I met Sara J. Henry a little over a year ago at Lee Child’s party in Indianapolis. Self-effacing and shy, she was slow to tell me her debut novel Learning to Swim (Crown) was scheduled for release in February 2011. After Sara gave me a brief synopsis of the book, I asked her to send me a copy. I was totally floored by it. LTS is one of the best debut novels I’ve ever read and that’s saying something. LTS’s author is pretty fascinating too. A soil scientist, bike mechanic, non-fiction editor, tech wizard, Sara is sort of a human Swiss Army knife.
Learning To Swim, eh? Is there more to that title than meets the eye? How did you learn to swim?
I learned to swim after a bicycle racing national championship, late at night in a hotel pool, alone. I figured if I could learn to tread water, I could learn to swim, so I pushed myself off into the middle of the pool (okay, not the advised method). Then when I lived in Lake Placid I was determined to participate in the weekly mini-triathlons, and made myself learn the crawl. I was always dead last in the water, so I had my own follow kayak, right beside me.
The book originally had a title I thought clever and useful for sequels, but Michael Robotham told me it sounded like a Bobbsey Twins book. Two of my favorite books at the time were The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Memory of Running, which weren’t actually about racing or running, so when Learning to Swim was suggested I went with it. I queried my agent using the title Risk, thinking he might prefer a thrillerish title, but he liked LTS. As he says, the main character – as well as the child she rescues – is learning to swim through life.
Where did the inspiration for this book come from?
I was driving along Lake Champlain on the upstate New York side on a chilly, overcast day, and imagined a woman on one of the big ferries that crosses at the widest point – an hour-long ride – who sees a child plummet from the ferry going the opposite direction, and in a split second makes the decision to dive into the lake after him.
Then I had to write an entire book around that woman and that little boy, and figure out who they were and how and why their paths intersected.
You describe LTS as a suspense novel. Some of its most thriller-ish elements, though, take place in the hinterlands of upstate New York and northern New England. When we think thrillers, we usually think New York City, Rome, Paris, Jerusalem, Moscow, London. What about upstate New York and New England fascinates you?
The Adirondacks are beautiful but in a way very dark, partly because of their remoteness and the extremeness of the landscape and the weather. A pleasant day hike turns deadly when unprepared vacationers get caught in a sudden snow squall. A body appears on a pristine golf course, resorts burn to the ground, a man is found dead from a fall off a cliff where there’s no discernable reason to be. A friend I worked with at the newspaper was killed by a shotgun by her common-law husband, who then shot himself as well, leaving behind the cute young son she sometimes brought to work. On my last day of work, a guy in a small boat capcized near shore on a beautiful sunny April day, in water so cold two people nearly drowned trying to save him. I photographed his body as they pulled him from the lake, face peaceful, water streaming from his hair. Not something you forget.
Add in very rich people living in the same small area with not-well-off struggling folk, plus a bunch of prisons nestled in the woods here and there, and you pretty much have the perfect setting for a thriller.
Your protagonist Troy Chance has a deep sense of right and wrong and a profound sense of loyalty. Did she come by those traits honestly or by invention?
Troy, like many of us, is torn in identifying the shifting lines of demarcation between right and wrong, although she may think about it more than most people. She questions her own motivations: Is she driven by a need to help people, or because it’s what she needs? But she thinks protecting a child comes above all else, which I think is a natural instinct. And for the most part, Troy’s internal dilemmas reflect those of her author.
Writing LTS was a long strange trip. Describe a little of the journey.
I wrote the first draft quickly, handing off chapters to a neighbor and a writing friend I was meeting with weekly. If I’d stopped to plot it out thoroughly, I would never have finished. But the middle was a muddle and the book wasn’t salable, although it came close with one publisher. I put it away for a very long time, and then a friend urged me to apply to a writing conference. I didn’t write for a year after that – let’s just say I’m now wary of folks with MFAs – but stupidly went again the next year. This time the book got a lot of attention, and I knew it was time to rewrite. Which, I learned, is a very different process from writing. I did much of the rewrite during a five-week house swap in Sydney, Australia, in winter, right after I’d had a bone in my foot pinned back together. It turned out to be an excellent formula: cold rainy weather + painful broken foot + no friends nearby + limited internet = perfect time to learn to rewrite.
Who were your early writing influences?
John D. MacDonald, Mary Stewart, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Bronte, Charlotte Armstrong, Alastair Maclean, Nevil Shute, Arthur Conan Doyle, Helen MacInnes, Robert Ludlum – and later on Sara Paretsky, Karen Kijewski, Walter Mosley, Lawrence Block, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, PD James. I told someone Troy Chance is a cross between Jane Eyre and Travis McGee, and there’s more truth to that than I realized.
Who do you read now?
Daniel Woodrell, Denise Mina, Francis Fyfield, Michael Robotham, Peter Temple, Lisa Unger, Don Winslow, Tana French, Lee Child, Minette Walters, John Lescroart, Ian Rankin, Lisa Gardner, Kate Atkinson, and pretty much anything I can get my hands on and have time to read. And of course Reed Farrel Coleman.
I think I put on three pounds while reading LTS. You spend a lot of time talking about food in the book. Why?
JT Ellison had much the same complaint. I’m not sure why I describe food so lovingly except that for characters who lead lives on a thin financial line without a lot of frills, in a climate that’s harshly cold much of the year, appreciating food is important. Fortunately my editor thought it added a homey feel, although it’s what the Kirkus Review writer complained about. (My friends said the reviewer was probably hungry while reading.)
Is it true that without the Manhattan Project you might never have been born?
In a convoluted way, yes. The war that gave birth to the Manhattan Project brought my parents together – my father was a nuclear physicist working on the secret project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, that resulted in the atom bomb. At the time it was a walled-in government-built town with IDs needed to get in and out. By the time I came along, the walls were long gone, but it was an enclave of scientists from around the world set smack in the middle of rural east Tennessee, not far from the Appalachians. It was an odd place to grow up, but you don’t realize that until you’ve moved away. What it means is that I’m basically a mix of hillbilly and nerd.
What are you working on now and can you give us a teaser?
It’s the sequel to Learning to Swim, with the same characters, set in winter in the Adirondacks, with an opening scene my editor told me would forever change how he viewed that particular winter event.
Sara’s website is www.SaraJHenry.com
“From the opening page, LEARNING TO SWIM is a terrific debut. This moving and insightful psychological thriller features the inspiring Troy Chance – an everywoman hero who women will admire and men will want to meet. I can’t wait for her next adventure.” – Michael Robotham, bestselling author of SHATTER and BLEED FOR ME