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An interview with author Kathryn Hitchins – writing, ethics and illness

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Tell us a little about you – your life, your writing and your faith journey.

I was born into a Christian family and believed and trusted in Jesus from a very young age, possibly from around four years old. I grew up going to Sunday school and Girl Crusaders and attending church holiday clubs and Christian camps. Every time I heard the call to accept Jesus as my personal saviour I recommitted myself. At the age of 16, however, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t a Christian just because my parents were, and embarked on an intellectual journey which included a Christianity Explored course, reading Bertrand Russell’s ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ and finding out about other religions. Rather than weakening my faith, my studies into other belief systems reinforced the truth of Christianity as I was unable to find another world view which so satisfactorily described the human condition and my own experience of God.

Have you always wanted to be a writer?

I’ve always been interested in reading and writing stories, and dreamed of being an author throughout my childhood and teens. As I grew up and began to tell people I wanted to be a novelist, there were the usual negative comments. “It’s so hard to get published.” “It pays so badly.” “You have to study English Literature to be a writer.” You must stick to the grammatical rules.” “You must write about what you know” (not what you love or what excites you or what obsesses you). “Why not go to secretarial college and learn to type? You’ll always be able to get a job.”

So I left school at sixteen, went to secretarial college and started working in London from the age of 17. I kept writing in the evenings and enrolled for creative writing classes and residential weeks. Finally I listened to the advice I was receiving that I ought to study the great works of English literature and signed myself up to do an English A level in evening classes. I gained a place to read English, Philosophy and Religious Studies at Lancaster University when I was 21. I read solidly for three years, writing essays about other people’s stories, feeling a bit intimidated that I would never be able to write as well as them. After graduating it was easy to slip back to being a secretary in London, but I continued to write in the evenings.

Then everything changed. At the age of 28 I gave up. Blame a heart break which made me feel I had failed as a human being. The rejection silenced my voice. I no longer believed I had anything to say that was worth listening to. I stopped believing in the magic of fiction and in the happy ever after.

When I married my husband in my thirties, he knew that I had once wanted to be a writer and encouraged me to take it up again. I refused to countenance the idea. I was a different person now. Older, wiser. I couldn’t bear the hurt of facing my broken dreams. Besides I was busy bringing up our two children and working part time.

Then I had another heartbreak: the loss of my beloved father from cancer. I became conscious of the most tremendous mental and emotional pressure. I started to jot down my feelings at odd moments in the day. At first, this made me more miserable. I read back my personal rants at the unfairness of everything and sounded petty and ungrateful. There were so many others in the world suffering more than I was. So in order to gain some emotional distance, I projected my despair onto a fictional character of the opposite sex. He was in a different situation from me, grieving the loss of his job in the financial crash, but experiencing similar emotions. Thus the shallow, materialistic character of Vincent Stevens from my debut novel, The Girl at the End of the Road, was born.

I sent off my manuscript to agents and publishers and the rejections started to trickle back. Strangely I found that the pile of rejections was toughening me up. My crippling fear of failure and rejection, stemming from the broken romance in my twenties, was disappearing.

Then in 2015, I heard back from Instant Apostle, a small Independent Christian Publisher. They liked the sample I sent in and wanted to see the full manuscript. I emailed it to them on a Friday morning, and by the following Monday I receive a phone call offering me a contract.

What authors have inspired/influenced you the most?

I particularly enjoy novels which might be described as postmodern, such as the works of John Fowles and Umberto Eco, or as magical realism, such as the stories Salman Rushdie, Joanne Harris and Angela Carter, where the boundaries between the seen and the unseen worlds are blurred, and where the mysterious or spiritual can influence our everyday, realistic world. A few years after graduating I did a Masters in Postmodern Literatures in evening classes with Birkbeck College, London, with my dissertation on the works Angela Carter. Although I have many favourites, my favourite book in terms of the book I would like to have written is The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, for its use of the unreliable narrator.

What gave you the idea to write ‘The Key of All Unknown’?

Initially I wanted to write a novel for non-Christians which tackled issues relating to science and faith, but in a non-preachy way. I knew it wouldn’t be possible to have a Christian character answering a non-Christian’s questions about faith as it would be too ‘preachy’ and no one would buy it. Instead I decided to make my main character an atheist who, when faced with death, begins to doubt the faith she’s placed in science all her adult life.

‘The Key To All Unknown’ covers a lot of big issues from abortion, the afterlife, purpose of life, end-of-life care/decisions etc. Did you write with the intention of covering these issues, or did this develop throughout the writing process?

I started with the question, ‘Should a person’s life support be switched off?’ There have been several high profile cases in the media over the last few years where families have argued against the medical advice being offered by doctors. Medical advances are constantly pushing at the boundaries of medical ethics, and society is asking questions that would not have occurred in previous eras before people could be kept alive artificially. For me, the question overlaps with the controversies surrounding abortion and euthanasia because they all centre on the value of a human life, particularly if that life is consider to be imperfect, inconvenient or a drain on resources.

The way these ideas eventually came together developed as I went along, but I wanted to highlight the one thing that secularists miss when considering who should live or die: a person is firstly a soul with a body and not the other way around. This means there is always hope that the greatest miracle of all can occur – that a sinful human soul can be transformed by the spirit of God and made truly and eternally alive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The main character Tilda Moss is a scientist who ended up in hospital in a vegetative state but is still aware of what is going on around her. How did you go about researching the details of the characters, the science, the technical/medical side etc?

