Morris Award Finalist Interview: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, author of THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES

19370304Today’s my day to join in the Morris Award finalist interview tradition, which is one of my favorite things. If you missed yesterday’s interview with Becky Albertalli and Jeff Zentner, you can read it here.

So let’s get right to it: I was blown away by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s gorgeous debut, THE SMELL OF OTHER PEOPLE’S HOUSES, which felt so different from anything I’ve read in YA in a long time–and I loved that. It’s the intertwining stories of four different teenagers growing up in 1970 Fairbanks, Alaska. These teens are dealing with loss, poverty, racism, abuse, and abandonment, but they’re also looking ahead, trying to understand their world and their places in it. The setting and time period are so perfectly rendered, not just in the details or the prose or descriptions of the landscape, but in the etiology of the characters themselves–the fact that their present is now our past is part of the experiential journey, for this is a story that is simultaneously about trauma that stretches back across generations, as well as all the hope we fight for in our futures.

I loved getting to pick Bonnie-Sue’s brain about her book and her writing process, so enjoy!

Hi Bonnie-Sue! Thank you for being a part of this interview series and many congratulations on the Morris Award nomination. I really loved The Smell of Other People’s Houses and the way you were able to so vividly capture such a sense of struggle and resilience; loss and hope, through the lenses of Ruth, Dora, Hank, and Alyce. First off, how did you find out your book had been nominated?   

I actually got a phone call from my agent, who lives in London and she was in tears. She’d had a really bad weekend and this was the news she needed to cheer her up. I honestly did not know how to react, but I knew that I needed to talk to a librarian. The very first thing I did was walk up to our local library. I whispered into the ear of our YA librarian, “I was just nominated for the Morris.” She, too, burst into tears. It was a big tissue day!

In the acknowledgments, you touch a bit on the book’s evolution. I wonder if you could expand on that and describe how you came to write this story and what your journey toward publication has been like. Have there been any surprises along the way?

It was nothing but surprises! The book was initially a series of linked short stories that I wrote for my creative thesis while studying at Hamline. (MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults.) When I first signed with my agent, Molly Ker Hawn at the Bent Agency, it still needed a lot of work and I was revising it with her input. She happened to send five chapters to Wendy Lamb who decided to make an offer on those few chapters right when Alice Swan at Faber & Faber in the UK did as well. So I had two editors and only five finished chapters. EEK! From there, it slowly became what it is today (18 months of rewrites and revising with two amazing editors on board) and it’s a far cry from my creative thesis. I’m happy when I hear people say it still reads a bit like a series of linked short stories, because that was my original intent. My family says it’s a lot better than it was, so ‘trust your editors’ is always going to be my motto.

Something I found compelling and so well done in your book was the focus on relationships between teens and the adults in their lives. How did you make the choice to have all four of the narrators be teenagers and how do you see that particular developmental stage tying in with the broader ideas you were exploring?

Thank you for saying that. I’m not honestly sure that all of my decisions were totally intentional. I wrote from such an emotional place about what it was like to grow up during that time in Alaska. I love stories that show relationships through a myriad of lenses and I think teens often cannot see the adults in their lives as fully formed people. Since I was writing about what it was like for me, I was especially aware of my own misconceptions about the adults I knew, tempered with what I learned later in life. I have a lot of faith in young people. I love hearing what they think and how they interpret the world and I haven’t forgotten feeling like I wanted more of a say or more control over my life at that age. I have a crazy memory for details—like what the kid next to me in Kindergarten was wearing—so it was a lot like walking down memory lane, writing these characters and their stories.

Adoption, both literal and symbolic, is a recurring theme for your characters, as are parental loss and multigenerational trauma. Having set your book in Alaska, during the period post-statehood, I wonder how you see these themes connecting to that historical setting, as well as your own connection to the place that you grew up in?

