By Leslie Lindsay
A haunting tale of a dying town, THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS is tender, lyrical, and poignant in a very illuminating manner about a female mortician, a horrific accident, and taking chances. Susan Henderson is here chatting about so many wonderful things it’s impossible to list them all…seriously, you want to read this interview and then you’ll run out and buy this book. It’s that good.
I was absolutely ensnared with the vivid bleakness of that swell of blue and green of the cover and then the title, THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS called to me from some place far away and I had to get my hands on the book. I’m so glad I did.
Susan Henderson is a writer with tremendous grace and empathy, plus she seems to really ‘get’ small town American life, the human condition, and so much more. I read this book on a driving trip through Iowa. And while the story is actually set in a dying Montana town (which goes by the fictional name of Petroleum), I couldn’t help but feel I was there, smack in the middle of this book cover.
Mary is thirty years old and the town’s female mortician. She grew up the only child of Allen (whom is mostly referred to as ‘Pop’) because her mother died in childbirth. There was no funeral home in Petroleum, so Pop studied and took classes to become certified in the art of bereavement and embalming. Mary really had no choice but to follow in her father’s footsteps. Together, they live in the funeral parlor and put the town ‘to rest.’
But years ago, before the story really begins, a horrific accident occurred at the grain elevator, killing the town’s star high school athlete. The granary is closed for good, and the train no longer stopped in town, plus the brother is blamed for the tragedy and shipped off to live elsewhere.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely Susan Henderson to the author interview series.
“This novel is so breathtakingly good, so exquisitely written. About a female mortician, about a childhood tragedy that still haunts a damaged young man, about the endless landscape and about those tiny sparks of possibility. Oh my God. Trust me. This book. This book. This Book.”
—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Cruel Beautiful World
Leslie Lindsay: Susan, I am so, so honored. First, I was so completely struck by the beauty of the prose, the obvious research you did to paint such an authentic portrait of small town life. But it came at a bit of a price. You spent an entire month living in a hotel of the town that became Petroleum. Can you tell us about that experience and was that sort of the ‘birth’ of this tale, or was it something else?
Susan Henderson: My intention with the book was to grapple with the current division in America—between those who want change and those who feel things are changing too fast, and I wanted to do that in a way that was removed from politics and might get each side listening to each other again.
So I was not trying to write about the people from this particular town. In fact, I only desired to set the story in a small, rural town, and chose to spend a month in this one because I was emotionally attached to it. It’s where my father grew up, and I knew how physically unique it was.
Of course, the real town managed to seep into the novel a good bit—particularly the tactile details of homes and weather, the sounds and rhythms of ranchers, the stark beauty of the land, the isolation from other towns and conveniences.
But this is definitely a work of fiction, this is me grappling with a conversation that has become uncivilized in the real world, so I put it into story form. I wanted to dig down deep into the grief and rage and pride of people whose identities are tied to jobs and a way of life that are slipping away. And yet there are some people in the town, and the narrator’s one of them, whose passions and dreams for themselves are not found in the town’s traditions. My hope is that we might start to hear each other, that we might get tired of being stuck.
L.L.: While there are some elements in THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS that are drawn from memory and experience, it is in no way autobiographical, a memoir…yet there are so many truths in fiction. Can you talk about that, please?
Susan Henderson: Fiction is where I tell the truth.
If I were to tackle the issues of death and dying and what happens to the body in non-fiction, I would worry too much about exposing another’s privacy and harming them in some way. And that instinct to protect others would make me pull back from the hard truths and create a story that’s much too tepid for my taste.
Fiction allows me to talk about the things polite people avoid in real life. I can walk right towards rage and fear and our imperfect bodies. And whenever I need to buffer some sort of psychic pain, I can add another character or a bridge or completely imagined moment that can heal more deeply than what the non-fiction moment might offer.
The great gift of fiction is that we can see the truth more clearly when we see it from a different angle, when we can climb deeper inside the story and the characters. And when the great writers of our time are at their best, fiction can both reexamine and change the world. Think: Animal Farm, A Handmaid’s Tale, Beloved, The Lottery, Invisible Man, All the Light We Cannot See.
L.L.: Regarding truth, it’s elusive, much like the wind in THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, which I noticed came up a good deal, but wasn’t overdone. We can’t see the wind, but we can feel it. We can see the devastating effects the wind can cause land, on buildings. And the wind can provide energy, motion. Did you intentionally make it a metaphor or was that something that grew organically?
