INTERVIEW: AMY HENRY

 

Q: So, you’ve written a World War II thriller called The Sticking Place, and another novel titled How Did We Get Here? which you describe as funny, heartbreaking, and a “wee bit macabre.” Can you give us an insight into one or two of your main characters?

A: They are two very different stories, so I’ll start with How Did We Get Here?, which I’m querying at the moment. It’s an upmarket contemporary novel about an outwardly successful Washington couple, Ren and Melinda, with a long string of secrets, lies, and just plain bad choices that threatens to destroy both their marriage and Ren’s political career.

I’ll focus on Ren here. He’s a U.S. senator dedicated to saving the environment. He’s also a former corporate lawyer who has defended drug companies and polluters. His fierce love for nature is genuine—dating from childhood days spent in the woods to escape his parents’ fighting—but after his father died when Ren was nine, he became the object of his mother’s insatiable ambition. It was she who insisted he forget this environmental “nonsense” and go to Harvard Law School. His attempts to break free from her demands and be his own person are sporadic and largely unsuccessful, in part because of his own weaknesses—he finds it hard to walk away from wealth, status, and the perks they command. He longs to be respected/accepted by the kind of people who rejected him at prep school. Despite his love for Melinda and his good intentions to save the planet, these weaknesses result in some serious acts of betrayal involving his wife, his stepdaughter, and ultimately, his dreams.

In The Sticking Place, Catherine, a young American woman, goes to England’s Bletchley Park as a codebreaker in 1944. Eager to escape the shadow of her famous father and make her own mark, she’s bright, decisive, bold. She also has major trust issues since her mother’s suicide during Catherine’s adolescence. When the Chief of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) taps her to act as a back channel on intel about the Nazi’s new secret weapons, her ambition soon propels her far beyond the initial boundaries of the assignment, into a place where deciding whom to trust becomes an inescapable issue on which her life, and possibly the lives of millions, depends.    

Click here for the book teasers. 

Q: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?

A: Lots actually, too many to list, and I don’t really break them down to parts or chapters. More like moments—the flicker of time when a character decides to take the risk and makes the leap into danger or love or some other situation where the stakes are high and the outcome frighteningly uncertain. I also love crafting the quiet, reflective moments when a character realizes some essential truth of their situation. Like when Melinda, on her way to meet Ren for their wedding at City Hall, suddenly feels the urge to delay the event:

 If she were alone, she’d ask the driver to circle the block, maybe the entire isle of Manhattan, but there aren’t really blocks here—they’re well below the grid—and how could she explain her need for another ten minutes, another hour, one more day … Ren’s a good man. He’s already started adoption proceedings for Tanya. How many men would take that responsibility? It’s just that she thought there’d be more time in life. More life in that time.

Melinda doesn’t know the terrible consequences this relationship will have, but the doubts she has struggled to suppress surface here. Bittersweet.

Let’s talk about the challenges and the research involved.

Q: In your bio, you mentioned traveling for research on The Sticking Place—to Bletchley Park, Churchill’s famous bunker (the Cabinet War Rooms), and the American Bar at the Savoy Hotel. Can you share more about the research and challenges involved in bringing your novels to life?

Bletchley Park: Alan Turing’s machine that broke the Enigma code and launched the computer age.]

A: Well, I know more about Spitfires and Nazi work camps and the Double Cross Committee than I ever imagined possible. Five big binders of notes and two shelves of books. The challenge in research is absorbing the places, the people, the attitudes, the level of technology, and then relegating it all to background color. It should permeate but not dominate because a story is always about people and what happens to them. If you show your research hand too clearly, it gets clunky. Also, with a historical novel, it’s important to keep in mind that though we know how everything came out, our characters don’t. Like our own lives in the present, they’re looking at the threats, the possibilities, and flying by the seat of their pants.       

A lot of research was also involved in How Did We Get Here?, which may surprise some people since it’s a contemporary novel. I had to research corporate law cases, Child Protective Services, House and Senate procedures, the Harvard Law Review, morgue procedures, and the state of decay in bodies left in water over a long time (hence, the “wee bit macabre” you mentioned up top). And that’s the short list.  

Q: Did you learn anything from writing your books and what was it?

