Susan Henderson

Question of the Month: Library

by Susan Henderson on July 5, 2010

Tell me a story about you and the library.

I loved my little, underfunded library when I was a kid. It was always a thrill to see which picture books were pulled from the shelves and set up along the window sill. I found many of my favorites this way: Georgie the Ghost, Whistle for Willie, The Little House.




When I had kids of my own, I discovered the true glory of the library. Though our house was filled with books, everything I bought for them represented my taste. But when we went to the library—because it was free and we could check out stacks of books—they could takes risks. They could check out a book they knew nothing about or try out topics they weren’t even certain they’d enjoy. They could wander away from my favorite sections and find that the world of literature was much bigger than what I’d showed them. There was non-fiction, horror, satire, sci-fi. It was at the library that they discovered Terry Pratchett’s The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, and my kids have been different—and very happy to be so—ever since.

Looking forward to hearing your own library stories. And if you have the time, I highly recommend this article by Carol Fitzgerald called Libraries and Librarians Are Endangered Species: What You Can Do to Help.


Judith Ryan Hendricks

by Susan Henderson on September 9, 2009

In 2001, Judi Hendricks published her debut novel, BREAD ALONE, which went on to be a bestseller. Now she’s out with her fourth book, THE LAWS OF HARMONY, about a woman trying to flee from grief and betrayal. We’ll talk about this new book, the persistence of memory, and the lessons she learned from the community of writers at Squaw Valley. I hope you’ll join the conversation.

Judi Hendricks

Judi Hendricks

Kids are playing on a rooftop during a party when one little girl falls to her death. Your book begins long after this tragedy, but this death is always stirring beneath the surface. Can you talk to me about weaving the past and present together in your narrative and whether you were tempted to set your novel back at that original incident?

For me, the past and present are inextricably woven together, which is why I always write many more pages than the eventual length of the book—because I have to know the history, and I can’t know it until I write it. Having said that, however, there’s a point where you have to sort of pull the two layers apart so you can look at each of them alone before putting them back together in a different way, a way that makes sense for the telling of the story.

THE LAWS OF HARMONY is a story that really hinges on the past—and I love the way you put it… that the death is always stirring beneath the surface. That was exactly my intent as I was writing, and it’s exactly how the main character (Sunny) perceives it. Loss is the great common denominator here—we’ve all known the loss of a person, of a home, a job, of love, of a dream. For Sunny, the loss of her sister becomes the prism through which she views the world forever after. But I never thought of setting the book in that time because, while Mari’s death is the inciting incident, the story isn’t about the death; it’s about the effect of that death on Sunny’s life. It’s about how we all experience loss and somehow find ways—no matter how flawed—to keep moving.

Years ago she told me she wished she would get Alzheimer’s, that her memories were unbearable. (p. 118)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

The Laws of Harmony (Harper Collins)

In the scene where Nana buys Sunny a chocolate-colored dress, Sunny is shown another world, another way of living; and you see how this delivers both a crushing blow to her feelings about her current life and opens a window to how she might dream differently about her future. Talk to me about this scene. And do you remember a moment like this in your own life?

This is one of my favorite chapters because writing it clarified so many important relationships in the book. It helped me understand where Gwen came from and why she rebelled against her parents and their lifestyle. At the same time I saw that there was still a lot of love mixed in with the misunderstanding and pain. These are people who want to be close to each other, but they just can’t figure out how… sort of like Gwen and Sunny later on. I discovered the tension between Gwen and Rob, their different backgrounds and his dependence on alcohol and drugs to get him through intense situations. This chapter also revealed the mirror image parent/child relationship between Sunny and her father, the way she tries to look out for him, keep him from getting in trouble. Then there’s the bonding of Sunny with her grandmother, which seems to sustain her in different ways over the years, even though they never see each other again. And finally Sunny’s connection with Mari, who at this point is just a toddler, but seems to have a preternatural understanding of her world. The scene where she cries because she doesn’t recognize Sunny all dressed up for the wedding foreshadows that Mari will never know her sister as an adult.