Susan Henderson: When I stayed in the real town for a month, it was the wind that made me worry I might lose my mind. It was so loud, I felt like I had to shout over it. When I was inside my motel room, it crashed so hard against the room, I sometimes wondered if the windows would break. And when I walked out of that room, I felt almost tormented by it, like it was purposefully pushing me. So it just became more of a character in the book, like this mischievous soul messing with people’s hair, knocking down signs, slamming doors.
What was so clear to me while I lived there was that the weather and the land were interconnected with the lives there. It would physically change you—your skin, your hair, your ability to hear and be heard. And your isolation from other towns, from others who might help, would force you to become self-sufficient, or you simply wouldn’t survive.
L.L.: Of course I have to ask about Mary’s role as an embalmer. This might make someone squeamish, but you took such a gentle, comforting approach, it didn’t bother me. Can you tell us a bit about your research to get Mary’s character ‘just right?’
Susan Henderson: So, the eventual concept of the book, was to tell the story of a dying town via a narrator who could look at death without flinching. She could take us to that conversation that’s so uncomfortable for us to have. She’s seen all manners of grief—raging against the inevitable, going submissively, pretending it’s not happening.
But this meant that I would have to learn how to run a funeral home and how to embalm dead bodies. I learned everything I could about the dead and dying, about mortician’s tools and burial practices. I learned from books and from talking with folks in the funeral and hospice industries.
And then I dreamed up Mary Crampton, kind of a quirky loner who is more comfortable with the dead. And I gave her a story line which would force her into the living world, where she is less confident. And I put her smack in the middle of the conflict I wanted to explore—between an agent of change and those who are trying with all they have to hold on to their traditions.
L.L.: In the end, the very end, you talk about your writing ‘tribe,’ how writers are a ‘bunch of introverts, misfits, observers, and deep thinkers.’ This really resonated with me as I read your words. You went on to say how we share the scars of rejection, hounding questions about how long the writing is taking, and so much more. I get it, oh, how I get it. What other writerly things have you learned along the way and how might one keep swimming?
Susan Henderson: I get as much mail about the Acknowledgments section as the book itself. I really felt like I needed to write that note to my fellow writers because it can be such a bruising business.
How to keep swimming… well, for starters, I created my website, LitPark, just for that purpose. It’s where we all share our struggles and successes and tips. I also added a new feature called Words for the Weary, where authors share their advice about surviving in this business.
Beyond that, I think the reality is that we would all have quit by now if we could or if we were being reasonable. But somehow, in spite of the rejections and the uphill climb, we keep waking up with ideas, we keep observing and eavesdropping and dreaming. What that says to me is that we’re writers. It’s in our hardwiring. For whatever reason, we’re driven to tell stories, to look closely at the world, to find music in words.
Once we realize that, there’s only one thing to do, which is to build the support we need to stay in the game. Follow the writers who are emotionally available, attend readings and greet the authors afterwards, find the nearest indie bookstore and get to know the owners. This is how we find our tribe and, some days, this will be lifesaving.
“Great sentences expounding on the complexities and fragilities of the human heart, one that echoes John Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner.”
on THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS
L.L.: Susan, it’s been wonderful. Is there anything I forgot to ask, but should have? Like…your summer plans, what you’re writing next, what you’re reading, what movie you last saw, or a favorite guilty pleasure?
Susan Henderson: You know, people always ask me about books but never ask for movie recommendations. Here are a few I’m looking forward to: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (because I could use a little Mister Rogers in my life these days), American Animals (because I’ve heard it’s brilliant), and BlacKkKlansman (because I’m a crazy-huge fan of Jordan Peele and Spike Lee).
What have I seen lately that’s memorable? I loved the animation in Isle of Dogs. The movie itself is uneven but worth it for the visual artistry. Moonlight is a gorgeous coming of age story that feels like you’re watching a poem. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie that felt so much like a literary masterpiece. I, Tonya surprised the hell out of me by how terribly funny, poignant, and deep it was, especially in exposing our prejudices about class. The Stanford Prison Experiment was painful to watch but a eye-opener at how quickly we are corrupted by power. I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary about my favorite writer, James Baldwin, and his words are more relevant today than ever. The Zookeeper’s Wife made me want to go home and write. And Get Out made me want to talk about it for hours because Jordan Peele is a genius at getting you to look at society and self from another angle.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE FLICKER OF OLD DREAMS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Henderson is a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize. She is the author of two novels, The Flicker of Old Dreams and Up from the Blue, both published by HarperCollins. Susan lives in Kings Park, New York and blogs at the writer support group, LitPark.com.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image courtesy of HarperCollins. Image of rural fence from the archives of S. Henderson; all used with permission]