Author Talk: Eleanor Henderson and Brendan Mathews

Editor on September 10, 2017


Eleanor Henderson and Brendan Mathews met in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Virginia. Eleanor's second novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight, is a September 2017 selection for Amazon's Best Books of the Month, while her first, Ten Thousand Saints, was a New York Times bestseller adapted into a movie starring Ethan Hawke. Also in September, Brendan will publish his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. Both novels are set in Depression-era America: Eleanor’s in Georgia in the early 1930s, Brendan’s in New York City in 1939.

Brendan: Your first novel Ten Thousand Saints conjured up the '80s hardcore scene in New York and Vermont and was jam-packed with vivid characters who had lived in your head for years as you worked on the book. How did you quiet their voices and begin to hear the characters who inhabit The Twelve-Mile Straight? Was that a difficult process, or were you eager to find a new location and new characters?

Eleanor: Both! It was difficult, and I was eager to move on. I’d worked on my first book for close to ten years, and I was ready to kick it out of the nest and live in a very different world for a while. For me, the appeal of fiction is that it enables us as writers and readers to live more than one life, so I didn’t have much desire to write Twelve Thousand Saints (although I can’t seem to get away from having a number in my titles). I really admire writers—like Jennifer Egan and Colson Whitehead—who produce very different kinds of books.

That said, I’m slow (I think you feel me here), and even though I started my second book before my first was published, and came to the setting and characters fairly early, I didn’t land on the voice or point of view for years after those first efforts. My mentor from college, Robert Cohen, used to say that when he was working on a novel he felt as though he was living in a house populated with all of his friends, and when the novel was over and he began something new, he was lonely, because the house was empty and he had to fill it. I don’t think I mind the lonely part, but right now as I’m thinking about starting a third novel, I feel as though I’m still house-shopping. I can’t find one that feels just right. Like—a cape? A craftsman? Maybe sci fi?

What about you? Anything you want to do differently as you embark on this whole process again? You also took a bunch of years with your first book, The World of Tomorrow, which has this great structure, with all of the central action compressed into the week before the World’s Fair in New York in 1939. I remember asking you how it was going maybe a couple of years ago, and you said, “Well, I’m still on Thursday.”

Brendan: I’d like to do a lot of things differently on the next novel—starting with NOT taking seven-plus years to write it (slow writers of the world, unite!). There are the obvious setting and character differences—the next book won’t be set in New York City in the 1930s—but I’ve been thinking a lot about a different process for writing Novel #2 while also trying to figure out what lessons I can apply. There’s that old line about how the only thing you learn from writing a novel is how to write THAT novel, and that feels both terrifying and liberating. I have to stumble around and find an entirely new way, but on the flip side, I can also do whatever I want.

The one-week structure of The World of Tomorrow was really born out of necessity. For the first few years, I wrote a lot of random scenes with an ever-growing cast of characters, but I didn’t know how to fit them all together. I thought that the novel would unfold over four or five months but at some point it hit me that it should all occur during the week preceding the wedding of one character, on the same day that the King and Queen of England visit the World’s Fair. That decision gave the book a “clock” ticking inexorably toward zero, but it also gave me a way to organize the scenes and find the gaps. I was never able to make a workable outline for the novel, but at some point I saw an online gallery of famous writers’ handwritten outlines, and I drew up a calendar for the week and starting filling it in for each major character. That allowed me to see if nothing was happening on Tuesday or too much on Wednesday (and yes, I was stuck on Thursday for a long, long time). But having done that once, I can’t do it again. Unless it becomes my trademark move: a whole series of books, all set during a single week…

But I want to get back to the genesis of The Twelve-Mile Straight. What drew you to rural, Prohibition-era Georgia? Whose stories came to you first, and which came to life later in writing?

Eleanor: I love that gallery of writers’ outlines! I share it with my students when we talk about process. I think there’s something very inspiring for them in knowing that J.K. Rowling planned Harry Potter on a sheet of loose-leaf paper with a ball-point pen.

I do like to be able to see my whole novel on a single sheet of paper, but I also came to that map pretty late in the process. For a while I just stumbled around in notebooks, trying to get to know the place and the characters. I knew for a long time that I wanted to write a historical novel set in South Georgia—my father was born there in 1932; my grandparents were sharecroppers—but I couldn’t find the story. Then one day while I was pregnant with my first son, I was watching a documentary on fetal development and discovered that a single egg can be fertilized by the sperm of two different fathers--it’s called heteropaternal superfecundization. So, essentially, all of those storylines I’d been watching on Days of Our Lives, when twins are discovered to have two different daddies, were possible! I was amazed. I started to think about what it might be like to share a childhood, even a womb, with someone who is supposed to be and look more like you than anyone else in the world, and yet that person is only a half-sibling. So I decided after a lot of research and after burning through a lot of notebooks to set that story in Jim Crow Georgia, a place that might be very intolerant of those differences.

