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Reaching for the Impossible

by Susan Henderson on October 30, 2018

Tell me about some risks you are taking or ways you are stretching out of your comfort zone, either for your career or your life in general. And if you haven’t been taking risks, tell me what’s stopping you.

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Since I turned 50, I started applying for things that are more prestigious than I had previously allowed myself to dream for, and most times these risks have ended in rejection. But no one can choose you for an award or opportunity if you don’t apply, right?

So here is some unexpected good news… I was chosen as a Hawthornden International Fellow. For a month (don’t know which month yet), I’ll live for free at the Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland. There will be four other writers there, as well as a cook and a housekeeper. We are there—without internet or cell phone service—to write.

I’m grateful to Drue Heinz for this generous gift, and I vow to work hard on my third novel while I’m there.

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My traveling and events for The Flicker of Old Dreams have slowed down. But there have been a few lovely moments, such as the Saturday I spent with these brilliant women at the Young Indian Culture Group, where their book club has run for over 13 years. We had long, deep discussions about death, dying, burial practices, hate, compassion, books and more.

I also spent time at the Hockessin Book Shelf, Whisper Woods assisted living community, and the Montana Book Festival (you can see pictures on my instagram account).

Online, you can find interviews I did with Zara Potts for her New Zealand publication, Dear Reader; with Crystal-Lee Quibell for her Canadian podcast, Literary Speaking; and with Okoyomoh Egbekhuwa for her Nigerian podcast, The Spoken World.

And, if you’re not already an avid listener of Ozan Varol’s Famous Failures podcast, you can start by listening to our interview, where we discuss writer communities, DARPA, high school janitors, New York Times bestseller lists, 1- and 2-star Amazon reviews, and all kinds of failure. It’s 36 minutes long, so brew a cup of coffee first or listen as you go for your daily walk… but do listen. I think the work Ozan puts out into the world is terribly important. Here is the link… click it! Please.

And now to my beloved alma mater in Pittsburgh…

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I traveled there in October to spend four days with professors, students and alumni of Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing Program. It was a terribly intimate time, partly because any honest conversation with other writers lends itself to the discussion of rejection, insecurity, work that is deeply personal and underfunded.

Then, on the morning of Saturday, October 27th, as we gathered together to hear a panel of alumni who became teachers, we started to hear about an active shooter in a synagogue down the street. Most of us have long roots in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, and we were stunned and frightened and not even aware that we were also in lockdown.

The photo up above was taken that evening, after we’d all gone together to one of the professor’s homes to try to heal. We ate and drank and pet the dog. And Javi Grillo-Marxuach gave a speech about radical kindness. It helped. I’m still hurting, but it helped.

Please vote on Tuesday. Your voice matters.

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

Orhan Pamuk (translated by Erdag Goknar), My Name Is Red
Bob Woodward, Fear
Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give
Ellen Notbohm, The River by Starlight
Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Chen Chen, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities
Robert McKee, Story
Megan Abbott, Give Me Your Hand
Maude White, Brave Birds
Brandon Hobson, Where the Dead Sit Talking
Carrie La Seur, The Weight of an Infinite Sky
John McPhee, Draft No. 4 

And one re-read: Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

Oh… and a few thank you’s… to Ed Davis, Book Bound with Barbara, and Vanderbilt Magazine.

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I’ll finish with reminder that I’m not the only artist in my family. My husband’s been working late nights in tech- and dress-rehearsals for Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Then he goes right into rehearsals for We Are Pussy Riot.

And our youngest comes home tomorrow to use our house for a several day film shoot. More about that soon!

But first let’s talk about risk-taking, or your fear of risk-taking. Post your thoughts in the comments thread, and I’ll see you there.

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One Foot in Each Book

by Susan Henderson on September 2, 2018

Ever feel like you’re trying to run in two different directions at once?

