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July 2009

Book Deal!

by Susan Henderson on July 19, 2009

The deal: My novel, THE RUBY CUP, will be published by Harper Perennial!

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A few details: On Friday, I got a call from my agent with an offer from Harper Perennial. It’s my favorite publishing house (everyone who knows me best knows this), so it was an extra thrill.

Earlier in the week, I’d spoken with the woman who will be my editor to see if we’re on the same page with edits. Do you know the feeling when someone talks about your work with ideas that are so in-line with yours but with an original twist you never considered? It sets off fireworks in your head. You can’t stop the new ideas; they find you when you’re driving and while you’re sleeping.

I always thought, when I got a book deal, that I’d shout it from the rooftops. My reaction surprised me. It felt intensely private, like giving birth; and then, after something full of seemingly endless pain and worry and utter exhaustion, you’re holding this baby. And he’s healthy and looking at you. And in the back of your mind, you know you have to call everyone to say he’s born and tell everyone his name and how much he weighs and all about the labor, but you kind of can’t move. You just want to stay in that quiet space for a while, just the two of you, and let it all feel real.

I spent the weekend cleaning. Can you believe my first real urge after getting a book deal was to wash and fold all the laundry?! And I just hung out with the family and gardened and threw a tennis ball to the dogs. Hardly went near the computer.

I feel good. Feel like getting to work. And I want to tell those of you who feel like Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up the hill, or who feel like a mother in some kind of cruel false labor, that I hope it happens for you soon. Because the second you’re standing on the top of the hill, or you’re holding that newborn, all that pushing doesn’t seem so bad.

Thanks to all of you for being here. xo

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Monthly Wrap: More Human than Hero

by Susan Henderson on July 10, 2009

We talked about heroes this month, and every time I think of the word “hero,” I get that Mariah Carey song stuck in my head.

I heard that song constantly when I worked as a counselor at a rape crisis center because one of my teenage clients loved to sing to me. She liked over-the-top songs: “Hero,” the theme to “The Titanic.” Oh, she was an awful singer – I suppose she couldn’t help it because she was hearing impaired – but what she lacked in pitch, she made up in emotion.

When you’re a counselor, people come to you with expectations that you’ll be some kind of super hero who can save them from the complicated pain they’ve been living with, but you know better. And your clients will find out soon enough: You’re just two human beings sitting in a room together and hoping for the best.

Downstairs in the waiting room, week after week, were the parents of my singing client. They’d adopted her when she was a malnourished orphan living on the streets. They gave her a home, took her to a doctor to get hearing aids, found her a school, and brought her to me when she was date raped.

Heroes? Maybe not.

Imagine you’re a 25-year-old counselor who looks like you’re going on twelve, and it’s the day your singing client tells you that those parents in the waiting room have been molesting her. As you’re riding down in the elevator, you’re trying to find the right words, words that will become part of the court case, to explain why their daughter can’t go home with them, and what they can expect when the investigators get in touch.

If you think there’s anything heroic about stripping a girl from her family and sending her into the nightmare of group homes, there isn’t. The thing about group homes is that the workers and the residents there have that same quality as counselors and adoptive parents and all the rest: they’re human. Sometimes beautiful. Always flawed. Capable of great good, great evil, and mostly, great mediocrity.

Maybe the word “hero” can only truly describe a single moment, a single courageous choice that happened to get good results. Most times, there are no heroes, nor even heroic moments – just people trying (or not trying) their best.

If you’re wondering how the girl’s story ends, I don’t know. Counselors share a tiny room full of painful secrets and brave recovery for just a brief time. And then you just hope the kid’s doing okay. You hope she still sings.

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What I read this month: A whole lotta research books for the novel I’m writing, plus Naseem Rakha’s THE CRYING TREE (I’ll talk more about this beautiful book very soon), Zora Neale Hurston’s THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (What took me so long to read this book?! It’s glorious), and John Connolly’s THE BOOK OF LOST THINGS (Two beautiful opening chapters about death and fairy tales and WWII before it becomes, much more clearly, a children’s book. I read it through anyway, hoping the ending chapters would hit the same notes as the first two, and I’m glad to say they did).

