Kelsey Hutton discusses how her relationship with language led to the inspiration for her work, her writing process, and more. Read her story, “In Translation (Lost/Found)” in our [July/August issue, on sale now]
Analog Editor: What is the story behind this piece?
Kelsey Hutton: It will be no surprise to anyone who’s read “In Translation (Lost/Found)” that I love stories about language. My family moved to Brazil when I was nine, and I was young enough to pick up Portuguese fairly quickly but also old enough to keep it when we moved back to Canada four years later—so being bilingual has been a part of my identity for a long time.
It gave me an appreciation for how complex languages are, how much culture is embedded in the choices a language makes in how to express something, how fascinating it is when one language doesn’t even have words for something that’s a major concept in another. Language is more than just the words we use—it’s the expressions, the concepts, the worldview that’s embedded throughout.
On top of my experience learning Portuguese, I’m also Red River Métis on my mother’s side. The Métis are an Indigenous nation from the area now known as Winnipeg, Canada. The Métis developed their own language, Michif, and had kinship ties to Indigenous and Euro-Canadian communities. They often worked formally or informally as translators, negotiators, and ambassadors of a kind, and so were multilingual. My grandfather’s grandfather, who was a fur trader, spoke four languages at least.
But Indigenous languages, so closely tied as they are to a people’s collective knowledge, identity and culture, are frequent targets for colonialism. There are very few Michif speakers left. Many Indigenous languages in Australia are in the same boat, although Warlpiri is one of the larger language groups.
But we are all science fiction lovers! We know one of the great things about our genre is the ability to imagine how we might use future tools to accomplish the seemingly impossible—including using universal translators to allow people and families to continue speaking and passing down their own languages, while still being able to easily connect with others.
Sure, sure, let’s use the universal translators to speak to aliens, too. I’m all for it. But how amazing would it be just to start with communicating better with each other?
AE: How did this story germinate? Was there a spark of inspiration, or did it come to you slowly?
KH: I started “In Translation (Lost/Found)” in response to a story prompt: writing about “isolation” of some kind. I knew I wanted to write about how alienating it is to not speak the same language as everyone else around you.
Moving to Brazil as a kid was new, and exciting, and fun. But it was also hard, and lonely, and deeply embarrassing for nine-year-old me. I realize now that making mistakes is completely normal when learning a new language, but I HATED fumbling my way through in those early days.
I have never been very good at not being good at things. If something didn’t seem like I’d pick it up easily, I just wouldn’t try. (Note: this is not a terribly healthy way to go about life.) But being bad at Portuguese for months—until I finally reached the point where I completely lost my accent and could speak fluently with friends and strangers—made me feel like I’d lost my personality, made me defensive when I made mistakes, and just generally feeling not good enough.
Naturally, I thought this would be a great way to put a character through the ringer.
Plus I found NASA’s “Lessons Learned” section on their website, about all the things that COULD have become catastrophes in space—but didn’t. (Or, in the famous cases, did). This is SF writer gold. I combined this central premise with some of the space station issues I was reading about and thus a story was born.
And of course, Simone struggles in so many ways, feeling lost before she can be found. Her faulty translation device isolates her, but she was already isolated before that—she just wasn’t dealing with that fact. At the beginning of the story, she thinks she’s doing pretty good, but she had a ways to go still even before things start to (literally) fall apart.
AE: Is this piece part of a greater universe of stories?
KH: Yes! I’m currently working on a series of SF stories set in this same universe, over different time periods. My goal is to have a background character or situation in one story become the focus of the next, daisy-chaining at least half a dozen or so stories together. Maybe many more.
AE: How much or little do current events impact your writing?
KH: I don’t consciously set out to take inspiration from current events, but they seep into my daily worries, and therefore into my writing. I used to work in politics, then in government, and now for a non-profit. Caring is great, it keeps me kind and human, but it’s also exhausting.
Although, that makes it all sound negative. I do try to consciously read joyful news stories and that that feed into my subconscious, as well. When I read the story recently about scientists successfully growing plants in lunar soil, I think I immediately dropped what I was working on and texted the news to my partner, I was so excited.
He was happy for me, don’t get me wrong. But maybe a little more moderately enthused (fair).
AE: What is your process?
KH: I don’t have a rigid writing process, but I do try to write at least 275 words per day. (It was originally 250, but then I realized 275/day gives me the nice round number of 100,000 words per year.) I also try to give myself a lot of grace when it comes to taking days off sometimes because of major life events, tough day-job stuff, or just plain being too tired.