The mother of those twins, Elma, came first, and her twins, Wilson and Winna, shortly after. For a while, I thought the novel would be their story, the story of their growing up, their love and their struggles. But I found that I was more and more drawn to their parents’ past, and to figuring out how the twins came to be in the first place.

So, the main action of The Twelve-Mile Straight takes place at the beginning of the 1930s; The World of Tomorrow takes place at the end. How did you get interested in that decade?

Brendan: The book started with a character loosely based on my grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland in 1929. Peter B. Mathews—Papa to his grandchildren—arrived in New York a month before the Crash that kicked off the Depression. He was twenty years old and dreamed of being an arranger in a jazz band. He played for a while in speakeasies and clubs but eventually went to work in a department store. After the war, he moved upstate and opened a carpet store. I’m sure there’s a novel in there—just not the one I wanted to write.

So instead of a novel about quality floor coverings, I stuck with the music world. And in the 1930s, that meant big band jazz. When I started the book, I didn’t really like big band music. My jazz tastes were, and mostly still are, focused squarely on the hard bop years of the 1950s. But diligent researcher that I am, I dove into the big band scene and found it fascinating. Ten Thousand Saints was full of music, and what gave the book life was the culture around the music—the politics, the personalities, the arguments, compromises, and sacrifices made by the musicians, fans, and others. The big band world was the same way: fans battled in the pages of Downbeat magazine about who the best drummer was, which bands could really swing, and whether or not bands should be racially integrated (throughout the country, most bands were segregated, most dancehalls were segregated, and even many jukeboxes were whites-only).

There was so much to explore, and pretty quickly I settled on 1939 in order to help myself focus, and not incidentally, because 1939 is one of those years where you can say, without exaggeration, that the world would never be the same. The novel is set in June and the Second World War started on September 1. The world that emerges from World War II—a world of atomic bombs, global struggles for independence and decolonization, the post-war economic  boom in the United States, and so much more—is different in almost every way from the world that went into the war. But before all of that, 1939 also gave us the New York World’s Fair, the occupation of Prague, The Wizard of Oz, and the deaths of W.B. Yeats, Lou Gehrig, and Chick Webb, the King of Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom.

It’s easy to get caught up in the research, and I probably could have spent another few years poring over back issues of The New Yorker, listening to Count Basie, and buying home movies from the World’s Fair on eBay. But I was writing a novel, not a history book, and all of this research only mattered if it helped to fuel the characters and make them more vivid. I often thought about a reading that Michael Chabon gave while you and I were in grad school at UVA. He read a long section of a chapter that he’d cut from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, a chapter all about hats, and how you could tell a lot about a man from his hat. Never have hats from the 1930s been so lavishly imagined, but Chabon realized that he was taking his eye off the narrative. The hats were great, but they worked against the story. I often had to ask myself, is this particular detail one of Chabon’s hats, or is it really necessary?

Eleanor: I remember that reading so well, not least because after it I got to sit next to Chabon and set up his fans’ books for signing while he chatted with them for two hours. Best two hours of grad school—and I had a great time in grad school! I feel really lucky that I was working on an early draft of Ten Thousand Saints while I was there, with readers like you who would call me out on my laziness. I believe it was you who introduced me very helpfully to the word “verisimilitude,” after I turned in a chapter that fell short of capturing the grittiness of 1988 Alphabet City. Maybe because of those flat early efforts, my instincts as they’ve developed have been more-is-more.

Kavalier & Clay was such an important book to me, and I think anyone who reads The World of Tomorrow will see echoes of that Golden Age of New York in it, too. I think both of our first novels were seeking to evoke a period in New York’s history by looking at the way life was lived in a particular neighborhood, at a particular moment, by particular people—many of those people being well-meaning young men trying to make music and getting caught up in trouble. But it’s tricky, because what’s so appealing to me in a book like Kavalier & Clay IS the nearly-egregious level of detail, the breathless, kitchen-sink energy of capturing every frame. I definitely went overboard in early drafts of my Ten Thousand Saints, and my agent and editor asked me to cut over a hundred pages total. One chapter that had to go (“Does it have to go?” I begged them; “Yes,” they said) was a scene in which the militantly vegan teenage boys kidnap a sheep and hold it for ransom. I did so much research for that chapter! It was painful to cut it. But in the end it was just for my own kicks. I think John Casey, in our final workshop at UVA, called the chapter, forgivingly, a “caper.” I took solace, though, in imagining it as a kind of B-side, like Chabon’s hat chapter. Maybe it would—will—see the light of day on some other stage.