A: What I’ve always known: Writing is my life. Also, what I hadn’t realized: that revision is not a slog, as it was made to feel in school where revising mostly meant copying something over in your neatest handwriting. Revision is a puzzle, a series of problems to be brainstormed. I actually enjoy revising in the way I enjoy all puzzles.

Answering your question in a different way, sometimes I see something in a light I’ve never quite seen it before. For example, the first time I looked at the 1940 map of Europe (while researching The Sticking Place) and visually registered how vast the German-occupied territory was, with just this one tiny patch—Great Britain—alone to fend off fascism, I wept. I was sitting in my local library and I mean I cried. It is impossible to overstate how much we owe to the British people of that era. And though Churchill and I would argue every inch of his Tory imperialist foreign policy, when it came to saving Britain, and thus the world, in my view hewas the man of the hour. He was the first in government to call out Hitler for exactly who he was, and he inspired a country to fight on. His domestic wartime policies also paved the way for the UK’s National Health. That’s why the British people voted him out after the war—they wanted to send the Tory party a clear message: No reneging on our healthcare.  And then they voted him back in later because they really did love him. He was a wonderfully complicated hero, both great and flawed.

Q: How much of your books are based on real life and on pure imagination?

A: In the sense that the stories take place in the past or the present, and don’t involve fantasy or paranormal elements, my books are based on real life.  The Sticking Place hews closely to real life because the story is set within the timeline/events of World War II, deals with actual threats to the Allies, and uses real people, like Stewart Menzies, Chief of SIS (MI6), in minor roles. The three main characters, however, travel an arc that is purely fictional.

How Did We Get Here? contains a smattering of cultural markers—9/11, for instance—and references to real life politics (e.g., Greenpeace actions), but the story is wholly from my imagination. To me, “write what you know” means using your understanding of people and how the world works to create a story that hopefully says something enduring.  

Q: Is there a message in either of your novels that you want readers to grasp?

A: “Message” feels like a heavy word to me. I see my writing as, hopefully, prompting people to stop and reflect—Who are we? How are we? Where have we been, and where are we headed? I was inspired to write The Sticking Place because WWII is this amazing moment in history when the do-or-die stakes prompted many ordinary people to act with extraordinary courage.

For How Did We Get Here?, I had jotted down several paragraphs—what became the opening scene, when everything is about to collapse around Ren and Melinda’s heads—and thought, Okay, I’ve set them up. Now, how did they get into this mess? That’s the story. I’ve always loved Kierkegaard’s contention that life can only be understood backwards, but must be lived forwards. We see what Ren and Melinda can’t—the steady accretion of secrets, lies, and just plain bad choices that will take them so far from the people they had meant to be, no matter how many times they “start over.” It’s a very modern notion that we can simply re-invent ourselves whenever we choose, but I think that’s a myth. The past is always a piece of the present, and the more we delude ourselves that we are beyond its reach, the greater hold it will have over us.

Q: Are you working on another book right now? What is it about?

Not at the moment. Right now, I’m querying and traveling and enjoying the summer. But I do plan to do some writing during my stay in Florence. I love imagining taking out my laptop in the Piazza della Signoria, and losing myself in a new story. Whether that will be a short story or the beginning of another novel, I don’t yet know though I’m leaning toward the former, a story tentatively titled “Flotsam.” Right now, it’s bits of ideas jotted on a half dozen post-its. All I can tell you is that it has two characters and takes place in Cambodia.  

Q: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

A: Honestly, I’ve always been writing. I wrote my first poem—a little doggerel bit about robins in spring—when I was four, and penned my first short story “How the Zebra Got His Stripes” in first grade. I definitely attribute my love of writing to my early love of stories. I was an only child until age 5, and my mother read to me for hours on end and took me to the library. I started asking her how you spelled this or that word, and she dutifully wrote them out for me on a chalkboard in our kitchen. By the time I got to school, I had a good grasp of reading and writing. When I finished my class work early, my second grade teacher just let me read books of my own choosing. I remember reading Little Women that year. The fifth grade teacher across the hall brought in a Webster’s Dictionary for me to look up unfamiliar words. She made a little celebration out of it, carrying the book in on a tufted pillow. It was the greatest year in all my education.

I can’t stress this enough: Read to your child. Read to your child. It will have a profound and positive impact on their life forever.

Q: How would you describe your work style?

