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Roy Harris is a high-ranking Air Force officer and rising star, whose ascendant career path takes him, in the pivotal year 1975, from a New Mexico military base to Washington.  He’s smart, he’s respected, and he’s very good at solving problems, a talent that will, by 1991, find him intimately involved in tactical decision-making in the Gulf War.

His prodigious skill set, however, does not translate to his own family.  He has no idea how to handle his wife, a free spirit who does not fit the “military wife” mold.  He fails to recognize the fact that his son idolizes him and craves his attention.  And his willful and eccentric eight-year-old daughter, who acts out at school, disobeys commands, and brazenly prefers her mother, confounds him.

The tragedy of Roy Harris is not that he can’t handle his own family, but rather that he wants to give them what they need — badly — but does not know how.

You could write a novel all about Roy Harris, but Susan Henderson hasn’t done that.  He might reign supreme in the Air Force, but in Up from the Blue, Henderson’s superb debut novel, Roy Harris ranks third or fourth in importance.  At the center of the book is the eight-year-old girl, Tillie, whose life is changed forever in 1975, the year her mother, with whom she has a close (perhaps too close) bond, vanishes.

I mention Roy Harris because, for all that this remarkable debut has going for it — gorgeous prose, rich detail, assured voice, and a gripping story that continues to haunt me, weeks after I finished reading — its genius lies in creating so many fascinating, well-drawn characters, any of whom could have convincingly told the story.  In Tillie, Henderson picks the most compelling — and, from a writing standpoint, most difficult — narrator, and she pulls off the Harper Lee adult-themes-seen-through-child’s-eyes trick brilliantly.

Here is my interview with the LitPark blogger, TNB contributor, and author of this breathtakingly good debut, in which I ask Susan questions she didn’t see fit to ask herself:


G.O.: You’ve been writing about the writing life for awhile now, which makes you probably the most prepared debut novelist in recent memory.

S.H.: I’ve been on the other side of this business for so long that I didn’t go into my book launch wearing rose-colored glasses. I know from interviewing numerous writers and featuring their stories on my blog that many authors feel a sense of deflation and abandonment when their books come out. They’ve worked so hard, and then they see how difficult it is to get their books noticed. I know a lot of writers hoped a feature on my blog or another person’s blog would give a big boost to book sales, but it doesn’t really work that way unless the person featuring you is a VIP. You’re simply raising the profile of the author and the book, but what makes a person buy a book is so subjective—you have to factor in their temperament, their life experiences, their current mood, the books they’ve already committed to reading, and what kind of free time they have. So even if others are happy for you when you launch your book, it doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.

[Nods sadly].

I often hear from writers shortly after their launch date, panicked, and often angry when they discover their publisher has already done all they plan to do. We’ve all heard about the dreaded pulping machines in the basements of the big book stores, and how, if a book hasn’t been selling well in those first weeks, they go down there and are destroyed. Pulping the books on site is cheaper than sending them back to the publisher.

I’ve never heard of that. Shit. That’s not being remaindered; that’s being drawn and quartered.

I understood all of that when I went in to this. I also understood that marketing a book is hard work. If HarperCollins asks me to do a phone interview and I’m naturally phone phobic, I have to get over it. And a lot of the opportunities that open up are things like magazines saying they’d like to run a 750-word essay by you if you can get it to them in 24 hours. You have to say yes to these opportunities even when you’re tired or don’t feel like the ideas are flowing. I don’t ever want to look back at this time and regret that I didn’t do more.

Like I said, you’re prepared…but that doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything. Your novel’s been out for a few weeks.  What’s been your biggest surprise?

The biggest surprise for me is that I’m enjoying this. It’s been an extraordinary and positive experience. One by one, at readings or via reviews, I’ve met people who’ve been moved by my book. And surprisingly, my author photo on the back cover has drummed up a lot of support from other greyhound rescuers. I mean, how fantastic is that to meet all of these folks and feel that sense of an expanding community? And mostly, there’s just a deep satisfaction in being able to hold something physical that represents all the years of finding the story, the 15 pounds I lost when I struggled with the edits, the seemingly endless string of rejections and close calls. Whatever the financial or critical success might be, I won’t lose sight of the fact that I created a book from that first blank page. And for all the reasons I had to quit along the way, I kept at it.

