I’m thrilled to jump into the new year with an author who’s one of today’s most prolific authors of gay YA, in addition to being the mastermind of some killer collaborative projects. His We Are the Ants was a hugely lauded 2016 release, and now he’s back with another speculative fiction title in the upcoming At the Edge of the Universe. But don’t worry, he’s got a full dance card for 2018 too. Please welcome Shaun David Hutchinson to LGBTQReads to tell us all about it!
Let’s jump right into the new release: At the Edge of the Universe, which releases February 7. Something about that book feels so…cathartic. What was the experience of writing it like?
Writing At the Edge of the Universe was actually kind of a struggle. I had no idea what my follow up to We Are the Ants was going to be, so I just started writing the things that popped into my head (which is how it usually goes). I went through three or four drafts trying to figure out what this book was about, sort of throwing every weird idea I had into it to see what worked and then peeling them back. For me, the “big ideas” are never really what books are about. They’re always about the emotions, and that was what I struggled with most to understand. What was the emotional core of this book? What was it really about?
It wasn’t until earlier this year when my partner and I split up that I realized I’d been subconsciously writing about relationships in various stages of ending. Ozzie’s parents are divorcing, he and all of his friends are graduating high school and moving to the next phases of their lives, his brother is joining the army, his boyfriend, Tommy, has disappeared. And on top of that, the universe is shrinking, forcing Ozzie to figure out how to move on from all of that. Where does he fit in? Where does his life go from here? How does he make it through life without all of the people he’s counted on for support? It’s funny that you mentioned catharsis, because coming to the realization concerning the true emotional center of this book was cathartic for me as well. 2016 has been a great year for me professionally, but a pretty crappy one for me personally, and finishing Ozzie’s story helped me move on from those bad things in a positive way.
I’ve come to think of your books as sharing the theme of “the light at the very end of the loooong, spiky tunnel,” which feels particularly relevant at present. What feeds that theme for you, and what kinds of things work as your “light” at the end of a long writing day of tough stuff?
It’s funny. I never really thought of myself as an optimist. I’m not really a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. Or a glass-is-half-empty one. I’m more “OMG! The glass is full of acid!” I don’t know if it’s a side-effect of my struggles with depression or with the way I deal with it, but for me personally, life feels like 90% struggling through the mud to reach the 10% of stuff that’s awesome. And holding on for that 10% is what keeps me going. It’s what helps me get through the day. I like the “it gets better” sentiment, but the truth is that sometimes it gets better, and sometimes it gets worse. Sometimes it gets better and then it gets worse before it gets better again. I’m not sure there’s actually a light at the end of the tunnel, but I do believe that life is one long tunnel and there are definitely lights along the way, and we have to take the time to breathe and appreciate them when we find them. For me, those lights can be something big like going to visit my brother and his husband in Seattle or something small like slipping into a great book. It’s less about what that light is than about recognizing it’s a light and allowing myself to enjoy it. Though, I did buy one of those virtual reality headsets recently, and OMG is it fun.
Similarly, the universe and its potential growth or end are obviously recurring elements for you as well. Is this a lifelong love of science bleeding into your books, or a recent fascination? If the latter, can you pin where it came from?
I can trace my love of science fiction all the way back to my father, who got me into Star Wars and Star Trek and all things sci-fi. I’m not sure if my love of science is an outgrowth of that or just the way my brain is wired. On one hand, I’ve got all the hallmarks of an artistic person, while on the other I’m obsessed with logic and how things work. I love with science and math that you can take all of this data and calculate it and come up with the same answer every time. There’s something soothing about that. It’s like, there’s so much about the universe we don’t know, there are some many bits unexplained and unexplored, but the things we do know, we know with a frightening certainty.
When we predict wrongly the way the universe works, it’s not because we did the math wrong, it’s simple because we lacked some key piece of knowledge necessary for the equation. For characters like Drew, Henry, and Ozzie (and probably for me as well), the solidity that science and logic offer are a necessary counterbalance to the emotional turmoil they experience. Depression doesn’t play by any rules. Neither does life. Depression hits when you least expect it. People die or drift away. Friendships and relationships end unexpectedly. The day-to-day of life can be frustratingly random in a way science isn’t. The sun will rise tomorrow. And the day after. You can do the math and determine exactly when then sun is going to rise from any position on the planet to a frighteningly accurate degree because of science and math. It’s comforting to know that.
You’re kind of the king of anthologies right now, with Violent Ends behind you and Feral Youth coming up in 2018. What’s the process of putting together a lineup for those like, and how on earth did you get the idea for a modern Canterbury Tales antho??
Well thank you! It’s not something I thought I’d wind up doing, but I really love everything about it. Gathering the right authors is a really methodical process. It’s not just about liking someone’s body of work, they have to be a fit for the tone of the anthology. I had a couple of people question including Beth Revis, who was known for writing science fiction, in Violent Ends, but I knew Beth would be a perfect fit because while her Across the Universe series was indeed sci-fi, her characters and their relationships were always the core of those books. So every author I work with is one whose works I’m very familiar with. Once I have a list, it’s all about begging them to be a part of what I hope to do. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have assembled two stellar groups of talented writers so far. They’ve been enthusiastic and supportive and have been immensely wonderful to work with. And even though I thought I knew what to expect from each of them, they all managed to surprise me in the very best ways.
