October 18, 2010
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.
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 costume—I’d been down that road already—but 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.