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Question of the Month: The Blank Page

by Susan Henderson on May 1, 2017

What do you do when your new book is only a blank page? How do you start getting ideas? The picture just below is how the great Jean Cocteau works with a blank page. What’s your process of mapping things out or free-wheeling it? I want to hear any tips you’d like to share.

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HarperCollins has my final edits on the Montana book, and I should get the copy-edits back from them any day now. Soon the book will be out of my hands. Next steps are more about collaboration than anything else as we move to blurbs, cover design, and marketing.

So now it’s on to the blank page of something new.

It’s taken me a while to leave the old book—to leave the small Montana town and the blizzard and the mortician’s tools behind. I’d stare at the new, blank page and wonder if there was another story in me that could hold my attention for two, three years. And for a long while, the page stayed blank.

What an exhilarating, intimidating thing a blank page is.

At some point, I began to make some marks on my paper—random doodles, bits of ideas I’d had over the years that I still remembered. But none of them were big enough to excite me. I need fire, obsession, ideas that send my head and heart racing.

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So I set out to recharge my senses and my imagination.

During what would normally be my writing time, I watched silent movies and foreign films with the subtitles turned off, taking in images and emotions and music, trying to spark any sense of curiosity or anything unresolved and burbling inside of me. I doodled on pieces of paper as I watched these movies.

This is one of J.K. Rowling’s early pages. Same, further down.

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Whenever I left the house or read the newspaper, I tried to become more conscious about what moved or enraged or frightened me. I walked a lot. And that’s when I became aware of my first notable obsession: a particular abandoned building in my town. I began walking and jogging past it regularly, transfixed.

My stories tend to begin with my interest in settings. Some writers talk about the main character’s voice beaming down, fully-formed. Other writers begin with concepts. Some dig through their personal history.

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I fall for settings, I guess. What’s on the other side of this window? What’s this interesting decoration or this elaborate padlock about? I wonder what happened in this room?

I start to collect puzzle pieces and questions. And before long, these tangible images and textures spark old longings and fascinations and wounds I carry with me. My imagination wakes up. I wonder…? What if…? And suddenly my head is popping with ideas and I begin to fill page after page, chasing a new story.

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As always, I’ll end with the books I’ve read since my last post…

Mohsin Hamid, Exit West

Sue Monk Kidd, The Invention of Wings

George Saunders, Lincoln in the Bardo

Jim Daniels, Rowing Inland

Dan Chaon, Ill Will

Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone

Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Sally Koslow, The Widow Waltz

Ian McEwan, Amsterdam

John Bingham, The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind

Edwidge Danticat, Brother, I’m Dying

Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

And one re-read:

James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Jump into the comments below and share what you’re reading or how you approach the blank page or whatever else you’d like to talk about.

{ 17 comments }

Question of the Month: Research

by Susan Henderson on March 6, 2017

What kinds of research are you doing for your writing projects?

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Most of the research I did for the book I just finished was on dead people: bodies, dead bodies, the weight and feel of things, bathing the dead, embalming.

I watched YouTubes of surgeries and autopsies to listen to sounds of cutting and the sounds of the room itself. I learned about tools and machines. I talked to morticians and I listened to people who had lost loved ones.

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My favorite research books were Mary Roach’s Stiff, a collection of essays about what happens when you donate your body to science, and Richard Selzer’s Mortal Lessons, a book of essays I’d first read in middle school when I found it on my mom’s bookshelf. That book is pure poetry.

What I discovered as I delved into the research was this: the more you study and write about death, the more you are examining what it means to be alive. And this became something I wrestled with via my narrator, an embalmer who would rather spend her time with the dead than the living. So I gave her the uncomfortable task of leaving her basement workroom and stepping into the world of the living, where she feels so vulnerable.

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There’s research for this new book, too. But I’ll keep it to myself for now. I always love the spectacular alone time with a book in its earliest stages, when no one in the world knows what’s in your head and what’s developing on the page. Some people like to share and get feedback early in the process. I don’t.

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I’ll end (as usual) with the books I read since my last post:

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Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration

Karan Mahajan, The Association of Small Bombs

Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right

Miranda July, No One Belongs Here More Than You: Stories

Jose Saramago, Blindness

Elizabeth Crane, The History of Great Things

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things: Poems

Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run

Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog

Jim Crace, Harvest

Natashia Deón, Grace

William Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

Elm Leaves Journal, The Dirt Edition (Winter 2016)

Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Empty Mansions

Melissa and Dallas Hartwig, Whole30

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell, March: Book Three

And two re-reads of poetry collections:

Jim Daniels, Punching Out

Cornelius Eady, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze

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In the comments, share with me the research you’re doing, or have done, to find a way into your stories. Also, share any good books you’ve been reading, or just share about your life in general. It’s always good to hear from you.

