Friday, February 4, 2011

Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

Sara J. Henry’s debut suspense novel, Learning to Swim (Crown, Feb. 22, 2011), been called “emotional, intense, and engrossing” by Lisa Unger and an “auspicious debut” by Daniel Woodrell. In her previous lives Sara has been a soil scientist, sports writer, newspaper editor, correspondence writing school instructor, book editor, bicycle mechanic, copyeditor, and webmaster. She’s from Tennessee and now calls southern Vermont home. Her website is  Here's a link to the first chapter of LEARNING TO SWIM.

by Sara J. Henry

Yes, it’s an exciting (and busy) time with my first novel about to come out, and finishing up the sequel. For this post I’ve chosen some of my favorite questions from a round of interviews (picture me sitting around with all these people asking me questions – no, of course, these were all emailed exchanges ... but it’s a nice image.) And thanks to Kaye for hosting me here, and to the interviewers.

Learning to Swim opens with a disturbing scene, that of a young child being thrown off a ferry into Lake Champlain. What was the inspiration for that scene? And was that one scene the inspiration for the entire book itself? – Adam Purple

I was driving along Lake Champlain in upstate New York on an overcast day and just imagined that scene: a woman on one ferry seeing the child going overboard from the ferry going the opposite direction and in a split second making the decision to dive into the lake after him. It stuck with me, and when I finally sat down to write a novel, that was the first chapter. And yes, it was the inspiration for the whole book, and I can tell you, it was a challenge coming up with a plot that fit that little boy and that woman: how they ended up on those passing ferries and how their lives intertwined.

So, it was killing me as I read – how much of the protagonist Troy Chance is you, or should I say how much of you is in her? – Joanna McNeal

If I say she’s a lot like me, it seems I don’t have enough imagination to create a main character out of thin air. But if I say she isn’t at all like me – I’m lying. I think many first-time novelists use a lot of themselves in their first-person main character. Mine lives in the house where I used to live in Lake Placid and worked at the newspaper where I used to work, and many of her experiences and feelings are mine. We both like bicycles and computers and dogs and kids. And when I write her, I am her.

Before it was sold, how long did it take you to write Learning to Swim? – Reed Farrel Coleman

The first draft appeared over a decade ago – I churned it out in less than eight months, largely because I was meeting with another writer who expected me to hand over chapters every week and I didn’t want to show up empty-handed (thank you, Mac Clayton). Unfortunately the middle of the book was a complete muddle and I had no idea how to rewrite, so it went in a drawer for a very long time.

I’d take it out and stare at it occasionally, and poke at it, like prodding a sleeping tiger, then put it away again. Then I broke my foot, had surgery and went off to Australia on crutches for a five-week house swap. There I learned to rewrite and earned the nickname “Boot Girl” from Michael Robotham, who I’d met briefly at a Bouchercon – and who told me I had to change the original title of the book because it sounded like a Bobbsey Twins book.

Was it difficult to get an agent and publisher interested? – Adam Purple

No. I know that sounds cheeky, but once the rewrite was done, it all happened very quickly. Mind you, I revised until I was literally wearing Band-aids on my fingers and I thought my brain would break. (And long ago a friend had offered the manuscript to half a dozen publishers, who said politely: Er, the middle needs work. Then another friend's agent took a look and said, My, you certainly can write, which translated to But you can't plot worth a damn.) But once the rewrite was done I sent out queries and my first chapter, and requests came rolling in. It was surreal. Like winning a lottery you didn't know you'd entered.

In general, what kind of books do you best like to read? Favorite authors? – Deb Boyken

I like books with realistic inner dialogue and strong characterization, and I tend to lean toward somewhat quirky books. Two favorites this past year, Innocent Monster and Please Ignore Vera Dietz are by personal friends, Reed Farrel Coleman and A.S. King. I adored The Memory Of Running by Ron McLarty; I recently read and loved Falling Under by Danielle Younge-Ullman; I’m mad about the new series by Jodi Compton, who shares an agent with me (clearly my agent has wonderful taste) and a book called Benighted by Kit Whitfield, and I read everything by my Aussie friend Michael Robotham. Oh, and Daniel Woodrell, who is simply brilliant. Start with Winter’s Bone, and don’t stop.

I know you have ties to the south. Why New York and Vermont? Isn't it cold there? It seems like such a foreign place to a southerner like myself. – Joanna McNeal

I was born and grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and lived for years in Nashville. My first full-time job was in Adirondacks in upstate New York, as the sports editor on the daily newspaper there, and I nearly froze my tail off before I learned how to dress warmly enough (layers, lots of layers, and Sorel boots with thick wool liners). Later, at a crossroads in life, a friend who lived in Vermont said, “Why don’t you come up here and work at the bicycle shop?” and so I did – I’m glad no one suggested going to work on a freighter or moving to Antarctica. But in many ways Vermont suits me – I can run to the grocery store or post office in ripped painting overalls and no one gives me a second look.

Are you going to haunt your local bookstore on publication day? (Feb. 22) – Deb Boyken

Nope, I’m going to be in New York, getting ready to launch at Partners & Crime in Greenwich Village at 7 pm, Wednesday, Feb. 23. Anyone in New York, come on down.

Is there anything else you'd like us to know about you and/or your book? – Margo Kelly

I can beat Scott Phillips at arm wrestling. Or almost, anyway. And the sequel to this book will be out next year.


jenny milchman said...

Oooh! Oooh! I remember reading about this book somewhere a while ago already...WHERE was it??...and wanting so much to read it. Trust Kaye to remind me of a great read I almost forgot! Congratulations, Sara, and I will certainly be buying this one. Will you be touring anywhere in NY or NJ?

Must admit your description of "quick" made me a bit greeney (I have a novel currently on sub; the agent part was blessedly quick, the submission not so much) but it's great to know great debuts are getting put out there.

Really looking forward! Thanks, as always, Kaye.

Truckload (LTL) Shipment said...

One of my wanna-be-hobby is swimming, but unfortunately I don't have the courage to swim by myself...and I will be amazed if I will just be reading and then I can get that courage.