Catherine Rose Hillin’s birthday is August 29th. That’s the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina AND Hurricane Harvey (both of which hit her hometown on that day).
“It’s really not a great day for the world overall. But this year, something good is going to happen on that day: on my 26th birthday, my debut novel, The Orphan’s Code, will be released.”
The bio on the back of Catherine’s book won’t show her picture or any personal information, because she wants her book to speak for itself. But as an autistic writer she wants people to understand who she is and what she is like.
Catherine, share some of your back story and what makes you, you!
I was born in Beaumont, Texas, then graduated when I was 17 and moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas. I graduated with a double major in Psychology and Pre-Med, moved in with my best friend, and married him two years later.
Last year, he was accepted into an engineering program at the local university in Beaumont, and I was accepted into their Bachelor’s of Nursing program at the same time. We will graduate in 2020. I am also working on a Master’s in Social Work, and my goal is to obtain a Master’s in Nursing as well and become either a midwife, a therapist, or some combination of the two. I know I will get bored with whatever I choose eventually so I’m prepared for every eventuality; plus, I like to learn.
I’m also a collector of hobbies and skills, such as woodworking, piano, drums, languages (Latin, Italian, German, Spanish, and French), martial arts (black belt), sewing, cooking, and art. I’m also a singer, an editor, and an avid fan of historical medicine, developmental psychology, and obstetrics (a sentence I guarantee no one on earth has ever said before). I am currently learning leatherworking and guitar. I like to say I know “enough to be dangerous” about a wide variety of topics and skills.
I love animals, and attribute my mental health almost completely to my Therapy Lizard, Lizard Minelli the Bearded Dragon. You can find a picture of him on the back cover of my book in lieu of a photo of me.
Why is your Asperger’s likely the reason you are a writer?
I do not connect well with other humans; I have felt for a long time like an alien trying to study and mimic human behavior. I work as a nanny for a living and volunteer in the local NICU and with infant foster children, as I find babies (and animals; hence, the lizard) far easier to get along with than people.
I was only diagnosed with Asperger’s very recently, but I’ve known I’ve had a problem for a long time with social skills, ending in a lot of misunderstandings and hostility. Now I know why, and to my surprise, it has felt like a huge relief.
Before, I was frustrated and angry with myself for being unable to fix what I believed to be a personality flaw; now, however, I see it as a strength. My husband and two of my best friends are Aspies as well, and I admire all of them so much: they are brilliant, science- and math-minded people who instead of seeming “abnormal” simply seem as if social skills aren’t as important to them as all the other parts of life. And I have a lot of respect for that.
One of my literary heroes is Sherlock Holmes, who famously insisted that there was no room in his brain for trivial things such as the names of the planets and who was the current king; he would give his attention only to what mattered: different brands of men’s shoes and various scents and tastes of tobacco. I don’t have the same hobbies, but the principle is essentially the same.
I didn’t like the way the world was, and it didn’t like me, so I made my own. And then another, and another, and another. I used to have a lot of dissociative episodes, vanishing into my fantasy world when things got too overwhelming, and I still catch myself doing that at the oddest times; it’s when I work out some of my best ideas (as Burton Rascoe used to say, “A writer is working when he’s staring out the window”).
I was only diagnosed last month, though I’ve suspected for a long time. I am still trying to figure out what about me is Asperger’s, what is my personality, and what is simply part of being a human. But I do know that having to work hard to analyze and mimic normal behavior has given me a very different insight on the human mind than the average person might have, and that, I believe, lends depth and dimension to my characters.
Only someone with autism would have the dedication, patience, and imagination to create entire worlds from scratch, including languages, laws of physics, history, religions, and physiology of different species. And I know that if I didn’t live such a rich internal life and love to learn anything and everything, my books would not exist, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be any good.
I always adored fantasy that taught me something, and I seek now to make my books as realistic as possible in order to pass what I know onto the reader.
Tell us about, The Orphan’s Code.
Briefly put, it is about a group of orphans, misfits, and runaways who assimilate into the criminal underground of the city of Bermeia and conspire to start a rebellion.
The way I like to think of it is that the book begins with the execution of the assassin The Black Death–a dark, troubled assassin with a chaotic history whom I absolutely LOVE to write–and slowly follows the consequences of his death as the tiny ripples form into a raging storm.