As for Canterbury Tales…I’ve actually been a fan since college. I took a medieval literature class with a professor who inspired in me a lifelong love and study of medieval and renaissance literature. The following semester she taught a course devoted exclusively to Chaucer, and it was the best class I ever took. Since then I’ve been looking for a way to bring my own spin to it, and after my experience with Violent Ends, I thought another atypical anthology was the perfect fit. The thing that’s so brilliant about Canterbury Tales is that it’s not about the tales themselves, but rather what those stories reveal about the storytellers. If you want to really know and understand a person and how they view the world, listen to the stories they tell you.
One of the really fun things about watching your career is seeing how you’ve really grown in audience, especially as your books have gotten gayer. What are the best/most memorable things you’ve heard in response to your more recent work?
Ha! I’d actually given up when I decided to move forward with The Five Stages of Andrew Brawley. Before that, I was terrified of how a gay character whose sexuality didn’t have a narrative purpose would be received. Queer characters in movie, books, and television always seem to have to justify their existence. They’re either there to provide an after-school-special lesson or to die so that the real main character can experience some type of emotional moment. But Drew was just gay. None of his many problems revolved around his sexuality. And I wasn’t exactly sure how readers would respond. I was happily surprised by the reactions. Since then, there’s been a wonderful explosion of queerness in YA lit. We’re definitely still lagging behind in many areas, and I’d like to see us moving away from the queer experience as seen through the eyes of gay cisgender white boys, but we’re pushing forward. I’m a glass-is-full-of-acid guy, remember? So the things that stand out to me are always the “this would have been better without the gays” reviews. But, honestly, I’ve gotten so many emails from young people who read Five Stages or We Are the Ants and wanted to share their own stories and how Henry helped them cope. To me, that’s everything. That something I wrote helped a kid in a way I wish a book had been able to help me as a teen is the very best part of all of this.
What’s something you’ve seen in LGBTQIAP+ lit that’s really stuck with you, for better or for worse?
I wouldn’t call it LGBTQIAP+ lit, but Magic’s Pawn by Mercedes Lackey was the first time I saw a queer character in a book that I can remember. It was such a lightbulb moment for me seeing someone who sort of represented me in a genre work by a prominent author. I wasn’t particularly keen on all the aspects of those books (especially the idea of sex with sentient horses), but even all the way back in the late 90s when I read it, I remember it giving me hope that I could write stories filled with characters who represented me and the people I knew.
What are your favorite LGBTQIAP+ reads, and which ones are you most looking forward to?
My favorites tend to fluctuate. I’m always a fan of everything Hannah Moskowitz writes. Her book Not Otherwise Specified is criminally underrated. I’m loving everything by Tim Floreen (his most recent is Tattoo Atlas, and it’s SO GOOD), and Simon Curtis’s Boy Robot is the gay sci-fi of my dreams. Delilah Dawson’s (writing as Lila Bowen) series The Shadow, which starts with the book A Wake of Vultures, is a definite standout for me. Robin Talley’s books continue to amaze me. And, of course, I love everything Patrick Ness writes (including his BBC show Class).
I’m really looking forward to both of Adam Silvera’s new books, as well as Becky Albertalli’s latest. I don’t know what they’ve got coming out next, but I’m also eagerly awaiting Alex Gino’s followup to George. And I can’t wait for Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. But mostly I’m looking forward to where LGBTQIAP+ books go next as we move beyond the typical queer narratives into the wider world of storytelling. I can’t wait for that gritty sci-fi space pirate series that features a transgender character or the epic fantasy with an asexual character. I can’t wait to see books that feature intersectionality in a non-issue-book way. I can’t wait for the readers who fell in love with George or More Happy Than Not to start writing and publishing their own books. LGBTQIAP+ has such a bright future, and I’m beyond excited to see everything that’s coming.
In addition to Feral Youth, you’ve also got The Apocalypse of Elena Mendoza coming up in 2018. What can you share about it with us?
I’m ending the world. Again! So I had this idea about a character who was born of a virgin and starts the apocalypse. And then I had no idea where to go from there. Luckily, Elena started speaking to me (as most characters do) and I discovered this really flawed and strong and fragile character with a story to tell about struggling to control the world around her. The premise is that Elena Mendoza is the first child to be scientifically proven as born of a virgin. Which, obviously, pisses people off. When she’s sixteen, she begins hearing voices and learns she has the ability to heal people when her mother is shot in the parking lot of a Target. A side-effect of her ability is that it causes holes to open in the sky and lights to “rapture” people, taking them to somewhere unknown, and it kickstarts the end of the world. And though the world actually does end this time (I promise!), the story is really about how Elena navigates a world she wants to control when everything seems so out of control. Her ex-boyfriend is a jerk who keeps trying to prove he’s a “good guy;” she and her best friend, Winifred, are taking their first steps into a romantic relationship; Elena’s mother is battling mental illness; and the voices, which speak to her through stuffed animals and Lego figures, keep trying to force Elena to walk a path she isn’t sure she wants to go down. And all of this is happening while the world tears itself apart, and Elena might be the only person who can save it.
I would say that this book is really a tribute to my mother. She’s disabled and has been since I was very young, but she’s the strongest person in my life. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized how badly she’d struggled raising me and my brothers. Knowing that only reinforced my belief in her strength. She kept on when most people would have given up. Even when everything else was falling apart around her, she kept going and did what needed to be done. And I wanted to bring that to Elena’s story. If there’s any book I want to make my mother proud, it’s this one.
Got questions or comments for Shaun? Leave them below or check out his website at ShaunDavidHutchinson.com!