It’s a fine balance between wanting to build a long-term habit, and trusting the system, while also not spiraling into unhelpful shame and self-recrimination if I miss sometimes. I also want writing to be fun! Something I get to do, not have to do. Not because I don’t take my writing career seriously—I very much do—but because to me writing stories is a gift in a way a lot of other 9 to 5 work is not.
It’s a work in progress, but I continuously try to remind myself to keep the self-pressure off and think of writing as play. Play I do my very best at, using skills I always want to improve, but play nonetheless.
I also try to give myself lots of time to fill the creative well – read random articles on the Internet, get subscriptions to science magazines, watch astronaut YouTube videos, buy second-hand books on all kind of topics that catch my eye, even if I only end up reading bits and pieces before I eventually give them away again.
I never fully know what’s going to end up in a story, but every story I write ends up full of these little tidbits I can retroactively point to and say, “Oh this came from something I saw in this one video” or “That came from a conversation with so-and-so about pizza ovens in space,” or whatever.
Trying to learn everything you might need to know about life on a space station before you write a near-future SF story is… daunting, to say the least. But picking up these things in sips here and there is fun.
I started “In Translation (Lost/Found)” in response to a story prompt: writing about “isolation” of some kind. I knew I wanted to write about how alienating it is to not speak the same language as everyone else around you.
AE: What is the weirdest research rabbit-hole that working on a story has led you down?
KH: I bet there’s a very large overlap in the Venn diagram between people who love space and people who love oceans. (BUT WHAT IS EVEN OUT THERE??) I have watched a lot of YouTube videos of deep-sea diving, which led me to schematics of submersibles and reading personnel policies for submarines, as well as old blogs from marine biologists. Oh, and coral reef environmental reports for small state ministries in other countries, as well. Those are fun.
AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?
KH: I tried very, very hard when I was a kid to move objects with my mind. Alas, to no success. But some of the research around training computers (or prosthetics or…) to read our brain wave patterns and then carry out the corresponding actions IRL is fascinating. Any day telekinesis wants to come true, I am here for it.
AE: What are you reading right now?
KH: I’m reading Zen Cho’s Black Water Sister, which had me snorting pretty much from page 1. I did not know how much I would enjoy being haunted by the ghost of a snarky Malaysian grandma until now.
I’m also finishing John Joseph Adams’ The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2021, guest edited by Veronica Roth. I loved Ted Kosmatka’s “The Beast Adjoins” and Kate Elliot’s “The Long Walk.” I don’t think “enjoy” is the right word to describe my experience reading Meg Elison’s “The Pill,” but it’s probably the story whose visceral reaction has stayed with me the longest.
AE: Do you have any advice for up-and-coming writers?
KH: Do not get stuck trying to write and rewrite and re-re-rewrite the same Big Story Idea over and over again until you “get it right”! I worked on the same (well, same-ish, this was part of the problem) novel for 11 years and 4 complete re-drafts before I finally set it aside and decided to focus on short stories for a while.
I have learned so much more from having an idea, writing and editing it to the very best of my ability within a specific timeframe, and then moving on to the next story than I ever did from continuously trying to salvage my poor, battered Franken-novel, which I kept adding to and changing at different stages of my life. Part of this was sunk-cost fallacy (“but I’ve already spent so much time on it!”), part of it was an anxiety-driven desire to Be a Good Writer and complete the damn thing already (“you don’t get to go play in other stories until you finish what you started!”). Part of it was fear that I wouldn’t have any other good ideas if I didn’t see this one through.
None of those fears were serving me well, and letting that one novel go was the single best writing decision I could have made. I wish I’d made it sooner.
So don’t be me! If a particular story idea is grinding you down, day after day (month after month, year after year…) cut that albatross from around your neck. You don’t need it, I promise. Maybe what you need most is time away, time spent honing other skills with your newfound lightfootedness and freedom, and then one day you can return to your Big Story Idea with a completely new approach and some well-used tools in your toolkit.
OR NOT. MAYBE YOU NEVER GO BACK. And that’s completely fine, too.
AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?
KH: Easily, I hope! My website is KelseyHutton.com, and you can find me on Instagram at @KelseyHuttonAuthor and Twitter at @KelHuttonAuthor.