Raised in Chicago, Illinois, Lily Clayton Hansen was born to creative parents and had a “bohemian” upbringing that encouraged artistic exploration. She majored in English at The University of Illinois at Chicago and landed several editorial positions thereafter writing about art and music. At the age of 25, she moved to Nashville, TN, where she continued to pursue writing, art and photography. She has contributed to publications such as Time Out Chicago, CS Chicago Social, CS Interiors, Luxe Interiors + Design, Nashville Scene, Native, Nashville Lifestyles, and Nashville Arts Magazine. Her newest book, Word of Mouth: Nashville Conversations is a captivating anthology of interviews with Nashville entrepreneurs, complemented by beautifully raw photography. 

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Southern writer Lily Clayton Hansen is an artist in all senses of the word. Image: Richard Sturtridge

Where did you grow up?

I am a pavement pounding, fast-talking and walking city kid after growing up in Chicago, Illinois.

How did that inform the nature of your work today?

Chicago is a city of straight shooters — you know where you stand, which is why I am so direct in my interviews. Beating around the bush certainly isn’t my gift. Also urban environments expose you to a great deal of diversity, which opened my mind from a very young age. When you see a lot as a child, you become accepting of most situations.

Lastly, Midwestern folks are very down-to-earth, which is why I treat all of my subjects with the same kindness and respect. As one put it, “The level of comfort Lily creates makes you feel as though you are talking to an old friend.” That’s exactly how I want all of my interviews to feel.

What’s your favorite way to spend a weekend in Nashville?

Truth be told, I am rather lazy on the weekends, however I love getting up early and starting my day with a 20-minute meditation. Next comes coffee, a healthy breakfast and walk around my neighborhood of downtown Nashville. Specifically on Church Street by the Nashville Public Library is great people watching — sometimes the variety of characters makes me feel as though I am back in Chicago. Grabbing a coffee or cocktail with a good friend at Pinewood Social is always a relaxing way to spend the afternoon. Pinewood is my neighborhood hang and where I wrote a great deal of my book. My absolute favorite thing to do on a sleepy weekend afternoon is grab my drawing supplies and cozy up at one of the great coffee shops in my area. In particular, at Crema or the Frothy Monkey on Fifth I can draw or write for hours and let loose.

Where do you find inspiration?

I really love listening to other people’s stories, which goes back to the household in which I was raised. This only child and her single mother were always having “how was your day?” conversations. My mom and her peers always talked tome as their equal—like another adult. 

I also believe that receptivity allows great ideas to walk in the backdoor. When I am feeling uninspired I tend to meditate and exercise more often. Like travel, they are great ways to unlock the gates of your imagination and get the creative juices flowing. Life really is a great adventure. Even the most mundane, or difficult, moments can be interesting if you allow them to be.

Tell us a bit about your current book, Word of Mouth: Nashville Conversations.

This coffee table book is a compilation of Q&A interviews and black & white portrait photography. The conversations, as I call them, focus on how a smorgasbord of creative types make a living doing what they love. As one subject, serial entrepreneur and Flo Thinkery founder Mark Montgomery said, “Nashville is a city of unicorns.” Like my idol George Plimpton, I wanted to create the “ideal conversation” with folks who applied their artistic abilities in a variety of ways. Like myself, all of these outliers were motivated by the word “no,” and didn’t let anyone stand in the way of their dreams. They used their rebelliousness to contribute to the community.

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Lily Hansen’s anthology Word of Mouth: Nashville Conversations is a forthright provocative dialogue with Music City’s most colorful personalities. Image: Facebook

What role does photography play in the anthology?

The text was inspired by the 1970s classic Studs Terkel’s Working, which I read several weeks before the idea for Word of Mouth popped into my brain. The entire time I was reading Terkel’s literary snapshots, I wished he had paired an image with his incredible stories. When I began visualizing what my book would look like, I knew that photography would play a huge part.

Intimate, untouched and in-your-face portraits, much in the same style as Interview magazine, allow the reader to connect at first glance. By sheer luck, I connected with four, amazing photographers who all respected and agreed upon the aesthetic I dreamt up in my imagination. With very little guidance they created stunning imagery that couldn’t have better complemented my words. Like myself, the photographers have a gift for capturing the essence of their subjects. You can sense that comfort level in the film, Polaroid and digital imagery.

What’s the most challenging or rewarding part of conducting interviews?

The most challenging part of conducting an interview is getting someone to let down their guard and really be themselves. Sometimes those walls don’t come down until the very end and you just have to accept where it is the cards fall. I don’t believe in forcing a connection that isn’t there. The most rewarding part is when someone emails you afterwards to say, “You are such a peaceful person that it made me want to open up immediately.” I still read that message when I am having a down day.

Do you feel Nashville has been receptive to the art and writing you have produced?

Yes! And the more of myself that comes through, the more engaged they seem to be. Just like thousands connect to social media star and interior decorator Ruthie Lindsey for her transparency, I think my openness is appealing. When I tell the truth, only good usually comes.

What lessons can be learned from your anthology?

While rewarding, making a living doing what you love isn’t easy. Always follow your passion because that never dies. Listen to your instincts and if something is calling, give it a shot before you knock it. Lastly, the only person I can really depend upon is myself so creating a strong sense of self-worth is key. In my experience, confidence is the most compelling trait of all.

What advice do you have for aspiring female creatives?

Keep the faith and cultivate patience. Be prepared to have the universe test you— like my favorite book, The Alchemist, says you have to survive the madness in order to experience the magic. The journey of bringing my book to fruition was so ridiculous that it worked. By railing against the system I produced something that is uniquely me. And at the end of the day, all I am trying to do is contribute to the world and get a better sense of who I really am.

A special thanks to Lily for sharing her time with us today. To learn more about Lily, click here. Lily’s anthology can be found locally at Parnassus Books, Crema, Welcome Home and Acme Feed & Seed and online at amazon.com.