By Ethan Cross
Sara J. Henry’s book, LEARNING TO SWIM, won the 2012 Anthony Award and 2012 Agatha Award for best first novel and the 2012 Mary Higgins Clark Award, was an Emerging Author pick at Target, and was a finalist for the Barry and Macavity awards. The BOSTON GLOBE named it one of the best crime novels of the year: “Compulsively readable, this is all about what we do for love.” And now its sequel, A COLD AND LONELY PLACE, has cemented her status as a “powerful new voice” in literary mystery.
Freelance writer Troy Chance is snapping photos of the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival ice palace when the ice-cutting machine falls silent. Encased in the ice is the shadowy outline of a body – someone she knows. A COLD AND LONELY PLACE follows Troy on a powerful emotional journey as she discovers the damage left by long-hidden secrets, and catches a glimpse of what might have been.
What was it like to write about Troy Chance again? Did anything surprise you?
Troy is a part of me, so writing about her is very natural. What was different this time is that because the first book was out, other people knew Troy, or thought they did, which meant some expectations. I knew Troy’s emotional honesty was one of the things that drew readers to her, and knew I had to continue that. And it was harder to do the second time – it’s easy to lay your character’s thoughts and emotions bare when almost no one has read the book and you have no real expectation of more doing so.
This was also the first time I had someone in publishing suggest that Troy say or do certain things that I knew she would never ever say or do. Not that I changed those things, because they simply didn’t fit, but it was disconcerting to have someone else trampling around in Troy’s world and trying to speak for her, and it threw me off for a bit.
You’ve lived in a lot of different places. How does a sense of place inform your work, and how and why is it important to you personally?
In these books, and particularly in A COLD AND LONELY PLACE, the setting is so integral that it becomes almost another character. I lived in this area of the Adirondacks from age 26 to 30, and again for a year not long ago, and in a way this area embedded itself in me. It was a big move, to a cold and somewhat desolate area where I knew no one and was doing a job I was in no way prepared for, working sometimes 70-hour weeks on a small newspaper, covering sports and events that were the lifeblood of these communities. This was where I came alive as a writer, turning out in-depth features on sled dog racers and visiting Olympians while also covering three high schools and two community colleges and an extraordinary range of area sports (softball is very important in a small town) and managing a rental house filled with transient athlete roommates. In a way this was where a way where I came alive, period. Part of my heart is still there.
Let’s talk craft. What’s your writing life like? Do you write every day, do you carry a notebook, do you outline?
I have a friend who has a rigid writing schedule, writing from, say, 8 to noon, or until she has X numbers of words. Um, that’s not me. When I’m writing I write madly, and may forget to eat or leave the house. Writing creatively I do in the morning, before other things begin to clutter my brain, or in the evening when I’m tired enough to let go. Editing and revising I can do any time. I know when something’s not working, and I don’t give up until it’s fixed. A COLD AND LONELY PLACE had some pacing problems early on that I kept picking at until I figured out that one scene was in the wrong place, another needed to be split in two, and one character appeared in the book sooner than he should. I fixed those things – and, presto! It was so clearly right I wondered why it had taken me so long to see it.
I don’t keep a notebook. I dream up the story – sometimes a long car ride when my mind can roam – and write a bare bones one-page outline that I may expand as I go. I put the story into action, and sit back and let the characters determine how things progress. Sometimes they surprise me, and I love that.
What’s obsessing you now?
The novel I wrote half of last March and had to drop for other things. It’s calling to me, but I don’t dare pick it up because of all the publicity-related things I need to do for this new book. Because once I do, I’ll forget all the mundane things like scheduling bookstore appearances and such, and just write madly.
If you had a writing genie, what would your three wishes be?
A cook. A personal assistant to set up events and remind me to do interviews and order ink cartridges, and oh, maybe carry in firewood and walk the dogs once in a while. Enough of a travel budget to visit every bookstore I want to visit. (I could go on, but I think I just ran out of wishes.)
SARA J. HENRY is the author of the award-winning LEARNING TO SWIM. She was a newspaper sports editor in the Adirondacks and has been a book and magazine editor, freelance writer, and webmaster. A native of Tennessee, she now calls southern Vermont home.
To learn more about Sara, please visit her website.