Yes, you basically hit the nail on the head as to the way I see the world. It’s all tied up in love and loss and the ways we hold onto things. I barely touch on Statehood in the book, but the crux of the story was that the characters were defining themselves internally while the State was doing the same thing externally. I think that actually played a huge role in shaping those of us that grew up in that time, especially if our parents and grandparents were raised in Alaska as well. My mother graduated from high school in 1959—so she spent her whole childhood living in a territory—and it was a lot harder to hear about anything that happened Outside back in those days.  I once wrote a piece about my grandmother saying, “anything past 8th avenue in Fairbanks is the end of the end of everywhere.” She is almost 100 and I think she still feels this way. It was a very narrow view of the world that we had. I often feel that it will be hard to understand choices that people make if we don’t understand the way they view the world. I was hoping at the very least to convey a sense of this place, which is what the title refers to. Maybe it’s impossible to ever truly step into another person’s life, but we’ve all had that experience of opening a door and getting a whiff of something that’s different from our own house; our own life. It’s such a small thing and yet at the same time, it says so much.

 What do you find are some of the similarities and challenges of writing both journalism and fiction?

This is a great question and I went back and forth so much with this while I was writing. As a journalist I loved human interest stories, the ones that connected people no matter how different they might seem. That was the easy part about transitioning to fiction and writing characters that wouldn’t just lie flat on the page, but were fully formed and realistic. The challenge was to loosen up and allow the characters to have a fictional life as well. I was very hung up on writing details that could be backed up journalistically, but obviously when Sam was swimming with whales I had to let that go a bit. Some of the issues in my book are huge social issues in Alaska and as a journalist I was very sensitive to the people I covered. It’s a very small population and everyone knows everyone, especially in rural Alaska, so I was constantly aware of how a story might impact someone’s life. This didn’t change when I decided to write fiction either. As a journalist it often felt hopeless reporting on difficult issues every single day. Everything that happens in the book—sans the whales—is realistic to what I experienced growing up. At one point, one of the editors said, “there’s a plane crash almost every other day in here.” True, we have a lot of plane crashes but I realized I could pull back a bit on the harsher realities of life in Alaska, because as my editor Alice Swan kept reminding me with every revision, it’s okay and often necessary to instill a little bit of hope into the story.  God bless editors.

 What were some of your favorite books growing up? 

I think I am quite old, so I grew up before the Young Adult category was truly its own thing. I loved books set in other places, like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and The Wheel On the School, and anything by  E.L. Konigsburg (I read all of the Newbery winners back in those days.) I loved the classics as well as short stories. Flannery O’Connor made the South a real place for me and JD Salinger’s stories were some of my favorites. I don’t know anyone that didn’t stay up all night reading Judy Blume under the covers with a flashlight, including myself.

What are you working on now?

All I can say is that I’m trying to write something NOT set in Alaska.

Thank you so much, Bonnie-Sue!

Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock was born and raised in Alaska. She worked many years fishing commercially with her family and as a reporter for Alaska Public Radio stations around the state. She was also the host and producer of “Independent Native News,” a daily newscast produced in Fairbanks, focusing on Alaska Natives, American Indians, and Canada’s First Nations. Her writing is inspired by her family’s four generations in Alaska.

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crossed country

 

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I flew from Oakland, CA to Charleston, S.C. last week for YALLFEST, two days after the presidential election. Having never visited South Carolina, I’m not sure what I expected. Was I leaving my bubble or was I entering someone else’s? The answer was both yes and yes, but in a way, the unknown was just what I needed. Because I want to understand what I can’t possibly know and I also want desperately to hold on to my faith that most people–most of the time–are doing the best that they can.

The morning after I arrived, I discovered that the hotel I was staying in was located directly across the street from the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church, which is where Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black parishioners during a prayer service last year in the hopes of starting a race war. The kind woman who picked me up to drive me to the Charleston Charter School for Math and Science informed me of this. She quickly added that Roof was from out of town, that Charleston didn’t have problems like that.

(The school visit was wonderful, by the way. The middle and high school students were funny and astute, and they were brilliantly passionate about stories and psychology, which made for great discussion.)

