Thursday, December 30, 2010

A 1/2 Dozen for Novelist Susan Henderson

The 1/2 Dozen is a new recurring feature here at The Shared Brain of Baggott, Asher & Bode. Basically, I send a bunch of questions to established and emerging novelists, they pick a half dozen to answer. I post.

Here's a 1/2 dozen from debut novelist SUSAN HENDERSON

who tells us how she grew up:

"... around geniuses—the inventors of the internet, artificial speech, various weapons of mass destruction, autonomous vehicles..."

who gives us writing advice:

"Think back to when you really loved writing—before it was about feedback/publication/rejection, before it felt like a chore, before you felt like a failure...."

and shares the things that have most impacted her life:

"...From middle school through high school, I babysat for a family whose eldest daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was four, and so her surgeries and chemo and everything she and her family had to adjust to was smack in the center of my life... [it] changed me in every single cell."


Tell us a tale from the publishing world—something. ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

This is what I’ve learned from studying book launches for the past several years: Publishers chase, rather than create, enthusiasm. So your job as an author is to help create and point out anything that might excite them—anything they can use in a press release, anything they can tweet or use as leverage for getting the next review. The author needs to take that extra step.

The reader can take that extra step, too. It’s a wonderful thing to get a private note from someone saying how much he or she loved your book. In the end, that’s why you write—for that single connection between writer and reader. But private notes won’t impact sales or word of mouth, and they won’t give your publisher leverage to seek out foreign sales rights, more press, and so on. So if you love a book, and if you’ve already taken the time to do the hard part, which is to put your thoughts into a private note, do the author the grandest favor and post some version of that note on Amazon, GoodReads, FaceBook, or all of the above. You can have a profoundly positive impact on an author’s career whenever you take that extra five minutes, and I try hard to take that advice myself.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

My agent taught me this: Think back to when you really loved writing—before it was about feedback/publication/rejection, before it felt like a chore, before you felt like a failure. Remember the joy in coming up with the exact color blue for a character’s eyes. Remember looking up at the clock and discovering a whole day had gone by while you were lost in the world of your story. Find that again.

If it’s hard to remember when writing was something you loved, try this: Imagine stopping. Imagine not finishing that story or book you’ve been stuck on. Imagine losing your computer and all your unfinished manuscripts in a fire. If that sends you into an utter panic, then—hard as it may be to get it right—you simply must find a way to tell your story.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I don’t know a tougher critic than myself. I’m absolutely ruthless—throwing several entire manuscripts away and reworking the others again and again, from the large picture to the sentence level. The second toughest critic I know is my agent, and I value his input so much even if it takes me a few days to recover from it. Tough editing and hard truths are what raise your level of writing.

Critical reviews, however, are new territory for me. This isn’t someone taking an unfinished piece and trying to help you make it better. This is someone looking at work you just about killed yourself to get right and giving his opinion in the public arena. Sometimes he’ll point out something about a plot turn that you would have liked to have edited a little more yourself. But the truth is, the reviews you get of your finished work tend to say very personal things: I don’t care about the people or the issues that you care about, I don’t like the way you see the world, the things that move you bore or annoy me. It’s not a tough critique of your work so much as someone saying that they don’t like the most private things about you.

As I see it, you can only handle this in three ways: You can take it in and let it confirm your deepest fears that you’re weird and unlikable and irritating to other people. You can hate them back. Or you can do what writers have to do again and again to survive this business: You toughen up. People have different temperaments and life experience, and so naturally they have different points of view on who or what is funny and who or what is sympathetic and who or what is entertaining. You’re much better off to listen to the criticisms of people who are naturally drawn to your characters and subject matter than to people who can’t relate.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was not an easy kid to pinpoint. I was a bookworm and a hard worker, but I was also a firestarter, and I loved to instigate something and watch the ripple effect. I was shy but still wanted to be the center of attention. And I liked to walk up close to dangerous things—poking snakes, barking at dogs, engaging someone who looked unhinged—just to see what would happen and whether I could master the situation.

I grew up around geniuses—the inventors of the internet, artificial speech, various weapons of mass destruction, autonomous vehicles—so one thing that did was give me a complex that I was underachieving. Falling short. But the other thing it did was it put it in my head that I could reach unrealistically high, and if I was tenacious enough, I could achieve what seemed impossible.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

There have been some incredible books out of indie presses. Dylan Landis wrote a phenomenal collection of interconnected short stories called NORMAL PEOPLE DON’T LIVE LIKE THIS (Persea) that explores the hidden lives of girls and their mothers. It’s dark (I like dark) and ventures into bullying, shoplifting, and unwanted pregnancies. Binnie Kein’s memoir, BLOWS TO THE HEAD (State University of New York Press), describes her decision, at age 55, to take up boxing. It's a story of body image, suppressed rage, growing confidence, coming to terms with aging, and a fascinating look at the history of Jewish boxers. And Pinckney Benedict’s story collection, MIRACLE BOY (Press 53) is a pretty thrilling and surprisingly tender look into the lives of rural boys. I just loved these books—they’re good enough to teach from, and they deserve a wider audience.

As far as big press goes, my favorites in the past decade are probably Nicole Krauss’s HISTORY OF LOVE and Terrance Hayes’ LIGHTHEAD.

What other jobs have you had—other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

Wow, I don’t think I’ve ever taken an inventory before. Let’s see… in elementary school, I tutored Vietnemese kids in English, I was a “helper” between the deaf and hearing classes at my school, and I was on the Children’s Board of Directors at The National Theatre. From middle school through high school, I babysat for a family whose eldest daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor when she was four, and so her surgeries and chemo and everything she and her family had to adjust to was smack in the center of my life. In college and during summers, I worked at a special ed school, I taught English as a Second Language, I waitressed, I worked as a cashier at the grocery store, and I worked as a helper at the vet. One day I had to help carry a large dog to the oven, I guess you’d call it, for cremation, and I realized I didn’t have what it took to stay there. After college, for some time, I worked as a counselor for survivors of sexual abuse.

I think every job helped to broaden my empathy in some way, but the babysitting job changed me in every single cell. Watching this family face the most frightening thing you could ever face—not knowing if your child will survive, and if she does, knowing for certain that she will not be the same—and then seeing how they continued to find joy and laughter… that was just a profound wake up call to the power of love and the strength of character.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

When I was nineteen, I took my first of many classes with the poet Jim Daniels at Carnegie Mellon. He was not much older than me. And he came from the car factories in Detroit and had this real gift for writing direct and gritty stories that captured the voice of ordinary people but with absolute attention to wording, imagery and rhythm.

He trained my ear. I began to understand what a single sentence could do, and the importance of adjusting the rhythm to change the emotion or pace of a scene. He taught me, without ever making me feel personally criticized, how to know what to throw out and what to keep.

We used to have to write a new poem for every single class, and we always started with the two toughest questions: Did you like it, and what’s it about? (Don’t ever say yes to the first question if you can’t answer the second one!) And the writer has to say quiet until the discussion is over. The critiques were never about building each other up or tearing each other down. We were simply learning how to clarify a piece of writing to make it accessible to others. We were learning how to strengthen its impact. I’ve had many incredible teachers, but Jim is my favorite.

Susan Henderson’s debut novel, UP FROM THE BLUE (HarperCollins, 2010), has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Best Bets Pick (by BookReporter), Editor’s Pick (by BookMovement), the Editor’s Choice (by BookBrowse), and a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness). Susan is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and a two-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize. She blogs at, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in NY with their two boys.