Sneak Preview: Interview with Litpark’s Susan Henderson

In Interviews, Profiles, Write Free on November 23, 2008 at 10:07 pm

Today Rebecca Lawton, my co-editor of the Write Free e-newsletter, and I are doing something we’ve never done before–offering a sneak preview of the November/December 2008 issue’s Creative Interview with Susan Henderson. Though the newsletter is free, you do have to SUBSCRIBE to read its contents. But since Susan rarely toots her own horn, we wanted to make sure that fans of Susan’s and of Litpark could read her interview here.

From the Write Free e-newsletter:

newmysppic2SUSAN HENDERSON is a contributor to National Public Radio’s newest literary venture, DimeStories, produced by Jay Allison of This I Believe, and is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation. Her work has been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. Publications include Zoetrope, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts, The World Trade Center Memorial, The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning (HarperPerennial, 2008), and Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years (Snowvigate Press, 2009). She blogs at, occasionally at Huffington Post, and Brad Listi’s The Nervous Breakdown. She lives in New York with her husband and their two sons.

WF: What ways does creativity manifest in your life?

This question is funny to me because I’ve never once thought of myself as a creative person. I think of myself as a workhorse and a pragmatist. My writing comes from a need to write, and then I go about getting it done the way I might shovel the walkway so the mailman can get to my mailbox or swim out in cold rough water to save a drowning child. I just have to do it.

WF: What kind of time do you give to your writing? To other creative endeavors?

I write a minimum of two hours a day, and sometimes as much as 16 hours a day.

WF: What other responsibilities do you have that you have had to carve out a creative life from?

I’m married, with two boys, two dogs, two cats, and a squirrel, so I have to be emotionally available, and I have to make time for various extra-curriculars and field trips and so on.

I’m in the very fortunate but strangely shameful position of writing full-time. This is a career choice that involves very little income, if any, and sometimes it is two years or more before I have anything I consider suitable enough to submit. The most visible product: probably mood swings and balled up pieces of the manuscript. It’s not an ideal career to lay on the people I love.

Because my family is so affected by my writing, I feel I owe them two things: I need to learn to be more productive during the hours I devote to writing, and I need to learn to put my work away at the end of the day. I’m not great at either of these things, but I’m getting better.

For example, there are certain routines I won’t disrupt for anything: after school, I walk with my kids and we talk about the day; we have dinner together at the table; I read to them every night, even though they’re plenty old enough to read on their own; and I tuck them in at night, and try not to hurry that time. But I’ve dropped the PTA and the Board of Elections. And I regularly neglect my friends and neighbors. And sometimes, my husband and I are in bed at night with our laptops, and we find ourselves emailing each other.

WF: How do you define the idea of success?

Ha. Well, now I guess you’ll get a dose of my ego, because I consider success to mean changing the world for the better. I want the things I do and the things I write to save people’s lives or make them more forgiving or less prejudice. I want to gain enough stature to be able to pull people up the ladder with me. I want to lead more people to a passion about books and writers and artists. So, you know, I still have a ways to go.

WF: What did your path to “success” look like? We’d especially like to hear about the creation of your wonderful site

My path to success looks very much like that of other writers: we are like Sisyphus, pushing a boulder up a big mountain, but never reaching the top. Sometimes, though, you hear of a set of stairs or an elevator lift on the other side of the mountain and that combo of struggle and opportunity is why I created LitPark. Because much of what we all do is just hard work and requires as much stamina as it requires talent. I just wanted to create a community where we could keep each other going. When I hear of another path that makes life a whole lot easier, I’m quick to share it.

As far as how LitPark came to be, I took what I had been doing for years via email or private rooms at Zoetrope, which is talking to people about the business of writing– from the process of creating a story to overcoming writer’s block to exploring where to submit a piece. Also, for years, I gave my writer friends pop quizzes, partially to give us new ideas for stories, but also because I have always had an insatiable need to play. LitPark was just about making these private interactions public.

