Author Interview: Dot Hutchison
Author Interview: Dot Hutchison
One of the nicest things about being in this YA world is the other writers I meet. Whether they are part of the writing community here in Minnesota where I live or people from all over the place that I follow on Twitter who make me laugh over crappy episodes of Nashville, getting to know these writers is something that I feel very lucky to enjoy.
To celebrate these excellent people, I’ve decided to do some author interviews.
To kick off our first interview, I’ve talked to my fellow LabRat at Carolrhoda LAB, Dot Hutchison. Dot’s debut novel, A Wounded Name, is a retelling of Hamlet from Ophelia’s point of view, and a story fairly dripping with lush, gorgeous writing. It’s no secret that I’ve never been a Shakespeare fan, but Dot’s book made me want to re-read Hamlet, which is saying something. It’s a beautiful book you need to check out. Below is our interview…
Tell me about your reading habits. Have they changed since you started writing/publishing books?
I’ve always been a voracious reader, always had two or even three books on me at any given point. Reading was pretty much my default activity, especially when I lived in a house and I could take a book, a water bottle, and a snack up a tree and lose the afternoon. It’s gotten broader as I’ve gotten older, especially as I’ve discovered some non-fiction that I really enjoy, but I think the biggest change has been that I try more things. I still definitely have my Things I Like- fantasy, historical, dark and twisty, supernatural or paranormal elements- but as I’ve gotten to know other authors via Twitter and such, as I’ve found authors I want to support regardless of what kind of book they wrote, I’ve found a surprising number of contemporaries to fall in love with. (Contemp has always been my meh category).
I’ve also gotten to the point where I don’t feel obligated to finish a book I’m not enjoying. I give it fifty pages, and if I’m just not interested (or actively repulsed) I don’t feel guilty about putting it down anymore. There are so many amazing books out there, too many to waste time on something that’s just not doing it for me.
I read quickly (seriously, I’ve got friends and family who won’t stay in the same room with me if I’m reading a physical book), and I remember most of what I read, but I LOVE re-reading. I love going through the first time and being “WOW THIS AWESOME HOW DID THEY DO THAT”, and then going through a second time and being “WOW THIS AWESOME THIS IS HOW THEY DID THAT”. Since getting published, this is something I do with great glee and call it research. I still mostly read YA– it’s where my heart is, where my interest is, and I just plain love the books– but I still make regular forays in Sci-fi/Fantasy, mystery (closer to cozy than procedural or suspense), and a ton of history and science. Middle Grade, too, is near and dear to my heart.
Beyond being an obsessive reader, tell a little bit about your writing life. What kinds of writing have you done? Do you have any rituals or habits about writing?
If there’s such a thing as a normal progression for a YA writer, I think I probably had it. I told stories before I knew how to read or write, played massively intricate games of make believe (still do) and spent hours with paper or the family computer (back when it was normal for an entire family to share one) creating worlds and stories and never…quite…finishing them. Sometimes I’d get hundreds of handwritten pages in and just lose interest or get a shinier idea or something. Then I discovered fanfic. Or more to the point, a friend challenged me to write a fanfic. (Harry Potter) Suddenly there were people very vocally waiting for new chapters, people who, thanks to the anonymity of the internet, were perfectly willing to hound me for what they wanted. So I finally learned discipline, learned how to figure out the scope of the story before putting down the first words. I learned how to FINISH projects.
I suck at short stories (so I try to write them anyway) but through high school and college I did some screenwriting (really bad at it) and some playwriting (won awards! Had plays performed!) before I realized that however much I would always love the theatre, and however much it will ALWAYS influence my writing, novels were where I wanted to be. My first completed novel actually started out as a play, then as a screenplay. I think, if I’ve learned anything about my writing, it’s that my brain holds the ability to constantly surprise me. I’ll write an outline for a project and about a third of the way through writing, I’ll look back and go huh, so this got stood on one ear…I love fantasy, even if writing it terrifies me a little, because the worldbuilding is such a huge responsibility. I think besides fantasy what I love best is things that bend genre definitions, the things that are a little hard to put into a box because it requires you create very specific definitions of paranormal or supernatural or magical realism. I like letting the story be what it wants to be without worrying about what shelf to put it on, which is how I end up clockwork airships and maybe-crazy girls and lonely dragons.
