Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"Up From the Blue"

Susan Henderson is a graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Creative Writing program and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Her debut novel, Up From the Blue (HarperCollins, 2010), has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick (by the Women’s National Book Association), an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Best Bets Pick (by BookReporter), Editor’s Pick (by BookMovement), Editor’s Choice (by BookBrowse), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), and a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness). It is currently being translated into Dutch and Norwegian. Henderson is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and her work has — twice — been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She blogs at LitPark.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in NY with their two boys.

Henderson applied the Page 69 Test to Up From the Blue and reported the following:
This is a terribly interesting (and kind of unnerving) project—just opening the book at a random spot and seeing what’s there. I think, as writers, we get attached to reading the passages that really show off our strengths, the ones we know will grab the reader and pull them into the story. But turning to a random page and seeing a piece of writing out of context is extremely helpful. You discover whether you have an identifiable style or cadence. And you discover whether, in every scene, you’re giving the full flavor of your characters and driving the plot forward.

So let me set the scene. First of all, the overall book takes a look at depression through the eyes of an eight-year-old whose mother mysteriously disappears; and despite the narrator’s age, the book is fairly dark and it is not a children’s book.

When I turned to page 69, I found a scene between my eight-year-old narrator and a doctor who’s not pleased with the reason he’s been called to the house. The doctor is probably the smallest character in the book, which makes it an interesting choice of scenes to highlight. However, this section of the book is important because it tests a belief that a number of the characters hold, and that is that this young girl will be better off in a stable, predictable, and protective environment. And what you find out is this calm environment makes her crazy with boredom, and what she longs for is a return to her mentally ill mother.

I think what comes through in this particular scene, where Tillie learns she’s about to reunite with her mother (or so she thinks), is her feistiness and my tendency to make dialogue into something of a sword fight—one jabs and the other responds:
He dragged on his cigarette, then tapped it against his boot so the ash hit the rock. “You know what I like about you, Tillie? There’s still hope for you. You could march back to the house and tell your host you’ve been a selfish and unappreciative guest.” He handed me his cigarette.

I slid my hands under my legs. “I’m not allowed.”

“Next time, maybe.” His hand massaged the toe of his boot and then moved to his ankle, where he tucked his fingertips under the cuff of his jeans. I breathed in the smoke, thinking I might like the taste. “So sometime between now and tomorrow when you’re on that plane home,” he said, taking another drag, “I want you to think long and hard about how to be less of a brat.”

“I’m going home tomorrow?”

“Is that the only thing you heard?”

“The only thing that matters.”

“I’m not sure why I said there was hope for you.”

“I’m really going home?”

“You’re a terrible, rotten listener, Tillie.”

I beamed at him, suddenly wishing I’d taken the cigarette.
Learn more about the book and author at Susan Henderson's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue