Write Something That Obsesses You, New Novelist Henderson Advises–2014
An exclusive AUTHORLINK interview with Smith Henderson
Columnist Anna Roins
Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson
Buy this Book
Smith Henderson’s critically acclaimed debut novel took ten years to write. It has been called, “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by the book editor of The Washington Post and, “a hell of a great book” by Esquire.
It’s set in rural Montana in 1979 about an agent of Child Protective Services, Pete Snow. Every day, he deals with children born to parents struggling with addiction or mental illness, yet cannot seem to look after his own daughter. When he meets a delusional, anti-government radical, Jeremiah Pearl, his life takes a complicated turn.
Fourth of July Creek is lyrical but often brutal in its honesty, and not for the faint- hearted.
|“You hope the book does well. The biggest part of that, of course, is writing your ass off.”
AUTHORLINK: Mr. Henderson, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us about your book, Fourth of July Creek. The story, characters, and a sense of place haunt the reader long after the last page is turned. It’s impressive.
Did you know from the beginning this book would be reaching this level of success? Was a measure of this to be expected given the time that went into it?
HENDERSON: You hope the book does well. The biggest part of that, of course, is writing your ass off. Put something risky on page and do your best. You may not succeed, but the only way your work will even have a chance is if you contend with something that obsesses you. Maybe this is apparent. But yes, the amount of time you put into a book probably correlates to its critical chances.
The thing is, we exist in a real, living world, and you never know what will happen. Your book could easily be eclipsed by events or a powerhouse writer’s latest tome. Mitchell and Murakami had books out this year—I’m grateful they didn’t come out the same week as mine.
Which leads to a very practical thought: if you’re going to write the best book you can write, you gotta get great people on board. My agent, Nicole Aragi, was just fantastic in shopping the book around. She and Lee Boudreaux, my editor, did not just edit, but got the book on a platform where it had a chance. Your publisher matters. Your editor matters. Your agent matters. But of course, the book matters most.
AUTHORLINK: Thanks for that. Now you’re adapting the novel into a TV series for El Jefe, a production company founded by the novelists Philipp Meyer, author of The Son and Brian McGreevy, who wrote Hemlock Grove (now a Netflix series).
Do you find the idea of converting the book into a TV show difficult, and if so, why? Can you think of any actors that would suit your characters?
HENDERSON: Well, I studied screenwriting and co-wrote a feature film (DANCE WITH THE ONE), so I’m not too intimidated by the writing part. A screenplay is above all a technical document, a blueprint for a film. Not to disparage the incredible amount of craft that goes into writing scripts. The challenge for a lot of writers is collaborating with others. I happen to like collaborating quite a bit. Moreover, I’ll be working with Brian and Philipp, who I both know from back in the day…and we share this belief that if our work should be made into film and television, we are best suited to do it.
It matters who you work with, I’m saying again. The writing life can often be really isolated, but not always.
As for actors…I think of performances almost more than specific actors. Performances that might inspire entirely different actors. Jack Nicholson in FIVE EASY PIECES was such an inspiration in creating Pete. Travis Bickle is about half of Pearl’s character, with another half something softer, but no less manic, like something out of Nick Nolte’s backlog. I like the idea of the entire production drawing the 1970s cinema’s Sunday-morning-hangover worldview.
|“I quickly realized that every character would put themselves at hazard in unflattering and very human ways.”
AUTHORLINK: That’s great, thanks. Do you feel troubled characters, like your main protagonist, Pete, are more interesting to read about? Can a less conflicted character be compelling, do you think?
HENDERSON: I don’t have an answer to that, philosophically. I mean, a book just sort of decides that itself. But in this case, I quickly realized that every character would put themselves at hazard in unflattering and very human ways. I realized at some point that my novel was an exercise in empathy—will you continue to care about these people even as they choose the dark over the light?
So I warn people that this book is grim, that all the characters make really bad mistakes. But they also do some pretty remarkable things. Less conflicted or contradictory characters can be compelling, but I was really interested in how far our empathy goes. I wanted to read a book like this—where the reader is always chafing against the urge to judge.
AUTHORLINK: That’s an interesting perspective. Even though it’s your first novel, it must hardly feel like a ‘debut’ given you spent so much time on it. How do you think you’ve evolved creatively as a writer in those ten years? Did you work on it every day/week on top of your other commitments, or was it a sporadic path?
HENDERSON: I wrote all kinds of other stuff. I finished a collection-sized number of short stories. The aforementioned film. But I think I was always working on the novel. Almost every short story was set in the world of the novel, or engaged with its themes. But the novel always got some of my week, and toward the end, it was all I worked on.
|“It’s always a risk to do something unconventional, but then, why are you writing at all? I’ll just say it: I’m an artist.”
