Women on Top: Eleanor Henderson
On writing, parenthood, professor-hood, and punk rock. "I want them to know that they can create and not just consume."
To start out, I think anyone who knows the adorably put-together associate professor at Ithaca College—with multi-colored necklaces, a pair of doe-eyed children, and the ability to wrap her writing so concisely around the culture and prideful grunge of the 1980’s straight edge punk scene—stands in awe of her abilities to multi-task while remaining so, well, cool. Secretly we all want to be an Eleanor, and we all want to have written a book the New York Times calls “fierce, devoted and elegiac,” but alas, there can only be one. (Unless, of course, we band together to form a SantaCon-esque tribute and collectively wander the streets of New York dressed as a bajillion little Eleanors [*she says, only half-sarcasitcally*], though how we'd spontaneously obtain the children and the critically acclaimed novel I am as of yet unsure). With that idea (somewhat) out of-the-question, I went in another direction and found myself lucky enough to gain some access into Eleanor's headspace, in an attempt to crack her elusive literary code.
You’ve mentioned that with help from your husband and others you were able to reconstruct the body of New York City at the time, but what were some challenges and
joys you faced when attempting to crawl inside those characters’ heads?
Well, writing about people who are cooler than I am has always been preferable to writing about myself. I find that I’m drawn to writing about the worlds that people I love grew up in (in my first novel my husband’s New York hardcore scene of the 1980s, in my new novel my father’s South Georgia of the 1930s). So, the joy is in painting a world I’ve only seen through someone else’s eyes. The challenge is trying to do it justice. The characters themselves are all invented, luckily, so while the setting requires all kinds of research, there is no research required for creating characters, even those of a time and place other than my own. That just takes imagination and empathy.
What sort of headspace/ external environment do you find that you have to be in in order to produce your best writing? And how has the balancing act of work and family changed what that productivity might look like over the years?
I don’t have steady work habits, or at least ones that last longer than a semester or a season. I’ve learned to adapt to the demands of a busy life as a writer/professor/parent, which means I might wake up at 5 a.m. for several months to write before my household wakes up, and then give that up when the three-year-old decides he likes to wake up at 5 a.m., too. Generally, I write best when I’m out of the house: in a coffee shop where I have a few hours to sink into the work. Writing with students and kids isn’t easy, but they’ve taught me to value the precious hours I do have, and to make productive use of them.
I think the struggle everyone has whenever a film is adapted from a novel they are particularly fond of lies in the delicacy of preserving the story, but also in the understanding that certain changes must be made across different mediums. Has watching this adaptation process from start to finish ever turned you into a nervous wreck? And what sorts of things have you told yourself in order to focus on the bigger picture, perhaps rather than the smaller, shifting plot points?
I’ve always been fascinated by the novel-to-film process. I’ve taught classes on adaptation before, and had some time ago come to terms with the fact a film is not a novel: it is a different organism with a different life force. So, I wasn’t nervous during the process (although I hoped of course that the movie would be good). I put my trust in the director/screenwriters (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) and in the end I was so impressed with the artful way they’d compressed the story and had brought out my characters in the actors. An author generally has very little creative control over the movie version, so I tried to just enjoy the process as a spectator’s sport.
This is a selfish curiosity, but does there ever come a point when you stop self-editing your already published work? How do you find a sense of forward-movement when you are constantly revisiting one story, be it for your book tour, or again now for all the hype surrounding the film adaptation?
My high school English teacher told us, “It’s never done. It’s just due.”
I’ve taken this to heart. I could continue revising forever, but after a while, you start to do more harm than good. But honestly, I feel very alienated from my own work once it’s published; I don’t remember much about my writing process; the work feels like it’s written by someone else. That’s a weird feeling, but it helps in that I don’t have a hard time letting the baby bird out of the nest. And with the movie version of Ten Thousand Saints, I feel even less like the author and more like a spectator. And that can be fun and freeing.
Oftentimes when I write I am at once stricken by an immense, simultaneous excitement and doom at the prospect of whose eyes might fall upon my words, given that a huge part of being a writer is allowing yourself to be emotionally stripped down for all to see (including people you know). Does the fact that you are a mother play a heavy hand in your process and the emotional honesty of your work, or is it a consideration you take more as it comes?
I’m also driven by the twin forces you describe, the urge to tell a story, and the dread of reaching readers. Fiction affords me a mask, so I’m less worried about being emotionally raw (I didn’t have that weird feeling!—my character did!) than I am about writing bad sentences. I suppose that being a mother helps me access the feelings of my characters who are mothers (and there are a lot of them), and I do feel maternal toward my characters: I worry about them and want them to be okay, especially the teenage boys. But I don’t think having given birth is a requirement for writing empathetic fiction: again, all humans have the equipment.
Going off of that, I remember awhile back you posted the life event on Facebook of reading Harry Potter to your son for the first time—how do you believe your professional career has affected your sons’ personal connections with literature, and how do you hope that it might?
Yeah, we’re still stuck in the middle of the first book! Alas, my seven-year-old does not appear to be a natural Harry Potter fan, at least for the moment, and that’s fine. He is a fan of a lot of other things. He has told me that Ten Thousand Saints is his favorite book, although he’s not allowed to read it or see the movie until he’s 17. Actually, I did show him the last five minutes, including the scene he and his little brother were extras in. It’s an interesting question, how my professional life will shape my kids’ connection to literature. I think and hope above all that it will show them that they can create art themselves. They are already mighty consumers of stories and media; I want them to know that they can create and not just consume.
This question is rather a series:
1) Is Emile Hirsch as celestially dazzling and overtaking in person?
2) Have you gone forever blind at the sight of him?
3) Is he currently single?
4) Does he ever ask about me too?
These are all very important questions. I will say that Emile Hirsch is very charming and very talented, but beyond that, he is a mystery to me. The only significant amount of time I spent with him was at Sundance, earlier in the night that he got violently black-out drunk and ended up doing jail time for it. Last I heard, he’s gotten clean, and I wish him the very best staying that way.
For all those who would like further inspiration to create/ consume/ cry your eyes out in the fetal position while being careful so as not to wet the pages, check out Eleanor Henderson's nationally bestselling novel Ten Thousand Saints, and then, once you've prepared yourself to shift mediums and be impacted all over again, make sure you check out its film adaptation, Ten Thousand Saints (oh hey same name, whutta coincidence, eh?).
Feature image VIA eleanorhenderson.net