While I’m not all that familiar with Charleston’s problems, I do know the Bay Area’s, which has seen the likes of Jim Jones, Dan White, Brock Turner, the Oikos University shooting, and the murder of Oscar Grant–just to scratch the surface. Yes, we have our problems, but we are fundamentally good people.That’s what I’ve always believed, although I watched a bit of that goodness fade last Wednesday, when my youngest child came home from school and asked if being part Mexican meant we’d have to move to Mexico and leave his daddy behind. Like Roof, the danger may have originated somewhere external, but our community, all of our communities, are still the ones who must reckon with it.

Fortunately, both the writing community and Charleston rose to this challenge last weekend; YALLFEST was a wonderful event during a difficult time, filled with throngs of authors and readers and tireless volunteers, all buoyed by a collective sense of purpose and humility, of the realization that our whole is so much more than the sum of our parts. Even in our grief and despair and our anger, it was an affirmation that yes, we are all doing our best.

And yes, we must do far better still.

-sk

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Rabbits, horror films, YALLFEST, and other fine things

img_9776October is my favorite month. In part, because it’s the month I was born, but I also love the changing seasons, the Autumn Wind, the rabbit shows. My family also participated in this year’s #31horrorfilmsin31days challenge, and it was somehow more fun than ever this time around. This was because we put more thought into what we wanted to watch ahead of time, rather than only relying on what was streaming on Netflix (although, we did that, too). We also got to the theater twice, including taking advantage of the chance to see Kubrick’s The Shining on the big screen. And we watched our very first G-rated horror film: The Legend of Boggy Creek. The full list of the films I watched is pasted below.

Other good things have happened in the last 31 days. I was lucky enough to get a chance to do an interview for MPR about the allure of YA and The Smaller Evil. You can listen to that interview here. I’ve also been finishing up the final changes on my next novel, which will be out in August of 2017. I will hopefully get to share more about that book soon. It’s one that’s very special to me, in both process and content.

A couple of future updates:

This Friday, I will be at the California Library Association conference in Sacramento.

Next week, I will be traveling to Charleston for YALLFEST, and my Saturday schedule there will be:

12:00 pm
Panel: DRAMA VS. DRAH-MA in the American Theater — Ballroom
Moderator Stephanie Kuehn with Susan Dennard, Brendan Kiely, Jason Reynolds, Ruta Sepetys, and Julie Murphy
1:00 pm
Panel: KEEP YA WEIRD in the American Theater — Ballroom
Moderator Libba Bray with Stephanie Kuehn, Samantha Mabry, Nova Ren Suma, Justine Larbaliester, Barnabas Miller
2:00 pm
Signing:  Blue Bicycle Books tent

I am very excited for both events and hope to see you there! Happy November!

-sk

The films:

31. SINISTER It just goes to show, snuff films are always scary. P.S. Writers are still the worst. #31HorrorFilms31Days

30. OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL Always say goodbye…. #31HorrorFilms31Days

29. GOSSIP College roomies Lena Headey, James Marsden and Norman Reedus slip down a deadly rumor rabbit hole. #31HorrorFilms31Days

28. BURNT OFFERINGS The perfect home. The perfect price. A bad tumble out of a window. Set at Oakland’s Dunsmuir House #31HorrorFilms31Days

27. THE PERFECT HOST Kind of a Weekend at Bernie’s meets Salad Fingers sort of a thing. #31HorrorFilms31Days

26. IDENTITY The mind of a killer is a lot more rainy than you might imagine. #31HorrorFilms31Days

25. THE SHINING God, writers are the WORST. #31HorrorFilms31Days

24. SUSPIRIA Ballerinas – among other things – dropping like flies. #31HorrorFilms31Days

23. FINAL DESTINATION Is it really possible to cheat death? Bonus Candyman cameo. #31HorrorFilms31Days

22. THE HOUSES OCTOBER BUILT Protip: to keep the haunted house scary, sometimes you gotta kill a few guests. #31HorrorFilms31Days

21. TRICK ‘R TREAT Throwback to CREEPSHOW & TRILOGY OF TERROR, featuring 4 stories & a creepy kid with a burlap head. #31HorrorFilms31Days