AUTHORLINK: Quite often new writers are encouraged to ‘stick to the rules,’ unless you’re a well-established maestro who is ‘entitled’ to bend them. Was it challenging to use unconventional styles in your first book given the risk of criticism, even with your obvious, natural talent?
HENDERSON: Well, a lot of writers I admire are pretty sparse stylists, and many of them have advocated implicitly or sometimes explicitly for that kind of writing. And some readers just want a yarn—so if the prose does anything robust, it’s “calling attention to itself.” And when I read bad purple prose, I am sympathetic to the view that writing should serve the story and nothing else.
But I wrote a book that I’d want to read. I’m a fast reader and I like prose that makes me slow down. I like full, carefully observed interior and exterior worlds. I like sentences that work together or sometimes against each other or interact with the meaning of their constituent words in interesting and surprising ways. I like language.
It’s always a risk to do something unconventional, but then, why are you writing at all? I’ll just say it: I’m an artist. This is my work of art. And if you’re going to make art, you have to take the risk that someone might piss on your shoe.
AUTHORLINK: That’s true, isn’t it? You mentioned in a recent interview that your next book might be a historical novel. However, you were also inclined to write another book about Rachel, Pete’s daughter. What are you working on now?
HENDERSON: I always have a few irons in the fire. If I ever write about Rachel again it will be a completely different book. I have the sense that she has many years in front of her, that by the end of the book, she’s learned something important about survival and people and her freedom. I think she’s incredibly compelling, and her story isn’t complete. She’s a young, largely powerless child at the outset, and by the end of the book she’s quite shrewd. She’s a study in freedom. I find the limits and consequences of freedom to be incredibly interesting and frightening. I think I’ll always be interested in that, so I might write about her again.
The historical novel is set in Montana during the Civil War. There were some pretty interesting repercussions of that war in the mining camps. I have a few other things I’m working on. I have a whole novel plotted out that has an interesting story, but I’m not sure what it means yet. I may have to write a draft to figure that out.<
And then there’s TV. I’m currently at work adapting FOURTH OF JULY CREEK for television.
AUTHORLINK: Yes, congratulations. When were you first represented by a literary agent? Are they the same person that you have today? Do you have any advice about how to find the right agent?
HENDERSON: Nicole is still my agent. She is amazing, a great reader, very gifted and tenacious.
I was able to reach out to her after I won a PEN prize for a short story I wrote. I knew I wanted to query her because of her reputation. The prize gave me the opportunity to do so.
I was told to look in the acknowledgements of writers you admire to find an agent. I made a list and hit up a few people…but once I met Nicole, the search was over. I think the important thing is to look at it like you’re going through different gates or stages with your novel. There’s writing a draft for trusted friends and colleagues. There’s a draft for querying agents. There’s a draft for your editor. There’s a draft for galleys…it’s all a long process. This is a marathon. Getting an agent is just a step in the direction you’re headed.
AUTHORLINK: Can you share an example of something that has happened to you, where the best of humanity came through?
HENDERSON: Oh man, you see stuff all the time. I have such a dim view of humanity generally—we’re so vain and flawed and destructive—that it throws me to walk down the street and witness a kindness. A few weeks ago I saw some people gathered around an old man who’d fallen on the sidewalk and it about undid me. I mean it was relatively easy to help him sit up, to call a paramedic, but of course it was just incredibly important that someone do something at that moment. Distress really brings out the best in us.
|“It’s going to take longer than you thought. And even when you think you’re done, you’re not and you’ll need to keep going.”
AUTHORLINK: Too true. What advice would you give to your younger writer self?
HENDERSON: Hang in. It’s going to take longer than you thought. And even when you think you’re done, you’re not and you’ll need to keep going.
AUTHORLINK: Mr. Henderson, thank you so much for your time on this interview. We wish you the very best in everything.
|About the Author:||
Smith Henderson works in an advertising firm in Portland, Oregon, where he wrote a Super Bowl commercial, “Halftime in America,” (2012) which starred Clint Eastwood that was nominated for an Emmy. He was the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction. He was also a 2011 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University, a 2011 Pushcart Prize winner, and a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. Smith Henderson has struck a deal to adapt Fourth of July Creek for a TV series. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon. You can find out more about Smith Henderson on http://www.smith-henderson.com/ and https://twitter.com/smith_henderson
|About Anna Roins:||
Anna Roins was a Senior Lawyer with the Australian Government Solicitor before she embarked on a career in writing seven years ago. As a freelance journalist, she has contributed to articles on social and community issues and edited a number of books, websites and dissertations. She has continued her studies in creative literature with The University of Oxford (Continuing Education) and the Faber Academy, London. Anna is currently writing her first novel and is a regular contributor to AUTHORLINK assigned to conduct interviews with bestselling authors. You can find out more about Anna Roins on https://www.facebook.com/anna.roins and https://twitter.com/Sophiabluestar