Alaska is such a funny, interesting place,” says Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, author of The Smell of Other People’s Houses (Random/Lamb, Feb.), when describing her home state and the setting for her debut novel. “Some details [in the book] speak so loudly to Alaskans. People in Alaska ask how it makes sense to those outside.”
Yet the YA novel, which is structured as a series of stories in which the characters ultimately intersect, has reached far and wide: “The best feedback I got was from a kid in a detention center in Bellingham [Wash.],” Hitchcock says. “One letter read, ‘You’ve done a great job, we think you should keep writing, but I have just one problem with your book. Don’t you think [the ending] was a bit convenient?’ ”
In reference to the ending, when two characters serendipitously cross paths, Hitchcock can only laugh. “It’s actually a little annoying, you’re always bumping into everyone here,” she says. “I get on the plane in Seattle and the flight attendant will say, ‘Didn’t you date my brother?’ So I wrote to [the kid] and said, ‘You’re such a great reader, and I hope you’ll keep reading. These characters needed each other at that time, and I hope someday that happens for you, too.’ ”
The Smell of Other People’s Houses appeared when the author was 51 years old. Previously, she had a long public radio career in her hometown of Fairbanks, Alaska, though writing fiction was an unattainable dream. “I was producing a show called Independent Native News, and when it lost its funding, I was in a position to switch gears.” She got an M.F.A. from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., a low-residency program that allowed her to work on radio stories while writing. Houses was her creative thesis.
Hitchcock is a self-described introvert and cites social media as a means of leveling the playing field for authors seeking to break into publishing. By following YA agents on Twitter, she was able to spend time seeking the agent she felt she’d fit with best, and eventually queried Molly Ker Hawn at the Bent Agency. “[We] really did have the same sensibility on books,” the author says.
Hitchcock queried Hawn about a novel in verse. Hawn declined the book, but said she’d like to see anything else Hitchcock had written, so the author sent her a book of related short stories, which eventually became Houses. Wendy Lamb acquired the book for her Random House imprint based on just the first five chapters, and it was simultaneously acquired in the U.K. by Alice Swan at Faber and Faber. So, in another unusual move for a first-time author, Hitchcock revised her novel with notes from two editors.
The book changed significantly during the editorial process, Hitchcock says. “It was much darker, it was a murder mystery.” And she was encouraged to add an element of hope. “I tend to write pretty dark,” she says. “I think when people ask what makes it a YA book, [the answer is that] it has to come from the first person, not a flashback, and it has to have an element of hope.”
Hitchcock has tried to stay out of the loop on the book’s reception following its release. “I really think that the book is now out in the world, and it should just be about the readers’ responses to it,” she says. “As a journalist, you’re never part of the story. I try to keep it that way. It’s lovely and wonderful to hear about something in the book that resonated with [readers].”
Currently, Hitchcock is at work on another novel, though it’s not yet under contract. “Rather than just have five chapters, I really want to have a finished manuscript next time,” she says. “Though I’ve been traveling so much, it’s slowing me down.”
Following the publication of Houses, Hitchcock went on tour throughout Alaska, the American West, and to London, where she was on BBC Radio several times. “I felt more in my element, though [I prefer] to be on the other side of the mike,” she jokes. This fall she will participate in the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Publication hasn’t changed Hitchcock’s life too significantly, however. “If I’m surprised by anything,” she says, “it’s at how many people have read my book.”