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Interview: J. C. Hutchins

J. C. Hutchins is the author of the 7th Son (my review) series of podcast novels, the first of which is now in available in print. Visit him at for lots more episodes, Hutchins’ podcasts on writing and podcasting and lots of other fun promotional stuff, including an entirely FREE prequel to the novel now in stores.

Grasping for the Wind: First off, I want to thank you for sending good juju out to my puppy Darra in your guest post. It is greatly appreciated.

J. C. Hutchins: Oh, you’re welcome! My elderly cat Chester recently experienced some debilitating health issues, so I absolutely sympathized with your situation. Thankfully, my faithful furball is now on supplements that are beating back his arthritic pain. I’m glad Darra is also on the mend!

GFTW: Tell us a little about the plot of 7th Son: Descent.

JCH: Since I wrote the back jacket copy, I’ll share it here — you’re getting it straight from the horse’s mouth:

“As America reels from the bizarre presidential assassination committed by a child, seven men are abducted from their normal lives and delivered to a secret government facility. Each man has his own career, his own specialty. All are identical in appearance. The seven strangers were grown — unwitting human clones — as part of a project called 7th Son.

“The government now wants something from these “John Michael Smiths.” They share the flesh and implanted memories of the psychopath responsible for the president’s murder. The killer has bigger plans, and only these seven have the unique qualifications to track and stop him.

“But when their progenitor makes the battle personal, it becomes clear he knows the seven better than they know themselves…”

It’s a high-tech thriller, designed to keep you turning the pages. I also do my best to explore some of the issues and ethics surrounding human cloning, and the nature of personal identity … between scenes of computer hacking and automatic gunfire, that is.

GFTW: You chose to release your novel in podcast format first. What prompted you to choose this method, and what would you say to those that might consider such methods only suitable for subpar fiction?

JCH: The decision to release the work came out of necessity, really. What we now know as 7th Son: Descent was actually the first act of a much longer novel … a 1,200 page novel. It’s no wonder that monstrous manuscript was rejected by around 60 literary agents back in 2005 when I first pitched it! I aimed to write an epic story, and that’s what I did — but at the expense of its salability.

By the end of that year, I was heartbroken. I’d spend years writing that monstrous book, and had doomed it by the very same vision and effort that brought it to life. I couldn’t sell it. However, during 2005, I became a podcast listener, and learned of unpublished writers who were releasing their novels as self-produced serialized audiobooks. I smelled an emerging trend. Sure, I couldn’t sell 7th Son … but I could share it.

I chose to rebrand my monstrous book as a trilogy — and began podcasting its first act as Book One: Descent. I did this as an experiment, to prove to myself that the work was worthy of an audience. If people didn’t come to the story, I’d know it was indeed fundamentally flawed. But if they did — why, that would be creative validation.

Only after 7th Son had thousands of listeners did I decide to resume the agent querying process. That was in 2007, the same year I concluded podcasting the 7th Son trilogy. I very quickly found an agent, and things happened from there. I’m blessed that St. Martin’s was interested in the book, and picked up Descent for publication. The fate of the sequels in print hinges on the success of the first book. The podcast series has generated more than 5 million episodic downloads, and still generates around 100,000 downloads each month.

Is the self-publishing method I helped pioneer only for sub-par work? Absolutely not. I believe it’s a viable option for not only unpublished writers, but A-list New York Times bestsellers. The strategy works: Giving away content can help build a thriving fan base (for newcomers) and attract brand-new consumers (for veterans). I think this model will become more accepted in the upcoming years.

GFTW: How did you first get the idea for the 7th Son series?

JCH: The idea began as a concept for a “team” superhero comic book, actually: seven clones, all cloned from the same man (a World War II veteran), all sharing his memories, which were recorded and implanted into their blank cloned brains. There was going to be this nice subplot about how their memories of growing up in the early 20th century dramatically conflicted with their current 21st century setting. They’d have capes and powers and ray guns and spandex — the works.

But I chickened out. I didn’t think I had what it took to write a good comic script (much less find an artist), so I opted for the novel format. At the time, I didn’t think the medium worked in favor of superhero stories — I didn’t think capes would appeal, or be plausible, to an average reader. Once I decided to axe the superhero angle and make my seven cloned heroes “everymen,” the story concept changed dramatically, but felt far more authentic. I also reckoned this was more comfortable and accessible territory, from a reader’s perspective.

GFTW: Your novel uses cloning as a key element. Cloning in science fiction is a very old concept, much used and misused. How does 7th Son stand out from the crowd of other novels that use cloning?

JCH: It stands out in a few ways. The clones in this book aren’t mindless drones, or cannon fodder, or even villains. They’re the good guys, which is a nice twist on the convention. Further, they’re as “human” as it gets — until the opening chapters of the book, these 30-year-olds had no idea that they were clones, or that their lives had been scrutinized by a secret government science project. Most of them have achieved some professional acclaim, but all are living fairly anonymous, normal lives.

In another twist, it’s their genetic and emotional progenitor who’s the villain in this tale. He’s the “true” human of the bunch, if you want to get technical about it. Since the seven clones share the villain’s childhood memories (via implanted memories), they are assembled to get inside the psychopath’s head, and try to deduce what chaos he’s cooking up. These average joes are suddenly tasked with saving the world.

I didn’t dwell much on the science in the book — I didn’t want to tell a Hard SF story — but instead focused most of my attention on how this revelation affected my seven heroes.