The story is mainly told from the perspective of the Black Death’s biggest fan, a homeless teenage girl with no name and no social skills that nobody likes (I relate to her a lot); the Black Death’s brother, struggling to support the rest of his family while dealing with suicidal depression; and the Black Death’s almost-murder-victim, the king of Alronelin, residing in the castle that stands atop the cliffs of Bermeia.
The king is slowly descending into madness as he tries to decide between murdering the heir to the throne or marrying his mother, with whom he is so madly in love that he murdered her husband and usurped the throne to be with her–but either way, he has to find the boy, who has been missing for fifteen years. Much of his story is seen from the eyes of a Divina–a member of a clandestine organization of female healers, scholars, and psychics–who allowed herself to be taken prisoner in order to spy on the king.
Either way, there’s a lot going on, and I’m too close to the project to feel as if I can do it justice with just a paragraph.
This is a series; there will be at least three, but ideally I will write about 6. I also have two other series in the works, both fantasy. I have enough material already to keep writing for the rest of my life, and I hope at least a few of my readers are right there with me.
What inspired you to write it?
I’ve been dabbling in writing since I was 11, but this was my first original novel idea. I was spending the night out of town on Christmas Eve when I was 13 years old. I woke up around 3am from a very vivid dream about an abandoned baby girl, a missing prince, and an evil king (all my best ideas come from dreams) and immediately started to scribble in a composition book (I still have it).
That version was as painful and lame and cliched as you might imagine from a 13-year-old, but I wrote it in three months: a finished novel at around 97,000 words. Then I tried to get it published. Surprisingly, no takers. I abandoned the project, but found that I couldn’t shake it, and I returned to the idea two or three more times before this iteration, attempting publishing again during one of those. This time, my husband really pushed me to finish and encouraged me to finalize it and get it out there.
People ask me a lot about what inspires me to write in general, and I never know how to answer. I kind of need to write. There are entire worlds in my head that are completely useless and completely inaccessible to anyone other than me, and I have to get them out. They write me more than I write them. A person could never fully understand who I am unless they’ve read my book first.
Who are your illustrators and why were they perfect for capturing the spirit of your book?
Jeppe Lindrup Mygh is my mapmaker. I had no idea what his work would look like before he showed me the final product but he absolutely blew me away.
My cover artist is Raaj Anish. He’s a talented guy and I’m delighted with his work and so glad I gave him the creative license to stretch his legs.
My editor is Kayla Zarate. She raced through the book at top speed, caught about twenty really embarrassing typos, and sent me some glowing praise that gave me so much more confidence in myself as a writer.
Who is the ideal reader and how do you see the book being used?
The ideal reader is anyone who enjoys it. I’ve found books of all genres and age ranges that I absolutely adore, and I would encourage all readers to keep an open mind and give a book a try before rejecting it. And don’t worry – if you don’t like it, you can get your money back!
I think the book will appeal to fans of A Song of Ice and Fire, Eragon, Wheel of Time, and Throne of Glass, as well as anyone who enjoys rich fantasy with accessible writing and natural-sounding dialogue. If a reader likes the sort of book where assassins/master thieves run around on rooftops and steal things and blow up ships, they’ll like this book. I highly recommend it to all fans of Skyrim and Dungeons and Dragons, especially the rogues (they know who they are).
My dream is for someone to turn it into a video game like Assassin’s Creed or Witcher; if I knew how to code it would already be one, and I’d have made three more featuring different fantasy universes, and I would be the world’s happiest nerd. But mostly I just want it to reach as wide an audience as possible so that people can read and enjoy it.
What’s the message you want your readers to take away after reading the book?
I like to create realism in fantasy, to use it to educate and facilitate understanding instead of simply entertaining. But since my writing reflects reality, it’s also difficult to pinpoint a “theme” or “message” on the story, because how could you do that in real life? The message of each person’s story is always changing based on what happens to them.
So I’d want my readers to take away that life is hard and love is complicated, that things don’t always work out the way you want them to, that there may not be an underlying reason behind anything that happens, that life and people may just downright suck. But it’s the good parts of life that keep you going. Even when your life seems almost too difficult to continue, there are still pages left in your book, and you can decide what they say. You can move forward, take in new experiences, meet new people, cherish what is precious to you, and live your life to the fullest while you still have it. And you should be brave, and fearless, and bold, because as the Black Death would say, the worst thing life can throw your way is death.
Is there anything else you’d like to share about The Orphan’s Code?
