Kathrin Hutson has been writing Dark Fantasy, SFF, and LGBTQ Speculative Fiction since 2000. She is a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. Kathrin lives in Vermont with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Brucewillis.
Sleepwater Static, Book Two in the LGBTQ Dystopian SF Blue Helix Series by Kathrin Hutson was released May 26 by Exquisite Darkness Press.
Wyoming’s Sleepwater chapter is on the run, hunted for their ability to spin a beat. With little time to mourn the members they’ve lost, Bernadette Manney takes the group to the one place she swore she’d never see again: the cabin in Hollywood, South Carolina. It’s remote enough to lay low and catch a break, but not for long.
Their beats are condemned as mutations, radical terrorist tactics, and felonies punishable both by and outside the law. Bernadette thought Sleepwater would be safe here, but returning to her Southern roots unleashes more demons than she left behind.
MIKE GLYER: In your Blue Helix series, the condemned mutation that confers special abilities — the beat – almost floats in a colloidal suspension where it comes in contact with the profoundly human stories that you want in the foreground. Instead of a big comic book bang, we see how individuals or families relate and conflict, only with more tools that may or may not help them. The genre elements tend to be pushed to the margins while focus is on the human relationships, romances, family histories and conflicts. What what was it specifically that attracted you to science fiction and fantasy as a setting?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I’ve always been more attracted to science fiction and fantasy as genres in general, and I think that came mostly from my desire as a kid, adolescent, and young adult to escape what was happening around me in my real life. Today, I choose to write in these genre for a few reasons. First, story always comes first. For me, the story is more exciting when I can work with these genre elements (even if they’re pushed to the margins) in order to create that sort of surrealist escapism while still keeping it grounded in what we as readers are all able to identify with – fleshed-out characters and profoundly human stories.
Second, these genres are just so dang fun. With fantasy especially, I get to work with worlds to change them and shape them in whatever way I see fit. As long as it fits the overall story too, of course. With the Blue Helix series, which is all I’ve written in the science fiction genre so far (dystopian and very “light” on the science part), I had to do a lot more research to create this world and these characters than I really have ever done for any of my other work, all of which is fantasy. But I did choose dystopian science fiction very specifically for the Blue Helix series because of what I wanted to say within the broader context of this “condemned mutation” found in my main characters and supporting characters. Originally with Sleepwater Beat, Book 1, I wanted to create an only slightly different world from our reality — a parallel universe, if you will. I believed it was really important to be able to show these parallels between worlds in order to highlight the disparities between marginalized communities and “the majority”. So I looked at these marginalized groups – the LGBTQ community, BIPOC, drug addicts, addiction survivors, victims of emotional and physical abuse, the homeless, the disenfranchised, those struggling with mental illness, disabled peoples, and anyone living on the fringes of society — and used this fictionally marginalized group in the books who have this special-ability mutation to open a window into the injustices, double-standards, and outright ridiculousness of bigotry and discrimination in all its forms. As it turned out, this parallel universe I created and fully intended to be farther in the future (2031 in the Blue Helix series) ended up having so many eerie similarities to what the world and specifically the United States has been experiencing as each book was published. They’ve been called timely and prescient, though I think I ended up giving “the future” too much credit for being farther away than it turned out to be.
MIKE GLYER: These books maintain a wonderful dynamic between characters on the run and rich sense of the location they’re presently in. I saw an author say he starts his stories from a sense of place—where do you start?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I start my stories from a sense of character and really getting inside their heads first. I think this is a lot easier for me to do than starting from a physical location or a sense of place because my “record” for the longest amount of time lived in one house in the last twenty years is two and a half years… and that was just recently reached in my last house in Vermont (my family moved to Colorado this past July, so now I’m starting over). One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned personally through always moving around for most of my life is that I can still be myself and carry everything I am and want to be with me, no matter where I end up. I hope that my characters provide that same feeling of “self” throughout my stories, even when these characters are fleeing across the country from persecution and holing up wherever they can find a roof over their heads for the night. Sometimes even just a car roof. But then when I have the characters down (and they don’t change who they are at the core, even with a different setting – unless it’s part of the story, of course), I get to play with bringing the setting to life almost as much as the people inhabiting it. I’ve lived in four different states in the last eight years – Colorado, South Carolina, California, and Vermont, in that order – and have gotten a decent sense of what each place feels like, what kind of people are found there, and how a physical location can play less or more or just as much of a role in the characters’ experiences as the people around them or the plot itself. But always, characters come first. And the fun lies in choosing how they do or don’t interact with the space around them when it changes.