My own experience with a glimpse into a different world came when I was about ten years old. My mother was the oldest of four children, and the only one who had kept to “the straight and narrow path.” On the rare occasions when her sisters and brother were mentioned in my presence, it was with much tsk, tsking and knowing looks between her and my grandmother. I was never privy to details, but I got the message that my aunts and uncle were not examples that I should emulate.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

The doll from Judi's aunt.

It had been years since I’d seen any of them and I wasn’t old enough to remember what they even looked like. Then one day my Aunt Barbara showed up unexpectedly at my grandmother’s house when we were there… bleached blonde hair and dark red lipstick, top down on her convertible, loud, funny, and with a wallet full of cash. She scooped up my little brother and me, put us in the back seat and drove to the nearest toy store, where she told us to pick out anything we wanted. I still have the doll I got that day. Then she took us out for ice cream and told us all about her job—she was working as a blackjack dealer at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. My brother and I had no idea what she was talking about, but it sounded pretty darned exciting. Next we drove to the bus station to pick up her boyfriend, who’d just come down from San Francisco to meet her and then they were off to Mexico for a week. When we got back to my grandmother’s house, things were very quiet. I could tell my mother was angry, but I couldn’t figure out why. It was never discussed… my family’s usual method of dealing with anything outside our comfort zone.

Interestingly when my aunt died of lung cancer ten years ago, my mother professed not to remember that day. Maybe she didn’t. I’ve never forgotten it. I wasn’t quite ready to run off to Tahoe and learn to deal blackjack, but I now knew there were other possibilities than the “straight and narrow.”

So here’s an honest answer: I grew up on a commune in New Mexico. I spent my first eighteen years surrounded by an ever-changing cast of characters. Group work, group play, group meals… group sex, on occasion. Even our outhouse was a five-seater. It made my brother the kind of person who’d strike up a conversation with a guy who’s mugging him at gunpoint. It made me into somebody who thinks three people is a mob. (p. 218)

In many ways, you’re writing about contrasting worlds; and yet, when Sunny runs from one to the another—hoping to flee broken relationships, financial struggles, loneliness, disappointment—the hurts and problems run right along beside her. I’d love to hear you talk about this battle—the weight of the past versus the force of what a person dreams for herself.

French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote, “Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”

Nobody understands that better than Sunny Cooper, my protagonist in THE LAWS OF HARMONY. At the age of 8, living on a hippie commune, she witnesses the death of her younger sister and the subsequent fracturing of her family. This is the memory that she can never outrun.

When I was twelve years old, I saw a painting by Salvador Dali … the one with the melting clocks. The title meant nothing to me then, but I was fascinated by the painting. Now it’s the title that I find most compelling. The Persistence of Memory.

The past—and how we deal with it—shapes our lives. Some of us get stuck there, repeating our mistakes, sometimes our parents’ mistakes, too—as if by reliving them we could change what happened and finally make things right. As Sunny finally learns, real freedom comes only when we acknowledge what is possible and what is not.

It rained in the night – the kind the Navajos call a female rain – slow and steady, soaking into the earth. As opposed to a male rain, which is hard, fast, and runs off immediately. (p. 300)

Judi's dog, Blue.

Judi's dog, Blue.

What did you learn about reconciliation while writing this book?

Actually, nothing. To me, true reconciliation is like the Aurora Borealis—I know it’s out there, but I’ve never seen it. Many people claim to have achieved it, but once the tears and embracing are out of the way, I’ve noticed that people tend to go right back to the attitudes and behaviors that caused the problem in the first place.

While reconciliation is the often longed-for resolution in a story, it’s not always realistic. As I got closer to the ending of THE LAWS OF HARMONY, I kept trying out different scenarios between Sunny and Gwen, none of which were successful or satisfying. Then it dawned on me that I was trying to force a resolution between these two women that was impossible… at least at the point where the book ends. You can know in your gut what you should do, and it may even be what you want to do, but you can’t make yourself feel something that you don’t feel. If Sunny and her mother are going to be reconciled it’s got to happen later, farther down the road. About the best they can do by the end of the book is a hopeful truce.

I love the way food is so much a part of this novel. You can feel the emotional lift the characters get as they eat brownies with blackberry ganache. And when Sunny has the blues, the perfect remedy is a chicken soup called avgolemono. I’m curious if you can describe this passion for food to someone who’s a lazy cook and disconnected from this type of joy, right down to the canned spaghetti sauce and instant coffee. And would you mind sharing a recipe?

I’ve always thought of food as more than sustenance. For me, it’s like music, the way it serves as a touchstone for life events. What we were eating the night Geoff proposed… Which Thanksgiving was it when Aunt Helen dropped the turkey on the floor? We were all eating my gram’s lemon meringue pie when my best friend whispered to me that she was pregnant.

The first novel where I noticed food being incorporated in a realistic and interesting way was Mario Puzo’s THE GODFATHER. There’s a wonderful scene where one of the Mafiosi is making spaghetti sauce and he’s explaining how he adds a little sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes. In the mid 80’s my brother-in-law turned me on to Robert Parker’s SPENSER novels; the main character, a literate tough guy, does a lot of cooking and eating.

Now, some twenty-five years later, I sense that cooking and writing run on parallel tracks. Both can be very solitary pursuits, but the object of both is to touch other people, to offer them something, to communicate. My career as a novelist seems to have had its roots at the McGraw Street Bakery in Seattle, and I think that’s appropriate. Because a book, just like a loaf of bread, is a process, not a product—slow, arduous, messy, and utterly unpredictable.

Recipe? Certainly. The only difficulty is choosing just one. This is one of my favorites:


8 oz butter
2 C flour
¾ t salt
½ C powdered sugar
1 t vanilla
½ C toasted pine nuts
2 T finely chopped fresh rosemary

Melt butter in microwave or in saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients to make a stiff dough. Pat evenly into a 10 x 14” baking pan. Chill for 20-30 minutes then bake at 350° F till firm & golden brown (15-20 min.) Cool in pan 2 minutes, then use a knife to cut into bars. Let cool at least ten more minute before removing with small spatula. Great with fruit and/or goat cheese.

“She’s like a cat,” I say. “Always attaching herself to the one person in a room who’s least likely to want her around. (p. 467)

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

Judi learning to ride a motorcycle while researching The Laws of Harmony.

What have you learned about yourself and this business after publishing four novels? And what’s the best lesson you could you share with writers who are at the beginning of their careers?

One thing never seems to change: every time I begin a new book, it’s like the very first time, and I have to learn all over again how to write. But the experience of writing has been completely different for each book. I think maybe this is because of the organic relationship between writer and book, the way they affect each other, the invisible push and pull of the story.

What it comes down to is that each book is a unique adventure for all concerned. The writer—just like her characters—is not the same person at the end that she was at the beginning. The book that you finish is not the book that you started. That’s what’s so amazing and engrossing and frustrating and exhilarating about the process of writing. And that is why, so long as I can see the computer screen and prop myself upright in my chair, I’ll probably never stop.

I recently saw a film called EVERY LITTLE STEP. It’s a documentary about the 2006 revival of the musical A CHORUS LINE. It was a fascinating glimpse into a world that I’ll never know—the world of young performers trying to make it on Broadway. And yet, certain aspects of it were all too familiar. You’ve got a line of people stretching for blocks; I think 3,000 people auditioned for 18 roles. Every one of them has a story. Every one of them is talented. Every one is driven. The thing I loved about the film was that it follows not only the ones whose dream came true, but also it looks long and lovingly at some who were eliminated, some in the early rounds, and a few at the very end when it was down to two people for a role and the reason one was chosen over the other was often incomprehensible to me.

One of these was an actress named Rachelle and she was a heartbeat away from one of the plum roles—as Cassie. The part went to another young woman instead. I felt so let down. Had I been her, I would have fallen on the floor and kicked and screamed and cried. Instead, she packed up her stuff, patted the shoulder of the guy who’d just given her the bad news and walked to the door. To add insult to injury, the people making this documentary have got the cameras on her, the microphone in her face and they’re asking her how she feels. The one thing she said that resonated big-time with me was, “It’s a hard business. You really have to like yourself.”

So the best lesson I can share with writers at the beginning of their careers—and one that we all need reminding of occasionally—is sort of that: Be gentle with yourself.

I hear myself laughing inside the helmet, like a little kid with the training wheels off for the first time. (p. 271)

I know you were a participant in the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Can you tell me about that experience? I’d love to know who you studied with and how that shaped your writing or your dedication to the craft.

I was encouraged to attend Squaw Valley Community of Writers by Andrew Tonkovich, who was my writing instructor at UCI extension. Some of the things I remember most clearly had nothing to do with writing… it was blisteringly hot. The resort was being renovated, so workshop meeting times and places were somewhat fluid. There were construction noises and great clouds of dust during the day… and yet, I have nothing but happy memories of my time in the valley. I got lucky, ending up in a house with two guys who both had cars, and one of whom was an excellent cook. The three of us spent several long evenings drinking wine and discussing writing until someone would finally jump up and say, “I’ve got to go read my workshop papers for tomorrow.”

That summer I was working mostly on “creative non-fiction.” I did have the first chapter of a novel which would later become BREAD ALONE, but I’d never written fiction before and didn’t quite know what to do with it. I loved the workshop system they used, where you had a different instructor at every meeting, so I was privileged to learn from Mary Morris, Louis B. Jones, Lynn Freed, Bharati Mukherjee and others. In the afternoons I got to listen to Diane Johnson talk about dialogue (this alone was worth the cost of the program) and James N. Frey (No, not the James Frey of the fake memoirs) talk about plotting the damn good novel. In the evenings the instructors would read from their own works and authors like Amy Tan and Max Byrd regaled us with tales of the writing life. It was the first time I’d ever had a true sense of a writing community. I was thrilled to return in 2001 to read from my just-published novel.

While I learned at least one thing from every single writer (published or not) that I met there, the one who had the most influence on my work was Andrew Tonkovich. The year I attended, they had not yet started a nonfiction program, but in his classes at UCI Andrew had showed us how to use fiction techniques—setting, point of view, dialogue, etc—to write compelling non-fiction. It was in his class that I came to the realization that it was all one. All writing. Andrew gave us the tools and the freedom to use them for anything we wanted to write.


Monthly Wrap: Sore Throat

by Susan Henderson on June 5, 2009

I have the kind of voice that’s meant to whisper. Good for libraries and pillow talk. When I answer the phone, the first thing people tend to say is, Did I wake you up? They didn’t; I don’t even like to sleep. I just have one of those voices. It’s my father’s voice. The sound of someone who needs to clear his throat. The sound of someone who can’t raise his voice though he certainly has the temperament for it.

When I try to speak up – even enough to talk to someone across the table from me, my voice quickly gives out. I speak from that place you shouldn’t – the place Brian Johnson of AC/DC uses to sing. If I have a long conversation one day, I’ve got a sore throat the next.

Do I have an accent?

I never thought of myself as having one until I went to college, where I was teased for my southern twang. I worked hard to lose it by reading out loud to my Boston-bred roommate and letting her correct me. Now I’m not sure why I tried so hard to lose it. But my Virginia roots show when I’m tired – I get lazy with the vowels.

I was glad to hear your stories of stutters and loud laughs and nasal tape-recordings. For those of you I haven’t met in real life, it’s a nice way to sharpen the picture of you.


What I read this month: Joe Hill, HEART-SHAPED BOX (not my usual genre, but, wow, it’s a good ghost story, and I’ve been recommending it to everyone). I’ve also been knee-deep in a whole mess of research books for my new novel, but I’m not telling what the books are about.

Thanks to my guest, Attica Locke, for her courageous story of finding her voice, and to all of you who played here this month. Also, big thanks to those who linked to LitPark: The Thrill Begins, In Her Own Write, Rachel Kramer Bussel’s Amazon Blog, Upstate Girl, Side Dish, Terry Bain’s Amazon Blog, Rumbly in my Tumbly,, Kimberly Wetherell, Red Room BlogsRachel Kramer Bussel, EI Johnson, Tayari Jones, Tanya Egan Gibson (thank you for the book!), Neil Gaiman, Brad Listi, Alexander Chee, Robin Slick, kmwss2c, Urban Haiku, Trish Tha Dish, Tayari, Rachelle Gagne, Nick Belardes, Bella Vida Letty, th3maw, Spaced Lawyer, and to the mentions in Wikipedia pages for Josh Kilmer-Purcell, Maria Dahvana Headley, Daisuke Tsutsumi, Scott Snyder, Denis Johnson, Greg Downs, and Bruce Benderson. I appreciate those links!