Did your editor urge you to cut anything from The World of Tomorrow?

Brendan: I can only imagine the miseries you suffered having your novel-in-progress workshopped during grad school. I hereby apologize for any role I played in adding to that misery. I’m sure I was less than helpful when I penned “verisimilitude” on your chapter draft. I probably deserved a kick in the ass and a “how’s that for verisimilitude” from one of the Doc Marten’s-wearing characters in that book.

I kept my early drafts close to my chest before I ever showed them to anyone: first my wife (as tough a reader as any) and eventually my editor, Ben George. Ben gave me a lot of latitude, but there were two rounds where he insisted on cuts, and both times he was right. When the book was still taking shape, I had this very clever structure: each chapter was told from the point of view of one of the central characters, but then the last two or three pages would shift to a minor character and we’d get their view of the world—which often diverged entirely from the main action of the novel. So you’d have two characters engaged in a heated argument and then three pages of their landlady thinking about how her son never visits anymore. Ben was very good about telling me that yes, he could see that it was technically very accomplished—virtuosic, he might have said—but that I was killing the momentum of the story. It was one of those times when I first thought about the novel as something that another person would read, and not just a private commonplace where I collected writerly runs and riffs. I began to think a lot about the overall experience of not only writing the book, but of reading it. It was always important to me that the novel speak with many voices and give the spotlight to a broad range of characters, but the way to do that wasn’t to occasionally nod toward the minor figures. I had to elevate more of them to “major character” status: to take them and their lives and their concerns more seriously. And that’s how I arrived at a 550-page novel. would have been even longer, if not for another round of cuts. In the final round of editing, with my editor urging me on, I cut almost 80 manuscript pages and almost all of it was dialogue. Ben never specifically said “cut this, cut that” (okay, almost never) but as each of the line-edited chapters came back to me, there would be a note at the top: “I feel like this could be four pages shorter” or “This chapter is 20 pages long. Can you make it 14?” We had a long book on our hands, but the narrative line through those pages had to be very tight. During the week of the novel’s narrative, almost all of the characters are aware of the ticking clock: the last day of the novel is a wedding day, a royal visit, a potential “big break,” a dirty job that must be done, the day of a dreaded departure. While I was still keeping my eye on the perfectly cocked fedora, my editor often reminded me of the the bigger architecture of the book and of how the structure and the story were integral to each other.

But I want to get back to The Twelve-Mile Straight. What big decisions did you face in the early days or in the final hours? And was there anything about writing the novel that just scared the bejeezus out of you? Anything that felt too big, too complex, or too delicate to put into words?

Eleanor: So many things, but the main thing that scared (and still scares) the bejeezus out of me was the fear of appropriation—of the African American experience, of the Southern experience, of my family’s experience, even of historical experience. As a white woman who lives in New York and who grew up in Florida—not really the Deep South—I was very nervous about setting a story in Georgia during such a dark period, and speaking from the point of view of so many African American characters. I remember a heated Facebook conversation among members of our (very white) grad school cohort soon after Chabon’s Telegraph Avenue came out (it all comes back to Chabon!). One of our friends called him out for leaving hip-hop out of the novel, which is about black and white record store owners in the Bay Area in the 1990s, calling Chabon racist. I was so inflamed by this, and rushed to Chabon’s defense—give him a break! I said. I hadn’t even finished reading the novel! But if I am honest, I felt then that Chabon deserved “some credit” as a white writer for attempting to write from the point of view of black characters. White writers were stuck between a rock and a hard place, I complained—if they wanted to humanize a character of color, they had to be able to “get inside” their heads and hearts, but when they did so, they were often criticized. The result, I feared, was that white writers would continue to write only about white people, which seemed to me insular and defeating. This was when I was first starting The Twelve-Mile Straight, and I was speaking out of my own unease and tongue-tied entitlement.

In the early days, I tried to ease that fear by couching the point of view in a kind of omniscient, peripheral first person—a narrator who would speak about the morally bankrupt white family with the authority of an all-seeing narrator: the mute black maid, Nan, who saw more than the white family (and perhaps the reader) gave her credit for. That she was mute was also a result of my fear: how could I speak in the voice of this woman who had borne the trauma of this white family and her own? I guess this was one place in which I was confronting what Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda called “the moment in which the imagination’s sympathy encounters its limit.” To adopt Nan’s voice seemed as much a violence as taking her voice away. In the end, I shifted to a more traditional omniscient voice and unburdened her of narrating the lives of others; instead, the other main character in the book, Elma, the white girl who is like a sister to her, assumes the responsibility of speaking for Nan (often inaccurately). So I burdened Elma with my own questions and insecurities—how can a white woman use her voice for someone who (in this case literally) doesn’t have one, and what are the consequences of that action?

