Sometimes I get lucky. Such was the case, when Susan Henderson emailed me, wondering if I wanted to discuss her 2010 novel, Up From the Blue (the story of “a 1970s bi-polar housewife who goes missing and her daughter who won’t give up the search for her”). As described at her site: “Susan Henderson is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and her work has — twice — been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Her debut novel, UP FROM THE BLUE, was published by HarperCollins in 2010 and is now in its fourth printing. Rights have been sold to five other countries, and it’s currently being translated into Norwegian and Dutch. UP FROM THE BLUE 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), Editor’s Choice (by BookBrowse), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), and a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness). She blogs at LitPark.com and The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in NY with their two boys.” (In one of those happy coincidences, this interview is my 500th post for the blog. Seeing as I started the blog [back in late 2007] as an outlet for my pop culture/interview interests, I think it apt that the 500th post would to be an interview.) My thanks to Henderson for her time. Please be sure to read to the very end, as Henderson’s detailing the roads taken by first-time novelists is eye opening.
Tim O’Shea: How challenging is it emotionally/psychologically/physically to write a novel that delves on some level with depression?
Susan Henderson: You know, it’s funny. It’s not hard for me to write emotional material. I find that freeing. And it’s a little backwards from my real life, where I’m fairly guarded. The things that are challenging for me on paper have to do with plot, with trying to take my kind of circular way of seeing the world and make it into something linear, or trying to take intuitions and philosophies and translate them into characters’ actions.
Your question, though, reminds me of something I’d forgotten until now. Years ago, I tried to write a story about depression from the point of view of a depressed woman, and I found that, in order to make it authentic, it had to be kind of mopey and slowly-paced. And the reaction to that story was irritation. Maybe that’s not so surprising because that tends to be the reaction people have to depression itself—they say things like, Snap out of it, get over yourself.
So I really enjoyed telling this story through the lens of the daughter. She’s busy and feisty and likes to jump on the couch, and it just gives the story a shot of energy and a nice contrast to what her mother is going through. I also like the freshness to her view of depression because it isn’t at all clinical or informed by a broader life experience. So when she lies under the sour-smelling sheets or turns her mother’s bracelets when she’s sobbing on the floor, there’s no judgment. It just is.
O’Shea: The book partially occurs in 1991 with an adult woman named Tillie coming to terms with her childhood. On some level, the name alone Tillie struck me as someone still trapped in her childhood. In naming the character was that part of your thinking in giving her a name like that–or am I completely wrong on that count?
Henderson: I was actually searching for a name for this character when the writer Tillie Olsen died, and the name just seemed right. I also liked the idea of offering a tribute to one of my writing heroes.
O’Shea: The book is framed by scenes from 1991, typset in italics, while the majority of the novel takes place in the 1970s. Did you always know this was going to be the structure of the book, or was there a period in its development that you set more of the novel in 1991?
Henderson: When I submitted the book to HarperCollins, it was set entirely in the 70s and told only from eight-year-old Tillie’s point of view, but my editor suggested writing a frame story as a way of addressing some of the issues Tillie was too young to understand or communicate. Also, it was a way of giving the reader a chance to see how Tillie’s come through, and with what kinds of scars.
O’Shea: By having the adult Tillie struggling through the final stages of childbirth in the novel, was that also an effort to have the character have an ability to reclaim her own childhood, come to terms as she was close to full term, in a sense?
Henderson: I didn’t think of her as trying to reclaim her childhood so much as she’s trying not to allow the damage she sustained in childhood from eeking into the adult life she’s built for herself. So what you learn in the opening is she’s made a break from her past only to have her estranged father the only one who can help her in this current crisis. I liked playing with that contrast—the person she’s trying to become pushed up against old habits and doubts.
O’Shea: In describing Tillie’s husband’s major, you had her describe it as “Majoring in art history is a lot like acquiring an expensive degree in unemployment”. Was that a great line that came about through much painful revision or is that something that spawned from your brain rather easily? It’s a great line, I gotta say.
Henderson: That line is actually how I commonly describe my own career, if you can call it one. It comes from years of people asking me what I do, and once I give the answer, “I’m a writer,” I go on to describe the rather ridiculous things that being a writer means: staring out the window, balling up paper, writing things I’ll later delete in a fit, collecting rejection slips, publishing stories in magazines no one has heard of, and netting a financial loss year after year. It’s a lot like being unemployed, but working very hard at it!
O’Shea: You interviewed yourself for The Nervous Breakdown. There you admitted that few of your friends had read your writing before. Now that the book is out, are you able to share that you are a writer with more people–and have more friends read your work?
