K. A. Hitchins: Life, Death, and Faith
Recently I’ve been reading novels by newer, largely unknown indie writers. By way of helping them along, I’ll be introducing some of them here. These authors are up-and-coming, at varying stages in their development as writers. They may not all have the polish of traditionally published authors, but I think they all have potential and deserve encouragement.
Dr. Matilda Moss is moving toward a bright future. A top British stem cell researcher, she’s on the verge of a breakthrough that promises cures for a variety of ailments. But then a fall from a balcony leaves her brilliant mind trapped in a useless body slipping inexorably toward death. Unable to move or speak or even blink her eyes, she is powerless to explain what happened to her. Was it a failed suicide? Attempted murder? She can only listen to the speculations swirling about her, collect hints from those who visit her hospital room, and sift through her own memories in an effort to find the meaning behind her life and impending death.
The Key of All Unknown floored me. Told in first person through Matilda’s eyes and mind, it is full of heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching twists and turns. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the tale rounds a new bend and everything changes, not just once, not just twice, but time after time. Beneath it all runs a current of philosophical and moral questing touching on the deepest questions of life and death, and critiquing society’s mad rush to devalue its own humanity. Emotional, topical, and beautifully told, this novel is among the best I’ve read in recent times. I can’t find a thing to complain about, except a very occasional quibble over an excessively ornate description, and that may just be a matter of taste. The ending is so unequivocal that you’ll either be deeply moved by it or you’ll hate it, but either way it’s worth the reading. Five stars for story, five stars for the writing, five stars hands down. Brava, Ms. Hitchins!
I recently asked K. A. Hitchins about the novel and her writing. Here’s what she said:
As you can tell from my review, I think this is a brilliant novel. Is it a first novel, and what if anything had you written before?
The Key of All Unknown is my second novel. My first novel, The Girl at the End of the Road was published in March 2016, and is the story of a shallow, materialistic young man whose life is transformed when he falls in love with a woman on the autistic spectrum.
I have to admit that at first I wondered how you could possibly pull off an entire novel written first person from the point of view of a woman who had no use of her body. Did you find the prospect daunting or worrisome when you began writing?
When I originally started planning the novel, I wanted to set it inside the coffin of a woman who’d been erroneously buried alive. I’d read in the newspaper of a sixteen-year-old pregnant girl in South America who had “died” and been buried, only for relatives to hear knocking and screaming from the family crypt the following day. But by the time they released her, she’d sadly died of a heart attack.
I started writing but fairly quickly decided it was too difficult to have the entire novel set in a coffin, with all the action taking place through flashbacks. Once I’d moved the story into a hospital, the options opened up considerably. My main character, Tilda, wrongly diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, is able to hear everything that goes on in her room – conversations between her family, the police, doctors, nurses, cleaners and the local radio news reports. Because I began with such a limited stage, placing Tilda in a coma in hospital was actually a liberation!
In addition to the mystery and suspense elements, The Key of All Unknown deals with a number of topical issues including the artificial extension of life, how we decide when to withhold medical care, abortion, euthanasia, and more. Did you set out to write a social commentary, or did it evolve on its own from the story?
I had a very clear idea of the areas I wanted to cover, because they’re the issues in the media at the moment and they raise serious moral questions. Medical science is advancing at a far quicker rate than medical ethics and there are things to consider today that would have never troubled our forebears. I wanted to clarify my own thoughts, and the best way of doing that was to write about them.
I also wanted to examine more closely the case for atheism. I read and researched quite widely before I began. Even though I’m a Christian, I wanted to challenge my beliefs on the basis that any worldview worth following should be able to withstand intellectual scrutiny.
I’d seen my own father die from cancer and I’d often wondered if he’d been able to hear me from inside his coma, and whether he was afraid or peaceful as he faced that greatest of all unknowns. He was a man of faith, so it was logical to wonder if he had doubts, but I also wondered whether those without faith – materialistic atheists who believe dying is simply a matter of returning to the oblivion from which they came prior to birth – might also have doubts at the end.
Despite my father’s suffering over many months, each day was precious to us as a family, and we were able to say everything we needed to before he passed. It made me realise that a “good death” is not necessarily a pain free death, and certainly not one where difficult questions are swept under the carpet. That’s why I have strong reservations about euthanasia. Humans are not just physical beings. They are intellectual and spiritual creatures, too. The very first thing we experience each day is our inner world – our consciousness – and it’s from that base that we move outwards and experience the physical world through our senses. Even if the body is useless, it doesn’t invalidate the intellectual and spiritual aspects of our humanity.
Ironically, when I was half way through writing The Key of All Unknown, I unexpectedly developed Idiopathic Thrombocytopenia , a condition where the immune system destroys the blood platelets, preventing the blood from clotting. I was taken into the Critical Dependency Unit of my local hospital, covered in a non-blanching rash and bruises, and observed overnight in case I was bleeding internally. I was told I probably wouldn’t sleep because of the drugs I’d been given. Suddenly, I was lying in my own hospital bed thinking about the meaning and purpose of my own life. It confirmed to me again that it’s not the strength of my faith that counts, but the strength of the One in whom I put my faith.
What are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m preparing to launch my third novel, The Gardener’s Daughter on 15 March. It’s a Young Adult thriller exploring the theme of fatherhood: good fathers, bad fathers and absent fathers. The main character is a motherless nineteen-year-old girl who accidentally discovers she’s adopted. Penniless and cut-off from everything she’s ever known , and trapped in a deadly game of cat and mouse with a ruthless criminal gang, her journey of discovery unravels the shocking truth behind her mother’s death and the identity of her real father – with a sprinkling of romance along the way.
I have another completed manuscript called Love in the Village of Drought which requires some editing before I submit it to a publisher, and I’m in the very early stages of writing my fifth novel, provisionally entitled, The Shortness of Life.
What advice to you have for readers or writers?
My advice to everyone is to read widely and step outside of your comfort zone every now and then. It’s all too easy to get into a rut with a favourite genre, but mixing it up a little and picking up a book you wouldn’t usually choose, particularly one which stretches your heart, mind and soul, is a great way to broaden your reading experience and improve your writing.
Where can readers find you?