Huxley has a great quote along those lines: “A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” Key word: labour. It’s really hard to write a book, even a bad one…and you’ve not written a bad one.

Pretty much everything about this business, from writing the book, to trying to sell it, to the vulnerability of seeing your book land in a competitive field of hundreds of thousands of other books has humbled me. I feel extraordinarily tender towards other writers for what they have to endure.

One of the many fascinating elements of Up from the Blue is that the Harrises are a military family.  I promise not to try and parse which parts of your novel are based on your own life, but I am curious: were you an Army brat?

I was an Air Force brat. I never thought much of it until after I had kids and we decided to do a cross-country drive, stopping at the base I used to live on. My kids were terrified of the checkpoints and just coming across soldiers with guns everywhere. We offered to let them take a break at my old playground, but they wanted to get back in the car and leave.

That visit—seeing it from a different lens—stuck with me. And like all of the images and themes in this book, it began as something that just sort of percolated on some back burner until I realized there was more to explore there.

Were you ever pressured, or tempted, to join the military?

Not in the slightest. I’m not neat or tidy, I don’t like to take orders, I’m a total wimp about weather and pain and hard physical work, and I don’t particularly like being around other people for long stretches of time. But I always arrive at appointments ten or fifteen minutes early, and I think that comes from being inside military circles for so many years.

That also explains why the LitPark segments on TNB are posted months in advance, all set to publish at certain dates and times. “Military precision” are words that come to mind when I click that PENDING link on the dashboard.

Oh, dear. I was hoping no one noticed!

Over at the Best Damn Creative Writing Blog, Adrienne Crezo reports that she’s heard you described as “the patron saint of writers.”  Do you have a feast day?

I think it’s really sweet, but mostly comical, to hear things like that. I think what people respond to, maybe, is that I’m conscientious in that I answer every comment on my blog and Facebook page, and I generally care about each person who leaves a comment. I know what it feels like to be that person who’s overlooked, and I don’t want to do that to anyone else. That’s really different than being the patron saint of anything… though I’m all in favor of feasts.

But seriously…through your own site and here at TNB, you’ve been exceedingly generous with your time and your support.  If I were to ask a bunch of your friends what Sue Henderson is like, the responses would probably contain some formation of She’s really nice.  (For example, I would say, “Sue?  She’s sweet as punch.”)  You rescue greyhounds, for Pete sake! Let’s be contrarian.  Tell us a way in which you are not nice.

My closest friends tend to use words like “fiesty” to describe me, and they all know how much I love a really violent hit on the football field.

You like football?  Giants?  Jets?  ‘Skins?  Do tell.

Steelers! If I could live life again, I’d love to be a defensive coordinator in charge of a 3-4 defense a la Dick LeBeau. Football is the greatest high for me—the strategy, the not-quite-contained rage, the unknown factor, and play, all at one time.

Eh, everyone’s doing the 3-4 these days.  It’s the new black.  Unfortunately, not everyone has the All-Pro nosetackle needed to make the defense sizzle.

Casey Hampton is killer, isn’t he?

Totally killer. So how do you feel about Ben Roethlisberger?

The reason I love watching Roethlisberger (and Brett Favre has this, too) is that he has kind of a sandlot style—he just wants to win. He’ll risk a sloppy play or an interception or a sack to score some points. He’s not worried about his stats, and I find that refreshing.

He doesn’t seem to be worried about much of anything these days.

I have to say, I was pissed when he got in that motorcycle accident because I don’t like selfishness. That concussion changed him. He’s just not as sturdy on the field, and I even wonder, with his latest charge, if that head injury changed his personality a little. But I’m excited to see him start against the Browns this weekend, and I want to go to the Super Bowl again.

This is probably not the time to mention that Neil “Four Picks” O’Donnell went to my high school.

I was not a fan of his even before his sorry performance against Dallas, but after that I was out-of-my-mind-cranky if I even saw his face. We had a long string of mediocre quarterbacks for a while, so I’d rather have a good one with criminal charges against him any day!

So did you live in Pittsburgh, or are you one of those bandwagon jumpers who only like them because they’re good?

I went to undergrad in Pittsburgh, and both my kids were born there. We used to watch training camp in Latrobe, and now I listen to the games over the Internet so I can still hear the local radio show. Tunch Ilkin and Bill Hargrove.