I should probably warn people that it’s pretty dark and gritty and edgy (although according to my readers, not excessively so; I’m still far tamer than George RR Martin). Revolutions aren’t pretty, and neither was life in the medieval/renaissance era, especially if you were poor. I don’t believe in censorship, I just tell the story in whatever way does it the most justice, so if a love scene or a swear word happens, it happens.
After reading about many young readers being upset with fantasy for having too many straight white men in it, I have also made an effort to showcase the diversity in the characters. Bermeia is a port town with immigrants of every background, color, and creed, and racial tension colors the interactions between ethnicities analogous to Irish, Hispanic/Italian, Northern African, Tribal African, Middle Eastern, and Anglo-Saxon. Racism has grown worse during the current reign, and women’s rights have degraded to the point where women are barely considered people; there is homophobia, ignorance about mental illness, and no support for the poor, the homeless, or the hungry.
People vary in the book as they do in real life, but of the five main characters, three are female, two are non-white (it’s a fantasy world with very different ethnic groups), one is gay, and two are bisexual; they are all poor and struggling, and have to fight against every kind of discrimination that there is, including from one another. It’s incredibly difficult to try and stick modern labels on a renaissance world, but readers searching for diversity, as well as readers with anxiety, depression, and autism and readers with histories of abuse or drug addiction, will likely find characters with whom they can relate and empathize.
One thing I worry about is how many books deify relationships, especially unhealthy, abusive relationships. A lot of people in the world don’t even know what healthy relationships look like, and so when a writer glorifies a boyfriend who’s a stalker or a controlling jerk, they don’t know the difference.
My characters are human; they are flawed; they are teens, still learning how to interact with one another and control their desires and emotions. They have their strengths, but they mess things up all the time and have terrible decision-making skills. I hope to make it blatantly clear that they are not to be imitated, but sometimes I’m concerned that I didn’t do a good enough job. Still, the sheer number of fistfights, serious injuries, and teenage pregnancies should be enough evidence to suggest that they need to get it together.
Do you have a proud moment, inspirational story, or moving fan feedback you’d like to share?
When I was first diagnosed, I was in the middle of publicizing my book and was having daily panic attacks because I feared my lack of social skills were going to poison my marketing campaign. I was reluctant to take up the label of “autism” because that was never how I saw myself. And I absolutely despise labels; I believe that it does more harm than good when people try to sort one another into little boxes when life is so much more complicated than that. But then I realized that this label isn’t for me. It’s for the people I interact with. In the month before my diagnosis, I was shouted at three different times over Aspie-type miscommunications. But the second I started explaining that I’m autistic when a misunderstanding came up, people were so much kinder. Much like I did, they don’t understand awkwardness and poor social skills that can’t be helped, but they do understand autism.
The autistic/Asperger’s community has been so kind and helpful and has embraced me with open arms. This interview is the prime example of that: during a frantic google search about writers with autism and whether or not I should own it or keep it to myself, I sent an email to Geek Club Books explaining my predicament and received kind words, great advice, and an offer for this interview.
In reaching out I found others like me, and people who understood. I got a lot of advice, but what helped most was simply all the people who said, “I feel you, you aren’t alone, good luck”. I don’t know where my life will go from here, but I’ve come a little closer to understanding myself, and I’ve found that there are people who care. And that really means a lot to me. I don’t just mean that as a generic platitude; I have always had difficulty connecting with people, and to receive so much support and kindness from strangers is almost beyond my comprehension.
If our readers leave with only one message after reading this interview, what would you like it to be?
I can’t presume to give anyone advice, so I’ll just say: I’ve always felt like an alien and an outsider. But through writing, eventually I learned to know who I am and be okay with that. Instead of being what anyone else wanted me to be, I became the person I wanted to be: a bold, sassy, extremely misunderstood explorer/badass.
My philosophy on social interactions became, “Go where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.” I decided to live the life I wanted to live and never stick with anything or anyone that made me miserable. And I am much happier for it. I was never going to fit in with the crowd, and now I don’t want to and I don’t have to. I’m proud to be different. It’s a lot harder, but what fun is life if you’re never challenged?
So to my readers: You know yourself. You know who you want to be. You know what you want to do. So go do it.
- Support Catherine’s work and get The Orphan Code on Amazon*
- Instagram: @theorphanscode
- The Orphans Code Facebook Page
- Twitter: @theorphanscode
If you liked this post you may also like:
- Books by Autistic Authors
- The Adventurous Asperger Author who Achieved Her Dream
- Roy Dias, Asperger Author of Sci-Fi Aspean Series
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