I have BIZARRE rituals about writing, not so much superstition as ways to keep my OCD in check. Every project gets its own notebook, usually a college ruled composition book, and all of my planning goes in there. Except for one project that had to get its own four inch research binder, research goes in there as well. Characters, worldbuilding, excerpts, plots, outlines, notes, everything. And…it’s color-coded. And every project has its own kind of pen, and everything that goes into the notebook is in that kind of pen and the correct color. (I wasn’t kidding about the OCD- it’s mild, but it makes itself known).
This part of the process, though, I can do anywhere, and it’s all longhand. Generally speaking, a project stews for months before I ever open a word file for it. I know the story from beginning to end–accepting, of course, that it is VERY likely to change–and I know the voice and the rhythm so by the time I finally start drafting (on the writing-only computer that I never take online; best use of a tax return I’ve ever made), the words just kind of come spilling out.
I pretty much always have to go out somewhere to write. Too many distractions at home, even in the office. So I go out to a fast food place, stake out a table with an outlet (some days more of a victory than the actual writing) and take advantage of free refills of caffeine. I have my pens, my notebook, my computer, and, most importantly, my iPod, which usually has a playlist crafted around the book. Before I start writing for the day, I reread the last chapter or two to ease back into the voice(s) and make sure I know where I’m at. Even after I’m done writing for the day I have quirky little habits. I write the dates for beginning and ending each chapter, page count, word count, and then another page, write daily word count (in case I’m ambitious and manage to get more than one chapter done, or…less ambitious and don’t get a full chapter done). It just helps me gauge progress when I get stuck somewhere else and want to start tearing my hair out.
Wow! I’m totally stealing this to tell my students, because my own process is completely lackluster in comparison! Besides writing and reading, what kinds of things do you like do for fun or leisure or, possibly, obsession?
I grew up crafting and baking with my mom and grandmother. When I was younger, the crafts were mostly needle-based (embroidery, cross-stitch, sewing, plastic canvas, basic patchwork quilts.) As I got a little older, we added in stained glass, and I made crazy intricate thread bracelets, and then when I was in college I had to learn how to make jewelry for demonstrations (I worked at Michaels). I LOVE IT. A lot of my favorite pieces to wear are things I’ve made, and I love the entire process of it, building the design, finding the right beads, putting it together. I’m incapable of just sitting and watching TV, so that’s when I tend to break out the beads. I also really love decoupage. I suck at scrapbooking- spatial orientation is not my friend- but I do well applying it to decorating notebooks. Specifically the ones I use for projects, because otherwise they all look exactly the same. And baking is just stress-relief, as long as I can foist the finished product off on other people.
I used to do a lot of staged combat, working a couple of Renaissance festivals, and I miss it like crazy. Mostly the bodices and the music. And the ability to carry swords and daggers in my car and not get strange looks for it. I’m hooked on logic puzzles (you know, the grid ones you can get whole magazines of in the supermarket?) and I’m slowly getting better at them. And I still think the only sensible cure for a really bad day is a coloring book and fresh box of crayons.
I have DVDs going most of the time I’m home, but mostly as background noise, unless I’m making fun of something. And then there’s the whole fanfic obsession, but I’m pretty sure that counts as reading and writing.
My young writing students are invariably fan fiction writers. What has writing/reading fanfic taught you? Or has it just been fun?