{ 19 comments }

Question of the Month: A Book

by Susan Henderson on December 2, 2016

For those of you working on a book or some other long project, tell me a little about where you are in the process. Or maybe just how that process feels right now.

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It will take a few LitPark posts to describe the long project I just completed. (I wasn’t willing to talk about it at length until I was certain I’d come out the other side.) At times, the process felt like chaos. I felt lost, full of doubt, and afraid I was writing something too big for my capabilities. As many of you know, at one point, I threw everything away and started over.

Again, I’ll share more specifics later. But I read an interesting book recently, Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight. In the forward to the book, it’s described as Kerouac’s 11-year writer’s block. He worked feverishly at this manuscript, but the result is kind of a glorious gibberish, almost like a jazz artist scatting. Sometimes he makes observations or writes what he hears in the accents he hears them in. Sometimes the work is emotional, sometimes pointed, and most often, it is a look into the soup of his mind.

I found it so comforting to read because it’s the closest thing I’ve ever found to my thought process and why creating something that is eventually linear and comprehensible is such a struggle for me.

Here’s a page from the book (I just randomly opened to this one):

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This page happens to be one of the easier to follow and visualize (and hear). It actually reminds me a good bit of James Joyce. Other parts of the book are harder to reach. But I wanted to share this because we each fall into stories in different ways. Our brains are different. What we attend to most easily is different. And in the end, the journeys we take to find and tell our stories are as unique as we are. After eleven years of working on Old Angel Midnight, Kerouac wrote On the Road in one short burst. My hunch is that he couldn’t have written it without first writing this.

So I had described much of the process of my latest project as being one of chaos and doubt. But at some point, the chaotic pieces began to make sense and fit together and tell the story I didn’t know if I was capable of telling. The passages I had worried were digressions turned out to be crucial. I wasn’t as lost as I felt. And one day, I looked at the stack of pages and thought, wait a minute, I think this has finally become a book.

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Oh! So I almost forgot to share my news! I sold my new book, again to HarperCollins. My editor this time is Sara Nelson. I’m unbelievably grateful to Sara and to the whole crew there and to my incredible agent, and to you, my writer’s support group.

We’re on this long, winding journey together and I couldn’t ask for better company.

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I’ll end, as usual, by sharing the books I read since my last post:

 

Octavia Butler, Kindred

H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

Caroline Leavitt, Cruel Beautiful World

Jack Kerouac, Old Angel Midnight

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

Hans Fallada (translated by Michael Hoffman), Every Man Dies Alone

Marcy Dermansky, The Red Car

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time

Paul Harding, Tinkers

Emma Cline, The Girls

and Triple No. 3 (a chapbook from Ravenna Press)

 

Oh, and one re-read:

William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying (It’s kind of embarrassing how often I re-read this book.)

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Now, let’s hear from you. Tell me about your work. Tell me about its heart, what excites you, and what terrifies you about it. And what you need to see it through.

{ 27 comments }

Question of the Month: Partners

by Susan Henderson on October 3, 2016

Tell me about your partner.

We talk so much here about ourselves and our writing lives. But who’s that person (or animal or drug or ritual) you go home to, or that person you rely on to balance out your life? I want to hear all about him or her.

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Mr. H and I met our second year in college. He was a drama major reading Einstein. I was still a science major reading Oliver Sacks. We traded books. He read mine and I pretended to read his.

Our first date was to an August Wilson play.

He grew up in Honolulu, Singapore, and London. He had a British accent when we first started dating, but now you mostly hear it in his syntax or in his funny choice of adjectives.

Mr. H teaches, paints, designs and builds sets, designs and builds costumes, creates cool scar make-up, writes songs when he’s in the shower, and plays guitar in a punk band.

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When our first dog was dying, he carried him up the stairs every night so he could sleep in our bed and carried him down the stairs every morning. Our boys were the first babies he ever held.

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He played Lego with the boys and sewed costumes for them. And when they got older, he taught them games like Magic Cards and Glory to Rome.

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How is my life better because of him? Because we talk about anything and everything. Because we’re both constantly curious and constantly learning. Because we laugh. We laugh a lot. Because we know life has ups and downs, and he’s the person I want with me on this great rollercoaster of life.

I’ll end by sharing the books I read since my last post:

Ocean Vuong, Night Sky with Exit Wounds

Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers: A Novel

Yaa Gyasi, Homegoing

Aimee Bender, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

Yukio Mishima, Death in Midsummer

Helen Simonson, The Summer Before the War

Jessica Anya Blau, The Trouble with Lexie

Thelma Adams, The Last Woman Standing

Natalie Baszile, Queen Sugar

Don DeLillo, Zero K

Anand Giridharadas, The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas

Sari Wilson, Girl Through Glass

Tracy K. Smith, Life on Mars: Poems

Jack Gilbert, Refusing Heaven

Paula Whyman, You May See a Stranger

Aleksandar Hemon, The Lazarus Project

Gina Frangello, Every Kind of Wanting

Akhil Sharma, Family Life  

Joyce Carol Oates, The Gravedigger’s Daughter

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

 

And some re-reads:

Elie Wiesel, Night

Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

 

So that’s it for this month. But jump into the comments section and tell me about your partner. I want to know that side of you.