20. HOUSE OF THE DEVIL Satanic cult fails at knot tying. #31HorrorFilms31Days

19. FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC Well, Netflix had it listed as a “Halloween Favorite,” so I’m counting it. #31HorrorFilms31Days

18. THEY’RE WATCHING A wild and froggy episode of International House Hunters. #31horrorfilms31days

17. DR. GIGGLES Man afflicted with one-liners goes on killing spree. Takes the Freudian thing to an unforeseen extreme #31HorrorFilms31Days

16. LAKE DEAD no. No. NO. #31HorrorFilms31Days

15. THE EVIL DEAD Instructional tape clearly advises “bodily dismemberment” of possessed beings. Ash doesn’t listen. #31HorrorFilms31Days

14. THE EXORCIST still one of the best. #31HorrorFilms31Days

13. PUPPET MASTER When the puppet master’s away, the puppets will…..vomit leeches and bore holes in your body. #31HorrorFilms31Days

12. HOUSEBOUND girl is sentenced to house arrest and has to live with her MOTHER. Terrifying. #31HorrorFilms31Days

11. THE AMITYVILLE HORROR Ryan Reynolds remake. Meh. Needed more flies and oozy walls. #31HorrorFilms31Days

10. THE BELIEVERS It all started with spilled milk… #31HorrorFilms31Days

9. TUSK Life lessons: Heartless podcaster learns that if empathy makes us human, someone else can make you a walrus. #31HorrorFilms31Days

8. ALMOST MERCY childhood friends become disaffected teens tumbling toward violence. But is it a love story? #31HorrorFilms31Days

7. JAWS 3 Worth it for the slo-mo 3D shark attack at the end + a great shot of Dennis Quaid falling out of a golf cart #31HorrorFilms31Days

6. THE BOY Oh, just your average woman-takes-nanny-job-only-to-discover-the-child-is-a-doll story. #31HorrorFilms31Days

5. THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK There may not have been a “plot” or a “story,” but that furry Fouke Monster has heart. #31HorrorFilms31Days

4. THE HOLE Hypothetically, if you’re in charge of keeping hell locked up, find a good hiding spot for the keys. #31HorrorFilms31Days

3. THE FOG Truth: I mistook this for The Mist. And it wasn’t even the John Carpenter version. Disappoint. #31HorrorFilms31Days

2. PONTYPOOL Quit the baby talk! When the end of the world is told through a radio broadcast, words mean everything. #31HorrorFilms31Days

1. THE INVITATION Man, we love our cults here in California. I mean, we really, really love them. So much it hurts. #31HorrorFilms31Days

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THE SMALLER EVIL is out!

Hello all!

IMG_9253It’s August 2nd, which means THE SMALLER EVIL is now officially out and in the wild. It’s a book I love for all its strangeness and questions; its moral ambiguity and its pursuit of what it means to belong. The main character, Arman, is tasked with figuring out whether the source of his unhappiness is internal and external. Is something wrong with him? Or is it his environment?

I was speaking just yesterday with someone about the ways in which the scientific method allows us to understand our physical, measurable world. Philosophy, on the other hand, allows us to understand the rest of our experiences, the universal, the esoteric, and the unique. Perhaps, then, psychology is a mix of the two–an understanding of where the physical and the abstract come together to make us who we are. Arman’s conflict is in integrating these parts of himself, as well as understanding his own values. It’s a conflict I know I still grapple with. I imagine we all do.

I am so very grateful for everyone who made this book come to life. To Michael Bourret, Andrew Karre, Anne Heausler, Ryan Gesell, and everyone at Dutton and DGLM–thank you! Thank you also to all my readers–you are the best.

Lastly, if you are in the Bay Area, please come to THE SMALLER EVIL launch party! It will be this Saturday, August 6th, at 4:00 pm at Mrs. Dalloway’s in Berkeley. Much fun will be had.

-sk

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Purchase THE SMALLER EVIL:

Indiebound  Amazon  Barnes and Noble  iBooks