Originally, I ran a version of LitPark on Publishers Marketplace, and I used to run interviews several times a week. But on PM, there was limited space, so I had to erase earlier interviews in order to post new ones. It wasn’t until I interviewed Peter de Seve, the cover artist for The New Yorker, that I thought, I can’t bear to throw away that interview or his artwork. So, LitPark was born. I gave it a predictable structure (quiz, interview related to the quiz, wrap up related to the quiz and the interview), and the active community brings the best kind of unpredictability to it. So far, it’s worked.

WF: Can you remember the first time you “claimed” yourself as an artist/writer?

When I was in third grade, I decided I wanted to be a poet when I grew up. In seventh grade, I officially declared it in a paper. That was also the year we got to choose our own theme for a poetry unit, and I chose Death. I kept to poems by James Agee, Dylan Thomas, James Dickey, and John Donne. After that, I was so utterly distracted by the power of writing that I never fully set my feet back in the real world. I was always observing and jotting down phrases I liked on little slips of paper, and I’ve never really stopped.

Still, it was a long time before I committed to it as a career. I applied to Carnegie Mellon’s biomedical engineering program, and bounced through Biology, Psychology, and eventually landed in the Creative Writing program. But when it came time for grad school, I went for Special Ed, eventually sliding back into the Psychology program. The whole time, my heart was in storytelling. Even when I graduated and became a counselor, I think my real interest was in the story, in searching for a theme and a resolution.

WF: Do you set goals or intentions for your writing life? If so, describe what this looks like (daily, monthly, in a notebook, with a group). Does the process of setting these intentions help you to achieve them?

Oh, now this is something I can really speak to because—well, you don’t need to know all the sad details about writing and rewriting my novel—but let’s just say I had hit a wall again and again, many walls, and I was thoroughly spent. Both my agent and a friend called me out on the fact that I was trying to finish this book robotically. When they’d ask me how the book was going, I’d answer, “I don’t know. I don’t care anymore. I’m just going to finish it.” And both of them, in their own ways, told me, “Don’t write it, then, because who wants to read anything you don’t care about?”

I decided to take some time away from my agent, my writer friends, my email, my deadlines, and ask myself some bottom-line questions: What the hell was I doing? Is this a book worth writing? Do I need to write it? And if so, where is the urgency? And if not, if I had embarked on a long and pointless experiment of trying to write a book, can I give myself permission to stop?

I gave myself forty days to figure this out—forty days in the desert, so to speak. No contact with any writers. No pep talks or running ideas past anyone. This had to all come from me.

It was absolute murder at first. For the first three days or so, I got nothing done at all. I felt absolutely numb and unproductive. By days four and five I decided I was for sure going to give up, and I thought of all the ways I hated my characters and my writing and myself. And then the anger kicked in. Because the moment I let myself imagine quitting, something struck at the heart of the child narrator of my book. Stopping felt like betrayal. Suicide. A severe loss of purpose in my life.

A fire was lit. I felt desperate, remembered what was at stake for me personally if I closed up shop. I began to write the way I blog, meaning I just used my voice and typed fast and didn’t worry about grammar or tangents. I told the story with absolute urgency. I sliced out chapters and characters and only committed to the parts that would devastate me if I gave up on them. And at the end of forty days, I had my book. It would take three more revisions before I had a final version, but I knew I had the book I needed to write and the one that would have killed me if I’d given up on it.

WF: Whose success inspires you? Is there a higher level of creative success you would like to achieve?

I’ve always been inspired by Harper Lee. Not just because she wrote one of my all-time favorite books, but because she wrote one, incredible, terribly important book.

I don’t have a particular idea of what success would look like–it can take any number of forms and sizes–but, for me, it must mean that my work is read. I know a lot of people who journal and who find some private satisfaction out of getting something out of their system and exploring it on paper. My drive, my compulsion, is to communicate. So for me to write something and then for it to sit on my computer or in a remainders bin does nothing for me. I’m not a journal writer. I am writing in order to say something and to start a dialogue.

WF: From your own experiences, what suggestions would you give to others who hope to achieve a satisfying, meaningful, and self-supporting creative life?

I learned so much from finishing what felt like a long and unfinishable project. The first was clearing my plate and making this novel my commitment. One of the best writing moves I ever made came from a very high-up literary professional who told me to stop writing and submitting short stories. She assured me that they did not help my career and were keeping me from focusing all my talent on the novel. Immediately, my novel progressed and deepened.