One announcement before I go…

The Nervous Breakdown: Off The Blog!
A New Monthly Reading Series
Beginning June 9, 2009

The Nervous Breakdown is a creative non-fiction literary blog, written by published and emerging authors from around the world.

Come hear the writers of this award-winning collective as they read hilarious, journalistic, poignant and often salacious tales, as told on the pages of this engaging and highly interactive literary website.

The series kick-off includes readings from:

Jessica Anya Blau (The Summer of Naked Swim Parties)
Autumn Kindlespire (Random House Books)
Greg Olear (Totally Killer, coming Sept ’09)
Kimberly M. Wetherell (Filmmaker: Menage a trois, Why We Wax)
Todd Zuniga (Opium Magazine, Literary Death Match)

Tuesday, June 9
101 E 15th St, NYC
(downstairs from the Daryl Roth Theatre, Union Square)
$10.00 Cover

After party at Bar 119, 119 E. 15th St.


Attica Locke

by Susan Henderson on June 3, 2009

Attica Locke has written movie scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros., Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, and is currently co-writing a miniseries for HBO about the civil rights movement. But it’s her debut novel, BLACK WATER RISING*, that has satisfied her need to write original material and find her own voice.

This literary thriller is about a good man who makes many wrong choices until he’s snared himself in a dangerous trap. There’s greed, politics, corruption, and oil in a city divided by race and class. We’ll talk about this book, as well as the heartbreak and satisfaction that is the life of a writer. I’m very fond of this author, and I hope you’ll leave her a message at the end of this interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.


First, let me ask you about your name. Attica like the prison?

Yes. My parents were political activists in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. I was actually born three years after the uprising at Attica prison in 1971, but my mother was so deeply moved by the events that took place there—the inmates who stood up to demand humane treatment and the crush of government violence that killed over 40 inmates and guards—and when I was born, it was the first name that came to her.

BLACK WATER RISING is your debut, but you’ve been writing for quite a while. Can you talk to me about your career leading up to this book?

I’ve been a screenwriter for ten years, writing the kinds of movies that production companies love to have on their roster—character based dramas or thrillers with a sociopolitical bent—because they sound classy and smart, but when it comes down to actually spending millions of dollars to make the movie they hesitate or their financiers don’t think it will sell, etc. In ten years, not one movie I’ve worked on has gone into production. It’s not a bad way to make a living, but not fulfilling enough for me to feel like I’m really living as an artist. I started to feel like film as a medium, especially because it’s such an expensive art form and companies can be fatally risk-averse, is getting more and more narrow in terms of the kinds of stories that get told. And that both saddened me and pushed me to explore a more inclusive art form: books.

And anyway, even as a screenwriter I’ve always had a very literary style. One production executive once told me in a meeting, flipping through the pages of my script, “There are too many words in here.” So, maybe I was destined to be a novelist.

I’m not normally a thriller reader, but I’m an absolute junkie when it comes to books about civil rights and race relations, and that’s what made me so anxious to get my hands on this novel. What I didn’t realize until after I’d finished is that this very real portrait of 1981 oil-rich Houston, with its corporate corruption and disputes between newly-integrated union members, is actually from before your time. What drew you to this period in history?

Jay is representative of my parents’ generation, and I think in some ways writing a character like him was an attempt to understand the people who raised me. I was a kid in the early ‘80s in Houston. My parents had been college activists in the early ‘70s and now found themselves smack in the middle of the Reagan era. There was a tremendous cultural shift going on in this country, from a focus on the political to the economic, in terms of the path to upward mobility. Money could be its own kind of equality. My parents played the game. They worked hard, bought houses in the suburbs. But I always felt that something in them got left behind. They never talked about it, but I think it was a challenging psychological shift for both of them. And I wanted to understand that better.

Also, in reality Houston was just an interesting place in 1981. They had just elected their first woman mayor, Kathy Whitmire. The city was flush with oil money and on the receiving end of worldwide attention. It was an arrogant, adolescent city, newly rich and oblivious to signs of impending doom on the economic horizon.