The Steelers are my Super Bowl pick this year.  I assume they’re also yours?

The Steelers are always my pick, even during the years it’s all magical thinking.

Your love of football makes sense, actually.  There’s a certain toughness about your novel that belies its “pregnant woman reflects on a pivotal year of her childhood” summary. Up from the Blue is dark, much darker than I was expecting.  And I mean that as the highest compliment.

All my favorite books are dark because if you want to see what people are made of (which is the main reason I like to read), watch them during a plague or in an abusive orphanage or having to make an impossible choice. What satisfies me in a story is when the emotions are complicated—when someone feels a sense of pleasure in the midst of fear, a sense of rage in the midst of tenderness, a sense of obsession with something that’s damaging them. And I wanted to tunnel through depression and betrayal through a child’s eyes because that allowed me to stay with the most basic of human needs and emotions, minus the safety of adult reflection.

What are some of your favorite books?

My two favorite books are Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and William Maxwell’s They Came Like Swallows. What I like about O’Brien’s work is that he takes you to the most complicated of human emotions and to the notion that sometimes you have to tell a lie in order to express the truth. That book just unpacks the human heart in a way I haven’t seen anyone else do in that format. I’ve seen it in poetry, but not so much in longer works. And what I love about William Maxwell, besides every single sentence he writes, is that he stays on the emotional note I crave more than any other, which is somewhere where heartbreak becomes tenderness. You know the story of the Titanic sinking and the musicians play that last song, knowing they’re all doomed but trying to reach one last note of pleasure and generosity? That’s the place I like to go as both a writer and a reader.

The Things They Carried and They Came Like Swallows: those two titles seem of a piece with Up from the Blue.  Tell us about your title.  Was the book always called that?  Did you have a working title beforehand?

Oh, God, the title. What a long process that was. I don’t even remember the original title, but we went through at least fifty and probably closer to two hundred that were rejected. I tried all kinds of Sylvia Plath and Ann Sexton lines, I tried bits from military songs, I tried The Ruby Cup and Mad Girl’s Love Song and The Blue Door and The Sweetest Decline and on and on. Most got only a shrug, if that.

Finally, I asked my friend, the drummer and writer Keith Cronin, for help. He’d come up with the name Water for Elephants for Sara Gruen when she was stuck, and I was very grateful when he said he’d help. He gave me a short list of titles, and when I saw Up from the Blue, it ran in a different direction than everything else I’d tried. It made you ask questions, it was had a tinge of hope to it, and for anyone who’s read the book through to the end, it taps some of the biggest notes of the story without giving it away.

Because everything else had been rejected, I was afraid to turn in the latest idea only to meet the same fate, so I sat on it for a day. That night, I went to see the movie Invictus, about Nelson Mandela and the South African soccer team. Throughout the movie, I kept saying the title in my mind, and each time, I got chills. I knew it was the one I wanted, but I had no idea what they’d think of it.

No one ever said a thing. But a couple of weeks later, I got an email with a photo attachment. It was a picture of the book cover, using Up from the Blue as the title. First time I’d seen the cover, and I just loved it. It felt right.

How thrilling, to find out that way! And it’s such a great cover, too. I love when they put faces on book covers.

To me, Up from the Blue echoes the Air Force song, which I sang while in a men’s vocal group in high school:

Off we go into the wild blue yonder,

Keep the wings level and true;

If you’d live to be a grey-haired wonder

Keep the nose out of the blue!

We tried lots of variations of “Wild Blue Yonder” and you wouldn’t believe how many books and CDs have already cornered every bit of that song.

What did you have to wear for your men’s vocal group? I hope you’re going to show a picture!

We wore the standard white shirt, tie, and jacket.  The embarrassing part was not the costumeI’d been down that road alreadybut the fact that I was in a singing group with a bunch of old dudes.  It did not help me in the dating department.

Ha! I’m not sure being in a singing club works any better for women, as far as dating goes.

I don’t know; those choir girls get around. I’ve seen your husband rock out.  Are you musical, too?

I can play “Humpty Dumpty” and “Heart & Soul” on the piano, but both sound a little choppy. When it comes to singing, I’m so shy I even lip sync in the shower. But I was once a finalist for being an MTV dancer!