They don’t take the news very well. I know I sure as hell wouldn’t.

GFTW: There is certainly a lot of action in your stories, but you don’t sacrifice character either. Why are character driven stories often so much more compelling than tales that rely on a succession of action scenes?

JCH: I’m glad you think that 7th Son is a character-driven story! I’m flattered! I tried to cram as many character beats and inner conflicts as I could into the tale.

Character-driven narratives have more resonance because, ultimately, we empathize with the players. That’s mission-critical. It sounds elementary, but that’s the key ingredient to all good storytelling: effectively placing the audience in the character’s shoes. Do that, and every time that character is insulted, punched, frightened, joyous … the reader doesn’t just read; he reacts.

If you can score that kind of emotional buy-in from your audience, you’re golden.

GFTW: How much research went into designing your 7 John Michael Smith characters?

JCH: Not much, really. I did enough Internet-based research to write semi-authoritatively about the John Michael Smiths’ professions — some criminal profiler research here, some USMC Force Recon research there, some hacker slang, etc. — but mostly, I tried to keep technicalities to a minimum. I wanted to focus more on the emotional states of my protagonists, and not let much “Well, as you know, Bob…” profession-related crap get in the way of the characters, or the story’s momentum.

GFTW: Science fiction has always been about exploring ideas and pushing boundaries. What themes, concepts, or ideas are you exploring in 7th Son?

JCH: I wrote 7th Son to be a conspiracy-fueled adventure story; it sports a potboiler vibe, 21st century pulp. But I also dedicated a lot of time to how people might realistically react to human cloning, and the concept of memory recording.

The seven protagonists represent facets of this: the “everyman” blue-collar type is wrestles with the concept of personal identity; the priest has a severe crisis of faith; other characters puzzle over the legal and ethical implications … and still others are nonplussed, or actually celebrate their extraordinary origins.

Beyond ethics and identity, there’s some observations about unchecked power and influence — and the abuses that hail from them. There’s also the matter of the secrecy of this cloning experiment: is the world ready to know that human cloning isn’t near … it’s already here?

GFTW: Which of the seven John Michael Smith’s would you say is most like you in real life?

JCH: All of them feature parts of my personality — even the ultra-cruel villains. But I reckon John, the point-of-view character through much of the book, best represents my world view. He has blue-collar sensibilities, has little tolerance for B.S., doesn’t like following orders, and is passionate about his art. (He’s a musician.) Like John, I don’t like coloring in the lines.

He’s no Mary Sue, though. He has flaws and insecurities that I don’t have.

GFTW: Many new or young writers tend to think that successful writers like yourself appear out of nowhere with their very first effort at writing. How many novels, stories, or other projects have you abandoned before you found success with 7th Son?

JCH: 7th Son was my first novel. I wrote some short stories in high school and college, but I don’t recall any of them being good, or even having endings. I spent nearly all of my teens and twenties writing non-fiction as a journalist. I cut my teeth and found much of my writerly voice writing for newspapers and magazines.

These days, beyond my day gig (where I write corporate-friendly copy), I write fiction almost exclusively. I love novels, and have fallen pretty hard for the short story format, too.

GFTW: Tell us a little about your novel/mystery game Personal Effects: Dark Art.

JCH: This was a fun project to work on. Jordan Weisman, a legend in the RPG and tabletop gaming industries, is also one of the founding creators of the “Alternate Reality Game.” ARGs are best described as narratives that unfold mostly online; they’re usually powered by difficult riddles or puzzles that require a community of fans to solve. Solving the riddles unlocks the next part of the narrative.

These players become protagonists in a way, by taking an active role in the story. Jordan wanted to bring this to the novel space, and approached St. Martin’s Press, who in turn approached me. Jordan and I collaborated on the plot and storylines for the supernatural thriller’s “out of book” experience, and I wrote the book and some of the “out of book” content.

I mentioned an “out of book” experience. Personal Effects: Dark Art actually comes with tangible items: photos, legal documents, ID and business cards, faxes, and more. There are clues in the text of the book, and in these absolutely authentic-looking items. Savvy and curious readers can bring those clues together, and will be propelled into a story-enhancing narrative that takes place on websites, via phone voice mail, and more. They can even hack a character’s email account!

This “out of book” transmedia narrative not only adds a layer of reality to the experience, but it delivers content and plot twists that the story’s hero — an optimistic art therapist working at an infamous New York mental hospital — may never discover. The reader become part of the investigation. It was a helluva lot of fun to write.

GFTW: Do you have any projects forthcoming that you can tell us about?

JCH: Sure. Early next year, after the 7th Son: Descent “print edition” serialized audiobook podcast concludes, I have plans to release Personal Effects: Dark Art in podcast form, for free. While that’s being released, I’ll write The 33, a fiction project designed specifically for serialized audio distribution. It’s a genre-mash of thriller, sci-fi, supernatural, horror, magic, mayhem … you name it. Think The X-Files meets The A-Team.

I also have two novels that I must get cooking on — more high-tech and supernatural thrillers — and four screenplay treatments I need to write, or polish. I’ll sleep when I’m rich.

GFTW: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.

JCH: Thank you for having me! It’s been an honor and a pleasure!

The original novel was released as a podcast and some of the episodes can still be enjoyed online:

Episode 1 audio download PDF version

Episode 2 audio download PDF version

Episode 3 audio download PDF version

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