Living Out Of Fear

 Interview with author Don Hutcheson

Teacher and literary blogger, Maria Grazia Spila, conducted this interview with Don Hutcheson, author of the novel, Out of Fear. She lives north of Rome, Italy.

Maria: First of all, Don, I’m curious to know when, how and why you decided to start writing.

In publishing and advertising, the focus is on good writing and creativity; so I was honing my skills.

DH: Shining my father’s shoes was one of my weekly chores growing up. One Saturday I happened upon a wrinkled paper bag behind his shoe rack. In the bag were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place (1959). At age 12, I had never read anything remotely like them. Both novels awakened my growing sexuality and my passion for the written word. But I didn’t begin writing fiction in earnest until four decades later.

Maria: How did you manage to keep your passion for writing pent up all those years?

DH: I created businesses: a couple of magazines, two ad agencies and a career planning company. In publishing and advertising, the focus is on good writing and creativity; so I was honing my skills. I also read novels for pleasure. And I’ve learned at least as much about character and story development by watching films.

Maria: You majored in Russian language and literature at Emory University. Did those writers influence you?

DH: Yes. I read all the great Russian writers—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov, etc.—in the original. They are great storytellers and they write in a direct, uncluttered style, which I like.

 I wrote my first screenplay, Out of Fear …about the same time the script for Madmen was written

Maria: Was there a turning point when you decided to write?

DH: Yes. I saw the film, American Beauty, in 1999, and the floodgates opened for me. Six months later I wrote my first screenplay, Out of Fear, which is the exact same story my novel is based on. Coincidentally this was about the same time the script for Madmen was written. It takes place in the advertising world of the 1960s. Mine happens in the 1980’s.

Maria: What did American Beauty say to you?

DH: I was struck by the movie’s theme: the protagonist’s desperate struggle to live an authentic life in a world based increasingly on outward appearances and meeting the expectations of family, schools, society etc. The struggle to be true to oneself is a powerful and universal experience; this idea inspired my first screenplay and novel, Out of Fear.

Maria: Out of Fear is your first novel, which I read, liked and reviewed. How would you introduce it in no more than 50 words?

DH: Out of Fear is everyone’s story: how do we break the bonds of fear we are born into? It is a psychological drama about a wildly successful young advertising man who comes face to face with his darkest demons and emerges with the greatest prize of all: himself.

Maria: Will Stallworth is the protagonist of this novel—a complex character, who at the beginning of the story seems to be cool and invincible but as it turns out is vulnerable and highly sensitive. Tell us about him.

DH: Will Stallworth is a 30-year-old adman blessed with prodigious talent. Like most unimaginably creative people he is hypersensitive to the world unfolding around him. He thinks, feels and acts towards people, events and ideas in an extraordinarily intense way. His outward demeanor of aloofness, obscenity and even hardheartedness is his unconscious defense mechanism—how he isolates and protects himself from others. He is living out of fear.   The good news is that Out of Fear is built on a redemption plot. Will finds the courage to overcome the paralyzing obstacles thrown before him and begins to rebuild his life. How he does that is I think the most interesting dimension of the story.

Maria: Will reminded me of a grown-up Holden Caulfield—difficult father-son relationship; emotionally fragile and over reactive; worshiping the memory of his dead brother; deeply connected to his sister. Has your reading J.D. Salinger had any influence on your story? (I love the Catcher in the Rye, by the way!)

[Will] isolates and protects himself from others. He is living out of fear.

DH: I believe that every story that’s ever written must pay homage to all the stories that came before. For example, Judith Guest’s fine novel, Ordinary People, had an influence on my story. The comment I get the most from readers re: J.D. Salinger, is about style. A number of folks have told me that Will’s rambling, off the cuff, conversational style reminds them of Salinger. I can see that. And while I never set out to write in a certain style, other than my own, I take the comments as compliments. Part of the style comes with writing in first person, which I love. Part of it is just how I think and talk.

Maria: Out of Fear contains two very steamy sex scenes—highly erotic and lengthy. One is ten pages long! It is sex from a male point of view, obviously because the story is from Will Stall- worth’s point of view. Is it also because those scenes were written with a mainly male target audience in mind?

