Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock was born and raised in Alaska, where she worked fishing commercially with her family, and writing stories and newscasts for radio in Alaska. Her work in doing both helped to develop her debut novel into YA literature, The Smell of Other Peoples Houses, which was a finalist for the William C. Morris YA Debut Award in 2017.
SJ: The Smell of Other People’s Houses is told in four points of view, from four very different characters. Did the novel start out this way, or was one character originally the main focus?
BSH: Well, the novel didn’t start out like a novel at all, but a collection of linked short stories (they were all linked in some way to the red ribbon). Over time, everything changed and instead of 20 separate stories, it became a narrative with just these four as the main characters. In those short stories, even the characters that became secondary characters had their own chapters (Selma, Jack, Sam, Bunny, Lily). I still think they make great secondary characters though and writing it as short stories first really helped develop the tone. It took me 18 months to re-write from my original idea.
SJ: How does coming from writing news for radio translate into writing for novels? BSH: I’m not sure it really does translate! But it was great exercise, sort of like running everyday will train you for a marathon? It was just the job I had that paid the bills but I always wanted to write young adult fiction, whether in the form of a novel or short stories. I think writing for radio is a form of short story writing and it makes you write more efficiently if you’ve only got four minutes to tell a whole story. I also love writing in and out of cuts (the audio clips that you hear in radio), which is great practice for writing dialogue as well. But the biggest thing that it did for me was train my brain to think about the most compelling aspect of a story. Even if I was doing a news story about oil and gas exploration, I had to figure out what was most relevant to the average person’s life. Make it compelling somehow. What is the universal thread that we all want to hear? You can’t please everyone but there is a way, I think, to come at a story from an angle that will make things relatable, no matter who you are.
SJ: How did The Smell of Other People’s Houses come about? Did something in particular inspire this novel?
BSH: This is such a hard question because it came about in fits and spurts. Sometimes even I can’t remember each twist and turn that happened that inspired the eventual novel in its entirety. But I suppose it’s a story about what it felt like to me, to grow up in a certain place with a certain kind of family. The more I write the more I see this thread of what interests me. I am fascinated by families and the ways they shape us as we leave that first family and move into our own lives, the things we choose for ourselves rather than what we were born into.
SJ: Scents and scent memory play such a vital role in this novel, did you set out to tell a story with this kind of theme? Do you have any scent memories of your own in particular that found their way into the novel?
BSH: I think I’ve always written from a sensory place (it may go back to your other question about radio). Sense is a great jumping off point to start a story from. It’s intimate and it transports the reader (or the radio listener) into the story, rather than keeping them at arms length. I want to get as close to the heart of things as I can. Raising my kids on a fishing boat means there were a ton of smells in our life (obviously many of them we could have done without) but now we can be anywhere in the world and my daughter will smell diesel and say, “that’s the smell of my childhood.” The boat smells were pretty easy to write. Honestly there’s nothing like the scent of fish blood. But I recently found an old story I wrote that I’m re-working and I didn’t even remember calling it “The smell of brothers,” so obviously I’m kind of a one trick pony. (I’ve since changed the title of that!)
SJ: Alaska is painted in beautifully vivid detail, and some of the places especially were just so special, like the abbey in Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow. Where did the inspiration for such places come from?
BSH: Oh, thank you so much. Alaska is a place I could write about in my sleep. It’s just a part of me, having lived there all my life and having been lucky enough to work as a journalist traveling around in rural areas and small planes. I got to see a lot of it as a commercial fisherman as well. I’ve just been really, really lucky and the older I get the more I realize that I never want to live anywhere else. The Abbey was totally fiction, although I visited an Abbey near Wyoming and wrote some of the book there, the one in my book was set in a part of Canada that I drive through a lot. I’ve been to a lot of mercantile places like the one where Ruth first met Hank and Jack, so it’s fun to be able to put these special spots into a book.
SJ: This novel explores the ways in which relationships between people falter, recover from great losses, and grow stronger. Was this an intention you set off with in the direction you wanted this novel and the characters to take?
BSH: I really wish I could say that I had definite intentions for the story, but I just wrote what was on my mind and then it unfolded. Although I do believe that the best stories are more about a character’s internal life and the ways people navigate particular struggles—again, Universal themes that relate to real life experiences. I like quiet books that on the surface seem like not much is happening because those are the stories that seem to stay with me and make me think, so I did want to write a book like that. So many Alaska books are adventures with these death defying experiences, usually set on some glacier or mountain top and those are great too. But it’s also a place where real people just live real lives and relationships are sometimes a mirror of the harsh and beautiful landscape. I wanted all of that to come through.
SJ: Are there any authors or particular novels whose inspiration you sought out when writing The Smell of Other People’s Houses?
BSH: Not intentionally but there are a lot writers that have influenced me. Until recently I didn’t even realize how much Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s books inspired me to write about place. The way that he made obscure South American small towns relevant to everyone is really masterful. I think I wanted to do that with small Alaskan towns that might seem inaccessible on the surface. But I also loved the way Olive Kittredge is written, (by Elizabeth Strout) which is linked short stories for adults and I thought that format would work well as a young adult novel too. (I still hope to write a collection of short stories someday). As far as YA influences I feel like Australian writers are doing something right over there. I love Margo Lanagon, Melina Marchetta, Zana Fraillon and a new author I’ll mention in your next question.
SJ: Are there any books that you are loving to read right now?
BSH: I’ve just read some ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) of YA books that are coming out that I really enjoyed. Unstoppable Moses, by Taylor Smith (debut) and Lygia Penaflor’s All of this is true. There’s also an Australian writer whose debut book will be published in the US soon, FRANKIE, by Shivaun Plozza. I stayed up way too late last night finishing it. It made me laugh so much and it broke my heart, which is pretty much an endorsement.