MIKE GLYER: In The Blue Helix series, the special gifts the characters have in common bring them together because they are persecuted. Would that thing be enough reason to organize together if they were free to express their gifts?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This is a fantastic question. My immediate reaction was actually to think, “Well, it’s common ground. Common interests. Of course we’re drawn to other people like us.” But is that really the reason for gathering with like-minded individuals when we aren’t facing danger, persecution, and hatred simply for personal traits, beliefs, orientation, skin color, age (you name it) that we have no control over whatsoever?
I think there are two different reasons for these characters with “the beat”, who later joined to form the organization Sleepwater, to come together as they do in these series. Before their ability was weaponized, demonized, and relegated to something the rest of the world was told over and over again to fear and hate, yes. Beat-spinners gathered together to listen to each other’s individual abilities and form a sense of community around what made them different. Even when the rest of the world wouldn’t understand or had no idea of what they could do. There’s always a chance that “being different” will give others who fall under “normal” (like there’s even such a thing as “normal” anyway) a reason to taunt, make fun of, villainize, or otherwise act out against us. Take the overused (and sometimes still very real) trope in any YA entertainment media where high school is involved. We have “the nerds”, and even though “the nerds” get picked on by “the jocks” (or insert whichever high school clique you like) for being who they are, they still come together to play videogames, trade comic books, play chess, etc. because that’s a part of who they are. And they enjoy those parts of themselves (to be clear, I’ve done all of those things but play chess. I did, however, play D&D in high school, so there’s that). And in this hypothetical high-school setting, being “a nerd” isn’t necessarily a life-threatening “label” to carry. Sure, it makes things more difficult sometimes. I’m fortunate enough to have been “a nerd” in high school and still didn’t experience any bullying because of it, so I can say that seeking out like-minded individuals with similar interests and abilities in a relatively safe environment does absolutely exist.
On the other hand, when the danger and the discrimination become so wildly disproportionate to whatever makes us “different”, then yes. There is more of a reason to band together – for support, encouragement, hope, and to remind ourselves that we’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels like we’re being persecuted for who we are on a core, raw human level. I wish more people had the opportunity to experience community in the former arena, i.e. within safe spaces and because we are drawn to people like us, even during good times. That’s part of the reason I wrote this series in the first place.
MIKE GLYER: Who was your favorite character to write?
KATHRIN HUTSON: I love this question, because the answer surprised me so much. While each of the characters in the Blue Helix series were phenomenally fun to write (and gave me more insight into myself and my understanding of the nearly infinite scope of individual human experiences), the character I enjoyed writing the most was Donna. And when I set out to write Sleepwater Static, Book 2, I had no idea that I would be writing her as much as I did. Honestly, I expected her to remain a mentioned side-character in the pen-pal letters between the main character Bernadette and her best friend Janet. But then I realized I needed to put Bernadette and her boyfriend Darrell into a room with Janet and Donna to explore some more ideas of interpersonal relationships I was playing with, and it happened more than once.
