A mix of titles currently on my shelves.

Monday, April 4, 2016

A Conversation with Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock

Recently I've had the pleasure of corresponding with Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, author of The Smell of Other People's Houses, her debut novel. The book for young adults is receiving great reviews and a lot of attention. As a long-time Alaskan, writer, and librarian, I just had to ask some questions!  

Ann: There are so many things I love about your book, The Smell of Other People's Houses. One is the way you work statehood — one of the watershed moments of Alaska history — into the background of your story. How did the movement toward statehood and its eventual passage impact you and your family?

Photo credit: The Daily Sitka Sentinel, James Poulson
Bonnie-Sue: I did not grow up in a political family at all. Being a reporter for so many years was when Alaska’s politics became much more informed for me, even though my mom was a Senior at Monroe High School [in Fairbanks] in 1959 when Alaska became a state. 

We did a lot of stories at APRN [Alaska Public Radio Network] and KUAC, especially for the 50th Anniversary of the Constitutional Convention. After I interviewed people who were opposed to Statehood—both native and non-native—it became something of an obsession of mine. What if we hadn’t gone that route? I was especially drawn to this question when I was the producer of Independent Native News because going to villages and talking to people and understanding tribal politics changed a lot of my views. Essentially, I only touched on this in my story, but the idea that not everyone supported statehood was an underlying theme.

Ann: Another thing I like is the way you bring so many insider details of life in Alaska to your novel — the iconic Ray Troll slogan (“If you must smoke, smoke salmon”) on the sweatshirt Sam wears, the Sno-Go and the three-wheelers, pilot bread and Spam, the routines on Alyce’s fishing boat. The poems by John Straley, Nancy White Carlstrom, and Ann Chandonnet, and the beautiful wood engravings by Rebecca Poulson are wonderful additions, as well. Did you think of all these details as you wrote or did they fill in over time? What kind of process did you use to get into the mental space of remembering or thinking of so many details?

Bonnie-Sue: Most of the details were organic and just flowed into the story because they are so familiar to me and when I’m world building I love filling it with details or “endowed objects.” This really is the only world I know well so it wasn’t hard to build. Even after being in the lower ’48 the past few years, I’m still immersed in Alaska. I stream only Alaska news, my significant other works month on, month off in Kotzebue and I’m still working on a radio story outside of Fairbanks so I go home a lot. I think of being Outside as being on a long, extended writing retreat. 

I always had the idea that I would use poems from Alaskans to break up the book’s sections and every single poet let me use their work. I had no idea there was going to be artwork, but when my editor said they were thinking of doing that I immediately mentioned Sitka artist, Rebecca Poulson. Her wood engravings are iconic in Southeast Alaska and it just made sense. I still can’t believe that it all came together so smoothly. 

But it was a long process and things definitely got added with every revision. For example, I’d written almost a full draft and then a friend sent me a Christmas card that she made out of a fishing chart and it reminded me how important charts are so I went back and wrote almost a whole chapter featuring the significance of fishing charts. Things like that felt like little gifts and also reminded me how connected we are to each other in Alaska. 

Ann: I also love that you don’t explain these details to death but build them into the structure of the story and the interactions of the characters. Did you find it a challenge to incorporate so many details about life in Alaska in a way that readers outside Alaska would understand? Did you have any particular audience in mind when you wrote the book?

Bonnie-Sue: This seems like such an easy question to answer but it’s a bit multi-faceted. (And I love that you asked it.) Until this book, I never thought anything I wrote would ever be read by anyone but me. I’m sure that sounds negative from a publishing stand point, but it’s also very freeing. In an idealistic world I think we’re writing for ourselves first. I was lucky because that’s what I got to do. But then, as you say, it did become very challenging (while revising with editors) to explain all of the nuances and details that are only familiar to Alaskans. There were times that I worried I was being forced to explain too much for Outsiders and I was losing the flow of the story or that Alaskans would roll their eyes and get bogged down while I over-explained what Bunny Boots were. The fishing sections, for example, were re-written many times. I ended up paring those down, while the Fish Camp sections had to be beefed up.

I think at one point I may have blurted out, “I only care what Alaskans think anyway.” That probably wasn’t the best thing to say to people in New York and London. Luckily, I had two amazing editors who were very patient with me and also really loved the story and wanted it to be authentic, as well as understandable. So, I hope that in the end we got there. I do think Alaskans will get something different out of the book because they will have more of a connection with those details. So, I like that it holds up for different audiences while still being true to the original intent (at least I hope it holds up).

Ann: Connection with the land and sea, through activities like berry picking, subsistence fishing, and small-scale commercial fishing, is portrayed as a positive component of life in Alaska. Dora, for instance, says of fish camp, “Life feels light and easy now…it doesn’t feel like work…it feels like being part of a family” — creating a contrast with her own parents, who spend their time drinking and accept fish from Dumpling’s father rather than catch their own. What personal experiences did you draw from to create those scenes? Do you think subsistence is as important today for Alaskans as it was in 1970?

Bonnie-Sue: I’ve been really lucky in my life because I lived all over the state and did a lot of different things. I commercial fished with my kids and of course, we hunted and filled our freezer with berries and all the rest of it. I mentioned my time as a reporter and that connected me much more to rural Alaska after growing up mainly in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Living in remote areas as an adult I came to realize how important subsistence is and I do believe it’s every bit as important today as it was in 1970, maybe even more important. It has huge cultural significance which Alaskans recognized in drafting the state constitution, adding native preference for subsistence, so I hope that stays a priority for management of fish and game in the state. 

