Q and A with Author Eleanor Henderson
Eleanor Henderson is a New York Times best-selling author that is holding a reading event at Flyleaf books on Wednesday for her newest novel The Twelve-Mile Straight. Henderson's first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, was listed as one of the 10 Best Books of 2011 by The New York Times. Staff writer Grant Allen spoke with Henderson about The Twelve-Mile Straight and her career as an author.
The Daily Tar Heel: Could you tell us a little about your newest book?
Eleanor Henderson: Twelve-Mile Straight is a historical novel, set in 1930 on a fictional cotton farm in south Georgia. It begins with the birth of two twins, one of whom is light-skinned and one of whom is dark-skinned. What follows is the lynching of the alleged father of one of those babies, and that’s the action that begins the book.
DTH: Was there a specific instance that inspired this book?
Henderson: Not a specific instance, but my father was born in South Georgia to a family of sharecroppers in 1932, and so I was very much drawn to the world that he grew up in because of the stories I heard growing up as a kid. The events I described are very much invented and born through research, but I was interested in imagining how some of the darker forces of Prohibition, the Depression and the Jim Crow era in particular would have come into conversation with the stories of hard work and innocent fun on the farm that I heard growing up.
DTH: How could the themes in your book be applied to today’s political climate?
Henderson: I think the book is much more relevant than I had feared it was when I began writing it about six years ago. I worried at that point that nobody needed or cared about a book about Jim Crow, and I think it’s been painfully clear every year that it’s become more and more relevant, so I think that often we do have to look back to the past to make sense of the current situation we’re in now.
DTH: When did you decide that you wanted to be an author?
Henderson: I grew up wanting to be an author. When I was three or four, before I had learned to complete a sentence on my own, I was dictating stories to my parents so they would write them down for me. I was always a big reader and a big writer. It was really stories of the South that I fell in love with first, probably in part with my father’s connection to the South, and when I discovered Southern short story writers as a teenager I discovered the kind of writing I wanted to do. It took me a while, and another novel set in the North, to reconnect with that initial love.
DTH: What is the daily life of being an author like?
Henderson: I’m a writer but I’m also a professor and a parent, so for me balancing those roles can be tricky. I often have to wake up early in order to get my writing in early in the day. I’m a happier person and a nicer person when I can write early in the morning. I don’t always manage to do it, but for many of the years I was working on the book, about six years, I was waking up at five in the morning with a baby, trying to write before my two kids woke up. What was really wonderful for me in writing this book in particular was that my father was up early and I could email him my research questions as I was working on this book. So for me, my writing day looks a little bit different depending on the semester, the season and the stage in my book, but it’s important to me that I can adopt a kind of ready practice that I can at least commit to for the short term.
DTH: What are some of your biggest personal inspirations in terms of writing?
Henderson: Probably my two favorite books, and ones that very much on my mind when I wrote this book, are William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which contains a line that I was thinking about a lot. The last famous line of that book is, “I don’t hate the South. I don’t hate it!” This was a book in which I was processing my own conflicted feelings about the South, which I love so much, but it certainly contains a history that I felt I had to recognize. Also, Edward P. Jones’s novel The Known World provided a fascinating look at a kind of under-told story about southern history. His beautiful management of time, commitment to the natural world and beautiful exploration of character — Southern character in particular — were really important to me, and so those were models to me as I was writing.
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