I’d often speculated what it would be like if I was suddenly faced with a potentially life threatening condition. As already mentioned, I’d seen my own father die from cancer a few years previously. After being in a coma for several days, he had opened his eyes and looked at my sister for a few seconds before breathing his last. The nurse said that this was not an uncommon occurrence; it was if he had known what was happening and wanted to say a final ‘goodbye’. I tried to imagine myself in that situation, hearing my family talk about me in my hospital room but unable to say anything or even signal to them that I could hear and understand.

As well as drawing on my memories of that time, I used the internet to answer any technical questions as I went along. I wanted to get the first draft down quite quickly, and was concentrating more on the ‘whodunit’ side of the story, introducing possible suspects who might have been responsible for the injuries which put my heroine into a coma. It was my intention to add fuller descriptions of the hospital environment when working on the second draft.

I was just over half way through the book, however, when I awoke to find a rash of red spots on my throat and arms which didn’t blanch when pressed. My GP told me to go straight to A&E. A few hours later I was diagnosed with Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia, a life threatening condition whereby my immune system was destroying my platelets and my blood could no longer clot. I was given medication and taken to the Critical Dependency Unit. I was told I probably wouldn’t sleep because of the drugs I’d been given. I lay in the dark listening to the sounds of the hospital, and the cries of the elderly lady opposite who kept asking where she was and if anyone was there.

The irony of my situation didn’t escape me. I was writing a book about a woman in a critical condition in hospital. As she lies in bed, she desperately tries to remember what happened to her and questions the beliefs she’s built her life upon. Now I was lying in a hospital bed thinking about the meaning and purpose of my own life. I asked my family to bring my laptop into the ward when they visited and started jotting down the sights, sounds and smells of the hospital.

Once home, I spent most of my time in bed. But sleep still eluded me. Although physically exhausted, my mind was wide-awake because of the medication. I decided to continue writing my manuscript, tapping away on my laptop during the night while everyone else was asleep. Having just experienced my own life-threatening moment and spell in hospital, ideas poured out of me. Within a week I’d completed 30,000 words and finished the first draft.

I’m a member of an author and readers group on Facebook, which helps connect authors with readers with particular areas expertise. Once completed, I sent the manuscript to an intensive care nurse and a neuroscientist who very kindly checked the medical details and gave invaluable feedback.

What was the hardest part of the writing process for this book?

I’ve written four books to date, three of them published by Instant Apostle, and this was the easiest book to write, partly because it’s the only book I’ve written that could loosely be described as genre fiction – a whodunit, where the ‘detective’ (in this case the victim herself) tries to piece together the clues and solve the crime.

Strangely, I have very little memory of writing the book. When I reread it through the editing process, I could only conclude that God had been guiding me in the way the story came together.

With my other books, the hardest part has been taking the initial idea for a plot and trying to flesh it out with characters capable of carrying the story in a convincing way.

How do you prepare to write a novel? (initial idea, writing process etc.)

I only write about things that interest me. Writing a book is a marathon, not a sprint, so the initial idea has to be something I’m absolutely passionate about. I usually imagine an ending that would satisfactorily answer a problem. The problem needs to occur early on in the first chapter. I drip feed any back story through memories and flashbacks throughout the book to avoid an off-putting information dump at the start. The beginning and ending are the most important chapters: the beginning will hook the reader (and hopefully a publisher or agent), and a great ending will make the reader want to buy the next book or recommend it to a friend. The middle is always the difficult part, but I imagine a succession of increasingly difficult challenges – physical, emotional and spiritual – that need to be overcome before the final resolution can be reached.

As far as the writing process is concerned, I certainly don’t sit in a book lined study adding daily to a pile of crisp white paper on the desk which grows methodically from chapter 1 until I type ‘The End’. I’m either at the kitchen table, with half an ear on the wash cycle and the other making sure the saucepans don’t boil over, sitting in the car and jotting in a small notebook waiting to pick up the kids, or snatching a quick cup of tea in a supermarket café, far away from the pile of ironing and the bathroom floor that needs washing. As a busy mum it’s easier to write small, discrete scenes and piece them together like a jigsaw puzzle when I have a quiet moment. I’m so grateful for my laptop and the ability to copy and paste. I’m not sure I could have been a writer in the days of paper and ink!

Can you give your top three tips for writers?

Read widely – literary fiction, commercial fiction, non-fiction, magazine articles and newspapers. This helps not only with developing your own unique style, but is great for generating new ideas and writing techniques.

If you have writer’s block, write something, anything, even if it just ‘I’m stuck and don’t know what to write’. It’s easier to polish a pebble into a gem than create a gem from scratch. Don’t get bogged down with writing the perfect first sentence. Keep moving forward. Good writing is all about re-writing that second, third and fourth draft.

Enjoy the process. When we get in touch with our creativity, we take on a little of what is usually set aside for the divine – we have the trouble and the delight of bringing something out of nothing. I didn’t believe it before I was published, but the greatest joy is still the struggle and satisfaction of bringing your idea into existence, whether or not anyone is going to read it.

Author photo March 2018

Kathryn Hitchins writes contemporary fiction from a faith perspective. The Girl at the End of the Road (shortlisted Woman Alive Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award 2017) was published in March 2016 by Instant Apostle. The Key of All Unknown (finalist, Woman Alive Magazine’s Readers’ Choice Award 2017) was published in October 2016. The Gardener’s Daughter was released on 15 March 2018. Kathryn also contributed to the ACW 2018 Lent Book New Life: Reflections for Lent, and to the ACW Christmas Anthology due out later in 2018.


Twitter: @KathrynHitchins

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