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Up from the Blue

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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Question of the Month: Intensity

by Susan Henderson on January 14, 2018

Do you know the feeling when too much is flying your way at once and you’re trying to keep calm?

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Two months till launch, and I’m starting to feel the intensity pick up. All last minute edits are in. No more changes allowed. This is the final cover, front and back.

Discussion questions are ready for book clubs.

I’ve contacted a baker for my book launch. (She’s going to make cemetery-themed desserts!)

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I’ve made several trips to HarperCollins. (In the first picture, it’s the building on the right, with the World Trade Center in the middle. The second picture shows what it looks like inside.) One trip was for a party, another for a marketing meeting, and a third to film a video about The Flicker of Old Dreams with my editor, the amazing Sara Nelson.

I feel good about my book and about my team at HarperCollins. Most of what happens from here is out of my hands. And most days I’m okay with that.

But sometimes the fear sets in… Will any of the big outlets want to review my book? Will they like it? Will they even know it exists? Did I do enough? Should I do more? Am I going to lose friends because I’m talking about my book so much? 

The intensity can get inside of me. I can look at all the good things that are happening and see failure. I can look at a beautiful day and see gloom.

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I’m trying to stay steady, no matter what good or bad comes my way. I’m trying to keep it in perspective, in the background where it belongs. And I know how to do this—it’s what I’ve done since college—don’t get caught up in the last thing you wrote, keep moving forward, keep creating. This is the only world I have a shot at controlling, this one on the page, and I’m working hard on something new.

The other thing that keeps me steady is remembering to notice the gifts that are in my life each day, whether it’s a sunrise, a smile at the checkout line, or a word from my kids.

Rather than comparing this time to what it might be like in my most fevered imagination, I need to notice each act of kindness and generosity, however small. Some thank you’s are in order: Eric Forbes at Good Books Guide, Jennifer Haupt at Psychology Today, Publishers Weekly, Ron Block, Virginia Stanley, Binnie Klein, Eileen Tomarchio, Amy Wallen at Savory Salons, LibraryThing, LibraryLoveFest (here and here because they’re that awesome), A Cook and a Book, and folks who posted reviews at GoodReads.

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

Yoko Tawada, Memoirs of a Polar Bear 
William H. Gass, On Being Blue
Colin Dickey, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Luke Dittrich, Patient H.M.: A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets
A.J. Finn, The Woman in the Window
Lucille Clifton, Mercy 
Melissa Scholes Young, Flood
Carl A. Zimring, Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism
Marisa De Los Santos, I’ll Be Your Blue Sky 
Jean Cocteau (translated by Mary-Sherman Willis), Grace Notes

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That’s it for now. Talk to me about keeping steady, about not losing perspective. Tell me some stories. Oh, and I have a gift coming for you soon! One of my personal heroes will be here with Words for the Weary. I’m so looking forward to hearing what she has to say, and I can’t wait for you to meet her!

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Question of the Month: Introverts on Book Tour

by Susan Henderson on December 4, 2017

How do you make the transition from the person who wrote in private for years to someone who must now help sell that finished book?

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Most writers I know—me included—are introverts. And suddenly, when our books are published, we have to wear makeup, mingle, and speak into microphones. Worst of all, we’re asked to help promote our books when we are not salespeople.

The shift can be jarring.

And yet, we worked so hard on our books. We want people to read the thoughts and obsessions that consumed us for years.

So how do we make this shift, and how can we help each other?

First, we must swallow our discomfort and our pride and do what our publisher asks. They want us to post advertisements and reviews. They want us to send out letters and change the photos on our social media pages. We don’t want our publicists and sales reps to tell us how to edit the sentences in our books. Likewise, they don’t want shy, rejection-phobic authors to tell them how to make sales. They simply want us to help them do their job.

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What is the most helpful thing we can do for each other before a book’s launch? Pre-order!

It matters, and this is why. Publishers look at the number of pre-orders to help determine which authors to invest their marketing dollars in and whether to send their authors on book tour.

The other important thing about pre-orders is that they are the number one shot authors have at landing on a bestseller list. The first day a book goes on sale is usually the most explosive day of sales. The more sales we’ve already banked, the better our chances.

Here are some links to where you can pre-order The Flicker of Old Dreams: IndieBound * Amazon * Barnes & Noble * Books-A-Million * Target * Turn of the Corkscrew (You can also pre-order more than one copy if you plan to give the book as gifts!)

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What is the most helpful thing we can do for each other after a book’s launch? Make some noise!

If we are enthusiastic about a book or simply want to be supportive of an author, our best way to help them is to post reviews or pictures of the cover on FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, GoodReads, and on our blogs. Authors often repost positive reviews, and sometimes the publisher will as well, so this kindness has a way of coming back around.

Some of the folks I need to thank this month… Marilyn Berkman for including me in her WNBA write-up; Marcia Butler for interviewing me on the Creative Imperative Video Project; Virginia Stanley, Director of Library Marketing, for talking about my novel on Under the Radar, Over the Moon; and High Country News magazine for including The Flicker of Old Dreams among its must-reads for books about the American West.

