Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A visit with Sara J. Henry, author of Learning to Swim

By Julie

Today, we welcome Sara J. Henry, author of Learning to Swim (Random House/2-22-11). Sara is getting lots of good buzz and great placement for her debut novel. It's a featured alternate of Doubleday Book Club, Literary Guild, Book of the Month Club, Mystery Guild, and Doubleday Large Print.

I’ve “known” Sara from the Backspace writers’ forum for a few years and have watched her journey from posting first chapters for critique to posting cover art and links to thrilling reviews and interviews for Learning to Swim. Sara was also the thread that connected me with Quinn Cummings, providing us with our very first author interview at What Women Write back in 2009.

From the publisher:
When she witnesses a small child tumbling from a ferry into Lake Champlain, Troy Chance dives in without thinking. Harrowing moments later, she bobs to the surface, pulling a terrified little boy with her. As the ferry disappears into the distance, she begins a bone-chilling swim nearly a mile to shore with a tiny passenger on her back.

Surprisingly, he speaks only French. He’ll acknowledge that his name is Paul; otherwise, he’s resolutely mute.

Troy assumes that Paul’s frantic parents will be in touch with the police or the press. But what follows is a shocking and deafening silence. And Troy, a freelance writer, finds herself as fiercely determined to protect Paul as she is to find out what happened to him. What she uncovers will take her into a world of wealth and privilege and heedless self-indulgence – a world in which the murder of a child is not unthinkable. She’ll need skill and courage to survive and protect her charge and herself.

Sara J. Henry’s powerful and compelling Learning to Swim will move and disturb readers right up to its shattering conclusion.

About Sara:
Sara J. Henry has been a columnist, soil scientist, book and magazine editor, Web designer, writing instructor, and bicycle mechanic. Learning to Swim is her first novel.

JK: Welcome, Sara, to What Women Write! The inciting incident in Learning to Swim happens in the very first few paragraphs:

If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.

But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the other ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-size doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide‑eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived. It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think.

(Hooked? Read the rest of chapter 1 here!)

Talk about a heart-pounding dive into the story. Readers often want to know where writers get their ideas in general, but I’d love to know how, specifically, this idea was born.

SJH: I had lived in the Adirondacks for four years, and was on a return visit, driving along Lake Champlain, the huge lake that separates New York state and Vermont, on a misty, overcast day. For some reason I imagined a woman on one of the big ferries that crosses the lake at its widest part, seeing a child fall in from the opposite ferry and making the split-second decision to dive in after him.

Then I had to build an entire novel around that one scene, which wasn’t particularly easy, I’ll admit.

JK: Learning to Swim crosses genre lines in ways. It’s generally classified as suspense, but it’s also a good old-fashioned whodunit with a bit of a literary feel and a love story at its heart. This could sound like a novel with a split personality, but never fear, readers, it works and works well.

How did you and your veteran agent, Barney Karpfinger (who also represents author John Lescroart and for decades represented Jonathan and Faye Kellerman – not bad company, Sara!) decide to pitch it to editors when it went out on submission?

SJH: I grew up reading old suspense novels by Mary Stewart (Nine Coaches Waiting; This Rough Magic; The Ivy Tree; Madam, Will You Talk?) as well as my father’s Travis McGee books by John D. MacDonald, and they definitely shaped my writing. The two of them were masters at blending genres – Stewart is considered one of the founders of romantic suspense and MacDonald was an extraordinary storyteller with a deeply introspective hero and gritty plots.

I never wanted to write a run-of-the-mill mystery or thriller, although I certainly enjoy reading them. And I wanted a heroine who could be any woman, an ordinary woman thrust into extraordinary circumstances. One agent who read the first forty or so pages told me I needed to cut out anything that wasn’t suspense, but I thought that agent was wrong – that all the additional elements were what made this novel work and would make it resonate for readers, and I stuck to my guns.

One advantage of well-established and greatly respected agents is that they don’t need to pitch hard, because editors know them well and know the type of authors and projects they represent. (They pitch well, but not hard, if that makes sense.) Barney told editors over the phone how the book opens, and the gist of his cover letter was this one sentence: By turns disturbing and moving—and always compelling—this novel of suspense marks the beginning of a significant new career. I had discussions with editors from three houses and no one had a problem with the blurring of genres – or if they did, they didn’t mention it!

JK: In one of your first blog interviews with Dawn Kurtagich, you tell the interesting story of writing and then rewriting Learning to Swim, stating that the rewriting is when the story really came together. We have lots of aspiring writers in our reader audience, and many of us have heard that famous mantra: “Writing is rewriting.” But that can be a bit of a mysterious concept. In your situation, what did rewriting really mean? Did you throw away the manuscript and start from scratch? Or …?