Henderson: I felt vulnerable when the book came out and my friends and neighbors turned up at that first signing because, even when you’re writing fiction, you’re exposing so much about your heart and your most private thoughts. They’d seen me hibernate in my writing shed for huge chunks of time but never knew the story I was trying to write. But the responses couldn’t have been more loving or encouraging. It’s definitely easier to say that I’m a writer now that the book is out, but I won’t share a peep of the new one until it’s in print. I’m still very private in that way.
O’Shea: Were there folks that you beta-tested the eight-year old narrator’s “voice” with–or did you trust your own instincts in finding that voice for the novel?
Henderson: There are things I usually have to think through like plot, or where to begin and end a story, or sometimes I shift scenes around quite a bit until I like the angle I’ve come in at and the tension between the characters. But the voice I really don’t have much control over. It’s not something I invent or test; it simply comes to me whole when the character is ready.
O’Shea: You admit yourself that part of keeping the voice true to a character of that age you referenced Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. Were you surprised when Jessica Anya Blau compared Tillie’s voice to Scout Finch?
Henderson: There were actually so many mentions of Scout as we were seeking blurbs that we had to choose our favorite and cut the references out of the rest. I think the comparisons had mostly to do with Tillie and Scout being about the same age, and how both are describing adult problems through child’s eyes.
But if I could just go all fan-girl on Harper Lee for a minute… She does a magical job of finding the heart and the lens and the thoughts of a little girl while still giving the reader the most beautiful prose. The other thing that’s so marvelous about TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD is the way she brings the reader into such an intimate story but is also showing you a larger picture of society and its struggles. I recently re-read her book, and it was even better than I remembered.
O’Shea: Not every first time novelist garners praise from the likes of Sara Gruen and Mark Childress. Reading those blurbs, did it give you greater confidence in your work’s ability to reach people–or not?
Henderson: Well, first of all, I’m grateful to them for offering their time and their support of this book. I know they have busy lives and are trying to write their own novels, so taking that time for me was a real act of generosity. And to have writers I admire even reading my work is pretty humbling.
Confidence. Hmm. Confidence is such a slippery thing. And if you want to have a long run in this business, your drive and your belief in your work can’t come from outside sources or you’ll just be crushed. I think, more than confidence, receiving those blurbs gave me an overwhelming sense of belonging to the larger writer community. Their words also added to the pretty incredible feeling I had when I held the finished book in my hands for the first time—the feeling that, wow, this is real!
O’Shea: There’s an iconic innocence mixed with poignancy to the book’s cover. Were you involved with the design, and can you talk to folks about that process?
Henderson: I wasn’t involved in choosing or designing the cover in any way. They simply emailed me the finished idea and asked for my approval.
I was absolutely floored by the image. I wasn’t expecting anything like it—not a black and white cover, not a girl’s face, and certainly nothing so mesmerizing. The photo completely captures the essence of Tillie: vulnerable and defiant. I love the blonde eyelashes and chapped lips. I think the only change to the cover was the font we chose for Jamie Ford’s blurb—just to make it more readable.
The cover designer was Emin Mancheril and the photographer was Lisa Spindler, and I’m ever so lucky for their vision on this cover because so much of choosing a book really does come down to that initial visual response—being intrigued enough to pick it up and take a closer look.
O’Shea: As a first-time novelist, in terms of marketing yourself and developing a brand, which do you think was of greater benefit to you: being twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize; your presence at LitPark, as the blog’s founder; or the fact that your work has been published in multiple literary journals and other publications?
Henderson: Oh, LitPark, for sure. Marketing is all about numbers, and a lively, far-reaching blog definitely interests publishers and media more than any mid-level awards.
But I had never created LitPark as a marketing tool. It’s a community where writers share the ups and downs of this business, and it’s buoyed me through some pretty tough times. For every award and publication, there were countless rejections and revisions; and it was the support of other writers that kept me from quitting.
But here’s a little secret about first-time novelists. Most of us are veterans in this business. Two bestsellers I know were hailed by the press for their debut novels as if it all happened overnight, but they had 12 unsold manuscripts between them. Before HarperCollins bought this book, I had been writing, editing, and publishing for twenty years. And if that seems like a long time to get a foothold in the business, I can point to so many talented colleagues, all deserving of book deals, who are still waiting for their luck to change. So when you see the word “debut,” the writer it describes is very likely battle-scarred and determined. It feels unbelievably good to have finally made it through the door, and I’m trying my best to hold it open for others.