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Thanks to my July guest, novelist Lance Reynald. Thanks to all who played here, and to everyone who linked to LitPark: She Writes, Georgia McBride Books, joannamauselina, Mots Justes, Side Dish, Tayari’s Blog, Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Amazon Blog, Stet, Alpha FEmale Mind, acparker, EllenMeister, spacedlawyer, lancerey, marilynpeake, artbizlaw, kmwss2c, BklynBrit, redRavine, LitChat, TerryBain, LanceRey, lorioliva, PD_Smith, nicebio, and zumayabooks. I appreciate those links!

Okay, off to dinner in the West Village with Amy Wallen, Eber Lambert, Neil Lambert, Rebecca Friedman, Rachel Shukert, Kimberly Wetherell, and Mr. H. Looking forward to it!

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Lance Reynald, author of POP SALVATION

by Susan Henderson on July 8, 2009

Most regulars of LitPark know Lance Reynald, who is an integral part of this place – not just for his interviews, but for helping to build and maintain a community of enthusiastic readers and supportive writers.

Now it’s Lance’s turn to be front and center with his gorgeous debut novel of outcasts in search of love and identity. POP SALVATION is set in Washington DC during the MTV generation, with its emerging punk scene and long lines at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and features a boy who dresses like his hero, Andy Warhol, and struggles with the courage to be himself. Please stay and talk with Lance; and thanks to everyone who buys his book!

Talk to me about freaks. Just riff, if you would.

I don’t really see them. I know that it seems that the general public does… and that seems to be something that I don’t really have, or just didn’t pick up. Throughout life there have been times that people have questioned my judgement when it comes to the company I have kept. My outlook is pretty simple; we’re all these beautiful creatures, each and every one unique with boundless potential. The error of society labeling anyone a freak is that it dismisses an opportunity to see beauty that is greater than we could ever dream.

Let’s talk about Caleb – a boy who never felt good enough, whether it was being smaller than the other kids or having problem skin or the way his accent and his walk and the feelings he had set him apart. What drew him to Andy Warhol as his hero?

Caleb and Andy both faced adolescence as outcasts. Warhol was a sickly effeminate child of immigrant Pittsburgh, nothing extraordinary really. But instead of trying to fit in and be just like everyone else he played up the characteristics that made him different… and the brilliant twist from that was he presented everyday objects as the art. Think about it for a moment. Here you have a man that looks like Andy Warhol telling you that the everyday objects you ignore in the grocery store are actually what real beauty is… everything that surrounds you is art. If you hold that thought you begin to recondition yourself and you might realize that Warhol isn’t so strange looking after all. Andy Warhol as an Icon is pretty damn empowering to a boy that feels he can’t ever fit.

I’d transformed myself into a grade school clone of my hero. A pint-size Warhol. My summer with the art school crowd had given me the confidence to not only be different, but also to express myself in an extreme fashion.

So shocking was the art I had made of myself that James and the other children dismissed me with just one word on our first day back at school.

Freak. (POP SALVATION, p. 23)

Do you have any heroes?

I used to.

I think it’s great to have heroes, icons or someone to emulate, but all of that should be a starting point. Everyone feels powerless at some point and you might need the thought of someone greater than you to use as a catalyst to make you stronger.

But those heroes out there are made of the same molecules and energy that you are. They love. They have insecurities, headaches and bad days. And no doubt that they have a part that hurts too. Their actions, achievements or the way they live has made them heroic to you. Your interest should be the point of inspiration.

I’ve noticed that lots of young writers travel down this road to our peril. They attach strongly to their heroes and icons. Everyone wants to be Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Burroughs or Thompson (the list goes on and on to tedious extremes) but imitation is just dull.

You have your own voice, it’s the only pioneering thing you can do (which brings me to the inevitable grab for some pop song wisdom…because borrowing lyrics is totally different…*smirk*):

I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day

-David Bowie, HEROES

I don’t recall when and where my mind changed on it, but I think it’s better to live heroically than to put being a hero on someone else. We all have that potential.

