Monday, September 20, 2010

Susan Henderson talks about Up From The Blue

Just about every writer I know adores Susan Henderson. Let's talk about her shining resume: a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the founder of the literary blog LitPark: Where Writers Come to Play ( Her work has appeared inZoetrope: All-Story, the Pittsburgh Quarterly,North Atlantic Review, Opium, and many other publications. But let's also talk about how Susan is also so generous to other writers, so warm and full of spark, that I nominate her as the patron saint of all writers. I know that she's mine.

Up From the Blue is a knockout debut, about love, vanishing and memory. "Rapturous prose," raved Library Journal and in a starred review Publishers Weekly called it "beautify, funny, sad and complicated." I'm thrilled that Susan is here--and that I finally get to do something for her! Thank you, thank you, Susan.

So, after all your short stories (and you are a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee), what was it like writing a novel? What changed from writing stories? What was the whole writing process like?

Well, first of all, I love the short story format. I'm crazy for Jean Toomer, Flannery O'Conner, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Denis Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Amy Hempel, Annie Proulx, Jimmy Baldwin, Ellen Gilchrist, Aimee Bender, Carson McCullers, Langston Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And I wish more publishers would take on short story collections and actively promote them.

Writing short stories definitely taught me how to be concise, how to cut out the clutter, and sharpen a scene, how to get to the meat of the story. But I started finding recurring characters and themes in my shorter work, and that was my first hint that I had a longer story to tell.

I had no idea what to expect because I never tried it before, but I sort of fell in love with the form. Writing a novel is so freeing. There's room to slow down, to go deeper, and to take some side journeys. I could make the setting one of my characters. I could give minor characters their own arcs. And I liked that I could just stick a detail here or there that seemed incidental— a coin collection, an apple, an abandoned swimming pool—and later you'd find it had taken on more importance. Best of all, I could really get to the gloriously complicated nature of these characters, and I found that so satisfying.

Imagination plays a huge part in Up From the Blue. Tillie’s creating story out of her life both saves her and keeps her from the truth. Can you talk about the way story both makes sense of our lives and blurs reality?

I loved playing with this concept in the novel because I think every family, every marriage, every friendship has seen this happen, where two people experience the same event and have wildly different interpretations of it. Because there's what's physically happening, and then there's your filter—how your fears and desires change what you see, or what you'll let yourself believe. And there's also what each individual will create out of the gaps in information.

Tillie is someone who believed in certain truths and believed in certain people, and those beliefs, though she had many of them wrong, gave her hope. I think it's a self-preserving instinct, and some of the biggest fights in the book are when other characters wants to take those life-saving beliefs and overpower them with their own way of seeing things. That's a very painful process when you tamper with someone's reality.

The novel is structured so that it moves from the present to the past and back again, from the child Tillie to the adult about to have a child of her own. How did you decide on this structure and what do you think it says about what we choose to remember?

This was my editor's biggest influence, and I think it's just brilliant—I never would have thought of it on my own. When HarperCollins bought the book, the entire story was narrated by eight-year-old Tillie. And my editor said to me, I think there are questions the reader has that Tillie is too young to understand or communicate. And so she wondered if I could have someone narrate a frame story and show what's become of Tillie some years down the road.

That's all the direction she gave me. That, and the fact that this frame story had to have its own separate plot. I went to bed with no ideas at all but thrilled with the leeway I'd been given and thrilled because, rather than simply tightening up the book, I could really say much more about memory, about love, about the impact of a tragedy, about how a person carves out a sense of security and hope.

And it gave me a lovely opportunity to give the book two endings—one that a little girl holds to, and one that takes in the full weight of the truth.

I was very curious why, given her childhood, Tillie was going to have a child of her own. Where did that bravery come from?

I think I was the one who wanted her to have a child of her own. Sometimes kids grow up feeling damaged and don't believe in their capacity to create their own future. I think I believed in her more than she did, and wanted her to step over that fear that she would be inadequate. But honestly, I wasn't sure, as I was writing the ending, if she'd be up to the task. We were discovering that together—how much fear or others doubting her would get in the way. Together we saw whether the instinct to attach was there.

What’s obsessing you now in your writing work?

I'm obsessed with this social pressure to stay young and beautiful. I think there were seeds of this obsession in UP FROM THE BLUE—the mother who wouldn't let herself be photographed in sunlight, and the boy who got his tooth fixed and found it sort of emphasized all of the other things he didn't like about his face. But now this meshing of vanity and self-hatred is at the core of my work, and it's really fun to have a brand new set of characters and begin to get to know them.

What question should I be mortified that I didn’t ask you?

Nothing about your questions felt mortifying. I was thinking, in fact, how brilliant and thrilling they are, and how nice it is to talk with someone who's such a close reader.


Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Susan -- I am so so so excited to get my copy in the mail! Happy Launch Day, darling. You deserve a fabulous day and more! xoxox

Patry Francis said...

The structure sounds like a brilliant way to get close to the truth. Since my mother developed dementia and has come to live with me, I've thought a lot about how our ideas of "what happened" and "what's true" is different at varying stages of our lives. I no longer entirely trust my childhood truth or my adult interpretation.

I adore Susan's short fiction, and I can't wait to meet Tillie!

P.S. Love your blog, Caroline.

drew said...

Can't wait to explore yet another great new writer (new to me).

Thanks so much for providing this blog, this venue, to learn of new books. I just finished "Husband and Wife" by Leah Stewart, whom you interviewed recently. I loved it! If not for your blog, I would have never found this book.

Thanks so much for taking the time and making the effort to promote your colleagues.

a gracious plenty said...

i very much enjoyed this interview. thank you. i'll certainly check out the novel.

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