Susan Henderson: Writing a Novel is an Act of Faith

Author talks about learning from her mistakes.

Posted Mar 12, 2018

HarperCollins
Source: HarperCollins

Susan Henderson knew she wanted to be a writer from early on, but writing a novel wasn’t part of those early dreams. Her first novel, Up From the Blue, began as a series of linked stories. An editor at a publishing house who read the collection asked, “Why not make this a novel?” Henderson might not have agreed to go that route if she had a glimpse down the pot-hole laced road ahead.

“My first attempt was a complete fail,” Henderson says. “I basically took away the story titles and tried to sew them all together, using the chronology of the main character’s age as my guiding principle. It came out like a bad patchwork quilt. I didn’t understand the shape of novels or the thrust behind them, so I put my project away and spent almost a year gorging on novels — classics, bestsellers, novellas, just to know them better. That’s when I started to fall in love with the form and the freedom a novel allows an author.”

Henderson learned a lot of hard lessons completing her first novel that helped her in writing her second novel, The Flicker of Old Dreams.

“There were so many bumps in the road to publishing my debut novel,” Henderson says, “mostly because I took all kinds of advice for changing the story without checking in with my gut or with the characters. I did this for months, not realizing that I had slowly but surely walked away from the early instinct that made me need to tell this story so urgently. It became this dead piece of writing, made from various people’s ideas and no longer connected to my heart or the heart of the narrator. This time around was easier because I trusted my instincts more. I trusted that I could write terrible sentences and terrible drafts and, in the end, make something beautiful.”

The Flicker of Old Dreams is, indeed, something beautiful. Henderson started with a setting she knew: the tiny town in central Montana where her father grew up and she had visited as a child. The stark beauty of the flat and endless land and this community of about 180 people’s isolation from larger towns has always captivated and haunted Henderson. “The people I’ve known from Winnett, including my father, are the most industrious, self-sufficient folks I’ve ever met,” she says.

Henderson left her home on Long Island and spent a month in Winnett soaking in inspiration. She spent her days walking the dusty roads, taking picture of everything from an abandoned wheat silo to her family’s cemetery, full of hand-made grave markers and rattlesnakes. She recorded stories of the people who still live in this time capsule of America’s past. If anyone asked her to their home for dinner, to join them for a church service or calf tagging, she said yes. The Flicker of Old Dreams grew out of that experience.

“I didn’t base the novel on any particular individuals,” Henderson says. Though I did try to capture much of what I saw and heard in this town—the history of industries and businesses that used to thrive there, the persistent unemployment and underemployment, the relationship with the land and wildlife, the do-it-yourself spirit of the community, the suspicion and resentment of change imposed on them by the outside world.”

Henderson wanted to explore what happens when a person’s identity is tied to things that are slipping away. There’s a paragraph in the book that reads: “In their hearts, all these years later, so many of these men remain train conductors, grain elevator operators, gas station attendants, oil drillers. But what becomes of them when there are no trains, no grain elevators, no gas stations, no oil wells? The jobs they had, the skills that defined their worth are gone. Perhaps they lie in bed at night and ask of dark ceilings, Who am I now? The question rubs against who they once were and the fear of being irrelevant. Set aside. Lost.”

“I was surprised by the story that eventually emerged,” Henderson says. “It started to become one about death—the death of a town and a way of life, the death of a long-held identity. That is how my narrator, Mary Crampton, came about—a mortician who was especially capable of telling this story with the honesty and compassion it deserved because she wasn’t afraid to look death in the eye.”

Henderson knows the setting for her new novel and little else — but she’s fine with that. She has come to think of writing a novel as an act of faith. “Whenever I despair about the long and winding process of writing a novel, I have to remember that the blank page is intimidating and might stay blank for a while,” she says. “I might write what looks like chaos, and later, I’ll figure out how to organize it. Gradually, these glimpses and scraps become scenes, and scenes become chapters, characters that began only partially-formed become so three-dimensional, I believe they’re real. For me, knowing I’ve done it before is what gives me faith that I can do it again.”

The one true thing the author learned from her narrator echoes the lesson she learned during the arduous process of writing her first novel: “A lesson I learned along with Mary came from her interaction with Doris, a dying woman I only meant to have a small role in the book; she had other ideas,” Henderson says. “Through her, we both learned to not live so cautiously, but to step out of the boxes others have built for us, listen more closely to our instincts, and wear our best jewelry even if there’s no special occasion.”