SUSAN HENDERSON is a Pushcart nominee, a recipient of an Academy of
American Poets award and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. She recently helped judge the "20-Minute Stories Contest" at McSweeney's. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope: All-Story Extra, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, North Atlantic Review, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts, The World Trade Center Memorial, and The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney's Books, 2004), edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, and Dave Eggers. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and professor. They live in NY with their two boys.
DBJ: You have won some prestigious awards and been published in some very high-profile literary markets. Can you describe the process you have employed in your writing career, how you set about getting where you are, and where you see yourself, and your writing, in – say – five years?
SH: It's a funny thing when other people look at your résumé and declare you as being successful. I really have to fight the impression I have of myself as a failure. Every prize I've won and every publication I've had has come either from an editor soliciting a specific story or from someone strong-arming me to submit to a particular contest or magazine. I'm sure a better career move would be to be more aggressive with getting my work out there, but rejection absolutely clobbers me, and there are things I'll avoid at all cost: humiliation, feeling like a tag-along, going where I'm not wanted.
That said, I have pretty lofty goals. I have two books I honestly think can change lives, whether it makes readers more generous of heart, more forgiving, or more willing to be themselves, flaws and all. Within five years, I would like to believe both will be published and successful and I'll be busy finishing up the next one. If I didn't believe my books would get off my hard drive and into someone's hands, I couldn't bear to get out of bed in the morning.
When I was growing up, the people around me were inventors and Nobel Prize winners and world leaders. I got it into my head that that's just what you do—you grow up and do something spectacular that changes the world.
Where my confidence lies is in opening doors for others. I joked with another writer recently that my calling is as a doorman. It gives me great pleasure helping another writer get to the next level via a quicker, gentler path. And I have good instincts for which writers are good fits for which editors and which small operations will become big operations.
I see so much rejection and failure and backbiting in this business, I just want to bring more generosity and fun to it. That's how my blog started. My goal was to build a kind of literary playground where I can show authors in a more playful light and let them mentor and encourage each other. Basically I've taken what I've done privately for years and made it public.
DBJ: Your short stories are often written in a young, very vital and very powerful voice. The emotional depth and sensual tension you create, particularly in young female characters, is believable and genuine and lends a depth to the prose that many authors fail to hit. Is there something about that period of your own development that has forged this link?
SH: I write very easily from a child's perspective—anything from age nine to fourteen. During those years, I was a bratty, overachieving tag-along wanting desperately to be important and included, and I think those are the years that left the biggest emotional imprint on me.
They are awkward years where you begin to have a large sense of yourself and yet the outside package is gawky and your voice is small and your big ideas are not very well formed.
I like to write about characters who don't have the courage to follow their moral compass. Characters who love and hurt and forgive but never say so. Characters who have a false understanding of what people think of them or expect from them. My novel deals with this—the idea of believing others want great things from you and being terrified that they'll see the real you and how you've fallen so terribly short.
DBJ: The book you are currently marketing is a memoir. Did you follow any standard format to create this, or strike out on your own? Does it cover a single aspect, or time-frame in your life, or is it more all-encompassing? What is the message you intend to pass to readers, once it sees print? (see how I stick extra questions in, cleverly disguised as part of the SAME question?)
SH: The book centers on the issue of shame. When I was a kid, I accidentally killed one of our kittens and never told anyone. I clung to the idea that I was a villain and viewed my childhood through that lens. Later experiences seemed to confirm the idea: my knack for finding trouble, my clumsy beginning when I cared for a little girl with a brain tumor, some bad pranks I pulled that still haunt me today.
It's written in a humorous style, which is my nature, but it shows how a sense of yourself can stay with you, and in particular, when you fall in love and have children, believing that you're a villain can begin to make you paranoid about harming the people you love or seeing your children turn out like you.
The book is really two memoirs—my own growing up, and my children's growing up, and how the two speak to each other. As I started to feel unconditional love and experienced childhood mistakes and rascally-ness from the parent-role, I found my sense of humor and had to re-think the way I'd defined myself.