One very personal experience I had as a kid is almost verbatim a conversation between two of my characters, Bunny and Lily. I was about Lily’s age and my Grandmother was living in Birch Park in Fairbanks, where I had an exchange with an Athabascan girl who informed me that we were poor and she was rich, because we didn’t have a fish camp. Obviously that stuck with me over the years and I remember going to fish camp for the first time years later and hearing her words again in my head. I loved playing with that idea that Alaskans really do have a different take on what makes a person rich. I agree with her, a freezer full of salmon is like having a lot of money in the bank.

Photo credit: Gregg Jones
Ann: You move the plot along by revealing events and offering perspectives from four viewpoints — not to mention wrangle a sizable cast of characters. How did you track all that?

Bonnie-Sue: Sometimes not very well! I have huge pieces of freezer paper taped to the wall with all the characters and a time line and arrows and then a venn diagram of where they intersect. This is another area where I made the editors crazy, I’m quite sure. But I also wrote this initially as a series of short stories and then it changed, so in some ways, that was helpful because I just moved the stories around a lot and then added or deleted things. It wasn’t pretty, let’s just say. 

Ann: I found Ruth’s forced retreat to the Canadian convent an interesting arrangement. How did you come to choose that setting? Is it historically based?

Bonnie-Sue: It’s not historically based but my own Grandmother was a novitiate for many years in a convent and almost became a nun (thankfully she didn’t or we wouldn’t be having this conversation). We grew up surrounded by her friends who were nuns and they told us stories. And then ironically, I ended up writing a lot of this book in a convent near the Colorado/Wyoming border so that influenced this particular plot point as well. I loved making the nuns more human, giving them their little personality quirks was one of my favorite things. 

Ann: You don’t shy away from very tough issues, problems that plague Alaska today as they did back then. Neither you, as an author, nor your teens, as narrators, sugarcoat their situations. Toughest are Ruth’s pregnancy and Dora’s abuse at the hands of her alcoholic father. What motivated you — and prepared you — to write about these difficult issues?

Bonnie-Sue: Yes, this wasn’t easy. I did draw from personal experience, both mine and other people’s, and in the case of Dora I asked for permission from a friend who Dora’s life is based on. But that segue’s into your next question so perhaps I’ll just jump forward to that one.

Ann: Diversity and accurate representation of people of color and other minorities in children’s literature is a serious issue that’s received much attention, in particular over this past year. Alcoholism, and what it does to people as parents and as human beings, is a major theme in your book — and a sensitive one in Alaska, where alcoholism is connected with very high rates of violence, sexual abuse, and other social problems. When portraying an Alaska Native character from a family with serious alcoholism and abuse problems, were you concerned about how it would be received? Is there a line between perpetuating a stereotype and acknowledging a reality? Why did you choose Dora’s particular story to tell?

Bonnie-Sue: This is a great question, especially the perpetuating vs. acknowledging aspect. It’s also something I thought about a great deal as a reporter in Alaska. I noticed sometimes I would be reporting on these things—the high rates of abuse or alcoholism—and people’s eyes would glaze over as if they were tired of hearing about it. But then nothing would ever change. The irony is that I thought somehow I could do this better through fiction and I wasn’t at all prepared for the backlash that writing about the reality of alcoholic parents was offensive to people because they thought it was stereotyping. I actually thought that if I didn’t write about the stereotypes that were prevalent (on all sides) in Alaska in 1970 I would be criticized for sugar coating. So, hello rock and a hard place.

Interestingly enough, Dumpling’s Athabscan family is also based on real people that I grew up with and they are the most stable family in the book. There are dysfunctional families and there are functional families in Alaska, regardless of race. 
I decided to tell the story that was closest to my reality while growing up during this time period, and the reality of my aunts and uncles who were actually teenagers in Birch Park in 1970.

Dora’s story is based on a real person and she loves the outcome in the book, which is so much better than what she got in real life, so I’m okay with criticism from people who maybe don’t understand this life. I would never stereotype because I just don't have a one sided view of any of these issues. But I don't believe silence will ever change anything either, it just perpetuates it. Also, the girls from Tanana that spoke out about abuse at the AFN Convention a couple years ago showed me that speaking out is a lot better than staying silent. They did that right when I was struggling with how to tell Dora’s story, so their courage inspired me. The real Dora’s permission freed me. Sometimes someone else needs to tell these difficult stories because it’s too dangerous for the person in that situation to do it. It’s a responsibility as a reporter and a writer to know what is appropriate and what isn’t.

And then just as I was releasing the book Tlingit playwright Vera Starbard’s play Our Voices Will Be Heard premiered from Perseverance Theater, about girls speaking out against sexual abuse in their villages. To me, these people are finally saying enough is enough and putting themselves out there with personal, brave stories. Obviously something needs to change and this trend of Alaska’s children living in a cycle of abusive situations affects us all. I hope anyone who is offended by the idea that our stories are “stereotyping,” will be equally offended by the high rates of abuse, alcoholism and suicide. 

(Side note: The main character in the play Our Voices Will be Heard, Erin Tripp from Juneau, is also the voice of Dora in the audiobook of The Smell of Other People’s Houses. Erin is the first Alaska Native reader that Random House and Listening Library have ever had). 

Ann: I love that people — adults and youth, Alaska Natives and non-natives — reach out to each other and stand up for each other in your book. I especially love Dumpling’s father for his courage and integrity in protecting Dora. What led you to explore the idea, as Selma tells Dora, that “We don’t have to be blood to be family?”

Bonnie-Sue: That came from a very personal place. I’ve had kind of a crazy life, which I won’t go into, but every step of the way there have been amazing people who constantly are there for me. I’m sure some of them are reading this right now if they are in Homer, or Anchorage, or Fairbanks or Sitka or Juneau or Kotzebue—or places Outside. Family is sometimes a lot bigger than what you are born into. For me, that will always be a huge theme in my writing.