A: I tend to be a very focused person. If I’m doing something, I’m doing that thing 100 percent. I usually write for the three hours or so between breakfast and lunch—my energy is peak at this time—and sometimes another hour or so in the late afternoon if I can steal the time from other commitments/responsibilities. I love music, but don’t listen to it while writing. I need to hear what my characters are saying, thinking, feeling. On the days where their voices feel muted, I take advantage of that time to map out the bones of the next scenes.

Q: What techniques and tools do you use to keep yourself organized?

A:  Actual notebooks divided by topic, e.g., WWII planes, German camps, codebreaking.  And virtual files on my laptop. I have 16 for How Did We Get Here?  Half of those came into being when I started querying: Possible agents, query letters (copies of the exact text I sent to each agent), submissions list, 10-page sample, Parts One and Two sample, 50-page sample, and so on. That’s it. I just want to know where a particular bit of info is when I need it.   

Q: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?

A: Yes, the 300 pages after the first ten and before the last ten. It’s a big swathe of invention.  Seriously, though, challenge is a neutral term. If you love what a challenge involves, then it’s not a negative, but an absorbing task to be tackled and, hopefully, mastered.  

Q:  What is the easiest thing about writing?

A: Coming up with ideas. I have years of ideas for novels. That’s the easiest part. That, and typing the words The End. Is there ever a better moment for a writer?

Q: Do you write an outline before every book you write?

A: I’m both a plotter and a pantser. I don’t write an outline, but I always know how a book will end when I begin it. I can see the final chapter.  Then I string 6-7 plot points along an arc, and “pants” from there, allowing the characters to tell me how they will get to each place. It’s one of the things I like best about writing—that discovery of where the characters are taking me and why. 

Q: Are the names of the characters in your novels important?

A: I spend some time choosing each character’s name—trawling lists on the internet—but they don’t have symbolic significance. I go more by the picture I have in my head of a character—trying to match a first and last name to fit that. I know it when I see it. For Ren, I wanted a name that suggested old money, prep school, but also someone who doesn’t find it easy to fit in, a member of the debate team rather than the football squad. “Renfield” is just perfect.

Q: Are there any occupational hazards to being a novelist?

A: You mean, aside from the fact that even if you are ever lucky enough to get a decent advance, it will probably average out to $6,000 a year for the time you put into writing the book, querying the book, waiting for the book to be published, and paying out the advance from royalties if you should get any?

We are a world that values hedge fund managers, not authors, not artists, not musicians. But every creative person knows this truth: If you are really a writer, a painter, a musician, you must  pursue your work. It’s not just what you do. It’s who you are.

Q: Writing about sex – easy or difficult?

A: Well, sex is absolutely an essential part of life, and the having it or not having it and with whom is a piece of every character. That said, I’m a fan of the less-is-more school when it comes to writing sex scenes. If you yammer on about each thrust and detail every orgasm, I think you wind up sounding like a sex manual, and I don’t find that particularly sexy. I also don’t go for descriptions like “quivering quim” and “throbbing member” (both terms I have come across and which scream “cheesy romance” to me).  I prefer something that leaves the reader a tad tantalized and fully immersed in the feelings of the character(s). 

Q: How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

A: LOL, how much impact does your childhood have on your life? It’s everywhere, but not intentionally. I never write characters who are thinly-veiled doppelgängers of people I know. Sometimes, afterward, I recognize the ways in which “difficult” people or situations of my past are reflected in various characters and scenes, but nothing overtly. Only I would know, and my lips are sealed.   

Q: What are your ambitions for your writing career?

A: To just keep writing novels and short stories until they carry me out, and to pursue their publication. I find that easier with short stories, perhaps because literary mags look only at the quality of the writing, not at whether they think it will sell a million copies. Every short story I’ve sent out has found a home within the first four lit mags I’ve submitted to. I take courage from that.

Q: Was there a person in your career who has impacted you the most or who has really made a difference? 

A: See next question.

Q: Which writers inspire you or are your favorites, and what really strikes you about their work?

A: I tend to be inspired by particular works rather than a writer’s oeuvre. David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a genius work, full of invention. I love the way he plays with time, with characters, in shaping a book that has something profound to say about who we are, the direction we’re headed, and our possibilities for redemption. I loved Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists. It’s like a contemporary Winesburg, Ohio, a related string of short stories that adds up to much more than its parts. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby—has anyone every accomplished so much with such economy? He nails the American character—our dreams, our brutalities, our yearning to re-invent ourselves—perfectly. That green light at the end of Daisy’s dock; it’s everything Gatsby has been denied, everything he dreams of achieving. I love Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Also, Ronan Barrett’s The Catastrophist and Martha Cooley’s The Archivist for the complex moral questions they raise about silence and complicity. Shakespeare, of course, was pure genius. He understood people and he understood story. I’ll stop here because I don’t want your readers to doze off completely.