So how do you keep at a novel every day and see progress each week? You have to remember to enjoy the process. Remember back, however far you have to go, to what you loved about writing—controlling a universe, having a say, finding the right word, realizing a character was no longer some two-dimensional figment of your imagination but had become a living thing. Whatever it is about writing that you once loved, find that again.

Find a reason to be psyched to go to work every day. I once interviewed the writer Danielle Trussoni for LitPark. She wrote a wonderful memoir about life with her rogue father after he came back pretty damaged from Vietnam, where he was a tunnel rat. And Danielle told me that she would actually dress up to go to work, and I mean pearls and dark lipstick, making a real date of it. I’m not someone who likes to dress up, but this made a real impact on me, this idea of treating writing not as this never-ending process of failure but an event to look forward to. So I decorated this little space where I work to be completely inviting—pretty colors, throw pillows, scented candles. And in the morning, I light a candle and crank up the heat and get a cup of coffee and treat going to work like an escape, like the thing I’ve been waiting for.

But how do I stay creative and productive week after week? Well, I trick myself into it. I steep myself in the mood of the scene I’m trying to write. My iTunes is loaded with really emotional music: Public Enemy, Edith Piaf, Mika, Puccini, The Fairfield Four, Queen, Gogol Bordello, ELO, DMX, and old spirituals. There are movies that get me thoroughly emotional, that shock my heart and get it beating hard and fast: Finding Neverland, The Deer Hunter, anything starring Sean Penn. These are all ways to tap into sources of energy and emotion.

And my favorite technique is to take the one transition I’m stuck on, the one page of dialogue that sounds truly fake, and go walking with only that and a pen. I don’t come back until I’m unstuck. Have I walked into parked cars using this method? Sure. But it helps me find ways to move forward.

WF: This month our theme is “courage.” You strike us as a courageous creative soul—the kind who persists on behalf of her art. How has courage played into your creative life. Does your creative life lend itself to your courage?

Writing is all about courage. It takes courage to search the darkest corners of your heart and mind for the struggles that nag at you. Just to go there with your eyes open, to write things bolder than you would dare say in your real life, to look hard to find the flaws in your heroines and the heart in your villains.

It takes courage to show your writing to anyone, knowing what it feels like to get a form letter rejection or that quiet concern from friends who had no idea your head went to such places. And it takes still more courage to then send it to your toughest writer friends, knowing there will be things wrong with what you’ve written that you hadn’t noticed, that there will be things that were clear to you but not to them.

It takes courage to listen to your critics and cut those passages you worked so hard on, and to change the shape of your story, knowing that when you unstring it, you risk not being able to put it back together again. And it takes courage to know, despite the continued criticism and well-meaning advice, when your work is good and done.

  1. How lovely to see Susan interviewed for a change. She gives so much to the writing community. What I’ve seen of her novel (the one that she talks about here) will shake readers’ bones. Can’t wait to see it in the bookstores. Nice interview, Jordan.

    Jessica Keener

  2. What an awesome interview with candid and moving responces. It was so inspirational. Trying to run a business full time and write my book seems like an impossible dream sometimes. Reading Susans interview made me even more determined to get my book finished.
    Thank you for the inspiration. Charisse Tyson

  3. Utterly fabulous interview and I love your new blog.

  4. Susan Henderson is a great writer – and a real champ for our community. She is the definition of perseverance – and an inspiration to us all. Thanks for making the interview available to us, Jordan…

  5. Who doesn’t adore Susan Henderson? Great interview, Jordan!

  6. It was great to be able to support Susan for a change!

  7. Susan Henderson possesses the most impressive kind of bravery — the willingness to bare her writer’s soul to the rest of us. As one of the less-brave, I sit here in the safety of my home office, nodding in agreement and building strength from her insights.

    Great Interview. Thanks to all involved.

  8. Thanks so much for this insightful and inspiring interview! This quote should be tacked up on every writer’s wall:

    “Writing is all about courage. It takes courage to search the darkest corners of your heart and mind for the struggles that nag at you. Just to go there with your eyes open, to write things bolder than you would dare say in your real life, to look hard to find the flaws in your heroines and the heart in your villains.”

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