This book took shape at readings. I learned what stories the crowd really got into and how to tell a heartbreaking story while still making the audience laugh. I worked hard at making this a book that would work well up at the microphone so it would go down like candy and then let the depth of the stories kind of sneak up on you.
The format is pretty similar to some bestselling humor books: Paul Reiser's Couplehood, Jerry Seinfeld's SeinLanguage, Erma Bombeck's A Marriage Made in Heaven: Or Too Tired for an Affair. But I clearly bear the mark of my generation, and the quirks of my book make it more similar to John Hodgman's The Areas of My Expertise and Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life. The senior editor at PARENTS magazine read it and called me "a female Neal Pollack.”
DBJ: You live what seems to be a very full and rich life, shared with another artist and talented kids, surrounded by creative friends and associates on all sides. How do you juggle all the aspects of that life to allow for your writing?
SH: I have a pretty awesome life and I'm grateful for it. It doesn't feel like I do a lot of juggling, even when projects overlap. It's always clear what takes priority, and I can find the energy and the determination to meet any deadline—in fact, I love deadlines.
First and foremost, I'm a mom. My boys are busy with guitar/piano, Chinese school, kung fu, this and that, but mostly they horse around in the yard where they've made this unwieldy fortress and they have some kind of secret meetings half-way up one of our pine trees.
Mr. Henderson's a costume and set designer, so we get to see his process from reading the play to meeting with the director to sketching and sewing and rehearsals and strike. He's in a band that plays at local bars once or twice a month, though I usually stay home with the kids and then write once they're asleep. He's always learning something new. While I'm typing this, he's in the other room trying to teach himself flamenco guitar. Most of our work takes us into the city (NYC), but sometimes we go farther. I'm doing a reading in South Africa this summer. Mr. Henderson's filming a movie in Poland this spring.
I have passionate and creative friends who are both playful and committed to improving their craft, whether it's writing, creating music or directing movies. I have friends I can talk to about anything; friends I play soccer with once or twice a week; friends I meet for sign language coffee hour each week; friends whose house we go to for lunch, and we're still there after dinnertime, passing around instruments and singing together.
I also work, you know. Every day for hours and hours. Depending on my mood, I'm either tinkering or toiling on a new story or my newest book idea or a book review or a manuscript edit. All the while, I'm fielding calls and emails with authors and editors I've lined up to appear on my blog. I try to talk each of them into doing something a little playful or out-of-the-box to keep my blog interesting. One of my favorite shows (yes, I think of them as shows) was when I interviewed Josh Kilmer-Purcell about his drag queen days and decided to surprise him with an interview between my mom and his mom. Right now I'm putting together a songwriter's week, and my son is busy writing questions for Lemony Snicket before the release of his final book in the series of Unfortunate Events. I've got authors booked through October. It's all fun. Work and fun.
But my favorite part of every day is getting my boys from the school bus and hanging out while they do homework. And at night we all pile on the couches in the living room (including the cats and our cat-like Doberman the neighbors are so unnecessarily afraid of) and we read together. This is the time I protect the most.
It's obvious I enjoy my life. Of course, all it takes is someone asking me, "Have you sold your books yet?" and suddenly I'm dissatisfied with what I've got and I feel like, "Shit, my life sucks. I'm a miserable failure."
DBJ: Needless to say, there are a great number of folks who know this is not true… Now, for my final and standard question: You have 24 hours to come up with the idea for your next book. You can either spend that time in a library where all the world’s books are at your disposal, in a quiet room with a state-of-the-art stereo and any music you desire, or you have transportation available to anyplace you care to go. Which do you choose for your inspiration, and why?
SH: I'd go somewhere pretty but isolated. I can write like a fiend when I go to a B&B--just me and a brand new spiral notebook, a pen, and my mad, Arabic-looking handwriting.
There can't be a phone or computer or music or people around. God, no people! When I'm in my zone, a voice and a story kind of pipes in from nowhere and I'm desperately racing to capture it. If someone rings my doorbell or sends me an email or even stands near me, everything I was tapped into disappears the way dreams do, and all I remember is that feeling of something magnificent racing by and the memory of a blur.
DBJ: Sounds a little like when Samuel Taylor Coleridge was writing Xanadu and someone interrupted him – he claimed it was never finished.
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