Interview with Smith Henderson

Smith Henderson_please credit Rebecca Calavan

Photo Credit: Rebecca Calavan

Thanks for taking the time to chat with us.

As The Plot Thins (ATPT): Let’s talk about your novel, Fourth of July Creek. Your debut novel was named one of the best last year by quite a few people. Where did the inspiration come for that story?

Smith Henderson (SH): The story was inspired by my experiences growing up in western Montana. My father was a logger and so I spent a lot of time in the woods. I always wanted to write something set in the mountains. The other inspiration was my time as a group home worker, where I got to know quite a bit about social work and disturbed, distressed, and neglected children.

ATPT: Jeremiah Pearl is a really enigmatic character. Is he based off of someone you possibly met in real life or are his mannerisms just something you wanted to represent in literary form?

SH: He’s pretty much a whole-cloth creation of my own. Which is to say, he’s probably inspired by quite a few characters I’ve known and read about. I’ve known a fair number of cranks in my day, but I really would say he was inspired by some intellectuals too. Jesus at his most robust and angry. Emerson and Thoreau. A dash of Nietzsche, even.

ATPT: Pete Snow, main character and social worker from Fourth of July Creek is also a character with his own issues going on. Tell me a little bit about how you decided what his internal struggles might be.

SH: I just really wanted to avoid the saintly social worker. I also didn’t want him to be a total ass, either. I wanted him to be frustrating. So good at what he does, but so terrible at his personal life. I eventually settled on a routine—what would be the worst decision Pete could make at any juncture? Then I’d have him do THAT.

ATPT: The ending segments of the chapters where two unnamed people talk about Rachel and her tribulations is easily one of the best and most interesting things I’ve read recently in literature. Why you want to have that third person view of her struggle instead of just letting her story be narrated through Pete?

SH: I usually write Q&As to get to know my characters and their world. It’s how I generate material. Anyway, when I left those sections about Rachel in that form, I found it gave the story something…I wasn’t sure what. Eventually, I realized that the effect was to create tension within the reader, as though you were experiencing Pete’s anxiety in the very form of those sections. Every question can be boiled down to “How is she? How is she? How is she? Is she okay? Is she okay?”

ATPT: Since this was your debut novel, some folks were pretty impressed given you hadn’t been published before. How long have you been writing ?

SH: Oh, forever. It’s not really a choice or decision. It’s sort of my practice. Like some people do karate or cook or have some other enthusiasm. Writing, making things, that’s my deal.

ATPT: This might be a tough one, but do you remember or have any records of what you were reading while you were writing Fourth of July Creek?

SH: Oh, I was reading a lot of history, the aforementioned philosophers, a good deal of southern lit, which also spoke to me. The book was definitely inspired by southern gothic, I guess, though I feel sort of grown out of that now. I read a lot. I put aside a lot. I try not to think to hard about it. What gets in, gets in. Influence is what you’re asking about, I assume. I feel like you have to have a good ratio of stuff that it’s inspiring to mental empty space where you feel like you can create. A voice of a powerful writer can really start to seep into your stuff. You have to be diligent about searching for your own writerly obsessions on every level.

ATPT: To bookend off that last question, before you became a published author you were an ad man? Two questions about this: are you still in the ad game or are you writing full time? Also do you have any thoughts on how Mad Men portrays the advertising industry?

SH: Actually, I was always a writer and only got into advertising as a copywriter. I still copywrite as part-timer, freelancer. I just moved to LA to write more of my own stuff, including an adaptation of Fourth of July Creek for the screen.

I think Mad Men is at it’s most vital (to me) when it explores the creative/business process. That show gets a lot very, very right. The tensions in an office where you have a business client who doesn’t understand the meaning of their company, really, and needs someone to explain it to them, as much as the broader world…that’s where the show sings.

Ad people don’t drink as often as on Mad Men…well, not most of them.

ATPT: Are working on another novel right now? Maybe some short stories?

SH: I am. I always have a couple things in the hopper. I’m hoping to get something to my agent this year. We’ll see…

ATPT: Are there any books you’re looking forward to reading in particular this year?

SH: Oh. I’m reading two great books right now. “Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist” by Sunil Yapa and Rebecca Makkai’s new collection of stories, “Music for Wartime” is also so damn good. Heads up.

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