Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock grew up in Alaska but she says she could never have written her debut novel if she hadn’t moved out of state. Her young adult book, published February 23rd, is called The Smell of Other People’s Houses. Set in 1970’s Alaska, the book tells the story of four teenagers who live very different lives in different parts of the state, but end up coming together in surprising ways.
Hitchcock is a former Alaska Public Radio reporter who now lives in Colorado. She says the novel is semi autobiographical and all of the characters are based on people she knew or wanted to know:
HITCHCOCK: I just wanted them in a certain setting, especially the part that takes place in Southeast Alaska. These three brothers stow away on the ferry, and I used to always think about that. What if we stowed away on a ferry? Where would you sleep and how would you eat and I know that’s a horrible thing to think. Don’t ever do that Lori. Stow away on a ferry, that’s a felony, I think. Or not a felony. You know, living in Alaska for so long and having so many different experiences in so many different parts of the state. All of it came together. Plus, they were short stories so I think it was easier to do this in that format, where they were a bunch of short stories and then that changed to become this longer narrative.
TOWNSEND: Bonnie Sue, without giving away too much, the book includes at least one big moment of magical realism. Why did you decide to add that element in?
HITCHCOCK: I think part of that story started out really just as a fishing story and so that particular scene involves some orcas. And I remember, I was living in Southeast Alaska and hearing people tell me about how whales were going in Chatham Bay and they were stealing black cod off the hooks. There was a bunch of hype about that and I always thought that was really interesting and it kind of stuck with me. And so then it just kind of snowballed and became a little bit more of magical realism.
TOWNSEND: Several of the main characters in your book are Native. As a non-Native writer, how did you make sure you were making the characters realistic?
HITCHCOCK: Some of the stories really do take on my childhood and situations that I had, and one particular story is almost verbatim a conversation I had with an Athabascan girl in Birch Park who was living there: she informed me that I was not Native, and it was very interesting because my mother always told me I was Native Alaskan, but she never really explained to me that I wasn’t Alaska Native. And I think that that experience was always in my mind: how we identify ourselves and how other people identify us and how stereotypes happen. For many years I produced Independent Native News with Nellie Moore and that was a really great experience and helped me understand different tribes and all of the nuance surrounding writing about Natives. And then I did have friends who were Inupiaq and friends who were Athabascan who, their stories have made it into my book and they’ve given me permission to do that as well, so I definitely had a lot of help in that regard.
TOWNSEND: There’s so much attention on Alaska right now; not all of it good if you consider the proliferation of reality TV shows. Bonnie-Sue, even though this work of yours is fiction, do you hope readers will walk away with a more honest portrayal of life in Alaska?
HITCHCOCK: I do hope that, Lori. You know, I think it’s really interesting. One of the reasons writing for teens really speaks to me because when I was growing up in Alaska myself, it’s so easy to romanticize this place and even working with editors in New York and London on this book, there were so many situations that I thought were just so normal that they thought were so completely crazy or outlandish. It was like talking to people using a different language at times. And I don’t think I could’ve written this book if I hadn’t left Alaska because I wouldn’t have understood how different other places are. And that really also made me want to make sure it was as realistic and as true to my experience growing up. I’m sure it’s not going to be everyone’s experience growing up in Alaska. It’s just the experience that I had. Everyone has their story.
Bonnie Sue Hitchcock’s debut novel is called ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses.’ She is launching the book in Sitka on February 23rd and will have other events later in the week in Juneau, Palmer and Anchorage.