The love story in this book is beautiful, aching, and tragic, but most of it happens via the safety of artistic collaboration and voyeurism. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what’s gained and lost with being so guarded.

This part of the story is a direct riff on some of Andy Warhol’s musings on love, relationships and art written about in From A to B and Back Again.

Voyeurism provides a safe remove. Subject and muse don’t have to engage in a dialogue about rejection or disappointment.

In the Philosophy, Andy makes a point of stating that he preferred the idea of fascinations over love. He goes on to say that love affairs get too involved and aren’t really worth it, and that the version of love you see on the screen is better than anything that happens in real life… The ideas in the book are all the arguments of keeping relationships at a safe remove to both protect your own heart and create the conditions for absolute adoration of subject.

The downside? If you stick to that philosophy you consign yourself to a rather monastic life. Fascinations are but a substitute, not engaged love.

“Remember. Art is what you can get away with. Action!” (POP SALVATION, p. 100)

Riff for me again: Love.

If any of us ever claims to have that one figured out we’ll have nothing left to write for or about.

There’s a line in the book that says, “A full beating heart is the greatest happiness.” Tell me what a full beating heart looks like to you.

It isn’t in the grandest of overtures, it lives in the subtle moments that you can’t ever plan. It can be in the comfort of a reunion between great loves that find life too complicated to be together or in a partner that manages to look at you and smile first thing every damn morning. I’ve been learning that if you pay enough attention it can be found constant throughout life, you just have to look close because it might be hiding beneath feelings you aren’t prepared for.

Talk to me about the process of writing this book. I remember your photo of the pages tacked up on the wall. Walk me through the way you work, how an idea or an urge became a novel.

There is a phrase in a RHCP song (Otherside) that I think illustrates how my mind works pretty well.

I heard your voice through a photograph
I thought it up; it brought up the past
Once you know you can never go back
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

I’m very visual in the way my thoughts arrange. Perhaps this is the product of being the first generation MTV audience. Stories build and unfold for me once I’ve assembled enough raw material to build with. Sure, I tend to write out ideas and dialogues longhand in composition books but I also need things surrounding me as visual reference material. I tear pages out of magazines and collect postcards and snapshots of the world that causes me to imagine my characters.

To build Caleb’s world I had a base of snapshots of DC. The architecture, the cherry blossoms, a garden diagram of Dumbarton Oaks and a streetmap of Georgetown. To this base I added the art. Warhol postcards and prints, a NYC subway token, a copy of a Mapplethorpe portrait of Andy Warhol, a Rocky Horror Picture Show poster and a disco ball…

But, the last piece was torn from a magazine. A DKNY ad that picture a guy and a girl standing in a crosswalk in what seems a moment that could be a reunion of intimate friends. One of those subtle but seemingly true moments. A good reference point for a story.

With those visuals tacked to the wall and evolving I also add music. I load the hell out of my iPods. For Pop Salvation I had a steady stream of 1980s pop going. My ears were constantly filled with the songs the characters would hear on the radio and see on MTV. For me this was easy, it was a nostalgic journey back to my youth through music and I love me some BritPop!

But even with all of that, you have to allow the characters to speak for themselves. I wish I could explain this better, but I think every writer out there knows this in the abstract. You can create the conditions, but the characters come on their own when they’re damn good and ready.

Call it whatever you want; the universe, the muses, the divine or some form of schizophrenia. None of us really ever works alone. It is what it is, and if you think you have the stomach or the talent for the writing game you’d best come to terms with this thing being out there. It is in the realm of the unknown or the deeply felt just being the mysteries you really don’t have to answer for anyone. I resisted this notion at first, then a darling young girl by the name of Brit decided to show up and demanded to be written in. It was as though she stood in the office doorway and challenged me with a tap of her stilettos and the question, “You forgetting someone, fucker?”. She changed the pace of the whole thing and the story couldn’t happen without her. But, she was nowhere in the planning.

Ah, the wall era.

I don’t know if anyone else does this but it works for me.

