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Question of the Month: Childhood Obsessions

by Susan Henderson on July 1, 2013

What were you obsessed with as a child?

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Part of what I loved about writing my new book was delving into old obsessions. When I was in elementary school, I loved looking through my mom’s nursing books with the often gruesome drawings of deformities and diseases. Sometimes, she took me to her nursing classrooms, where I remembered looking at human fetuses in jars and stacks of stiff cats in clear plastic bags.

When I was in middle school, I became obsessed with one of the authors on my mother’s bookshelf, Richard Selzer, who made surgery seem like poetry. I loved to read about the instruments, the cuts, the problems that couldn’t be fixed, the torment and wisdom of both doctor and patient.

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All the while, my father would talk to me about the work he and his colleagues did at DARPA, the Pentagon, and the various colleges and institutions where he consulted. He told me about ARPANET, missiles, microchips, robots that tried to balance on one leg, digital speech, computers that might one day think, unmanned vehicles, robots that could go into dangerous places and try to fix the damage.

When I applied to college, I fully expected that I would one day be a biomedical engineer, something that combined so much of what had been swirling around me and piquing my interest for years. But after discovering the shock of my own limited brain and hopping through a handful of majors, I realized it was the stories of these things that fascinated me, not the idea of doing them myself.

As I stared at the blank page and wondered what my second book would be about, I found myself wandering back to these early obsessions with surgery and with the minds of inventors moving beyond what was known or what was even likely to be successful. I went back and read Richard Selzer’s books and found him even more fantastic than my memories (that doesn’t happen very often!) and suddenly, in fiction, I was able to go where I had failed in real life.

I will leave my story there for now. I’m still waiting to hear from my agent on the manuscript and looking forward to (and also fearing) his response. I know many of you know the feeling!

Okay, your turn. Let’s hear your stories of childhood obsessions, and which ones are still alive in you today?

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Some thank you’s: The Writer magazine, for including my thoughts in the July and August issues, and De Woordenregen.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Val July 1, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Mountain climbing. No idea why since I have not the slightest interest in leaving my comfy couch and climbing Mt Everest. And any kind of medical oddity – which has persisted to this day. My next road trip is to Philly’s Mutter Museum. My mom was a nurse, too, wonder if that has something to do with it….

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Susan Henderson July 1, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Yeah, I wonder about that nursing connection and the obsession with medical oddities. I can’t get enough of them even though I’m squeamish and have zero interest working in the field. Fascinating about mountain climbing. I’ll bet if you peel away some layers about what interests you about it, you’ll find a fascinating connection, and maybe a story, too!

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GC Smith July 1, 2013 at 6:20 pm

As a kid I wanted to build racecars, and, in fact, I did a little of that, but not enough. As an adult I wrote a murder mystery, WHITE LIGHTNING, set in the world of NASCAR racing.

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Susan Henderson July 1, 2013 at 6:27 pm
Billy Bones July 3, 2013 at 1:08 am

I remember sitting in front of the TV and watching the test pattern for an hour or two waiting for Saturday morning cartoons. Animation was an obsession that led to a ten-year career. Movies are still an obsession these days. I didn’t become writing obsessed until I my fifties.

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Susan Henderson July 3, 2013 at 1:40 am

Oh whoa! What a perfect image of you as a child! And a perfect opening for a novel or a movie… please, I hope you write it!

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Billy Bones July 3, 2013 at 11:04 pm

I will definitely keep that in mind. Thank you. : )

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Ric Marion July 3, 2013 at 12:31 pm

When I was very young, I had an obsession with medicine, the little Doctor’s kits, sugar pills, brought on, I think, by curiosity and the arrival of the All About books in mail. All About The Human Body – still in my collection – with weakened spine from over reading.
As I got older, I delved into Architecture, spending hours drawing houses, building with kits from Kenner, corresponding with architects. Even went so far as to get accepted at a couple of architecture schools. Good thing I didn’t pursue that avocation as I have now discovered, 40 years later, that I have no affinity for numbers, physics, algebra, and such. I would have soldiered on back then, not realizing I couldn’t see the logic or the patterns necessary to actually build something that wouldn’t fall down.

Even if I can’t do it, I can enjoy the sweep of a roofline, the way the light plays on a tiled floor. Being based here in the Midwest, Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings and houses can become an obsession, as each trip is planned to maybe stop by and see another of his creations.

The aforementioned trip to Grand Rapids is scheduled for later this month – Meijer Garden’s, The Mayer May House by Wright, and, of course, Truffant, to see the stump fences.

And, it is not that hard to work architectural themes into your stories – you did it, with your hidden room.

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Susan Henderson July 3, 2013 at 3:32 pm

I forgot about the sugar pills in those little doctor’s kits. Those were the best!

Love hearing you talk about architecture. And I’m fascinated by those of us who have an obsession with a field but lack the skills to fully enter that field. I spent almost a year studying surgery and bodies to even decide if I was capable enough to write about it. It was about the most fun I ever had!

Would love to see photos from your Grand Rapids trip, particularly those from Truffant.

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Susan Henderson July 4, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Oh, was just thinking… I’m currently reading Devil in the White City, a FANTASTIC non-fiction book about the Chicago world’s fair. The chapters alternate between the story of the architects and the story of the serial killer. It goes into fascinating detail about the architectural visions verses the choices they have to make given time, money and union constraints, and you might really enjoy it. The author is Erik Larsen.

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Ric Marion July 6, 2013 at 3:16 pm

Susan,
I have read that book. The amazing thing about all that fantastic architecture is that it was all torn down and disappeared. All that work for a few weeks or months enjoyment, and then gone. Like the Crystal Palace built in London for a world fair, built and then removed. Guess we can be lucky they didn’t do that to the Eiffel Tower, or the Space Needle.

