Debut Author Spotlight: Sara J. Henry

Name: Sara J. Henry

First novel: Learning to Swim

Age: Forever not-quite-grown-up

Current home: On a dirt road in a small southern Vermont town

Author icon: Don’t really have one, but one of my favorite books has always been Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey.

Number of manuscripts hidden under the bed: None, unless you count the one begun in pencil in a composition book when I was 12.

Time it took to sell first book: Six weeks – or ten years, depending on how you look at it (ten years of occasionally looking at the manuscript but having no idea how to rewrite, and six weeks after I finally revised the manuscript and sent it out).

Writing Learning to Swim: The easy part was writing it in the first place. I had a neighbor and a writing friend waiting for chapters and I just hammered them out. I remember feeling a sense of joy I’d never felt and thinking: This is what I was meant to do.

The hard part was the rewrite. I’d written the book very quickly, because if I’d slowed down I most likely would have convinced myself I couldn’t do it. So the middle of the book in particular needed work. I’d failed to develop some characters, and hadn’t thoroughly worked out all plot details. I could see the problems, but I simply didn’t know how to rewrite, and had trouble visualizing the characters doing anything other than what they were currently doing. So the manuscript lived in my computer for a very long time.

Then a friend’s 24-year-old son published a very good novel, and I thought, Okay, he just went and did it, and that’s what I need to do. I was then editing and rewriting nonfiction manuscripts, which sucked up huge amounts of time and creative energy, and despite the best of intentions I wasn’t getting any of my own writing done. Eventually I made myself stop working on other people’s books and live off my savings while I rewrote. And trust me, watching your bank balance going in the wrong direction is a wonderful impetus.

But I think making this sort of commitment to the book was a crucial step. Maybe I’d never truly believed I could do it up until then.

Why the suspense genre: Suspense is what I call it – but it’s really a mix of romance, thriller, mystery, suspense. Michael Robotham calls it a psychological thriller. Jamie Ford calls it, “A mesmerizing confluence of mystery, intrigue, and suspense, with undercurrents of deep personal drama.”

The books I loved growing up all had elements of suspense, starting with Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I loved Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels – innovative for the time, mixing suspense and personal drama and romance: Nine Coaches Waiting; Madam, Will You Talk?; This Rough Magic, The Ivy Tree. They were outdated when I read them but the characters were vivid and the pacing superb. Charlotte Armstrong was another master of suspense, with strong female characters, and I loved my dad’s Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. I also read Alistair MacLean and Helen MacInnes, and all the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Later I devoured Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Sara Paretsky, Ngaio Marsh, Karen Kijewski, Walter Mosley. So pretty much the die was cast – suspense it was going to be.

What I hoped to do was create a modern-day counterpart to Mary Stewart’s heroines: a strong and independent, real-life woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I think we all wonder a little what we would do in these situations.

Writing advice to live by: A dear friend said to me, “You can’t edit what you haven’t written,” and when I get stuck, I always remember that. 

Writing rituals: Basically, I sit down and do it. If I get stuck – actually it’s the characters that get stuck, not me – I try a couple of things. One is changing font on the manuscript, which helps me view it differently. Another is splitting the book into sections. If I’m having trouble in Act 2 (often the most likely trouble spot), I pull out Act 2 and work on it in a separate file. I also print out drafts and edit by hand and add layers and details, and type in those changes (which is tedious, but must be done).

And I read chapters on the phone to another writer – it’s amazing how much you improve your work when you read it aloud. Sometimes I edit as I’m reading it, never mind editing after input from the other writer.

Work in progress: It features the same main characters, and is set in the towns of Lake Placid and Saranac Lake in the midst of winter when the residents have a ten-day Winter Carnival and build an enormous, magnificent ice palace on the lake. The towns themselves play a more important role in the story than they did in Learning to Swim, as do Troy’s roommates.