This already ran, but now we have a giveaway of TWO BOOKS! And all you have to do is add a comment. We'll put the comments in a hat, and pick a winner!
First, the huge praise:
The Flicker of Old Dreams is at once a vivid and wildly compelling study of small town American life and an intimate and incisive exploration of the human condition, from love to loss and beyond. If Shirley Jackson and Kent Haruf had a love child, she might write like Susan Henderson. —Jonathan Evison, New York Times bestselling author of West of Here and The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book. —Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World
Like the wind scours paint from an old grain silo, Susan Henderson’s writing scours away all the pretend niceness of small town life in Montana to reveal the frayed and patched nature of humanity. Nobility, ragged resilience and hope compete with small-minded ignorance in a story of unlikely friendship that is sharply detailed and so beautifully written. —Helen Simonson, New York Times bestselling author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand and The Summer Before the War
Susan Henderson offers us the wondrously sharp picture of small town Petroleum, Montana, where the past comes back on two feet and a blizzard rages. The Flicker of Old Dreams is a fine novel, heartfelt and bracing company. It is a gem. —Ron Carlson, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry award-winning author of At the Jim Bridger and Ron Carlson Writes a Story
Susan Henderson’s The Flicker of Old Dreams is a clear-eyed, wise, and poignant tale of losses and gains, told with tremendous empathy and grace. —Therese Anne Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
This book. This author. This writing. I am struggling to find adequate praise—I did not want this to end. —Ron Block, host of A Cook and a Book
This next anecdote will tell you all you need to know about Susan Henderson. In the middle of writing my novel, weeping because I was sure it didn't work, that my career was over, I emailed Susan to tell her that was it, everything was done. She immediately said, "Send it to me. Right now. I'll read it." I knew how busy she was with her own work, but she took the time, and in 3 days (3 days!) sent me back my manuscript, yellow-highlighted where she loved it, gray where it needed work.
I breathed and felt hopeful for the first time in months.
I adore Susan Henderson.
We don't just support each other. We laugh over lunch (or sometimes cry). We talk about everything. And when I read the first pages of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, I was astounded. Oh, I knew Susan was a great writer--but this new novel went even beyond that. I'm deliriously happy to have her here and I can't wait for our next lunchfest. Thank you, thank you for everything Sue.
And now, the details:
Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award. She is the author of the novels Up from the Blue (HarperCollins, 2010) and The Flicker of Old Dreams (HarperCollins, 2018). Shorter work has been published in The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure (HarperPerennial, 2008), Drinking Diaries (Seal Press, 2012), Create a Writer Platform (Writer’s Digest, 2012), as well as a number of magazines and newspapers.
I always want to know what was haunting an author before they write a book. What question did you think you were trying to figure out an answer before BEFORE you wrote THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, and what did you answer instead?
These past few years, I’ve become increasingly alarmed (and obsessed) with the growing gulf between one American and another, and in particular, the split between my current life in New York and my family roots in Montana.
And so I began to think a lot about the town where my father grew up and where I used to visit as a child. I wanted to put my finger on what was happening—why we’d lost empathy for each other.
When I went back to the town and saw it dwindling to 180 people, the story began to be one about death—facing the reality of it, feeling compassion for the dying. But the great surprise for me was discovering something about the pulse of life and seeing the mortician, who narrates this book, reconnecting to all she’d let go quiet in herself—her voice, her opinions, her passions—and stepping back into the world of the living.
Coming from your celebrated, critically acclaimed first novel UP FROM THE BLUE, I wonder if writing this new novel was more difficult. Did you feel you could build on things you had mastered in your first novel or was it completely new to you?
Knowing I had finished a novel that had seemed impossible to pin down helped so much because half the battle was believing I could do it.
But each novel is different. I don’t enter them from the same place (the first came from an urgent voice that piped into my head, and this one came from a setting that haunted me but wouldn’t let me penetrate it). So, in many ways, I feel like a beginner each time I write the new story because it always begins with a blank page and I don’t know the characters yet.
The fun of writing a novel is how you think you know what it’s going to be about, and then there’s always a surprise, a hidden trap you fall through and discover the bigger story that was beneath the surface.
The mortician details knocked me out! What was your research like?
The research was unbelievably fun. And fascinating. I studied everything about the dead body and how it changes, hour by hour. I learned how to remove it from a home, how to drain the organs, how to replace the blood with embalming fluid, how to wash the body, how to cut this and sew that, and most importantly, how to present the face of a loved one so her family members can feel more at peace when they say goodbye.
I read books and watched videos and spoke with morticians and hospice workers. I talked with people who’d recently experienced a death in the family. And then I handed all of my research over to Mary Crampton, my narrator, who made this strange business into a tender art.
So much of the past is present in the Flicker of Old Dreams. Do you think we can ever escape it?
I tried to dig down into the rage of the unemployed and underemployed in this town, and felt like it was rooted in the question, Who am I now? Because their identities were tied to jobs or
lifestyles that were being phased out. And they wanted to still feel important and relevant, but the world they saw on TV was something they didn’t recognize, something they couldn’t imagine becoming a part of.
What's obsessing you now and why?
I live in a town that once revolved around a huge insane asylum. Many of the people in town used to work there, but now it's shut down with most of the windows broken and vines growing over the bolted doors. It’s become the place teenagers break into—mine included—and they go inside with flashlights and respirator masks (if they’re smart) to explore the old cafeteria, padded rooms, and craft projects left behind, mid-stitch.
So I started thinking, "What if a group of teens did more than explore and spray paint their names on the wall? What if they were on a search for something specific that was important enough to go deep into the most dangerous parts of that building to find it?” And that's where I am right now, walking around this place , talking with former nurses and patients, and blending the history with what is happening with these daring teenagers and with the building itself.
What question didn't I ask that I should have?
I’d like to say something about writer friendships. For those of us writing novels, it’s a several year investment in what begins as a blank page and a sense of obsession about some topic or setting or conflict. And in the years it takes to discover the story and get it right, there will be doubt and anguish and the sense that you aren’t going to be able to figure this story out. What saves you—what saves me—is friendship with other writers, who know what it’s like to be lost, to write into a dead-end, to go to a dark place and wonder if you can get back out again.
I feel like we buoy each other. We share the struggle and the joy of this work. We give company on what is so often a solitary process. We find ways to applaud the many milestones along the way. Interviewers often ask about the process and the journey of writing and publishing the book, but I want to call attention to those who’ve been companions on that journey because I couldn’t do it alone.