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As always, I’ll end by sharing the books I’ve read since my last post (not counting manuscripts I’m editing or blurbing—the bulk of my reads this month.):

Janet Fitch, The Revolution of Marina M.
Vicki Croke, Elephant Company
Leslie Harrison, The Book of Endings

And two re-reads because I love these books so:

Etheridge Knight, The Essential Etheridge Knight
Max Porter, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers

That’s it for now. I look forward to hearing from you in the comments section. Let me know how you deal with getting out of your comfort zone!

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Question of the Month: Post-Mortem Photos

by Susan Henderson on November 6, 2017

What are your curiosities regarding the dead and the dying and our customs for mourning them?

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The Flicker of Old Dreams, my new novel that’s narrated by a mortician, explores all kinds of death—the death of a town and a way of life, the death of a body, the death of a spirit.

I’ve been obsessed all my life with looking closely at the things others find uncomfortable or hurry past. And our often-peculiar rituals for mourning the dead have particularly consumed me.

And so, when I first stumbled upon a post-mortem photo, I couldn’t turn away.

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This mother died in childbirth. Two of the triplets died as well.

Sit with that shock for a moment, the bereaved family members dressing and arranging them so lovingly. Needing to do this though it must have also felt wrong. And then to see that death, and not peace, crept into the mother’s eyes.

But it’s the photos of the living with the dead that wreck me. Just imagining the grief.

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This little boy is holding his deceased sibling. All of these pictures, by the way, come from The Thanatos Archive and appear in the book, Beyond the Dark Veil.

It’s jarring, isn’t it? The photo is both tender and gruesome, an expression of profound grief and also a portrait of our greatest fear. I wonder, when I look at photos like these, whether it soothed some family members while haunting others.

In my book, a post-mortem photo is taken in the opening pages. And it is touched upon throughout the novel. I wanted to walk as close as I could to death and to grief and see what it all had to say to me.

Talk to me in the comments about what these photos stir in you. Tell me stories about your family rituals for mourning, or for bypassing that painful process.

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As always, I’ll share the books I’ve read since my last post:

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air
Alfred Lansing, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage
Jesmyn Ward, Sing, Unburied, Sing
Ronlyn Domingue, The Plague Diaries: Keeper of Tales Trilogy
Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird
Stephen King, Firestarter
Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark
Danez Smith, Don’t Call Us Dead
Marcia Butler, The Skin Above My Knee
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Misfit’s Manifesto

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Oh, and I owe some thank you’s:

To Jill Tardiff, National Reading Group Month Chair, for inviting me to be a part of a panel celebrating the WNBA’s centennial and National Reading Group’s 10th anniversary. It was a pleasure to talk books, writing and publishing with Susan Larson, Laurel Davis Huber, Julia Franks, Margaret Wrinkle, and a great joy to spend time with friends (Melissa Connolly, Wayétu Moore, and Kimberly Wetherell) who showed up for support.

Thanks also to Library Journal, Virginia Stanley (Director of Library Marketing), and Bookish Roundup for the kind words.

And last but not least, gratitude to those of you who’ve pre-ordered The Flicker of Old Dreams and added it to your GoodReads lists!

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

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Question of the Month: Firsts

by Susan Henderson on October 2, 2017

Tell me something you’ve done recently for the first time—a public reading, a crossfit class, a trip to another continent. Whatever it is, I’d like to hear your story.

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Last month, I did my first interview for The Flicker of Old Dreams. It was fun to talk about the new book, about embalming and researching a dying town and how the book became a giant meditation on death. It’s a very generous, 2-page Author Profile in the September 11th issue of Publishers Weekly, and the interviewer, Wendy Werris, was lovely and engaging—a great writer herself, as you’ll see when you read the profile.

My publicist was able to copy the pages so they’re legible, and I’m including them below.

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Since it was my first time talking about the new book, I wasn’t sure what kinds of questions I’d be asked. And then, after talking for an hour, it’s always interesting to me what the interviewer chooses to highlight.

There was a little concern from my publisher that the profile was running so many months before the book will be available. It doesn’t launch until March 2018. But if you’re interested in pre-ordering, you can follow this link. It will give you options for all the main book outlets.

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Oh, later this month, I’ll be on a panel, along with Julia Franks and Margaret Wrinkle and moderated by Susan Larson, celebrating the 10th anniversary for National Reading Group Month. If you want to go, it’s Friday, October 27th in NYC at Cafe Auditorium at 1745 Broadway.

And I also want to give a shout-out to A Bookaholic Swede for featuring The Flicker of Old Dreams on her weekly Cover Crush. And to Peter de Kuster for interviewing me on The Heroine’s Journey.

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

Rene Denfeld, The Child Finder
Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizer
Stephen King, Firestarter
Jamie Ford, Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Roxane Gay, Hunger
Martin Espada, Vivas to Those Who Have Failed

That’s all for October. I look forward to your stories in the comments section. 🙂

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