Donna is a sharp-witted, charismatic, well-educated, affluent, biracial lesbian living in Vincent, Alabama in the 1980s who also happened to have this beat-spinning ability herself. She is Janet’s partner through most of the book, and she later becomes the spearhead of a revolutionary movement/rebellion by a group of people with this same “mutant ability” even before the rest of the world knew what Sleepwater and people like them could do. She was so much fun to write precisely because she is so complex, and not always in a good way. I wanted to write her in as a character (including that full description above) that I found lacking in speculative fiction when it comes to BIPOC characters, especially in the South and especially in the ’80s. And while Donna knows how to play a room to her full advantage, how to win people over with her gorgeous smile and her go-get-’em attitude, how to organize and stoke the fires of inspiration and action in others, she’s one of the most insecure characters in this series. She’s manipulative, sensitive, emotionally abusive toward Janet at times, and terrifyingly territorial. Nothing stops her, and she’ll do whatever it takes to circumvent any obstacle standing between her and what she wants, even if it happens to be her own partner. I didn’t intend to use writing Donna and Janet’s relationship as a way to juxtapose a “seemingly normal” relationship that’s actually quite dysfunctional with a purely healthy, loving, respectful relationship we see between Bernadette and Darrell. But as I kept writing, that’s what it became. And it served another purpose “layer” of showing how impossible and senseless it really is to “judge a book by its cover” – or, in this case, to judge a person by physical, economic, financial, and intellectual status. I also really love writing sharp-edged characters you can’t help but admire and appreciate even after seeing glimpses of their “masochistic side”, and Donna most definitely fits that bill.
MIKE GLYER: Have you ever received any pushback from editors or readers when you’ve included marginalized characters in your stories?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This was one of the things that I was actually quite nervous about experiencing when I wrote both Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten any blowback whatsoever. In some ways, that still throws me for a loop, and I’m always expecting that feedback to come down the line at one point or another (I’ll chalk it up to knowing I have to have that “thick author skin”, and if I’m expecting it, it’s not that heavy of a blow when it happens). But so far, the worst feedback I’ve received from anyone — and it was a reader — was “some people may like reading about the seedier sides of other people” but the story “wasn’t happy enough”. That garnered me a two-star review for Sleepwater Beat, which I was actually thrilled to receive. I did not in any way set out to write this series with the intention of making it a happy-go-lucky sci-fi read with action and intrigue thrown in for fun. That’s just not what I write. And even though it was a two-star review, it still solidified in my mind the belief that I’m writing exactly what I want to write with this series. Not everyone is going to enjoy it. Not everyone wants to read fiction about “the darker underbelly of society” that just isn’t “happy enough”. And that’s okay. The people who do want to read it, like myself, appreciate it for what it is.
I was especially nervous about the potential for negative feedback when I wrote Sleepwater Static, because in addition to touching on the marginalized communities I explored and shed light on in Sleepwater Beat, Book 2 in this series also focuses a lot on racism, racial discrimination and injustice, interracial relationships and families, and the difficulties BIPOC face on an every day basis. The closest I felt I could respectfully get to touching on these issues, as a white woman who’s been the target of other forms of discrimination but not those based on skin color, was to write from the perspective of a main character who: is a white woman; has been the target of discrimination but not discrimination based on the color of her skin; is in a healthy romantic relationship with a black man in the South and has a child with him; and finds herself willing to do whatever she can to protect the people she loves, even if she happens to take it too far and make mistakes she deeply regrets along the way. My editor was such a huge part of reaffirming for me that I hit the points in Sleepwater Static delicately and respectfully. The other instrumental resource in ensuring I didn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes, cross the boundaries into acceptable representation, or get things flat-out wrong was using a sensitivity reader. Fortunately, this sensitivity reader agreed with my editor, and I didn’t have to make any changes to the manuscript. I suppose I didn’t have to agonize over doing this “the right way” for as long as I did while writing this book, either, but it was a valuable experience nonetheless.