But most of Jay’s clients are walk-ins or people who get his name out of the phone book or friends of Bernie’s extended church family. People who, for the most part, cannot afford to pay him. Over the years, he’s engineered all manner of creative financing plans. Monthly installments and deferred payments. In lieu of cash, he’s taken everything from used furniture to free haircuts. (p. 207)

I never thought I’d be so thrilled to read about labor unions, but those scenes absolutely buzzed with tension. What a timely book—the resistance to change when it means a redistribution of power.

Well, there are things about this country’s current state of affairs that I never could have foreseen, other than to say that class tension has always been a hidden fault line running through our culture. Also, the labor fight for better wages for black workers was a part of the larger theme of the move from the civil rights movement’s focus on politics as a way up and out and the Reagan era focus on money as the path to equality.

“You know, Marx said that the working class is the first class in history that ever wished to abolish itself. And if one listens to some of our ‘moderate’ Negro leaders, it appears that the American Negro is the first race that ever wished to abolish itself. And, my black brothers and sisters, it stops tonight.”

The crowd was clapping and stomping, so loud that Jay could feel it backstage, as if the walls were shaking. He could not believe the heat this man was generating, like a lightning rod in a prairie storm. It wasn’t just the man, but, really, the ideas, the words…two words: black and power.

“So what you’re preaching, man,” one of the white students down front asked, a cat dressed in cords and a denim patch jacket, “isn’t it just racism of a different color? Isn’t ‘black power’ inherently anti-white?”

“See, you still putting yourself at the center of it, jack. That’s what you ain’t yet getting. Black folks ain’t talking about you, or to you, no more.” (p. 202)

One theme I see again and again in this book is the pressure for those with the least power to lie down and take what they’re given. Those in power say, Here, take what little we give you because we can certainly offer you something worse. I think that’s the magic in Jay Porter’s character because we know him, or we’ve been him—someone who feels such fatigue and discouragement when his ideals and dreams keep hitting a wall. Tell me what you think of Jay.

If I’m being honest, beyond the political focus of the book, Jay’s journey mirrors my own as a writer. His fatigue is mine. Was mine, I should say. Before I wrote this book, I had grown so disenchanted with film, which was the whole reason I’d moved out to LA. I’d made a big splash years earlier with a script that was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Feature Filmmakers Program. It was optioned by a film company. We were location scouting when they ultimately decided that because most of the lead characters were black and the story dealt with very American issues of race and history, the movie ultimately would never make any money in foreign sales, which they needed to offset the cost of the financing the movie. They pulled the plug, and I was crushed. I stopped writing original material and started taking assignment jobs. Somebody would have an idea for a script or a book to adapt, and I would write it. I helped my husband go to law school that way. I bought a house. But my voice as an artist was silent. Another one of the themes of the book is Jay finding his voice again.

That’s me.

It wasn’t until late in the evening, the waiting room empty and the two of them the only ones still waiting, that she understood what was going on, that this white hospital had no intention of treating her husband. (p. 71)

I love the marriage in this book, and not just because of the wonderful bickering and the secret-keeping and the obvious love there, but because this marriage taps into a larger theme of the book. You nailed that moment when the ideals of youth meet with the reality of making payments and creating a safe and stable home. Talk to me about that moment.

Some of it’s what I wrote above. But I also saw this tension in my parents.

They came out of the movement with two kids to raise. My mother had a Master’s degree but had been working in a factory because she was a socialist. My dad worked at Shell Oil. The movement was gone. The marches had dried up. The country had moved on, and they were forced to move on too. So my dad went to law school, and my mom eventually started her own business. And both have done quite well for themselves. But, like I said, I grew up feeling like there were a lot of unresolved feelings about where they’d been versus where they were going.

“I heard you go out,” she says.

“I was taking out the trash,” he says.

Bernie nods. This makes sense to her, makes her feel better.

“You gon’ put another bag in?” she asks.

“I always do.”

“No, you don’t, Jay.”

He reaches under the sink and pulls out a black trash bag, snapping it open to make his point. “You gon’ fight with me about trash bags?”

“I’m just saying. Sometimes you don’t.” (p. 41)

In the end, this book has something to say about the courage of standing up for your convictions. Tell me, what are you passionate about? What, for you, is worth fighting for?

My voice. I never again want to spend ten years disconnected from who I really am.

