary people doing small, unexpected things.

Thank you so much for this interview, Lilian. We wish you much success!
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