I recently was a guest on the Sci-Fi Saturday Night podcast with The Dome and Cam to talk about Sleepwater Static, and they told me something after the show that was so invaluable for me to hear and that I think is a pretty important nugget for any writer wanting to tackle bigger issues within a work of speculative fiction. In a nutshell, they told me that the difference between writing on a large scale like this to the same effect of standing up on a soap box with a megaphone — spouting “political or social stances” — and writing in a way that is clear, versatile, and accessible to everyone, without becoming didactic or overblown, is whether or not we as writers are tackling these issues and writing our stories from a place of anger and fear. That was a hugely enlightening moment for me. I’ve written so many of my own personal life experiences into the Blue Helix series — some of them remarkably traumatic at one point in time — after I’d already found a place within myself where that rage and that fear could be removed. Not completely ignored or erased, because I’m well aware of the fact that the causes of that rage and fear (and the work I’ve done in my own life to move past them) will always be a part of who I am. But they are detached from my writing process, and it allows me to create stories like these that don’t feel didactic or like I’m trying to “sell” readers on any particular stance. Because I’m not. This is the one of the things, in my opinion, that may be a reason why I haven’t received a lot of pushback from editors or readers of the Blue Helix series since Sleepwater Beat released in November of 2018. I just want to offer readers a chance to look at the world around them from a different perspective, maybe even to realize that they’re not alone in how they think or feel or what they’ve gone through, and in doing that, I always prioritize the quality of my craft – good story, robust characters, real moments — first.
MIKE GLYER: Corporate villains, family betrayal, chemical addiction, racism, and sexual self-discovery, aren’t just issues explored in your books, they’re decision points a character may pay the price for with their lives. In one of your bios you talk about “Happily Never Afters.” What are the keys to writing stories like this that appeal to readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions?
KATHRIN HUTSON: Answering this question as so many layers I could probably keep peeling back forever. But the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m already well aware of the fact that we as writers can’t possibly appeal to everyone. Fiction would become quite bland indeed if that were the endgame. But I think that appealing to these readers who probably grew up conditioned to Disney-style resolutions is made possible through what I believe is the cornerstone of every good story, which is that human connection. Despite race, age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, education level, religion, belief system, any and all demographics I could list here, we all have something in common. We are all living, breathing, feeling human beings who hold personal values and care about something. Appealing to this shared human experience through fiction, I believe, is the best way to reach so many more people who would otherwise not have been open to reading about these things in the first place, or maybe even reading dark fiction as an overarching genre.
As an example, I met with a book club last year in Vermont who’d all read Sleepwater Beat beforehand. When this group came together to talk with me about the books (and it really turned into an hour-and-a-half-long discussion of them mostly describing their experiences and thoughts when reading, which was phenomenal), I was blown away by the demographics represented just in this small group — BIPOC, men, woman, straight cis-gendered men, LGBTQ people, parents, people without children, and the age rage went from 25 to 76. Each and every one of these book-club members had something to say about different parts in the book that spoke to them, touched on their own experiences, made them think differently, made them feel like they were seen and recognized, and helped them tap into the gratitude they carried for what they had in their own lives. And this was possible, I’d like to say, because of the fact that I do choose to put human relationships and “profound human stories” into the foreground of my work, especially with the Blue Helix series. We all have different experiences, and many of us break away from what we’re “conditioned” to believe, feel, think, understand simply through interactions with other humans and their experiences. I’m lucky enough to say that after everything I’ve been through in my life (and there’s plenty more of it to come), I’ve found my own version of a “happy ending”. And I think that by writing Happily Never Afters, at the very least, I may help others come to understand that reaching theirs is actually possible and not just relegated to fairytale resolutions.
MIKE GLYER: Finally, would you like to tell us about any other new or upcoming releases you have?
KATHRIN HUTSON: This may sound like a complete 180 after answering that last question, but my next upcoming release is the first in a Dark Urban Fantasy series called Accessory to Magic. Book 1 is The Witching Vault, which will be available on December 10th, 2020. I’m trying something a little bit different with this series, going for a “lighter” approach to fiction more for entertainment purposes than the complex levels of picking apart “the human struggle” found in the Blue Helix series. But, of course, the Accessory to Magic series still has my dark spin on it and quite a bit of my own experiences peppered throughout: An apprentice witch with a criminal past inherits a magical bank that can think for itself – and the clientele are almost as dangerous as what’s inside their safety deposit boxes.
I’m excited to see how my darkness-loving readers will react to something a little more on the fun-escapist side with a heck of a lot more snark. And, of course, I’m also working on Book 3 in the Blue Helix series, which will release in Spring of 2021. So readers have about eight months to prepare for that one, and it’s shaping up to be the series wildest ride yet.
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