In the final stretch of a manuscript I staple the whole thing from start to finish on to the walls. From that perspective I can survey the whole thing, get a sense of the size of it and see the holes. At first I just scan the whole of it. Then comes the red pen strike outs and margin notes. I can walk into the room and start reading the story anywhere without having to shuffle through pages to find where I left off or where I should go. I can even randomly go to a section just to see if it reads sharp and conscious in a moment. Once the manuscript is ready for the wall treatment I know I have something that can be an entity without me. Plus you get this really crazy juvenile rush of,  Ha. I did this much! That is a pretty rewarding simple pleasure. I find it important to remember such pleasures in the craft of writing.

Brian ran to a neighbor’s house and started to pound furiously on the door. His neighbor opened the door with a shocked look on her face as she tried to understand the sight of a young boy in a party dress with blood oozing from his chest. (POP SALVATION, p. 119)

There’s an interesting tension between you and your main character here. You’ve told a poignant story about a boy who struggles with the courage to be his true self. But to write this story, you as the author had to put something real and unguarded down on paper. How hard was that to do?

Hmm. The writing was actually easier to do than answering this question seems to be. I understand the question, people tend to think that writing in such a visceral manner is a very dark and taxing practice. Yeah, it is and it can be, but I don’t really know how to do it any other way. Stories of loneliness, outcasts and the struggles to be accepted and loved seem to come naturally to me. It is what I have seen in my family and friends through the years.

The parallel that people may see or presume between Caleb and I is two boys that have struggled with their relationship with their fathers. Sure, I spent most of my life feeling that I was overshadowed and that I might be a disappointment to my Dad. Perhaps some of this was imagined on my part. But, it was imagined under conditions of distance. Writing the narrative as I did allowed me to explore and exorcise some of those feelings.

As Caleb developed and observed his world I distinctly recall having to remind myself to let him feel the things as a boy would. As a child everything is so much bigger than you and you feel powerless. Sure, Caleb is precocious in some of his interests and he grows up a bit too fast at some things, but being the outcast still makes him want to die, and indifference makes him feel he can’t ever be good enough.

Taking that journey through the eyes of a child allowed me to think through my childhood and put a lot of demons to rest.

I was one of those people you ran into and wondered, What had he been before he gave up? (POP SALVATION, p. 204).

Scared or excited about going on your book tour?

Terrified? Prepared? Both!

Over the years I’ve struggled with mild to severe bouts of Social Anxiety. There are times when something as simple as a trip to the grocery store causes me to come unglued. I’m not even on display in that situation, it’s a totally anonymous everyday activity that no one is ever going to notice.

The only way I’ve found to express how I tend to feel about the whole thing is to say that if I had become an actor instead of a writer, I’d be the kind of guy that would never see his own movies. Since that isn’t possible with public readings I guess I’ll have to wing it.

But, when I remove myself from that whole mess I also accept the fact that I am the only person on the planet that can do this. Every moment, word and step has led me to being the last word on Pop Salvation and being Lance Reynald.

Are you the same person now as the guy who first started writing this book?

I don’t think I’m the same person that started this interview.

I think we as writers tune in to life at a different level than most people. Every moment is filled with details that we will draw on some day to fill out the narratives of our stories. In casual interactions here and there, people have commented on the details I note and remember. Life really is an ever changing journey, and all the moments you’re at it can hold entire universes of wonder, split-second opportunities to create new stories. The art will always evolve because of this simple fact. There could be some sentence I said up there a few paragraphs ago that launches another writer on to their debut novel and from that starting point they are the only person on the planet that can tell that story.

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Question of the Month: Hero

by Susan Henderson on July 6, 2009

Who’s your hero?

And bless all of you who want to tell me about your moms, but try to keep your answers to public figures.

Wednesday, Lance Reynald will be here to talk about heroes, freaks, art, music, and his debut novel, POP SALVATION. Don’t you dare miss it!

litpark susan henderson lance reynald joseph papa in times square

Here, by the way, is a photo of me and Lance (and a little piece of Joseph Papa in light blue) last week in Times Square. Photo by director and screenwriter extraordinaire, Kimberly Wetherell.

One last thing. Want free stuff? My pal John Griswold (Oronte Churm on McSweeney’s) has something for you right here.

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