An MTV dancer? I smell a future TNB post.

Not as cool as a Soul Train dancer.

I beg to differ. The powers that be have spoken, Susan Henderson. You rock.

 

 

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GREG OLEAR is the Los Angeles Times bestselling author of the novels Totally Killer and Fathermucker and founding editor of The Weeklings.

48 responses to “Blue Door, Steel Curtain: An Interview With Susan Henderson”

  1. […] Dempsey at Hybrid Mom, Jennifer Haupt at the One True Thing (Psychology Today) blog, Greg Olear at The Nervous Breakdown, Rebecca Rasmussen’s at The Bird Sisters blog, Caroline Leavitt at Caroline Leavittville, […]

  2. Zara Potts says:

    Lovely interview by two of the loveliest TNBers.
    Susan – I have never met you, but I’m pretty sure you deserve the title of patron saint of writers.. you are always so very supportive and enthusiastic and I have to say that even our few interactions have inspired me on.
    Thank you Greg and Susan for sharing your thoughts. You are both wonderful.

  3. Gloria says:

    The Things They Carried is one of my favorite all time stories. This was a great interview. I’ve enjoyed Susan’s postings quite a bit. And every posting about publishing a book makes my cajones crawl into my guts, but Susan’s somehow still manage to embolden me. I can’t wait to read this.

  4. Judy Prince says:

    Terrific interview Susan and Greg!

    You’re so shy about singing you lip-synch in the shower, eh, Susan? Nice one.

    Always straightforward, creative, insightful and helpful in your responses, Susan, this one especially struck me; about the after-publication time that surprised you in these ways:

    “And mostly, there’s just a deep satisfaction in being able to hold something physical that represents all the years of finding the story, the 15 pounds I lost when I struggled with the edits, the seemingly endless string of rejections and close calls. Whatever the financial or critical success might be, I won’t lose sight of the fact that I created a book from that first blank page. And for all the reasons I had to quit along the way, I kept at it.”

    And this insight, as well especially meaningful, regarding the “darkness” of _Up from the Blue_:

    “What satisfies me in a story is when the emotions are complicated—when someone feels a sense of pleasure in the midst of fear, a sense of rage in the midst of tenderness, a sense of obsession with something that’s damaging them. And I wanted to tunnel through depression and betrayal through a child’s eyes because that allowed me to stay with the most basic of human needs and emotions, minus the safety of adult reflection.”

    I love the wonderful serendipity of getting the title of the book!

    Thank you both for your work well before your writing, during your writing, and afterwards. I’ve just begun the book and am hooked, as I knew I would be!

  5. Ronlyn Domingue says:

    Wonderful interview, you two!

    Greg, I agree that Susan’s novel was surprisingly dark. Yet she maneuvered the reader through that territory with such compassion and honesty. Few books have moved me as hers did.

    Susan, it’s so great to hear you’re enjoying the experience! I struggled through the whole thing for various reasons. Maybe #2 will be different. Your comment about dark books struck a chord with me, especially because I’m chin deep in duality with pretty much everything I’m working on these days. The Things They Carried is among my favorites, too.

    Good luck each of you on your next projects!

  6. Brin says:

    Great interview Greg and Susan. Was a fun read.

  7. This was such a fun read. Sue, I’m incredibly happy for you–you certainly deserve every success, and your novel (which yes, thank goodness is dark–I might not have loved it otherwise, ha) is just haunting and luminous in all the best ways. Great conversation with two of my fave TNBers. In fact, I love you guys so much I even stuck it through during the sport talk! xx.

  8. There’s been some fist raising lately, but I’m totally waving my Terrible Towel to you and Up From The Blue. Rock on indeed.

  9. Greg O, suddenly the doyen of TNB interviewing. Another nice job, this one more open and freewheeling. But, I guess you get that in any interview that drops Tunch Ilkin.

    I embrace this sentiment so completely, Susan: “Pretty much everything about this business, from writing the book, to trying to sell it, to the vulnerability of seeing your book land in a competitive field of hundreds of thousands of other books has humbled me. I feel extraordinarily tender towards other writers for what they have to endure.”