Q: Why do you think what you do matters?

A: I think literature matters. I think books matter. The best ones mirror us, reflect “the human condition” as one of my lit profs said. We need that reflection. Without it, we’re a collection of errant pinballs, mindlessly pinging from pillar to post until game over.

Q: What are the most important attributes to remaining sane as a writer?

A: Believe in yourself. In your work. Don’t shy away from the conviction that you have talent. How many people spend years working on a particular project? Yes, it’s great to get an agent, to get a publisher, BUT many, many gifted people—singers, writers, painters, dancers—spend their lives in relative obscurity. Take the recognition where you get it—I’ve had my short stories published in literary journals and been compared to writer George Saunders by an editor. But publishing is in the hands of marketing people these days, and that is simply a fact we all live with. I don’t let it stop me from 1) writing, or 2) querying agents. 

Q: Do you admire your own work?

A: This question startled me on first reading.  I had to sit with it—which is okay. I think rather than “admire” which sounds like some vain peacock, I trust my work. I believe in my work. I am not David Mitchell (yet), and I am certainly not Shakespeare—no one is IMO—but I am quite good.  And I’ve earned that evaluation. I’ve written seven novels. The first five I queried to just one agent each. I received some encouraging feedback, and two requests for re-submits, but I really wanted to write more than I wanted to query at that stage. That will probably strike many writers as an odd, possibly foolish choice, but I own it and accept the outcome.

Q: Have you ever hated something you wrote?

A: Not hated, but I started two novels that I chucked after the first hundred pages when I realized their premises had no genuine legs. It’s important to be honest with yourself as a writer. To admit when it’s just not working. To keep on when you know it’s really good. 

Q: Finally, and on an entirely unrelated note, who would play you in a film of your life?

A: OMG, that question’s from left field. Okay. Gender benders here. The character of Matt Damon, as he was in The Martian. That tenacity to keep going, to keep solving problems, to bounce back from adversity, to never give up. That character would be me. I’m a hard-headed cookie. That’s not exactly the question you asked, but it’s the only answer I have.

Q: Besides writing, what are your interests or how do you relax?

A: Many things interest me. Sadly, never enough time to do them all. I love music—listening to it, playing it (I play an exceedingly bad guitar). My husband Ed teases me that I know all the lyrics to every song written since 1960, and it’s almost true. I’m a big history buff. I love art in all its forms. I love to play with photography and decoupage. I like to sit on my deck and stare at the stars.

Obviously I’m a passionate reader. Ed and I bought a wonderful old house (built 1895) only to realize it had very big archways between rooms and very little wall space for bookshelves. So, we keep a large portion of our TBR pile in the walk-up attic which is an entire third floor. The poster in our kitchen? Wear the old coat. Buy the new book. We never pass by a bookstore.

Q: What is your greatest fear?

A: Dying. I simply can’t imagine not being here.  Yes, there are moments that suck, but living is love and joy and energy. I have a fridge magnet that says: “The Secret to Eternal Life: Don’t Quit Breathing.”  

Q: Your proudest achievement?

A:  Having survived a “challenging” family, and emerged not too banged up from the ordeal. In college, I kind of came to terms with it. I had a little “mantra” that occurred to me while sitting in a class on Faulkner and Hemingway—the long and the short of it when it comes to writers—“I didn’t get some things but I got others.” That has been an amazingly calming perspective, as well as the truth.

Q: What are your lifelong dreams?

A: To do what I’m doing: writing. It’s lovely when your work appears in print—writers certainly write to be read—and I’ve been happy when my stories have been published, but I notice I am always looking forward. The most exciting moment is when I get the e-mail: Yes, we want to publish your story in our (whichever) issue. That feels good. That feels great. But already, I am consumed with what I’m currently writing or “the next thing.” That’s the high for me.  

Q: If your friends or family members were asked to pick three character traits that describe you, what would they say?

A:  Energetic. Funny. (And, hopefully) Kind.

