Susan Henderson's debut novel, "Up From the Blue," is the heart-breaking and inspiring coming-of-age story of a girl growing up both with and without her manic-depressive mother Mara. At the center is a mystery involving Mara's disappearance and her husband's possible involvement, all seen through the screen of Tillie's fertile imagination. Here's my conversation with Susan, who is the founder of the popular literary blog LitPark: Where Writers Come to Play and the curator for National Public Radio's DimeStories.
Jennifer Haupt: What is one true thing you based this novel on, or discovered while writing it?
Susan Henderson: I was a biter. I was that kid parents didn't want at their house for a play date.
I used that memory of wanting friends but knowing how rotten I was at getting along with others to burrow into the head of my eight-year-old narrator. She's also a biter, an extrovert with no friends, and she's in over her head with a situation at home-one she's supposed to keep secret.
JH: How did you come up with or research Mara, the mother who deals with severe depression?
SH: Mara was pretty well formed in my mind, and I'd been a counselor for a number of years so I used my clinical knowledge to bring her to life. But in order to really see the world through her eyes and understand how she could spiral into something so debilitating, I actually read volumes of poems by Ann Sexton and Sylvia Plath.
It's interesting, though, that you and I can use the word depression because this isn't part of the vocabulary of the Harris family. They're living on a military base in the mid-seventies, and this isn't the best time or place in history to have a breakdown. They're simply blindsided and confused by what's happening. And since there isn't a name for it, Mara's husband reaches for words like "lazy," "stubborn," and "helpless". Shame begins to guide the choices they make, sending the family down a slippery slope.
What really intrigues me about Mara is that, while she's far along on the spectrum of depression, she echoes the emotions I've heard from plenty of good and healthy moms. She feels buried by housework, depleted by Tillie's need for attention, and she's lost connection with the activities that feed her sense of passion and identity. Without the safety net of friends or an understanding spouse, or professional help, she's really fighting this alone. At one point in the book, Tillie wonders who her mother might have been if they'd gotten her help. I wonder that, too.
JH: Tillie seems like a very strong little girl. From where does she draw her strength, given that neither of her parents are psychologically equipped to care for her?
SH: I think that's just her nature. She's kind of a feral, muscly, bold little girl; and I placed her in a very quiet neighborhood that values rules and order.
Some of her strength comes from learning to fend for herself, but I think some of it comes her parents. Her father, though he isn't terribly emotional or affectionate, provides her with a sense of stability and order-the walls for her to bounce against.
Her mother gives her access to the emotional world, and permission to abandon the rules. For Tillie, her mother is like stepping into the Technicolor world of Oz, complete with music, rubies, and flying monkeys.
JH: Phil, Tillie's brother, is a heart-breaking character who is rejected by both parents. (At least Tillie has the illusion of her mother's love.) How do you see Phil turning out as an adult?
SH: I do think he was loved, but some parents have limited reserves, and sometimes the good kid-the one who's dutiful and quiet-can get lost in the chaos. This is a boy who's learned to win his father's approval by manning-up, so his suffering goes unnoticed until he reaches a breaking point.
As an adult, hmm... I suspect he'll continue to be somewhat closed off and self-protective. But I'm generally hopeful about peoples' resiliency. I think of flowers that can grow in the cracks of the sidewalk and plants that twist and turn to reach for the light. I think people are like that, too. Phil, like anyone who's come through a trauma, will have some vulnerabilities and some armor, but I suspect he'll carve out a life that, for the most part, satisfies him.
JH: How long did it take you to write this novel, and how much did it change from the first draft to the final manuscript?
SH: Tillie started turning up in my short stories consistently for quite some time, and my first attempt at this book was a collection of stories that spanned into her adulthood. I kept whittling away at it until I realized the heat of the story was concentrated on the year Tillie lost her mother.
JH: Is there anything else you want readers to know about Up From the Blue?