November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

The Last Frontier: Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock on “The Smell of Other People’s Houses”

In Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock’s The Smell of Other People’s Houses (Random, 2016; Feb. 23), readers are not only introduced to four distinct teen characters working through issues as varied as child abuse and pregnancy. Through the course of the novel, they also get to witness Alaska’s coming-of-age as the 49th state—a contentious and even angsty process. SLJ caught up with the debut author to chat about her path to publication, inspiration for the work, and family history.

hitchcock-Kirsten Boyle PhotoCROP

Photo by Kirsten Boyle

This story is obviously very close to you. You were born and raised in Alaska, where you worked in the fishing community and as a journalist focusing on Alaska Natives. What inspired you to write The Smell of Other Peoples Houses? Why now?

A couple of pivotal things happened. I left Alaska for a while, which was eye-opening. I got some distance and realized how different it is from other places, which I’d always struggled with before. I didn’t understand the way it was romanticized. People constantly said to me, “You have no perspective.” It was true. It took getting away and becoming incredibly homesick to understand that. I wanted to be back in the place I knew best. This story was that for me—going home.

Also, while I was working as a journalist, I was always writing news stories and short stories, but then the program I was involved in, Independent Native News, lost funding and ended. I really did feel lost when that happened because that show was my heart and soul. I put all my energy into it and into the issues I covered. It is so rewarding, having a job that you feel matters in the bigger picture, and I loved it. Once the show was canceled, I still cared about all those issues and the stories were still important to me, but I had no outlet for them. This book became another way to express that. It was liberating, too, to realize that fiction can be a path to the truth. In some ways I could be more honest in this story than I could be as a journalist, because the issues are real, but the characters are fictional.

Can you share a little bit about your path to publication?

It was very long and very short at the same time. Long, because I’m quite a late bloomer in some respects. I didn’t try to get published until very recently, but it was always a thought, hovering over my head as I wrote poetry on the fishing boat or recorded radio stories. I wrote short stories that have been scattered here and there in magazines and journals. I’ve always wanted to write for teens, so when my radio show was canceled, I took that opportunity to get an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University in St. Paul. I wanted to see what that world felt like. The Smell of Other People’s Houses started out as my creative thesis at Hamline. Once I wrote it and found an agent, everything went much more quickly than I imagined.

Why did you choose to tell this story from the points of view of these specific narrators? Did one narrator come to you first?

Yes, Ruth came to me first. But originally I had written this as a collection of linked short stories, so there were many more narrators than we have now. I think I had 20. It was only after the book was acquired and was in the revision process that it changed into this particular story. I think it was more rewarding to have just four narrators and dig deeper into their distinctive stories. It was hard to cut out some of the other characters, but these four felt like they had the loudest voices; they jumped around and waved their arms and got my attention. (And the editors’ attention, which was important for their survival as well.)

Smell of Other People's HousesWhich perspective did you connect with the most? Which one was hardest to write?

I actually connect with Dora, because I met so many girls like her when I did rural news stories. For a million reasons, I never felt like I could do those stories justice as a reporter. Dora is the girl who finds a bit of solace, and I was really proud of her because that’s a terribly hard life—even though there are so many people working in Alaska to address the issues that girls like Dora face.

I suppose Hank was the hardest to write, as I’m not a 17-year-old boy, so that’s a voice I had to get a lot of reader feedback on. You have to be careful at my age not to write the boy you want your daughter to meet and make him unrealistic. But I did want him to be sweet as well.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process? There are multiple story lines in this novel. How did you keep them all straight and have them wrap up so nicely in the end?

I have huge pieces of butcher paper (the kind we wrap fish in) taped together and stuck on the wall with a time line and a Venn diagram and all kinds of lines and arrows. It’s not very efficient or pretty. When I showed it to my agent, she said, “I’m now officially referring to you as the Unabomber of YA.” I also had not one but two amazing editors, so many eyes helped to get this story into shape. I think we all got dizzy at some point or another because there really is a lot going on in this book.

This title celebrates the diversity of Alaska: its people and its natural landscape. The setting feels so alive that Alaska becomes another character in this book. Did you have to do a lot of research?

I didn’t have to do very much research at all because it really is the life I grew up living; my aunt even won the Ice Classic in 1968. I was lucky enough to have worked for Alaska Public Radio for 15 years, so I’ll go ahead and say that was my research.

I love that you call Alaska another character, because that really is true. The book begins in 1959 for that reason, because growing up in a place that is also just beginning to define itself is important for the characters. It shaped us—my siblings and my mother and her siblings. The internal struggles of the characters were sort of a reflection of what they were seeing externally as Alaska tried to figure out what it meant to be the 49th state.

Family, and who you choose as family, is a theme that runs throughout. Why do you think this will resonate with young adult readers?

We all come from somewhere, so even if a fictional family is totally different from what you might have, sometimes that helps with perspective, too. If it’s similar, then it can feel like looking in a mirror. So either way, I think it’s helpful to realize that we aren’t the only people navigating through life with our particular family. It’s what I love about books for teens. It’s that transition between what you’re handed in life and what you make for yourself. What YOU choose.

People from the contiguous United States probably have very specific ideas of what Alaska is like. What stereotypes do you hope to dispel or clarify with this novel?

So many people have moved to Alaska from other places, and that has changed the culture tremendously. It’s a really different place from when I was a child, or when my mother was a child, and especially from when my grandmother was a child. It’s not nearly as remote or mysterious these days.

When I was reporting and trying to get news stories out to the rest of the country, I was very aware that other places wanted to hear only about romantic, exotic things such as moose or 24 hours of daylight. I wasn’t trying to make any kind of statement in the book, really. In my mind, it’s not about Alaska. It’s about all the ways we are similar as people; that is what I hope will resonate.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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