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I’ve been heavy into research for my new novel. I’ve interviewed a locksmith, a storehouse manager, a ward charge, a ward attendant, a photographer, a graffiti artist, and more—all to find out about their experiences working at, living in, or exploring a now-abandoned psychiatric hospital.

That’s a picture of a key the locksmith brought to our interview.

But while I’ve been busy with the new novel, I’ve also been doing a number of book clubs and speaking engagements for THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS. Here’s a link to my interview with Helen Little at the iHeart Radio studio in Manhattan. And below is a photo from my talk at the Syosset Public Library.

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I’m not a multi-tasker by nature, so this—splitting my attention, sometimes living out of a suitcase or running from back-to-back appointments—can be stressful. But I’m learning how to break out of my comfort zone and appreciate where it takes me.

There have been some wonderful surprises along the way, and I took screenshots so, later, I would know they truly happened.

Like this…

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And, OMG, this…

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I understand they are fleeting moments, gone even as I post this. But I believe in feeling gratitude for all the big and, usually, small delights that happen in a day—a dog wagging its tail, a stranger holding a door open, a neighbor slowing down to chat, a reader posting an enthusiastic review, a cool day after a heat wave.

It all matters.

Some thanks are in order… to The Writer magazine; 7:30 BookClub; My Life, My Books, My EscapeThe Coachella Review; Hers for the Reading; Book Beat; Syosset Library; A. F. Compson; Liz Morgan PR; Andie Behling; Alexa Melliot; Pookapyle; and Marilyn Cole.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post… though most of my reading lately is research for Novel #3, and I don’t post my research:

Gabriel Tallent, My Absolute Darling
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage
Mary Morris, Gateway to the Moon 
Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere
Dorothy Bryant, Confessions of Madame Psyche
Ari Folman and David Polonsky, Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation
Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

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That’s it for now. Talk to me in the comments section about something that’s keeping you busy these days.

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Catching My Breath

by Susan Henderson on July 2, 2018

Sometimes life is crazy. Sometimes the whole world is crazy. How are you managing the stress? How are you staying active and engaged, but still caring for your mind and body? I don’t think I’m the only one here who’s struggling with this.

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I’m still doing a lot of events and traveling for THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS. Seems like a nutty time to rescue a dog, but… meet Douglas!

These last few weeks have included time with librarians, indie booksellers, fellow writers and readers: Ron Block hosted me at the Cuyahoga County Public Library and showed me all around Cleveland; Carol Ann Tack chatted with me on Merrick Library’s Top Shelf podcast; Joan Galante hosted me at Levittown Library‘s Adult Summer Reading Program (and my favorite bookseller, Carol Hoenig of Turn of the Corkscrew Books & Wine, sold my books there); I read at the KGB Bar with Caroline Leavitt, Jennifer Haupt, and Julie Maloney; the brilliant historical fiction writer, Connie Mayo, hosted a conversation between Amy Wallen, myself, and 40 amazing humans who met to discuss death and dying in Sharon, Massachusetts; Kym Havens, from An Unlikely Story, sold books for us there; I joined up with Books on the T to leave free copies of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS at subway stops throughout Boston and Cambridge; author Karen Stefano curated a fascinating conversation with Amy and me on her Rarebirdlit podcast, where we talked about our death tour; and Jessica Keener moderated a conversation with Amy and me at Porter Square Books.

I’m grateful to every single person who set up and came out to these events!

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I have some fun events coming up at Delaware’s Hockessin Bookshelf, the Syosset Library, Helen Little’s Public Library podcast, and the Montana Book Festival. I’m also starting to find time again for the new book… I’m in research mode, soaking up stories, taking photos, and reading all I can about the setting where my new story will take place!

Oh, and the large print version of my book came out at the end of last month. Very different cover!

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Some thank you’s are in order. Thank you to everyone who snapped photos of my book at airports, including Hollywood Burbank, Pittsburgh International, JFK, and MacArthur.

