Interview with Sara J. Henry
Could you please give us a rundown of your debut novel, Learning To Swim.
Here’s my favorite description: While standing on the deck of the Lake Champlain ferry bound for Vermont, Troy Chance sees a small boy tossed over the side of a ferry going the opposite direction. Without thinking, she jumps to his rescue, setting off a chain of events that see her embroiled in a kidnapping plot with tendrils in the Adirondacks and Vermont as well as Ottawa and Montreal.
Your novel begins with a child being thrown off the back of a boat into the icy waters of Lake Champlain. What was the inspiration for this scene?
Driving along Lake Champlain on a misty, overcast day, I simply imagined this scene, from the perspective of a woman on the opposite ferry – and then had to figure out an entire book based on that one scene.
The opening scene is an attention-grabbing one. Was it always your opening scene?
Yes, and the original first chapter has always stayed pretty much the same. It’s the first fiction I’d written since I was 12, but that first chapter pretty much wrote itself.
There is a level of tension that runs through the entire narrative of the book. Did you have to work hard at maintaining this tension or do you feel it came naturally?
I seem to have a natural sense of pacing, but I did go back through the manuscript and break some chapters in two before I submitted it. I also worked hard at the middle of the book, which originally dragged quite a bit. I learned where to trim and where to shift certain scenes to get the pacing I wanted.
There is a solid sense of place in Learning To Swim. How much research did you do throughout the writing process?
Almost none initially, because I know each of these three areas: Lake Placid and Saranac Lake, where I lived and worked for five years; Ottawa, where I lived for three years; and Burlington, Vermont, which I visited frequently. Later of course I looked up details: street names, restaurant menus, store names (I learned that stores and restaurants close frequently), the temperature of Lake Champlain, and many more details. I also went to the house in Lake Placid that the one in the book is based on, and counted the steps to the Stewart’s convenience store.
And what is your writing process like? How much time do you spend in one sitting?
This varies wildly. I can write new material for only an hour or two at a time, but I can edit and tweak for hours on end.
The road to publication is fraught with many obstacles. Could you tell our readers what your experience was like?
The original book wasn’t salable, and I set it aside for a long time and then spent an enormous amount of time revising and rewriting over a six-month period. Once I had the book close to where I wanted it, selling the book went smoothly. I sent out a dozen or so queries, got offers and signed quickly, and the book sold quickly. If you have a strong query and strong opening pages, and choose the right agents to target, doors open – it’s as simple as that. Of course there were bumps along the way – my publishing house, Shaye Areheart Books, dissolved, for example, but I kept the same editor and simply moved to the parent imprint, Crown. And essentially you’re suddenly thrust into a field that’s entirely new to you, and you learn as you go. I’ve learned a lot from author friends, trust me.
Some authors find the editing experience glorious, if sometimes humbling, while others find it to be a vast pain in the nether regions. What was your editing experience like?
My experience with my editor was sublime. We talked before he made an offer on the book, and I revised with his comments in mind. Then he read the new version, and spent three hours on the phone with me going over the manuscript, sometimes just adding commas, and telling me where he thought things didn’t work. I fixed them, and sent it back, and that was it. No long pages of editorial notes or suggested changes. But mind you, I’m harder on myself than just about any editor could be. I revise and polish, many many times.
You are a member of the writers forum Backspace. How has being part of a writer’s group like Backspace been helpful to you?
The friendship and camaraderie of the writers of Backspace has been invaluable. And because it’s a closed forum – you have to pay an annual fee to join – and no one is allowed to quote what you say, you can let loose a little. (Mind you, some let loose too much!)
What made you want to get into writing, and what advice would you give to those wanting to do the same?
You get into writing because you have no choice – it boils out of you and you have to write. If you have an option, you do something else. Because in some ways it’s an insane occupation. You put words on paper and do your best to convince people to buy your collection of words.
My three pieces of advice for writers:
1. Read voraciously
2. Read your work aloud
3. Rewrite a lot
Who are some of your favorite authors?
A.S. King, Daniel Woodrell, Denise Mina, Don Winslow, Frances Fyfield, Ian Rankin, Jill McGown, Jodi Compton, Joshilyn Jackson, John Lescroart, Laura Lippman, Lisa Unger, Michael Robotham, Minette Walters, Peter Temple, Reed Farrel Coleman, Tana French
Who are some of the authors you simply cannot read?
Oddly, some are ones I read years ago, so apparently my tastes have changed. I just don’t have the patience or interest to read light fluffy mysteries – they bore me now. I want characters with some resonance.
If you could only recommend one book to another person, what book would that be?
Can I say – mine?! Honestly, it would depend on what that person liked to read. Right now I’m mad about A.S. King’s Please Ignore Vera Dietz, and I think it’s an important novel. But Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell is incredibly gripping and powerful.
What can we look forward to next from you?
Book 2, the sequel to this one, coming out a year from now, along with the paperback version of Learning to Swim.
Just that you can read the first chapter of my book, and that it comes out Feb. 22. (U.S. only at the moment, although a German version is coming out at some point.)
This concludes my interview with Sara J. Henry. Her debut novel Learning To Swim is due for release on February 22nd. It’s available for pre-order at Amazon in both eBook format as well as a Tree Book. So, whip out that debit card and pre-order a copy today. And while you’re at it, visit her website at Sara J. Henry.