Susan Henderson is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing program and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her 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), 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). It’s currently being translated into Dutch and Norwegian. Susan is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and her work has – twice – been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. 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.
Have you had mentors? Talk about the mentor relationship, if you will, its importance for a writer…
My first true mentor was the janitor at my high school. We both wrote poetry, terrible stuff, but that’s actually what was so lovely about the experience. It was pure acceptance — the permission to try to express something personal and vulnerable that I hadn’t dared to express before.
We used to hang out after my crew practice and after he’d finished mopping the cafeteria. We’d sit at the back table with a little tape recorder between us that played poorly-recorded music — his favorite was the opera singer, Jessye Norman — and you’d hear this great big emotion coming out of the tiniest speaker. In a way, that’s the perfect metaphor for that time in my writing life because I was just beginning to pay attention to this well of emotion, but I didn’t know how to get it out or represent it with words, and so there was a tinny quality to those early poems that only hinted at what was behind them.
My other mentor was the poet Jim Daniels, who was my favorite professor in college. When I first met Jim, I was kind of guarded and tom-boyish, but when I wrote I would reach for this very formal, faux-John-Donne way of writing. It didn’t occur me to use my own voice. But that’s Jim’s gift. His voice shows his Detroit car factory roots, and so does his writing. The only difference is, when he writes, he sharpens that voice so there are no wasted words. By the end of college, I’d taken about ten classes with Jim, and I can’t begin to describe the stamp he’s put on my writing style or the gratitude I feel for his helping me find and hone my natural voice.
What do you do when you feel stuck or uninspired… suggestions for unblocking creativity?
The best way I know for getting unstuck is to read. If I’m having trouble building suspense, I might read Stephen King’s Misery, where one character spends most of the book lying in bed, and yet, your heart is racing. If I’ve lost my way in a story, I’ll read something with a gloriously tight frame — William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows or Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face — something that reminds me to keep the focus simple. If I’m missing a sense of poetry in my work, I’ll pull out books by Deborah Digges, Cornelius Eady, or Paul Lisicky. If I want to create a memorable opening to my story, I’ll re-read Stephen Elliott, Harper Lee, or Charles Dickens. If I want to tune my ear to a rhythmic and instantly identifiable voice, I’ll read James Baldwin, Raymond Carver, or Zora Neale Hurston. The best thing in the world when you’re stuck is just to walk away from your own work and let yourself fall back in love with the power of story and the power of words.
Best advice you ever got? Words of wisdom… What helped you as a young writer?
The most important thing is to be a reader first. You’re training your ear for rhythm and pacing. You’re learning how to hold someone’s attention. You’re learning how to pull multiple threads through a story. You’re learning how much you can say in a small space, and all the ways you can explore a topic or a relationship on the page.
The second most important thing for a young writer (and obviously this changes when you mature and need to hone your craft) is to keep your most private work away from anyone who might crush your confidence. It’s hard enough to find the courage to explore your fears or vulnerabilities. It takes a lot of experimenting to find your voice and to find your most potent material. This is not the time to have someone looking over your shoulder who might be offended or hurt or overly critical.
How well do you know your characters before you start writing them?
I knew my Up from the Blue characters inside and out because they’d been turning up in short stories for years. I could put them in any situation and know exactly how they’d react.
I’m actually really enjoying the fact that I don’t know the characters in my new book very well. They are just beginning to make themselves known, and much of what they do is a surprise to me.
Regarding plot: How firm do your original plot intentions remain in the writing? Do they develop during the process of writing? Is it a tug of war?
With Up from the Blue, I didn’t even realize I was writing a novel until I was deep into it. And while there’s a nice organic quality to this method, it’s actually quite a hellish feeling when, 200 pages in, I stumbled across my opening scene. The process for plotting this book was one of cutting, pasting, re-thinking, killing off five characters, and ultimately throwing away one and then two entire manuscripts.
I can tell you that I’m carefully outlining my new book. That doesn’t mean I’m tied to this plot if I get a better idea. But I liken it to taking a road trip. You usually know where you want to start your trip and where you’re going to end up. You also know the main roads you’ll take to get there. What you don’t know, and what tends to make the trip memorable, are the surprises you’ll see along the way. But I’m now a big believer in knowing where you’re going before you begin.
Your novel, Up from the Blue, is about 1970’s bi-polar housewife who goes missing and her daughter who won’t give up the search for her. Can you talk a bit the nuts and bolts of birthing this novel?
I documented the rollercoaster ride of this book over at The Nervous Breakdown — I wrote as I was living through it, not sure at the time what the outcome would be — celebrating things that turned out to be nightmares and mourning things that turned out to save me. Honestly, now that I’ve lived through the process, I’m not at all ready to revisit it. But it’s there in case it gives any other writers a sense of companionship through what can be a terribly long and discouraging process.
Are there favorite writing practices/exercises that you can share?
Yes, but I should tell you first that I cribbed almost all of them from Alexandra Sokoloff. She has a site that talks about creating a three-act story, and since building plot is where I struggle the most, I’ve focused a lot of my energy on learning how to do this better. She also recommends watching movies of the genre you want to write in, and I found movies like Mystic River to be invaluable training tools. I’ve also been studying Joseph Campbell (my husband’s uncle) for his thoughts about the hero’s journey. Again, it’s helping me give a clear shape to my ideas and reminding me that the characters’ actions and decisions (rather than their feelings and insights) need to move the story forward.
As far as story-starters, I love Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. And the Rumpus advice column, Dear Sugar, is marvelous for stirring up emotion and memory.
Finally, I learned something when I was on a writer’s retreat with my friends Tish Cohen, Jessica Keener, and Robin Slick. The method is called “unplug yourself and set an egg timer”. Very simple but a huge payoff. Before that trip, I used to have 12-hour writing days but produce very little. I didn’t even realize how much I’d meshed my writing life with checking email and clicking the like-button on FaceBook. So during this retreat, we laughed and cried and gossiped and brainstormed, and then we ate well, but afterward, we went to separate rooms and set the timer for an hour and a half. And without any electronic gadgets beside me, I just wrote longhand-twice a day-and learned how much good material I could produce if I cut out the distractions.
The Fictionaut Five is our ongoing series of interviews with Fictionaut authors. Every Wednesday, Meg Pokrass asks a writer five (or more) questions. Meg is the editor-at-large for BLIP Magazine, and her stories and poems have been published widely. Her first full collection of flash fiction, “Damn Sure Right” is now out from Press 53. She blogs at http://megpokrass.com.