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And thank you to Wonderlust travel magazine; Little Miss FuneralLydia Cornell; America Reads; The Nervous Breakdown; the brilliant and adorable Brad Listi and his Other People PodcastWriters ReadRanger ReviewBillie HintonBeyond the Book JacketThe Memphis FlyerNorth Central PA; Marjorie’s World of Books; 730 Book Club; Eudora Watson; My Book, The Movie; Lou Pendergrast; and everyone who posted kind reviews on Amazon. (Did you know you can purchase a book at an indie bookstore or borrow it from the library and then post on Amazon?)

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

Ayobami Adebayo, Stay with Me
J. Ryan Stradal, Kitchens of the Great Midwest
John Kessel, Pride and Prometheus
Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Zora Neale Hurston, Barracoon
Alma Katsu, The Hunger
Eileen Myles, Afterglow
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend
Fredrik Backman, Beartown
Caitlin Doughty, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Taha Muhammad Ali (translated by Peter Cole), Nevermind
Jim Crace, Being Dead

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That’s it for now. Talk to me about what you’re doing to stay well, even when you’re super-busy, even when the world feels off its axis.

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In Praise of Indie Bookstores

by Susan Henderson on April 28, 2018

Today is Independent Bookstore Day. How will you celebrate? And tell us a story about a favorite indie store.

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Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness asked me some questions about indie bookstores and then wrote this gorgeous column that makes me feel all warm and fuzzy. I hope you’ll click over and read it: “IBD & Measuring Success by Relationships.”

But today, I’d like to tell a little longer story about the indie bookstores that fed my soul and helped me find my tribe, even in cities where I felt like an outsider…

It’s a bittersweet story because so many of those stores are gone. There was Chapters bookstore in DC, where I started my collection of James Baldwin novels and essays. There was Mills bookstore in Nashville, where I had a long conversation with staff about which translations of Dante are best and, on another day, about the great wisdom of Anne Moody’s Coming of Age in Mississippi. And there’s Pittsburgh’s Phantom of the Attic (it’s still there!), where I learned of the glorious existence of The Sandman series and gamers (like finding out you have weird, distant cousins who don’t shower).

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Here’s a glimpse at each indie bookstore I visited since The Flicker of Old Dreams came out…

Turn of the Corkscrew on Long Island with co-owner, Carol Hoenig…

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Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village (LA) with the great David Ulin

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Book Show in Highland Park (LA) with Peter H. Z. Hsu, reading for the Vermin on the Mount literary series…

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The Book Catapult in San Diego with When We Were Ghouls author, Amy Wallen…

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Main Street Books in St. Charles, Missouri with co-owner, Emily Hall…

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Fun fact about Emily: She used to train birds of prey. And she said this, which I wanted to pass along to you: “It’s an incredibly empowering and humbling experience to have a bird of prey on your arm. The raptor trusts you enough to make you its perch, which is what is keeping it safe from danger and providing it a place from which to view the world. You are basically home base for an exquisitely evolved killing machine. It doesn’t matter if the bird is a tiny kestrel or screech owl, or a massive golden eagle- being that close to a raptor is… whew.”

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Last but not least, I want to thank the Montana indies that have reached out to me… Donna at Keystone Bookstore in Lewistown, Mara Lynn at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton, Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, and Cassiopeia Books in Great Falls. I am grateful to all of you!

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As I said about indies in Robert Gray’s column (and please read it), “No matter the city, I know where to find my tribe. And I don’t just ask them for book recommendations. I also let them lead me to the coffee shops, the restaurants, the music venues, and the art and recreation of their town. Because booksellers are the creative and intellectual heart of that community. And just as word of mouth keeps books alive, word of mouth keeps these small, vibrant bookstores and their communities alive.”

