Wednesday, January 18, 2017

AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE by Shaun David Hutchinson

I've been a fan of Shaun's ever since WE ARE THE ANTS, and I was glad to interview him about it, as well his anthology, VIOLENT ENDS. In his gorgeous, humorous, and poignant writing, he always finds a way to introduce concepts that are intriguing to explore. His newest book, AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE, will be out on February 7. Have a look:

Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.

More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.

Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.

When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.

But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy–that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as possible.

In our last interview, you said, "We may be meaningless in the grand scheme of the universe, but we matter to someone, and that’s what’s important." In what ways do you feel that this is true, and how might these connections be conveyed through story? 

My personal feeling is that life is made up of the little moments and not the big ones.  Most of us aren’t going to save the world. Most of us won’t wind up being written about in history books twenty, fifty, or even 100 years from now.  That that doesn’t mean we’re not important.  My second grade teacher will always be important to me because she taught me to read when it felt like others had given up on me.  My mom is never going to invent the cure for cancer, but she was there for me and is one of the most important people in my life and in the lives of all the people she comes into contact with.  The universe is a faceless, non-entity, but it’s populated by a web of people, all of whom are interconnected.  So while we may not be able to make an impact in the larger scheme of things, we can make smaller impacts in the lives of those around us, and those impacts will ripple out in beautiful and unexpected ways.  I’m not a big believer in fate, but I do love the domino theory of interconnectedness.  The idea that each action has consequences that spread outward so that one small, unrelated action can have an impact on someone far away.  I slow down to let someone in front of me in traffic, and they then decide they have extra time to stop for coffee where they buy someone who’s forgotten their wallet a cup of coffee.  That person goes to work and sees someone struggling, someone they might not have noticed if they’d been pissed off because they’d lost their wallet and couldn’t get their coffee, and stops to talk to them.  And it goes on and on.  Our actions matter to people who may not even be aware of them.

And your books have not only shown that interconnectedness, they also offer an opportunity for readers to connect with the worlds you've created. I love the way you explore memory in AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE. How might a shrinking memory relate to a shrinking universe, and what might be the consequences because of it?

Memory, and how it affects who we are is one of those things I love to explore.  Shows like Westworld and the BBC’s Humans and Fox’s Dollhouse are all shows that explore how connected our humanity is to our memories.  Some, like Westworld, take the view that we are our memories, while others like Dollhouse seem to posit that there is a core to ourselves that exists independent of memory.  I have kind of a different take. I sometimes tell people that all of my first-person narrators are unreliable because memory is unreliable.  We often remember things the way we need to remember them rather than the way they actually happened.  Is something any less true to us if it didn’t actually happen exactly the way we remember it happening?  I’m not sure it is.  It might not be objectively true, but it’s true to us, and therefore it will still have the same impact as if it were.  Without giving anything away, the shrinking universe comes in and begins stripping everything away from Ozzie’s life.  It rewrites his personal history (and the history of the world), but it doesn’t and can’t change the things that Ozzie believes are true.  It was interesting for me to watch Ozzie cling to the things he knew to be true in the face of everyone else telling him they weren’t.  It’s also interesting to me how memory and truth work in the real world.  We’ve gotten to see first hand throughout the election that just happened how truth is less important than what people believe.  And while our universe isn’t shrinking, the internet has made it smaller.

It definitely has--and it makes the interconnectedness you touched on earlier all the more important. AT THE EDGE OF THE UNIVERSE also has one of the best beginnings I've ever read. What do you find most challenging about writing the beginning of a story, and what is the most rewarding?

It’s so funny you mention the beginning.  I wrote that beginning first and sent the draft to my agent.  We talked over some problems with the manuscript, and when I sent it back to her, I’d cut the opening.  She strongly suggested I put it back in, so I did.  For me, openings are challenging for two reasons.  The first is that, especially because of the stories I write, I need to convey what the weird thing is in my story without massive info dumps.  The opening has to be dynamic and snare the reader from the first word.  I love writing openings.  If I could make a career out of them, I totally would.  The second challenge, and probably the more difficult one, is carrying the promise of the opening through the rest of the book. The opening is where you essentially make a pact with the reader. You promise the reader that this is what the story is going to be about. This is what the tone is going to be. This is the character you’re going to become emotionally invested in. Stories that begin one way and then abandon their premise drive me batty.  Sometimes it’s in a good way (like with the movie Arrival, which turns out to be nothing like what we’re promised in the beginning), but sometimes it’s not in a good way.  My challenge is always making sure not to betray the premise and promise of the opening chapter without good reason. And it’s something that I struggle with all the time because my stories are rarely plot driven.  The weird scenarios I throw at characters are nearly always a way for me to explore the more mundane aspects of my narrators' internal emotional lives.

Which is why, in my opinion, you've certainly mastered that pact. As an author, what is something new you'd like to try in your writing? 

Everything?  I struggle with the idea that readers have come to expect a certain something from me as a writer. They expect a certain type of story and a certain type of writing, and I want to give that to them while still surprising them.  I also struggle with boredom.  I don’t know if it’s a function of my ADHD or just a quirk of who I am, but I get bored very easily, so I’m always looking to try new things and challenge myself.  I keep saying I’d love to try third person, but there’s something so real about the first person narrative I can’t seem to leave behind.  Mostly I really want to keep experimenting with narrative structure.  Using time and memory and reader expectations to shake things up.  I want to tell familiar stories in unfamiliar ways. I want to challenge the concept of what a story is and what a story can be.  One of my favorite books of 2016 was Where Futures End by Parker Peevyhouse because of the way it experimented with structure and time, and I think more books like that would make YA a richer landscape.

More than anything, though, I want to write a villain.  A really compelling villain.  One of the things I’ve noticed is that none of my books actually have a clear cut antagonist.  Even Marcus from We Are the Ants exists in this gray area that makes it difficult to really call him a villain, and it’s one of those things I really, really want to do. I just have to find the right story and the right character to do it with.


Buy: BookPassage ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound


Buy: BookPassage ~ ~ Barnes & Noble ~  IndieBound


Buy: BookPassage ~ ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound


Buy:  BookPassage ~ ~ Barnes & Noble ~ IndieBound

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