Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, The Flicker of Old Dreams and Up from the Blue, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in Kings Park, New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com.
Welcome and let me start by asking how has the reception been on The Flicker of Old Dreams?
The reception has been extremely positive. The book doesn’t have a big budget, so it’s really been about word of mouth–one reader at a time telling another, one librarian or bookseller putting it into the hands of someone who wouldn’t have otherwise discovered it. I’m so grateful to everyone who posts reviews, tweets, blogs, gets the word out!
LP: The audience, have you had praise from anyone famous?
SH: I got a truly beautiful note from someone who produced a film that was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. And I’ve received the kindest remarks from a number of bestselling authors. But, to be honest, I hold them with the same regard as kindness from ordinary strangers.
LP: What was the vision for this work?
SH: The Flicker of Old Dreams is about the death of small town America as told by a mortician. But I didn’t know it would be about that when I first got the itch to write this book.
The impulse to write this story actually began with my alarm over the growing gulf between one American and another. You’d see it on the news and on bumper stickers and on social media, just the sense that each side had stopped respecting and empathizing with the other. I was particularly concerned with the sense of distance between my current life in New York and my family roots in rural Montana.
It got me thinking a lot about the small town my dad is from and where I used to visit my grandparents and cousins when I was a kid. I decided early on to set my story there, though I didn’t know what the story would be, only that I hoped it would open up a dialogue between these two Americas again.
LP: What did you want to communicate with the reader?
SH: I wanted the reader to value the hard work, the vast knowledge and self-sufficiency required to live in a place like Petroleum. I wanted them to see its stark beauty and how much the isolation and weather impacts daily life.
Most especially, I wanted to give voice to those whose identities are tied to jobs or traditions that are slipping away, but also to those who’ve felt constrained by those same few jobs and traditions.
Throughout the book, I’m trying to show the conflict between those who fear change and those who desire it, just having a civilized dialogue about it and digging down into the grief and rage felt on both sides.
LP: Tell me about your writing life, time, place, and materials?
SH: My writing life is founded in reading. I think reading broadly (classics, bestsellers, essays, poetry, non-fiction, experimental literature) is the best way to train your ear to the many ways you can tell a story and how much you can do with a single sentence.
My main tools are my tennis shoes and my phone. There’s something about movement and fresh air that helps my brain engage. Often, I leave the house with a question in mind–what might cause these two characters to get into an argument over this issue, or how can I force two characters together if they’re trying to avoid each other? When I have an idea, I talk it into the audio memo app on my phone. The hardest part is coming up with the questions. Simply walking with them in mind leads to the answers.
LP: Do you write in a journal?
SH: I don’t. It actually makes me feel claustrophobic even imagining it. I would much rather get out in the world and out of my head.
LP: Do you recommend writing exercises and prompts, for writers needing to form habits and ideas?
SH: My most reliable practice is to simply circle the material that might be a part of a new book. For example, when I was working on The Flicker of Old Dreams, I talked with people who lived in small towns, I watched movies set in snow storms, I sat in diners and eavesdropped, I visited ranches and cemeteries, and I talked with folks who work in the death industry. I count this all as part of my writing time, even if I don’t actually put down any words.
This is one of the great joys of writing… falling into another world, learning its tactile details, discovering a new skill or a different kind of heart. I always hope to be surprised by what I learn and by what I ultimately create.
LP: What directed you to writing?
SH: The music you can make with words.
Long before I knew how to write, I loved listening to poetry and word-play and the wonderfully musical nonsense of Mother Goose rhymes and the tweetle beetle battle from Dr. Seuss’s book, Fox in Socks.
When I got a little bit older, I was struck by the fantastically dark fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. To me, blending those kinds of tales with poetry is the alchemy I crave.
LP: What do you hope to achieve in writing?
SH: I try to look at the things that break us as individuals and splinter us as communities, and I explore them until I can see them more clearly. My hope, always, is not just to take an honest look at the conflict or trauma but to open up a dialogue that might heal us and bring us back together.
LP: Which fictional characters have a permanent place in your heart?
SH: My favorite literary character ever is Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I also love Dream from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman and Tea Cake from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
LP: Tell me about one novel you would want many to read and why?
SH: I can’t choose just one!
Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are perfect books. They have mysteries, twists, quirkiness, musicality, and incredible depth.
And a wonderfully imperfect book that I’m crazy about and have actually read four times since its publication two years ago is Max Porter’s Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. It’s not a novel, it’s not a poem, but it’s a wonderfully original story of a father and his children and a crow working through a devastating loss. It’s so unpredictable that it catches your heart off-guard and cracks it wide open.
LP: Which authors are your main influences?
SH: My favorite writer is James Baldwin. He is simultaneously bold and tender. His sentences seem simple and beautiful, and then they hit you later. You realize there was a quiet wisdom, a buzz of undercurrents–the sentence not as simple as it appeared at first read.
LP: The next work, what will it be about?
SH: Like my last book, I know the setting but don’t know what the story will be yet. I live in a town with an enormous insane asylum in it. It once housed 10,000 patients, but now the building is abandoned with bolted doors, broken windows, and vines covering the building. At night, you see flashlights inside because teenagers, ghost hunters, and thrill seekers have found ways to get inside and explore.
Right now, I’m just circling the material that interests me–the history of the hospital, anyone who used to work or live there, anyone who breaks in. I’m talking to all of them, and trying to learn about the history of the place. Every few days I go to the building and take pictures, letting the story come to me when it’s ready.
LP: Thanks for this chat and your precious time.
SH: Pleasure to talk with you!