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Question of the Month

A Summer of Make-Up Memorials

by Susan Henderson on August 8, 2021

How is your summer going? Are you stepping back into the world?

Art by Chloe Cushman for the New York Times.

My summer has been one of make-up memorials for loved ones lost during the pandemic. Only now have we been able to gather and celebrate their lives.

Last month, in Virginia, I attended a memorial for someone I babysat for many years. I started working for her family when I was in middle school. When she turned four and I was, I guess, fourteen, she developed a brain tumor. Her whole family is terribly important to me, and I wrote about them here. Later this month, we’ll be in Pennsylvania to celebrate the life of Mr. H’s college roommate and to spend time with folx we love dearly. And I have just returned from a trip to our family cemetery in Montana, where we finally buried my father. Can’t tell you how badly I needed hugs and time with people I love.

Those of you who know me or have read The Flicker of Old Dreams know our family does old-school burials. I posted more Montana photos here (let me know if you need help getting past my privacy filters).

Other than these memorials, I’ve ventured out only a little. My first outings were for the Pfizer vaccination and a proper haircut. I quickly visited my mom, my kids, and a few friends. I started going to the grocery store again instead of ordering from Instacart, and was surprised how much that simple act revitalized my creativity. There’s something about spontaneity, chance encounters, or maybe even the shapes and smells and colors in the produce aisle that awoke my senses and my desire to write.

But re-entering the world hasn’t felt as natural as I’d hoped. On a purely physical level, my feet—after a year and a half without shoes—are rebelling with blisters. And while I’ve gone to a restaurant here and there, I find it stressful relying on others to keep an environment safe.

I’m way behind on sharing writing news. Grateful to The National Book Review for publishing my interview with the brilliant Marcia Butler. It was an honor to judge the High Plains Book Award for Fiction, which I awarded to Joe Wilkins for his extraordinary novel, Fall Back Down When I Die. I taught virtual workshops for Hampton Roads Convergence of Writers, 14:55 Literary Arts, and the Brandeis National Committee. And, soon, I’ll be offering private consultations through the Community of Writers.

What else? I did readings and panels with so many amazing writers, including Jennifer Haupt, Steve Yarbrough, Richard Blanco, Ada Limón, Pam Houston, Gina Frangello, Stephen P. Kiernan, Susan Rich, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Ron Block, Caroline Leavitt, Ruben Quesada, Anna Quinn, Kristen Millares Young, and Dawn Raffel. Oh… thank you to Joan Frank at The Washington Post for mentioning my contribution to the Alone Together anthology. A big hurrah to the narrators of the Alone Together audiobook for winning the Independent Audiobook Award for Nonfiction. I’m grateful to One Book Billings for choosing The Flicker of Old Dreams to read city-wide this fall. And thank you to 14:55’s Executive Director, Sean Murphy, for this interview, which was lots of fun:

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

Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel
Claudia Rankine, Just Us
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming
Charlie Mackesy, The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic
Mary Karr, The Liar’s Club
Tosca Lee, The Line Between
Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway
Ursula LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Joe Wilkins, Fall Back Down When I Die
Margaret Renkl, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Tea Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles
Therese Anne Fowler, A Good Neighborhood
Salman Rushdie, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos
Aimee Bender, Willful Creatures
Gina Frangello, Blow Your House Down
Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet
Jessica Anya Blau, Mary Jane
Nedra Glover Tawwab, Set Boundaries, Find Peace
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Virgin Suicides
Ellen Meister, The Rooftop Party
Herman Melville, Moby Dick; or, The Whale
Leslie Lehr, A Boob’s Life: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me … and You
Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds
Walter Mosely, Devil in the Blue Dress
Edith Wharton, The House of Mirth
Douglas Stuart, Shuggie Bain
Anita Diamant, The Red Tent
Salman Rushdie, The Golden House
Christina Baker Kline, The Exiles
Sophie Mackintosh, The Water Cure
Christina Baker Kline, A Piece of the World
Noel Obiora, A Past That Breathes
Garth Greenwell, Cleanness
Hannah Pittard, The Fates Will Find Their Way
Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole
Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being
Tamara Winfrey Harris, The Sisters Are Alright
Kate Bernheimer, Horse, Flower, Bird
Marcia Butler, Oslo, Maine
Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing
Amanda Stern, Little Panic
Clare Pooley, The Authenticity Project
Jodi Picoult, House Rules
Jacqueline Woodson, Red at the Bone
Edith Wharton, House of Mirth
Paul Auster (graphic novel adaptation by Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli), City of Glass
Cynthia Ozick, “The Shawl”
Rebecca Curtis, “Hansa and Gretyl and Piece of Shit”
Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”

A couple books I read for a second or third time…
Markus Zusak, The Book Thief
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye

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Say hello in the comments section. Would love to hear about your summer and how you’re transitioning out of pandemic-mode.