Jay has three guns: a .38 in his glove compartment, a hunting rifle in the hall closet, and the nickel-plated .22 he keeps under his pillow, always within arm’s reach. He’s tried to break the habit of carrying it into the bathroom with him. But most days it’s right by his side. Some people, when they’re in the shower, imagine they hear the phone ringing. Jay imagines people breaking into his apartment with guns drawn. (p. 65)

The LitPark community is full of writers at every stage of the journey. Is there anything you learned along the way to publication that you’d like to pass on to them?

Well, I’m as neurotic as they come (as my husband can attest), but I have a good therapist and I pray a lot. I’m kind of being funny, but I am also completely serious. I don’t know how to do this work without a little faith, a belief in magic. I’ve certainly been rejected a lot, and I don’t know how I kept going except that I just did, even when it hurt like hell. In the end, no rejection has ever been greater than my desire to write.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on another book right now. And I’m writing a mini-series for HBO about the civil rights movement. It’s based on the books by Taylor Branch, and he and I are writing the scripts together.


Monthly Wrap: Time for Waltzing

by Susan Henderson on May 8, 2009

Sometimes, in the midst of revising my novel, I was consumed with the terror of uncertainty. If I made this one big change to the text, would I be able to handle its ripple effect throughout the book? Would I ever get this right? Was this even a story worth telling? And I crawled deeper and deeper into what friends call my “writer’s cave,” sometimes so focused or in such a funk that I’d forget daylight.

Here’s a story I call on again and again to give myself perspective…

I used to babysit every single day, for years and years, for a little girl who had a brain tumor – from age four when her parents first noticed the weird way her eyes would twitch and cross and how she’d bump into the door frame rather than walking cleanly through, to the surgeries and the horrible things that happen when you take away pieces of a person’s brain, to bike lessons and swim lessons and special schools and vacations (like the one in the picture; that’s me holding the baby bottles).

This is about a family who had every right to be stressed and focused soley on that tumor – killing it and saving the girl.

But that’s not how they did it. In this family that shouldn’t have had time for me or for each other, they read my dumb poems and stories, watched the skits and fake-Olympics I helped the three kids put on, listened to bad knock-knock jokes, and tolerated Vanilla Ice dance-offs. They always made sure there was enough food so I could stay for dinner. And one winter, in the middle of the worst of it, their father taught me to waltz.

The lesson I learned? There’s time. Time, even in the midst of a crisis, to give attention and show love. And there’s room for joy. There had better be. Or the cancer and wars and other things that are out of our control win it all.

So, for those of you in the throes of anxiety and uncertainty, know this: First of all, your story matters or you wouldn’t be fighting against such odds to tell it. Keep writing, a little every day, and you’ll get there. But also remember to let in the sunlight, walk with a friend, hold the ones you love, watch those crocuses come up, and dance. Because now matters, too.


What I read this month: Chris Adrian, THE CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL (God floods the world again and the only survivors are inside a floating children’s hospital. The first 300 pages are some of the best pages I’ve ever read – quirky, profound, emotional, and the brother, Calvin, who is dead before the book begins, is one of my favorite characters ever. But something too magical for my taste happens in the middle of the book, including a wedding I didn’t care for, and for me, the book never quite recovers its magnificence after that. I’m going to recommend it all the same. Uneven or not, it lit me up from the inside in a way few books do.)

What I read to my boys: We did that thing I hate where we start too many books at once and kind of ruin the momentum of all of them, so the only finished book was John Masefield’s THE MIDNIGHT FOLK (The boys found it fascinating in that great and creepy Neil Gaiman-y way, but slow because of the 1920’s British writing). And I also read them a whole bunch of little-kid picture books because I’m their mom and they still go along with what I say, even though they groan about it now. So: Jacques Duquennoy, THE GHOSTS’ TRIP TO LOCH NESS; Robert Bright, GEORGIE; Mark Teague, THE SECRET SHORTCUT; and Leo Lionni, FREDERICK MOUSE.

Thanks to everyone who played here, and to my guest, Lac Su, for giving such an honest and emotionally powerful interview. And thanks to all of you who are here, making this community one I’m proud to be a part of. See you soon with a new question and a new guest!