{ 13 comments }

Question of the Month: Failure

by Susan Henderson on June 1, 2016

Tell me about a time in your life that looked like failure and became something positive.

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I just got back from a trip to Peru, where we slept on a boat at night and hiked through the Amazon by day. I’ll share more about the trip next month, once I’ve sorted through the photos. Our kids are still there, wanting to stay on a few days without parents. It was a phenomenal time, and I love how close my boys are and how much they laugh when they’re together.

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So, the book is done. “Done.” And now it’s going out to my most-trusted readers. But I wanted to talk here about some of the reasons it took me five years to write this book.

 

Reasons one and two are easy. Writing a novel is hard work. There is the effort of emptying that first draft out of your head and heart. Then comes the harder step (for me, anyway) of shaping and deepening the novel and discovering what it really wants to be about.

 

A third reason why the novel took so much time was that my kids were finishing high school, applying to college, and then making that transition. And life comes first.

 

But reason number four is that I ran into a big snag, one I didn’t realize until I was five years and 54 chapters in. It was just before this past Christmas, my boys were due home from college, and I sat in a chair by the tree we’d just decorated with my printed out novel and started to cry. Because it wasn’t going to work. It didn’t need another tough edit (and there were many, believe me). It really, no-kidding-around wasn’t going to work. So I just cried with that hard truth and let it sink in.

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The next day, one boy came home, and then another. It felt unbelievably good to have them close. They asked about the novel, and I told them about its failure—because I think it’s important to share things like that, how you can work hard and still not reach your goal and it sucks and life is still good. Vacation continued with music and fires and walks and home-cooking and teenagers coming in and out of the house.

 

I wasn’t planning to think about the lost novel over winter break, but things churn in the back of your mind when you relax and focus on other things.

 

And what I started to realize is the reason the book hadn’t been working, edit after edit, was because I had two ideas that didn’t belong together, like conjoined twins who were entirely separate beings except that they were mistakenly attached.

 

So, the next day, because I couldn’t help myself, I began to surgically separate the conjoined novels. I scooped the messy cuttings into two separate folders and was happy to leave them there a while without thinking about them further. But one of the novels began to call desperately for me. Because the town and the surviving characters, so grateful not to have a plot thrust upon them, began to tell me the story they wanted to tell.

 

I simply listened and wrote. Sometimes I couldn’t write fast enough to keep up. And four months later, it was done. I saved maybe 30 pages from the original conjoined thing it had been.

 

I’m happy with the story, which was written not from the head but from some subconscious place. I’m a very heady person, so this was new for me.

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Lately, the other half of the conjoined novels has been calling me, but the story doesn’t belong to those gentle characters I had thrust it upon. The second story wants to be told by quite a different team, and I am trying to listen more than steer. I’m not pinning any expectations on what I write or how fast I write it or whether it becomes a novel or something much shorter.

 

Anyway, I feel I’ve emerged from a long journey wiser (and grayer) than when I set out. And now I have two books, not one. I mean sort of. And I have generous, talented, big-hearted people helping. How grateful I am for that!

 

Would love to hear your stories about process or failure or whatever you want to chat about in the comments.

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As always, I’ll close with a list of books I read since my last blog post:

 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Edward Hirsch, Gabriel: A Poem

Mary Gaitskill, The Mare

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath

Alice Sebold, Lucky: A Memoir

Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing

Claudia Rankine, Citizen

Galway Kinnell, The Book of Nightmares

Edith Pearlman, Honeydew: Stories

Ransom Riggs, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Jim Daniels, Jane McCafferty, Charlee Brodsky, From Milltown to Malltown

Ron Carlson, At the Jim Bridger

David Margolick, Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughter House-Five

Don DeLillo, Underworld

Elana Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend

Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge

Rob Roberge, Liar: A Memoir

Karen Russell, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves: Stories

Toni Morrison, Home

Ruth Ozeki, All over Creation

Lauren Groff, Arcadia

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

Larry Levis, The Darkening Trapeze

Christina Baker Kline, Orphan Train

Bruce Bauman, Broken Sleep

Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

Noon magazine, 2016 issue

 

And a few re-reads:

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Marilynne Robinson, Home

Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Tillie Olsen, “I Stand Here Ironing”

 

Oh, and one that Mr. H read to me:

Magnus Mills, All Quiet on the Orient Express

 

Let me end with this beautiful piece Dylan Landis brought to my attention: Learn this: you don’t write in competition with others.

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