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Some thank you’s are in order. Thank you to David Abrams, who has so generously featured my bookshelf, my book trailer, and “my first time” over at The Quivering Pen; to Gina Frangello, who reviewed my book for the Los Angeles Review of Books; to Barbara DeMarco-Barrett for interviewing me on KUCI-FM’s Writers on Writing; to Hubert O’Hearn for reviewing my book for The London Economic; to Caroline Leavitt for interviewing me on Caroline Leavittville; to BookPage for publishing my essay, Looking Death in the Eye; to Jason Schott, who reviewed my book in the Brooklyn Digest; to The Voice of Oma; to Tabitha Lord for interviewing me on Book Club Babble and live on the Author’s Cut; to Marshal Zeringue for featuring my book on the My Book, The Movie and The Page 69 Test; to Sally Christie for reviewing my book on Life Is A Story–Tell It Big; to June McInerney for reviewing my book on June’s Literary Blog; to Ric Marion for reviewing my book on Along the River; to Lori for reviewing my book on She Treads Softly; to Myfanwy Collins for name-checking my book on Bookish; to Lou Pendergrast for reviewing my book on More2Read; to Jennifer Haupt for talking with me at Psychology Today; to Angel for kind words about Mary at ouroborosangel; to Shannon for choosing my novel as a Literati staff pick; and to Jen for highlighting my book on Book Club Girl.

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

Hala Alyan, Salt Houses
Zadie Smith, Feel Free
Mark Sarvas, Memento Park
Rupi Kaur, milk and honey
Naomi Shihab Nye, 19 Varieties of Gazelle
Rachel Khong, Goodbye, Vitamin 
Julia Fierro, The Gypsy Moth Summer
Jennifer Haupt, In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills
Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist
Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking 
Marilynne Robinson, What Are We Doing Here? 

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That’s it for now. Go visit your favorite indie store, and then come back here and tell me about it in the comments section, where all the cools stuff happens.

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Question of the Month: Celebration

by Susan Henderson on February 18, 2018

Tell me how you’ve celebrated big moments in your life, whether it’s a book launch, a birthday, a marathon run, a clean bill of health, a sobriety anniversary, weight loss, or any other hard-won accomplishment.

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I’m not actually very good at celebrating. The above picture is how I look when I try to party. Unsure. Off in the back corner of the room, awkward and alone.

I’m not much into whooping it up. In school, I didn’t dress up for St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween. I didn’t cheer at pep rallies, though all students were required to go. I don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day or New Year’s Eve. I find it all tiring, burdensome—a real stretch for my personality.

But March is the month my new book goes out into the world, and I worked too hard on it not to acknowledge its birth. So while I suck at parties, I’m always willing to try something new. If you have ideas about how to celebrate, put them in the comments section. I will at least think about trying them!

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As far as my book launch goes, it will be at The Turn of the Corkscrew on Long Island. You can RSVP here. They are a block and a half from the Rockville Center stop on the LIRR, and they have a fantastic menu. And wine! I will be gloriously happy to see you there.

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If you want to help this little book’s trajectory into the world, here are some things you can do: Pre-order or buy on the launch day (it’s all about first-day sales). Post photos of yourself or your pet with the book. If you go to an event, post photos of yourself and the book while you’re there. And if you like what you read, tell others or post reviews on social media.

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All of that said, if you have been on this long journey and have yet to celebrate a finished manuscript, an acceptance letter, or a book launch, what I’m posting below is for you with love, because this has been a long journey, and so much of it has felt like failure. Keep hanging in there and keep sending out your work!

Rejected but Not Defeated

Career Day

Who Owns Our Truths?

At What Point Can You Call Yourself a Writer?

I’m going to leave you with a few hopeful thoughts—and yes, I’ve shared them before because they’ve buoyed me through hard times: Harper Lee only wrote one book (To Kill a Mockingbird). E. Annie Proulx published her first novel (Postcards) when she was 57, Frank McCourt published his first (Angela’s Ashes) at 66, and so did Karl Marlantes, who worked on his (Matterhorn) for 33 years.

You still have time to tell your stories.

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