I was mentally writing/playing out fanfic long before I had any idea what it was. I’d read a book or watch a movie and I’d instantly be spinning out a million what-ifs to explore. It was in high school that I accidentally stumbled upon the fact of fanfic. I’d been watching Newsies, and looking for pictures on our slow as anything connection, and found stories. I didn’t fall in love with any of them- pretty much all the ones I saw on that particular forum were really bad- but I thought the idea of writing these and getting away with it was amazing. Then at a girls’ night with a group of friends, I discovered that three of them wrote fanfic together, and it was superb. Funny and silly and darkly sentimental by turns, it was brilliant. One of those girls was the one who challenged me to write my first official fanfic in college. I admit, I was nervous at the thought of formally playing in someone else’s world, and a little self-conscious and embarrassed. I felt silly. But I did it, and the feedback was amazing, and I fell in love with it.
For me, fan fiction became a safe place to practice craft and learn discipline. Suddenly people were hounding me for new chapters, which meant I actually had to keep writing them. And they had to make sense. And follow a continuous story. Which meant I actually had to start figuring out most of the story before I started writing. And the feedback showed me consistent flaws in my writing so I knew where I could improve. Fan fiction taught me how to finish stories. And planning fics, writing them, allowed me to explore other characters and other worlds and really try to understand what made them tick. I wanted to see new things and new situations, but I didn’t want the characters so be so out-of-character that they could only be peripherally connected back to their source. I wanted them to be real. I wanted them to fit. So that meant really coming to understand the characters and how they speak, their habits, their motivations. Fics also gave me a place to try new things. Ophelia’s voice in A Wounded Name fairly directs owes its existence to a fic I wrote when I got bored during a poetry class. I remember being so pissed afterwards, because at the time I felt like it was probably the most poetic and beautiful thing I would ever write, and it was a fanfic, and therefore I could only post it online and weep that I’d never be able to translate it to an original project (because for me, fanfic that can be separated from its source material isn’t good fanfic, it’s just copying).
Reading fanfic is therapeutic. It’s my stress relief, but it’s also one of my sources of unmitigated awe. The things that some fic writers are able to accomplish while staying true to the worlds and the characters can be genuinely astonishing. And the fact is, there are some stories floating out there on fanfiction.net and other forums that I may like better than the original sources, in some cases. They are brilliant, intelligent, moving, intense stories that do everything a novel is supposed to do to you as a reader. I know a lot of people find it easy to dismiss fanfic as not being original, as people lacking talent to such an extent that they can only dip into true writers’ worlds, and I think that’s crap. MOST fanfic is, I think, a form of escapism, a way to embrace the what-if, a way for the writer to see what they wanted to happen play out on the page/screen. It’s harmless, it can be fun, and yes, it can quite frequently be awful, both in concept and execution, but there’s a significant percentage of fics that actually succeed in expanding the world. That look at plot holes and seek to explain them. That questions small actions or statements. That challenges the motivations of characters. That are so incredibly well written you end up railing against the injustice that you can’t physically buy the book to support that writer’s future endeavours. These fics, I think, challenge us not only as fans, not only as readers, but also as writers. They challenge us to be better, to take the risk, to dig deeper and dig broader.
(And let’s be honest: doesn’t A Wounded Name count as essentially public domain fanfic?)
What’s up next for you? (Realize I hate this question, because it kind of acts like you didn’t just do a HUGE thing in writing, editing, publishing and then launching a book. Feel free to tell me you’re going on vacation or headed to the grocery store if you like…)
Well, what’s literally next (as in, like, eighteen hours) my friend Christine and I are finishing up our Harry Potter movie marathon. We’ve been alternating weekends on them, playing them on a projector against a wall, and if there’s a dirty joke to be made I don’t think we’ve missed any. Tomorrow we do the Deathly Hallows movies, and reinforce all the ways we are never, ever going to be able watch these movies with children in the room, because seriously, we cannot stop laughing at all the accidentally dirty bits. We giggle like five-year-olds. It’s pretty awesome.
Honestly, my ‘what’s next’ is a fairly depressing litany of unemployment, family medical matters, and seeing if I can finish up my current project before my brain explodes from the unexpected ways the draft keeps challenging me. It’s…a weird year. I have to keep reminding myself that applications are not the appropriate place for creative expression.
Thank you, Dot, for answering all my nosy questions!