DH: Not at all. Since I wrote the first draft of this book ten years ago, I’ve been lucky to get feedback from a slew of different readers. The balance between female and male readers is about equal. Here’s what may interest you: yes, male readers like the sex scenes because they are far more explicit than the sex scenes of typical novels. But, female readers like them equally as much because they tell me it’s fascinating to get inside the thoughts and feelings of a male as he is seducing a woman. They’ve never experienced that before in other novels.   In my experience mainstream novels treat sex as an afterthought; probably because their publishers are afraid of turning off a big segment of the market if the scenes are too raw. The other side of the coin is where erotic novels live. They are long on sex and short on plot and character development. I’m offering both in my novel and in upcoming novels: intricate plot and character development, steamy sex. As our hero, Will Stallworth says early in Out of Fear: “. . . my net feeling is what it’s always been: Sex is good. So long as you are honest about your intentions and nobody gets hurt, sex is very good.” Couldn’t have said it better myself.

…yes, male readers like the sex scenes because they are … explicit … But, female readers like them equally as much…

Maria: Women in Out of Fear seem to be stronger than men. Is that only my impression or is it something you actually believe and wanted to convey in this book?

DH: I prefer the word “conscious” to the word strong. For me conscious means (1) self-aware—in touch with yourself and your feelings; (2) empathetic—in touch with others and their feelings; (3) present—living in the here and now. (Most of us are self-accusingly reliving the past and compulsively fantasizing about the future.) With that as a definition, and while it’s impossible to generalize, I do believe women are more conscious than men for the most part.

One of the key reasons that the protagonist in the novel is living in fear is that the men who came before him—his father, his grandfather, and even his great grandfather, were unconscious men. They lacked self-awareness and insight, so they were doomed to lead lives of conformity. Their fear-based, controlling natures cursed their offspring with the same fate. Will Stallworth is finally able to break the cycle of fear, in large part because of the powerful influence of the conscious women in his life: his mother, sister, grandmother and business partner, Deborah Bernstein.

Maria: I particularly love the metaphor, “living like lemmings.” Do you believe most people live like that nowadays and why?

DH: Sadly, I do. I even coauthored a career-planning book that I named, The Lemming Conspiracy. It outlines the myriad ways that the systems we are brought up in (family, schools, organizations, religions) encourage and unwittingly program us to follow the herd. Typically we Americans are short-term oriented, outer-directed, wealth, power and status-driven; and we are reactive decision-makers. A perfect formula for living the life of the lamentable lemming.   It’s a paradox that our ambition often keeps us alienated from ourselves; estranged from who we really are and what we really want. My second novel, Will Wakes Up, addresses this topic head on.

Maria: The nightmares Will experiences in the story are quite interesting. Did you do research into the meaning of dreams before you wrote them? Are you interested in Carl Jung’s theories?

DH: I’ve read a bit about Jung’s theories. One of my friends has studied dreams rather extensively, so I picked her brain. Honestly, the imagery in Will’s dreams came to me quickly and seemed to work, so I didn’t mess around with it much after that.

It’s a paradox that our ambition often keeps us alienated from ourselves

Maria: Emory Barnes is Will’s rival in the story—not a likable character, but very complex himself. Is he meant to be Will’s nemesis in your three sequels to Out of Fear? Is he your Uriah Heep?

DH: Emory is a piece of work, that’s for sure. Getting deeply into the troubled mind of a character like Emory is challenging and sometimes frightening because to do an honest job of it you have to look at the parts of yourself that are wounded, too, if not downright broken.   Emory does not appear in the second novel. I’m not sure yet if he will be a part of novels three and four.

Maria: Will is a creative superstar in the advertising world who is working on a campaign to win a large cellular phone account. Advertising and cell phones are two icons of our contemporary life. What’s your relationship to them? (1. I hate advertising; 2. I always forget my mobile! LOL)

DH: I was in the advertising business about 21 years. I co-founded an agency with three veteran admen, who were big-time creative superstars. We had a great run based on creative work that won awards around the world. Our clients were Fortune 500 companies, including BellSouth Mobility—the model for the Southeastern Cellular account in the book. Like McDonald & Campbell, we were huge underdogs in the competition for the BellSouth Mobility account. It was a big win for us.

Maria: One final question. Why do you write?

DH: Writing uses most of whatever talents and abilities I might possess. It’s one of the few ways an individual has any chance of being a catalyst for change on this discordant planet. In the history of mankind most compelling innovations or break- throughs in the status quo have begun when one person sat down and wrote out his/her thoughts.

*Reprinted with permission by Maria Grazia Spila