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