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Question of the Month: Endings and Beginnings

by Susan Henderson on July 3, 2017

How do you transition between endings and new beginnings?

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So much happened last month. My oldest son graduated from college, and my youngest son moved in with him, so they’re now sharing an attic in Boston. This will be the first summer since they were born when I don’t have a child living at home.

I’m also experiencing a deep sense of being finished with my book that will launch in March of 2018. Lots of steps have now been completed. I’ve done my big edits and my copy edits and my first-pass edits. The layout designers have chosen a font and a look for the inside of the book. I got my author photo taken. (I highly recommend Taylor Hooper Photography!) And we’ve chosen a cover, which I’ll share when I’m allowed.

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We’re getting awfully close to the stage where a galley (sort of a pretend copy of the book) will be sent to potential blurbers and reviewers. The book is basically out of my hands at this point, and this lull before its March publication date is a good time for me to dive deeply into the new work.

But what exactly is that new work?

I definitely have a sense of the next book I’m trying to write—its premise, its setting. The characters and plot are coming more into focus. But it’s early in the creative process, and so much is still unknown. Also, I don’t know that I’ve fully left the last one behind.

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It’s a funny feeling, shifting gears. Like my son, I’m considering my next steps and still feel like I’m decompressing from the intense work that’s consumed my mind for the past few years. Right now I’m in some weird in-between space.

Talk to me about where you are in your own writing process, and how you transition from endings to new beginnings in your work or just in life.

As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post:

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Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Elisabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating
Elizabeth Crane, Turf: Stories
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
Taylor Larsen, Stranger, Father, Beloved
Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell), Fever Dream
Claire Cameron, The Last Neanderthal
William Landay, Defending Jacob
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Book of Joan
Kim Chinquee, Veer
Stephen Pimpare, Ghettos, Tramps, and Welfare Queens
Donna Tartt, The Secret History
Patrick B. Osada, Changes
Karen Dionne, The Marsh King’s Daughter
Jennifer Gilmore, The Mothers
Kate Clifford Larson, Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter

And one re-read…
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

That’s it for now. I look forward to your stories in the comments section!

{ 27 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: 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.

{ 32 comments }

Question of the Month: Writing and Living

by Susan Henderson on December 5, 2015

Tell me about your life and where writing fits into it.

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This is a photo of a hatching nest. See the baby praying mantises? My neighbor called me away from my writing one day so we could watch it together. Incredible, isn’t it?

A lot of my neighbors know that, if they want to reach me during the day, I’m either writing in my office or I’m walking, which is my more productive way of thinking through a story.

If they happen to see me out and about, they’ll often ask, How’s the book going? It’s a perfectly sensible question, but I always feel like there’s the answer people want to hear, and then the one I’m going to give them.

What they’re really asking about is the end-product. Is the book done yet? Is it on a shelf in the bookstore?

When you’re a writer, you regularly answer such questions with no and no. Which gives an illusion of failure. Maybe you’re not writing fast enough. Maybe you’re not smart enough. Maybe you don’t work hard enough. Maybe you’re fooling yourself when you say you’re a writer.

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But most of a writer’s work is not about this end result. It’s about the private and often circular process of thinking, scribbling, re-thinking, rearranging, erasing, scribbling again. This process can take months or years or decades, depending on the writer and depending on the work.

My first book took roughly 6 years of thinking and scribbling and revising. For many of us, ideas come in fragments. Or perhaps they seem whole when you get the great idea while you’re shampooing your hair. But when you sit down to explore the idea more fully, it starts to look small, ordinary, dumb. Sometimes that’s enough to ball up the idea and toss it in the trash.

Except some of these unformed ideas nag at you, beg you to dig deeper. You can’t share your ideas at this stage because they’re like soap bubbles, easily punctured. And so you close your door and think and scribble where no one can look over your shoulder and whisper, Are you sure that’s what you want to write about? Don’t you think it’s cliché? Far-fetched? Dumb?

This is my office buddy today. He’s never once called my ideas dumb.

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By the time you accidentally share the idea that you’re working on a book, you may have a first draft. For me, the first draft is only the beginning of a very long journey. There will be many drafts, most of them terrible, but each showing a glimmer of hope—a character who starts to feel real, a puzzle you’re invested in figuring out, some phrasing here and there that reminds you sometimes your writing doesn’t suck. For most of the 6 years I spent working on the first book, I had to tell people, No, I’m not done yet. No, it hasn’t sold yet. 

Over those same 6 years, plenty of life happened. I was not simply thinking and scribbling behind a closed door. Think of how many pairs of shoes a kid can outgrow in that time. Think of all the meals and sick days and vacations together. All the stories shared. How many hairstyles and friends and hobbies may come and go.

My children were short and cuddly when I started the book. Here’s how we all looked then…

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They were much taller when they came to the book launch, rolling their eyes because they were too cool to be there with their mom.

I loved the rolly-eyed version of my kids as much as the cuddly version. :-) But the point is, life happens while you’re writing and you don’t want to miss it.

Measuring a writer’s merit by whether the work is finished is kind like measuring a relationship by whether there was a wedding, or measuring a life by whether there was a birth or a death. Most of who we are and what we do happens in between, in the being.

What I learned in writing and publishing the first book is that you better find ways to enjoy the process because that’s the longest leg of it. Enjoying doesn’t mean that the writing is suddenly easy or without frustration. For me, it means that you’ve chosen a topic, a storyline, a setting, a cast of characters that intrigues you. That you value the process of creating, of being able to go in any direction you choose. That you enjoy the dreaming and digging and puzzling, the search for meaning, for answers, for more questions. Writing, like life, like relationships that matter, isn’t all one singular emotion, doesn’t move in one singular direction; but you commit, you are present, you have chosen to devote your time and your heart.

So this is where I am with book #2: thinking, scribbling, revising. And maybe getting close. I’m also remembering to live my life. I’m writing these words for those of you who feel like you’re failing. Not reaching that end-product fast enough. I’m also writing these words for myself.

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Books I read since my last blog post:

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
Toni Morrison, Beloved
Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables
Fred Botting, Gothic (The New Critical Idiom)
Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund, Grotesque (The New Critical Idiom)
Valerie Martin, Property
Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Strength of Gideon and Other Stories

I also re-read…
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
Sharon Olds, The Dead and the Living

And I have just started Broken Sleep by my friend, Bruce Bauman.

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A couple of newsy things: I did an interview with the talented Karen Stefano, which you can listen to here. It’s over a half-hour of us chatting about books and writing, so make yourself a cup of coffee first.

I also published a story in New World Writing. It’s a glimpse into the new book. Many thanks to the amazing editors, Kim Chinquee and Frederick Barthelme, for including me in such a tremendous magazine.

And a quick shout out to Connie Mayo for this.

That’s all from me for now. But I’d like to hear from you. Talk to me about your writing, your life, what you’re reading, how you’re doing.

{ 21 comments }

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