Katelyn Monroe Howes draws from her own life for sci-fi thriller ‘The Awoken’

Katelyn Monroe Howes is an award-winning writer and Emmy-nominated documentarian who examines systemic inequities and uninformed biases in an effort to challenge the status quo. The same can be said of the Atlanta native’s debut novel, “The Awoken” (Dutton, 416 pages). The story centers on Alabine Rivers, a 23-year-old who is reanimated after being cryogenically frozen to avoid dying of a terminal cancer in 2020. The dystopian future she wakes up to 100 years later is a bleak landscape where Alabine’s life is declared illegal and anti-resurrectionists are authorized to shoot her on sight.

Last week, Keshet Studios acquired the rights to develop “The Awoken” as a TV series. But the concept of cheating death is not abstract for Monroe Howes. She was once declared dead following a car crash before being resuscitated by a good samaritan.

Monroe Howes shared her thoughts with ArtsATLon second chances, the similarities between science fiction and documentaries, and finding beauty in brokenness.

Q: You have written about the privilege and guilt of cheating death after surviving a devastating car crash when you were 17 years old. How did you learn to cope with that double consciousness as a teenager?

A: I don’t know if we ever learn to cope after something earth-shattering like that. The mother of my childhood best friend, who died two weeks before my accident, has told me about kintsukuroi, which is a Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery with this gold inlay alloy. The result is a transformed piece that doesn’t look like it did before but now has a new life as something different that is perhaps even more beautiful. The breaking of the object is not something to hide but an integral part of its history and future.

Like the pottery, I’m not the same as I was before my accident, and it’s the hardest for me when I try to hide the fact that I was broken. When I accept that I am different and no longer grieve the person I was, I am the most content. Even to this day, that acceptance comes and goes, but certainly writing this book has been cathartic, and now that it’s in the world and people who have read it are relating to the messages and themes, I feel like I’m learning a bit more.

Q: When thinking about Alabine’s dilemma, I could not help wondering what the upside would be to cheating death if all the people we knew and loved were gone by the time we came back to life? Moreover, the overpopulation that would result if we were granted immortality would be catastrophic for the planet. Thoughts?

A: That’s certainly the prescient question surrounding the ethics of life-extension science. Is life worth it if we no longer recognize the world or people around us? And then what gives someone the right for a second chance when others are still fighting for their first? There are certainly no assured answers, and it must be an individual’s choice. Personally, I think that if we have the science/ability to save lives, no one would have the right to tell someone they can’t try it.

The issue is further complicated by the fact that life extension, as it’s currently being developed, is at first only going to benefit those who are very wealthy. Is that fair that the billionaires of the planet get to live long, un-diseased lives while the rest of us toil in our mortality? I have no answers, but these are all questions I think we need to start asking ourselves now, as it won’t be long before this fictional world from my book is a reality.

Q: Is “The Awoken” the novel you intended to write at the outset? If so, what did you want to explore? If not, what meaning was revealed once you’d completed the manuscript?

A: There’s always a revelation process when it comes to writing, but for the most part, “The Awoken” was the novel I set out to write. I wanted to write a novel that questioned the human instinct to hate those that seem different from us — our self-destructive need to scapegoat someone in order to feel community with those we think we’re akin to.

I will say that I didn’t put together that I was also exploring the trauma of my own death until after I read the first draft of the novel. Clearly my heart was aching for an outlet to process these emotions without my brain being consciously aware. I think both intentions are satisfied in the book and I’m glad that my subconscious was able to get some free therapy out of this work.

Q: What has your experience as an avid reader, documentary filmmaker and writer taught you about the power of storytelling to help us make sense of life?

A: It’s odd to say but I think science fiction and documentaries serve very similar masters when it comes to storytelling. At their core, both mediums try to make sense of and probe into very real social dilemmas in an entertaining way. The best documentaries feed you vegetables that taste like dessert; you learn something without even knowing it. Similarly, the best science fiction makes us question the world around us and allows us to viscerally live out potential futures so we can make more empathetic choices in our real lives.

Certainly the blank page of science fiction, and all the possibilities that come with that, makes it a bit easier for me when it comes to storytelling. Documentaries are hard. There are real people’s lives you’re impacting by telling their story and the ethics around that is always of paramount importance. All in all, I love working in both mediums and will continue to do so as long as people let me.

Q: Who are your favorite science-fiction writers?

A: Mary Shelley, Octavia Butler, N.K. Jemisin, Anne McCaffrey and Emily St. John Mandel. I could keep it only women, but I’d regret not also including Kazuo Ishiguro, so I’ll sneak him in there too.


Credit: ArtsATL

Credit: ArtsATL

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