I hope I’ve grown more thoughtful since that knee-jerk reaction (though I will probably always have Chabon’s back). It comes back to verisimilitude, too, doesn’t it? I really am grateful to you for that concept! I don’t know that “authenticity” is ever a goal that a writer can achieve with any kind of universal measure, but I do know it’s what I’m after, and I do think—at least at this moment—that an exploration of a character’s head and heart is my best bet in locating it, even as I remain frightened that that exploration is impossible, that it’s “too big, too complex, or too delicate.” But I mean, what’s the alternative? Small and simple? Why bother? I think fear and anxiety and worry can be a productive place to work from. And I’ve come to appreciate self-interrogation as an essential part of the imaginative process. As Rankine and Loffreda say, we need to “change the terms of the conversation….So, not: can I write from another’s point of view? But instead: to ask why and what for, not just if and how.”

I could say a lot more about that but I’ve gone on long enough! So I’ll turn the question (or my answer) back to you. Most of the characters in the large cast of The World of Tomorrow are Irish or Irish American, but we also return fairly frequently to the talented black musicians Elston Hooper and his wife Lorena, a trumpet player and singer, as they attempt to make it in the segregated jazz scene you described. I think you develop their ambitions, their challenges, and their worries with grace and yes, verisimilitude; their scenes are some of my favorites in the book. So, “why and what for”? Did you share any of my fears about inhabiting characters of color?

Brendan: I shared your fears, though I was never able to articulate them with the same eloquence that you have here. Like you, I knew I was writing into a long history of books by white writers that erase, evade, or misrepresent characters of color—especially black characters. But I couldn’t write a novel set among the neighborhoods and jazz clubs of New York City in the 1930s and populate it with an all-white cast of characters. That would have been a cop out: artistically dishonest. Immoral, even.

So the question that Rankine and Loffreda pose is an excellent one. I thought a lot about “why and what for,” and during the last years of writing the novel, Hooper and Lorena were the two characters whose place in the book grew the most. Why? Because they would have been right there when the story was happening, and more than that, they would have had lives and dreams of their own that had nothing to do with the novel’s hapless white folks.

And what for? Because their story was a vital strand in the bigger narrative. I wanted to write a book that was populated by dreamers and strivers: immigrants, migrants, escapees, emigres, refugees. People who come to New York City in search of a better tomorrow—no matter the cost. It’s a narrative embraced by much of white America: it’s the classic story of immigrant success. Except here are Hooper and Lorena, who complicate this neat narrative. Their families have been in America longer than any other family in the novel, but they didn’t arrive as huddled masses yearning to breathe free. And yet, generations later, Hooper and Lorena have come to New York to claim a piece of their own dream.

I knew that in giving voice to these characters, in trying to imagine my way into their consciousness and experiences, that I was bound to fall short in ways I wouldn’t even realize. So I also looked for ways to use the white characters to signal some of my own limits and blindspots. You have Elma misreading Nan, claiming to speak for her without ever really knowing her mind. I’ve got Martin, who blithely sees himself and Hooper as brothers in the same cause—and who brags to Hooper about quitting a plum job that sits on the other side of a color line that Martin can’t even see.

But none of these personal imperatives and thematically important chords about origins and American-ness would matter if I couldn’t get the characters right. And that was the part that scared me the most. We want all of our characters to be vivid, real, authentic. I just felt like the stakes were a lot higher with Hooper and Lorena’s stories. I tried to be aware of how much I don’t know, and how much I take for granted that I need to interrogate. I read a lot, I tried to shut up and listen, and to stretch my imagination as best I could. But even as I write this, I’m gagging a bit on my own self-righteousness: am I asking for “some credit” for trying to write a book that felt honest and aimed for authenticity? Isn’t that what every writer should do? Ultimately, it’s up to readers to judge whether or not I got it right on Hooper and Lorena. All I can say is that I couldn’t have written the book without them in it.

Eleanor: Yeah. That’s the terrifying and exhilarating part: leaving it to readers to judge. Back at UVA, it was hard to imagine anyone reading our books beyond our workshop and our moms. I’m grateful that we can still be an audience for each other, but that our books are now—somehow, magically—out there on other people’s bookshelves.


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