{ 19 comments }

Off to the Castle

by Susan Henderson on September 24, 2019

For those of you who are working on long, complicated, often overwhelming projects, tell me some tricks you use that inspire you to go deeper into the work. I’d also love to know how you break up your novels and memoirs into more manageable tasks.

Yes, I’m still alive. I know I haven’t been very visible online since November, but I’ve been trying hard to keep my mind free of clutter while I work on this new novel. Up until now, I’ve been doing the bulk of my writing in New York, but I’ve begun to pack for my stay at the Hawthornden Castle (in Scotland), where I’ll be living this fall, thanks to very generous funding from the Drue Heinz Foundation. This week, they sent a packet with details about my stay, including the fact that I can get a hot water bottle delivered to my room if I get cold. The picture above is one of the caves I’ll have access to while I’m there. I can’t even tell you how excited I am to go on this writer’s retreat and get some serious work done! Mostly I’m packing flannel, sticky pads, pens, that sort of thing, but I also want to take your good ideas with me.

Because I haven’t been playing on Facebook or Instagram during this break, I’ve had more time in the real world—visiting book clubs and radio shows, attending dinner parties and plays. It’s been a great wake-up call to reconnect with a world I can physically touch.

And while I’ve had to learn how to say no more consistently, in order to protect my time, I did blurb this book that was physically pressed into my hands… pretty sure it will be made into a film.

“I spent much of my childhood inside DARPA, where my father was Deputy Director, and this book captures the imagination and double-edged sword of our greatest scientific leaps. The same technology that can cure the world’s ills might also cause us to spiral into our own greed, selfishness, and vanity. Charles Soule’s Anyone is a remarkable, consequential novel and a terrifying wake-up call.” (Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams)

My family has been moving in some new and interesting directions. Mr. H and his pop-punk band, Bad Mary, toured Japan, playing six gigs there before he had to return to the much more normal life of a professor. My youngest is now living in Brooklyn and working for a company that uses stop-motion animation in commercials and short films. And my oldest has been presenting research papers. Here’s a link to his first publication (just be sure to turn your math brain on before you click).

Once I’m off to the castle, only my family will be able to reach me via a landline phone reserved for emergencies. Other than that, I’ll be completely off the grid, hopefully doing a lot of writing and saving up stories to bring back home. (If I don’t come back, please have someone check the caves!)

Before I go, some thank you’s are in order… First of all, The Flicker of Old Dreams won some awards and some kind praise, and I’m grateful for everyone who helped bring the book to other readers. And thank you to these awesome folks: Yellowstone Public Radio, Women Writing the West, Billings Gazette, Byron Reads Now, NBCC’s Critical Notes, Roundup Magazine, Foothills Sun-Gazette, Book Bound with Barbara, Writing Unblocked, Daily Inter Lake, Western Writers of America, Great Falls Tribune, High Plains Book Awards, Billings Gazette (again), Lively Times, Front Porch Books, The Belle of Cowbell, Reading Glasses, USA Breaking NewsAuthorsInterviews, Montana Book AwardVanderbilt News, and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who said of this about TFoOD “A lyrical meditation on life lived outside the city; this powerful novel of resilience, redemption and human imperfection will leave you breathless.”

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

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Emily Fridlund, The History of Wolves
Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
Tommy Orange, There, There
A.K. Small, Bright Burning Stars
Charles D’Ambrosio, Loitering
Laila Lalami, The Moor’s Account
Oliver Sacks, Gratitude
Anne Rice, The Witching Hour
Alice McDermott, Charming Billy
David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Richard Powers, The Overstory
Lisa Wingate, Before We Were Yours
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light
Anne Tyler, Breathing Lessons
Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How It Ends
Marcia Butler, Pickle’s Progress
Daniel Mason, The Piano Tuner
David Oshinsky, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem
Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir
Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Isabel Allende, The House of the Spirits
Ryünosuke Akutagawa, “Rashömon”
Jim Ray Daniels, The Perp Walk
Ann Hood, The Red Thread
Yuyi Morales, Dreamers

And a few re-reads:
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Kate DiCamillo, Because of Winn-Dixie
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

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Talk to me about ways you keep inspired on your long projects. What are your tricks for keeping the work fresh and exciting? Let’s help each other stay inspired.

{ 14 comments }

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.

{ 19 comments }

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.

{ 14 comments }

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