    I can’t believe how judgmental I used to be. How ready to criticize. Now I find myself riding up San Juan Hill like Teddy R. in defense of almost anything being slagged around me, even stuff I hate. On the other hand, that’s a pretty telling analogy, cause as I understand it, Teddy’s charge was media created, and he didn’t actually ride until the action was long over. So, maybe I still malign things. But I feel genuinely bad about it afterward.

    I’m also a big fan of The Things They Carried, and if that was an inspiration, all the more reason for me to pick up a copy of Up From The Blue.

    Which I will.

  10. I hadn’t heard about the pulping thing. Man. That’s truly harrowing. God knows writers need a patron saint. Congratulations on your book. Going to add it to my Vroman’s list.

  11. Billy Bones says:

    I suspect pulped books are recycled and will return as pages of future blockbusters. Let’s pat ourselves on the back. We are doing an important job as literary organ donors.

    I also suspect that Ms. Henderson’s lovely novel will never see the inside of a pulper.

  12. Jessica Blau says:

    Seriously, an MTV dancer!? Wow and holy moly. You’re multi-talented. I love the book. Would love to see the MTV dance, too!

  13. D.R. Haney says:

    I enjoyed this post quite a bit.

    I always made it a practice to respond with a comment to every comment I received online for my writing, even before I started contributing to The Nervous Breakdown. (I’m specifically thinking of my blog at MySpace, which was read by almost no one.) It seemed rude to do otherwise, and that policy, I think, was invaluable at TNB, where I was surprised, when I arrived, to see that some contributors barely interacted with their readers. But I believe that’s less the case now.

    I was warned, before my novel was published last year, that I was going to find it hard to get the book noticed, so I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t. Promotion really is like screaming at a wall, and in that sense, I don’t find writing even remotely rewarding. It seems pretty pointless, in fact. It’s tortuously undermining to be ignored after so much effort on my end, and the work that goes into the slightest acknowledgment takes away from the work of actual writing. I often wonder if I’ll continue writing, at least for publication. Maybe I should just complete a few manuscripts, if I’m able, before I die and let posterity decide if they’re worthy of notice. I’m afraid I know the answer.

    • Dang, I just wrote so much and it didn’t post. But the short of it is this: I hear you.

      And also:

      SUBVERSIA: http://www.amazon.com/Subversia-D-R-Haney/dp/0982859805

      BANNED FOR LIFE: http://www.amazon.com/Banned-Life-D-R-Haney/dp/1427624992/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpi_2

      If any of you read a book and love it, please post something public about it, whether it’s a facebook status update, a blog, or an amazon review. Because most authors don’t have million dollar machines behind them but only word of mouth.

      • D.R. Haney says:

        Sorry your original comment didn’t post, Susan. I’ve had that happen, and it’s very frustrating. Also, thanks for the links, and congrats on the book, which I should’ve said earlier, just as I should’ve commented when I read the excerpt a few weeks ago at TNB. Greg has, privately, praised the book to me, and I’ll be sure to read it at some point. I’m significantly lagging in my current reading, which is, it seems to me, an occupational hazard.

        • I’m sorry for all the hurt in this process, especially after such an achievement. So many writers dream of having a book published and don’t get there, and here you did it. Except only a handful of writers get big budgets, if they get budgets at all, and then your book lands in a sea of books and you can feel so helpless wanting but not knowing how to reach people with it. If I think of the big picture too much, it’s so depressing, I’d be tempted to give up, too. I’ve tried, instead, to think think about connecting to one reader at a time–that one person who turned off their computer and tv to read my book, or that one person who was moved or changed by the same story that matters so much to me.

    • Greg Olear says:

      For this writer’s opinion on the subject of Mr. Haney’s value to future generations, I direct your attention, Kind Reader, to the foreword of SUBVERSIA (see link above).

      Those who enjoy rollicking, rambling interviews by this writer are advised to purchase said book, where, in the ultimate chapter, can be found the aboriginal rollicking, rambling Greg Olear interview, with none other than the great D.R. Haney.

      Screaming at a wall, hell yes. But come on now, when your book is mentioned, and your photo runs, in the LA Times, you should be at least somewhat pleased, no?

      Talk soon.

      G

  14. The patron saint of writers, yes! Great interview.

  15. zoe zolbrod says:

    This makes me excited to read Up from the Blue. But mostly I’m just writing to say: Go Steelers!

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