J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning novelist best known for his 7th Son technothriller trilogy, which he released as free, serialized audiobooks between 2006 and 2007. With approximately 100,000 downloads of his episodic fiction still occurring each month, 7th Son is the most popular “podcast novel” series in history. The trilogy — and its 2008 groundbreaking spinoff anthology Obsidian — are available for free download at 7thSonNovel.com. The first novel in the series, Descent, will be published this fall by St. Martin’s Press. Personal Effects: Dark Art, his new supernatural thriller series, was recently released.
SF Signal had the opportunity to talk to J.C. about his novels and the innovative way in which he creates new and different entertainment experiences for readers.
SF Signal: Hi, J.C. Tell us about your latest novel, Personal Effects: Dark Art.
J.C. Hutchins: Hi, John! Thanks for opportunity. Personal Effects: Dark Art is a supernatural thriller novel set in an institution for the criminally insane. The sign in front of the hospital may read “Brinkvale Psychiatric,” but locals call it “The Brink” because of its bloody history…and the fact that it’s built underground, inside an abandoned brownstone quarry.
This is where we find Zach Taylor, a young and optimistic art therapist. The Brink is his first gig in the mental health biz, and the industry’s endless red tape and madness hasn’t yet worn him down. He has a lot of compassion for his patients, and has an uncanny knack for facilitating breakthroughs during therapy sessions. He uses their personal effects — the items on their person when they were admitted to the facility — as windows into their personalities and issues.
But Zach is soon over his head when he meets Martin Grace, a psychosomatically blind patient who’s on trial for murder, and is a suspect in eleven more slayings. Zach must determine if Grace is mentally competent to stand trial…but Grace wants nothing to do with the youngster. He doesn’t want treatment, and doesn’t want to be “cured” of his blindness. It is only after Zach finds Grace’s personal effects that he learns about the dark sins the blind man is hiding, and realizes Grace may not be a murderer at all. The killings may be spawned from an unholy supernatural creature called The Dark Man, which has hunted and haunted Grace for years.
Of course, this entity soon hunts and haunts Zach and his friends…and it’s a descent into darkness and madness from there on out.
The Personal Effects universe was created by Jordan Weisman, a living legend in the gaming community, and one of the founding fathers of the Alternate Reality Game form of storytelling. This book has ARG elements, too: the actual personal effects mentioned in the book come with the book. IDs, photos, government documents…it’s all there. These authentic-looking, touchable items lead the reader into another narrative that unfolds beyond the pages of the book.
SFS: Your books tend to be more than just written stories. Some would say they are innovative. Can you explain the philosophy behind expanding upon the reading experience?
J.C.H.: Thanks for suggesting they’re innovative! I’ve been releasing fiction online for years in several forms — audio podcasts, video, even stories set in my fictional universes that were crowd-sourced by my fans. I’m always looking for ways to use online technologies to entertain and involve my awesome audience. The tech is cheap (and often free), and as a creator, you’re often only limited by your imagination.
When Jordan Weisman and St. Martin’s Press approached me about writing Personal Effects: Dark Art, I was stoked from the start. Jordan’s concept for the characters was fascinating, but the killer twist of including tangible personal effects with the book — and those items propelling readers into plot points found in websites, telephone voice mail messages, etc. — was incredible. I was on board immediately.
I learned a lot along the way. Jordan has had nearly a decade’s worth of experience crafting interactive Alternate Reality Game stories, and was eager to share the philosophies that fueled these nontraditional narratives. Whenever we encourage the reader away from the Personal Effects: Dark Art book to explore a website, call a phone number or hack into a character’s email account, we’re not only “widening” the Personal Effects world, but “deepening” it as well.
There are plot twists and character information and series-building foreshadowing peppered throughout this vast out-of-book content. The reader discovers far more about the secrets powering Dark Art’s plot than its heroes ever will. In fact, our great “Sixth Sense”-style twist ending can only be experienced beyond the book. Curious readers who follow the clues will be rewarded by a brainbending twist that’ll cast the entire story of Dark Art in a new light. I’ve never heard of a book that’s done that before.
In the end, it’s a groundbreaking way to tell stories, and I hope we see more of it in the future. Rest assured: If you want to read only the novel, I’ve written it in such a way that it’s a satisfying, conclusive story. But those who are keen to explore the story beyond the book will find some fun surprises.
J.C.H.: I’ve been a writer nearly all my life, and planned to be a career journalist. I attended j-school, did internships at newspapers and magazines, and snagged a great gig out of college. But my little brain was struck by creative lightning somewhere along the way; I had an idea for a cool technothriller novel about human cloning called 7th Son. I left the journalism business, and got a job that gave me more time and energy to write the book. It was the unconventional success of 7th Son that tipped St. Martin’s and Jordan Weisman to my work.
SFS: What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome to get where you are? What obstacles remain between here and where you want to be?
J.C.H.: The biggest obstacle was receiving approval from the “gatekeepers” — professionals in the publishing industry — regarding my work. When I completed 7th Son in 2005 and pitched it to literary agents, I received universal rejections. I can be a truly stubborn S.O.B., and was convinced the book was worthy of an audience. So I recorded and edited an audiobook version of the 7th Son trilogy and released it as free serialized weekly podcasts. It was a success, and still generates around 100,000 episodic downloads each month.
This unconventional approach provided tangible proof that the story had legs, and had an audience. I leveraged this data and community enthusiasm to acquire a literary agent. The Personal Effects deal also hailed directly from the podcast’s success. I’m proud to say the first book in the 7th Son trilogy will be released in bookstores in late October. The crazy strategy worked!
Now that I’m in print, the greatest obstacle is obscurity. “If you build it, they will come” simply doesn’t apply to novels, both on- or offline. You must be a relentless champion for your work, and work your tail off to boost awareness for what you’re doing. Only savvy promotion and word of mouth can help a novel cut through the noise and get a busy person’s attention. I dedicate considerable time to spreading the word about my work.
Where would I like to be? I’d like to be a career storyteller. I don’t want to be rich. I just want to make a fair living wage crafting stories that thrill and delight people.
SFS: Which authors — both seasoned and new — do you admire?
J.C.H.: I’m endlessly inspired and impressed by creators such as Stephen King (I’m gobsmacked by the quality of his work and his output), Jeffery Deaver (a thriller writer whose novels sport plot twists so slick, you just gotta study them), James Cameron (great writer, and a visionary visual storyteller) and Steven Spielberg (because he’s…the master).
SFS: What three things do people probably not know about you?
- I have eclectic taste in music, and cannot explain or fathom what appeals to me, or why it does. I’m an unapologetic AC/DC fan, and yet love the bubblegum B-52s. My iPod on “shuffle” mode is a gateway to madness.
- Get a few beers in me, and I can probably recite the entire script of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Do you know the Klingon proverb that tells us revenge is a dish that is best served cold? It is very cold…in spaaaaaace!
- I’ve always wanted to learn how to skateboard and breakdance. One day I’ll prove that “old dogs, new tricks” adage wrong.
SFS: What can we expect next from J.C. Hutchins?
The big project on the horizon is the print release of 7th Son: Descent, the first book in my technothriller trilogy. It’ll be in bookstores on Oct. 27. The book is a wild sci-fi ride: human clones, recorded human memories, a villain bent on global chaos, lots automatic gunfire, presidential assassinations…it’s an action-packed hoot.
Publisher’s Weekly recently reviewed the book, saying, “(t)hriller readers seeking edge-of-your-seat action flavored with conspiracy and futuristic tech will love every page.” You can’t beat that with a stick. I’m very proud of Descent, and can’t wait for old fans and new to check it out.