Good luck with your new novel – get Dan in gear, we’re all anxious.

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Susan Henderson July 6, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Ha ha! His feedback is always worth the wait so I’m not worried.

If I were one of those architects, I would have gone mad, both trying to scramble to get everything built and then to see it all come down.

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Aurelio O'Brien July 4, 2013 at 2:41 pm

I was obsessed with too many things. Seriously. I found life fascinating. I was the kind of kid that could spend hours examining beach pebbles or finding new ways to enjoy my favorite foods–I tried chocolate buttermilk once. Big mistake. But two big obsessions I recall were anything to do with space exploration and with joining the circus.

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Susan Henderson July 4, 2013 at 3:46 pm

I can totally see you inspecting every little thing you come across. Oh, and how I love knowing about your fascination with space and the circus. Somehow, I feel like you’ve carried both of those passions into your adult work.

Thanks for this story… it made my day!

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Billy Bones July 4, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Made mine, too.

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Despina Yeargin July 8, 2013 at 5:22 pm

Agreed. Aurelio has certainly carried his obsessions into his work. :)

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Tracy Mays Olmsted July 4, 2013 at 2:44 pm

My father had an extensive home library which was 90% non-fiction. As a result, I developed an obsession with the Titanic from reading Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember. In addition, there was Mt. Everest. Biographies on Edmund Hillary, books which contained photography, and listening to my dad’s own story of traveling in India with Mom where they saw the peak of Everest the mid-1960′s. Today, I am still obsessed with Everest, less so with Titanic. I have a wonderful map of the mountain in the classroom, have read many books on the subject, seen all the movies, and have an abiding respect for the human experience which constantly wants to push limits. A newer obsession which compliments is the fascinating story of the incredible Ernest Shackleton in Antarctica. I teach this expedition to my 6th grade students as a study in leadership and geography. Of course, it was always fascinating to hear Michael H. recount his adventures and receive postcards from the Henderson hikes on the AT. Best of luck with the manuscript!

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Susan Henderson July 4, 2013 at 3:56 pm

Tracy, Thank you! I’m really excited about this manuscript and looking forward to my agent’s magic touch.

Those stories you mention are all so thrilling, both dark and magical, deadly and awe-some. Human vs. Nature, and nature is always the winner in the end. I have that great big Shackleton book with its beautiful/stark photos and haven’t taken the time to read it yet. Maybe this winter in front of the fire.

By the way, we were just with Michael last week in Yosemite for Hal’s 80th birthday. A great time and a good bit of hiking, too!

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Nathalie (@spacedlaw) July 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm

I don’t recall any specific obsession apart from the fear that my parents might abandon me (in a shop or on a crowded street).
Of course I was a book worm (still am), but I don’t count this as an obsession, more like possession.

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Susan Henderson July 6, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Now there’s a heartbreaking detail and would make a great poem… the fear of being abandoned in a shop or crowded street. What were your favorite books to escape into? Were you drawn to a particular place, theme or type of adventure?

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Nathalie (@spacedlaw) July 6, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Myths and legends. Atlases. Art books. Comics of the psychedelic type. Animals encyclopedia. Space pictures (mostly art as we did not have all those gorgeous satellite pictures I see today at work). I wanted to become an astronaut…

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Susan Henderson July 6, 2013 at 10:33 pm

Now I’m really glad I asked. What a fascinating kid, and I hope you write about her! If this kid were a cartoon character (and what would her costume be?), I’d have actually liked TV!

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Despina Yeargin July 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Books, books and more books.

We lived in Sparta, Greece. My father had swapped out teaching for a gig as a bookstore owner. I remember being about 6, sitting on the floor by the front door and poring over lots and lots of books. I couldn’t read them, but I loved them. My parents have told me that I’d beg anyone who walked into the store to read something to me.

I still love books and bookstores and watching people read. There’s something to that. It’s like walking by someone’s house at dark and looking in their windows into their lamp-lit personal space and wondering what they’re doing and how they feel…what’s going on in their lives? I look at people who are reading and wonder what they’re reading, are they enjoying the book, are they taking a break from their reality or looking for help with their reality? Lots of secrets and entertainment and friends and other treasures and so much more in a book. Don’t you agree?

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Susan Henderson July 9, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Loooove these stories! Despina, what a wonderful image of you sitting among books you weren’t able to read! Your description is gorgeous, and I think bookworms tend to think both more broadly and more intimately because the’ve seen so many iterations of the world, the long view and the close up.

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billie hinton July 15, 2013 at 1:45 pm

I’m so late but had to respond!

I was obsessed with the Lost Colony for a long time. What happened to them? It was such a mystery to me.

I was obsessed with books. I read constantly, anything and everything.

I was also obsessed with horses from the time I can remember. I wanted to be an equine vet who consulted with the US Olympic Equestrian team. I hit college and realized that there were way too many organic chemistry classes between freshman year and vet school, and I was treated like a Queen by my honors English professors. They totally lured me into the English department where I first double-majored and then dropped my pre-vet major.

Later I became obsessed with the human psyche.

It’s fascinating to draw lines between all these obsessions and see how things ended up. Although I have no vet degree I sure do run a vet clinic here on November Hill. :)

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Susan Henderson July 15, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Billie, Tell me about The Lost Colony. I’ve heard of that phrase but don’t know what it’s about?

So fascinating how much animals and veterinary skills have become a part of your daily life and your writing. I, too, wanted to work with animals at one time. I spent a summer volunteering at a vet and realized I was much too weak-kneed to be useful to the animals in anyway.

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