SJH: Definitely not from scratch. In fact the first chapter is pretty much how I wrote it originally, as are other key chapters. I’ll answer this question in two parts, because I really rewrote in two basic ways. The first was straightening out a very muddled middle part of the book: characters were thin, the pacing was slow, and the plot needed a lot of work. I’d written the book very quickly, because I knew if I’d slowed down I would have convinced myself I couldn’t do it.

But then I had to work out an involved plotline and re-engineer it into a book that was already written. As I’ve said elsewhere, I thought my brain would break, and I’ll never again do it that way. I also had to improve the pacing – at one point the characters go off to Home Depot, and there the book slowed to a crawl. (Going to Home Depot is now code for pace slowing down.) But at the end of this, I had a book that worked.

What I did next – and this was in several passes – was a complete relayering. Some scenes remained untouched, but others needed life breathed into them. In places I’d done what I call “cheating” – skipping over details or how a character felt, sometimes because the scene made me uncomfortable or was difficult to write. I reworked each of these scenes, imagining it from each character’s perspective. And along the way I truly learned to write. I learned the power that one word has to change the impact or flow of a scene, and I learned how moving a paragraph from one place to another can alter readers’ perception entirely. And I’d say I fell in love with writing all over again.

Finally – and this was well after the manuscript was accepted – I took a good look at the last four chapters, in which I’d crammed in every possible detail of explanation. (
Reed Farrel Coleman told me, “I’m surprised you didn’t explain nuclear fission while you were at it.”) I told my editor I had to redo them, and he didn’t object. I rewrote those chapters, condensed them to three, and read them aloud over the phone to Reed – who is the best critique partner imaginable – and kept honing them until they worked.

Never underestimate the value of reading aloud, even if just to yourself.

JK: I know a little about your own world from interacting with you on Facebook and reading your blog posts on occasion. Would you share with our readers how your own unique world reflects that of Troy’s?

Like Troy, I rented a big house on Main Street in Lake Placid, New York, and rented out rooms to a batch of mostly athlete roommates. And like Troy, I was the sports editor at the local daily newspaper, and had a wonderful golden retriever/German shepherd mix dog named Tiger.

Troy likes computers and likes to work on bicycles, as I do - and she likes being able to do a lot of things. My dad gave me a fully stocked toolbox when I was 11 – but also gave me a sewing box and showed me how to knit. So while I can darn socks and cut hair, I also know how to roof a house, because my father showed me how to snap a chalk line, lay shingles, and pound in roofing nails. He was a nuclear physicist, not a roofer – but he strongly believed that people ought to know how to do all sorts of things.

JK: From that photo, I think it's obvious Tiger has been one of a long line of well-loved dogs!

Sara, when we try to define that mysterious quality known as writer’s voice, we know it has something to do with who we are and where we’ve been. How have other aspects of your own history informed your writing in general and also in writing Learning to Swim?

In one way or another, just about everything I’ve ever done and every person I’ve met has informed my writing. I can’t explain it any better than that. Clearly I never dived off a ferry after a small child, but I’ve experienced many of the emotions my characters have, and knowing a wide variety of people certainly helps you develop believable characters.

I’ve pitched Backspace to our readers at What Women Write many times over the last few years. I’ve witnessed the value of being involved in an active community of writers, both online and at a local level. Of course you need to be a fantastic writer with a lot of good ideas and a lot of perseverance to become a published author, but what has being an active member of the Backspace forum meant for you on your journey to publication?

SJH: I followed my friend Jamie Ford to Backspace, but because my novel was in the final stages of polishing when I joined and I acquired an agent soon thereafter, my experience there isn’t quite that of some other unpublished writers (and because I’d written and cowritten several nonfiction books, I wasn’t technically unpublished).

What Backspace has given me is friendships, and an enormous amount of support from the people I’ve met there. Backspacers have been marvelous to respond to posts and generous in their praise. Writing is a solitary occupation and Backspace has made it markedly less so.

JK: Finally, what’s up next for you?

SJH: I am finishing up the sequel to Learning to Swim, and then I’ll be polishing that and doing some publicity and book touring for the first novel. And I have Books 3 and 4 roughed out in my head, and I’m eager to start writing those.

JK: Sara, thanks so much for being our guest on What Women Write. We wish you great things as a fiction author, and I can't wait to read the sequel to Learning to Swim.

Learning to Swim is available for preorder at all major and independent booksellers, and will be available to buy next Tuesday, February 22.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received an advanced copy of the book mentioned above gratis. Regardless, I only recommend books I've read and believe will appeal to our readers. I am making this statement in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


  1. Great interview! Thanks for the inside look at not only the story but also some of the submission and editing process. :D

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Jen. I'm glad you found the information useful and hope you'll get a chance to enjoy Sara's book!

  3. Nice interview! And nice blog too. I'll be following now.

  4. Thanks, Teresa! Just took a peek at your blog, too. Some funny stuff going on over there. ;)

  5. Teresa rocks! Julie rocks! Jen rocks! I love getting all my friends together.


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