The Fangirl Interviews Debut Author Sara J. Henry
Sara J. Henry has been a soil scientist, sports editor, magazine writer, newspaper editor, correspondence writing school instructor, freelance writer, magazine editor, book editor, bicycle mechanic, copyeditor, and webmaster – in roughly that order. She now lives on a dirt road in southern
Vermont with at least one too many dogs, and spends a few months each year in her home state of . Learning to Swim is her first novel, with a sequel to come. Her agent is the wonderful Barney Karpfinger. Tennessee
The Fangirl found Sara the best way a girl could find an author...through blogging. I was following Steph Bowe's blog and found Sara through there. I read about her debut novel and became even more intrigued as I learned about her journey through the publishing world and how she has helped other people along the way.
MV: For those who haven't heard of your novel LEARNING TO SWIM, can you tell them what it's about?
SH: I can't rattle this off as easily as I should, but it's about a woman who sees a small boy being thrown off a ferry and dives into a huge, cold lake to rescue him - and discovers he speaks only French and won’t tell her what happened to him. One reviewer describes the main character, Troy, as “an athletic, fiercely independent young woman who, like crime-fiction author Gillian Flynn’s feisty females, is capable of making delightfully acerbic observations.” – a description I love. Author Michael Robotham called her “an everywoman hero who women will admire and men will want to meet.” Not bad, either.
MV: How did you get the inspiration for this novel? Did you ever deal with pitfalls or writer's block and how did you overcome that?
SH: I was driving near Lake Champlain, an enormous lake that separates Vermont and New York. At one point it's more than a dozen miles wide, with two ferries that run simultaneously, in opposite directions, and I envisioned a woman standing on one ferry and seeing a child fall from the other, and diving in to rescue him. Then I had to write an entire book around that one scene.
The pitfall was that the original middle of my book was really bad - a virtual dumping ground. Because I had no idea how to rewrite, the novel lived in a drawer (actually a computer file) for a very long time. I’d occasionally take it out and gaze at it, then put it away again. I had trouble imagining the characters doing anything than what they were doing. Finally I orchestrated a five-week house swap to Sydney, Australia, and conveniently broke my foot just before I went, so I had five weeks of limited mobility in a country where I knew almost no one – a perfect scenario for learning to rewrite.
MV: What was the querying process like for you? How did you deal with the querying and submissions to editors process?
SH: This part, unlike the painful process of learning to rewrite, was easy. The first agent I queried made suggestions I thought would erase what made this book work, which made me feel just contrary enough to query the top agents I could find. Then requests started rolling in, and offers came fast. I met with he-would-would-become-my-agent, who was perfect for me, and made my decision.
My agent, Barney Karpfinger, sent out the manuscript to editors and kept me abreast of comments and who was interested and who wasn’t. Then I talked with editors, made my (agonizingly difficult) decision, and bob’s your uncle – a book deal was born.
MV: You're pretty prominent on a lot of the social media sites (Blogger, Twitter, etc), do you think that has helped you as an author?
SH: Absolutely. Tweeting and blogging are an outlet for odd bits and pieces of writing in my head – and for my quirky sense of humor – that otherwise would just clutter up my brain. And it’s a social outlet: it’s hanging out at the water cooler at work. I've met some cool people and gained some staunch supporters this way. It’s also a fun, fast way to keep up with friends.
MV: You've been a mentor for young authors (like Steph Bowe); how do you go about approaching young authors or help them on their publishing journey?
SH: Of the three teenagers I’ve worked with, two I met through their blogs, and the third was referred to me by an agent friend. When I stumbled across Steph’s blog, it was obvious she was immensely talented, with a natural, distinct voice. When she asked for beta readers for a novel I volunteered. I got chills as I read it – with that lovely feeling I imagine agents get when they discover a real talent.
With Steph it was basically read manuscript, make suggestions, introduce to agents, exchange a mad number of emails during the agent selection process wherein I try not to tell her what to do. All via email with about a 14-hour time difference between us and me wondering if – at age 15 – she was ready for this. I also entered her into a Secret Agent contest I’d mentioned – she was away from internet access at the time, the sign-up time was 2 am in Australia, and I figured she could withdraw if she wanted to, but she ended up signing with that agent. Her first novel’s out now, and once in a while she'll ask a question about publishing or I'll take a look at a new manuscript. But she is astoundingly mature and businesslike, far more than many adult writers I know. With the other two, I read their work and make comments (although one, Weronika Janczuk, has recently become a literary agent and made her first two sales – at age 18). Yeah, these kids are amazing. Here’s the blub Steph gave me:
“If The Usual Suspects and a Jodi Picoult novel had a lovechild, it would be Learning To Swim - a thought-provoking, evocative, and thrilling read.”
MV: Why the middle initial instead of just being Sara Henry?
SH: My dad took me to open a bank account when I was six, and we put the name Sara J. Henry on the account. And with the exception of two years when I was a sports editor and experimented with being just Sara Henry - I've been Sara J. Henry ever since. It also helps differentiate me from other writing Sarah Henrys. And Sarah Henry in Calgary who makes cakes. Beautiful, amazing cakes.
MV: Do you have a playlist for LEARNING TO SWIM?
SH: What's a playlist? (I'm abysmally musically ignorant - it's on my list of things to work on.)
MV: If LEARNING TO SWIM was to be made into a movie, who would you cast in the lead roles?
SH: I like readers to be able to envision Troy as they want - and honestly, I could see a number of actresses portraying her perfectly, because it's a matter of spirit more than a specific appearance. But when I wrote Philippe, I envisioned Christian Bale as he played the father in the sci-fi movie Equilibrium. Jameson I could see played by actors as diverse as Mark Ruffalo or Robson Green from Touching Evil – it’s a role that would need someone who could play understated. Paul, of course, could be any slight, charming dark-haired six-year-old boy who speaks French.
MV: Favorite book, movie, and TV show?
Favorite book - that's impossible to answer, but I've always loved Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey.
Favorite movie - might be About a Boy.
TV show - the only one I regularly watch is Survivor, which I both love and hate, and fantasize about being on. I think I’d either be one of the first off or last off.
MV: Words to live by?
SH: Carpe diem - seize the day.