Q: What are three positive character traits you don’t have?

A: 1) Patience with time. I’m always determined to tackle everything now, and need to remind myself there’s a reason for tomorrow. 2) Related to #1: Patience with the future. I tend to worry about stuff that hasn’t yet happened and may not happen; it’s my way of getting out in front of a situation and trying to foresee/prevent all possible problems, but it’s not a good thing stress-wise. As Thomas Jefferson said: “How much pain the evils have cost us that have never happened.” 3) I also must confess to a serious weakness for Cheez-Its and anything with caramel.           

Q: What is your biggest regret and why?

A: I don’t really believe in regrets. Is a marriage that ultimately didn’t work out a mistake or a part of your life that you’ve moved on from? Is an attempt that didn’t succeed on the first try—a novel, a run for office, a start-up business—a failure or a learning opportunity that actually made you stronger, smarter? I don’t spend much time on the past. I respect what I call “the long arm of the past”—its role in the present, and I remember most of my past fondly, but I don’t dwell on it or in it.   

Q: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?

A: London. I would always be in London. It’s the home of my heart. I visit it every year. Dr. Johnson nailed it for me: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” I am never tired of life. 

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?

A: I wouldn’t give any advice to the girl who was me all those years ago. Rather, I would have her come into the now and knock me upside the head when I get too stressed out about self-imposed deadlines or second-guess myself. Life is process, not an endgame. All we ever have is this moment. I know that, but I plead guilty to forgetting it more often than I like.

Q: Do you laugh at your own jokes?

A: Hmm. Probably. I certainly laugh at my own stumbles and screw-ups. As Jane Austen famously wrote: “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” Well, you might as well laugh at yourself and get double the chuckles.

Q: What makes you cry?

A: Cruelty. There seems to be a seismic amount of it out there these days. That and the thought that the bottomless greed of fossil fuel billionaires and other money-grubbing tycoons might truly end life on this planet. Actually, that makes me angry. But I take great hope in the huge number of people who are out in the streets, clamoring for a cleaner, healthier, more just world. I’ve always been an activist. Always believed that if we don’t like what’s going down, we must try to stop it/change it/make it better. 

Q: What makes you laugh?

A: Many, many things. I have an enormous sense of the whimsical and the absurd, and life supplies both on a steady basis.

Q: What’s the loveliest thing you have ever seen?

A: The faces of my children when they looked at me with trust—that I would always be there for them, that whatever doubts and disappointments the world might bring, there was no doubt about my love for them. It was, and is, a forever thing.

I also want to say that the best decision I ever made is my husband Ed. He’s kind and funny and amazingly supportive of everything I do. He also totally gets me—how many people in life can you say that about?   

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: Keep going. If you yearned to dance the ballet, you would take years of classes. If you wanted to be an electrician, you’d serve a lengthy apprenticeship. But for writers, our training is in the books we read. Our apprenticeship, in the essays, short stories, and novels we write (and rewrite). Critique groups are great—I’ve been in a number of them. Conferences provide wonderful opportunities to be with others who share your goals and struggles. But, in the end, it’s you and your words. To riff on the old Peace Corps ad: Writing is the toughest job you’ll ever love. It’s a good day when you get a request for your full manuscript. It’s something to celebrate when you sign with an agent or an editor. But don’t forget that, like all the great artists who drew thousands of figures before painting a masterpiece, nothing you write is ever a waste. You are always in the process of becoming.

Did I forget to say I’m a serious Yankees fan?

BIO

0529 Amy in Regent's Park Close up crop

Amy Henry is a writer of fiction long and short. While writing How Did We Get Here? and revising The Sticking Place, she published short stories in The Barcelona Review, The Alembic and, most recently, The Carolina Quarterly. Links to these stories are listed here:

The Carolina Quarterly “Half-Blind Dog”

The Barcelona Review “Consumer Planet (Caveat Emptor)”

The Alembic  “The Last Reel” (Scroll down to page 72)

Before having the lucky opportunity to write fiction full time, she penned numerous articles and essays for magazines, newspapers, and e-pubs, from which she earned something resembling a living. Amy resides in Massachusetts with her übersupportive husband and two wayward cats.

Favorite quotes:

“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” (Gustave Flaubert)

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” (Winston Churchill)

You can find her blogging about the human condition on her website:

AmyHenryBooks.com/blog

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