Thursday, February 24, 2011

Learning to Swim Author Sara J. Henry On Moving North, Swimming Lake Champlain, and Raiding Her Father's Library

On Tuesday, Sara J. Henry's debut novel Learning to Swim hit store shelves. I read it, loved it, and reviewed it. Today, she's here for an interview to tell us more about Learning to Swim and my new favorite character, Troy Chance. The novel has gained recognition from authors such as Daniel Woodrell (Winter's Bone, subsequently made into the award-winning film), Meg Waite Clayton (The Wednesday Sisters), and Jamie Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet). Without further ado, the author herself:

So, it was killing me as I read – how much of the protagonist Troy Chance is you, or should I say how much of you is in her? 

SJH: I think it’s common for first-time novelists to use a great deal of themselves in their first-person main character. Mine lives in the house where I used to live in Lake Placid and worked at the newspaper where I used to work, and many of her experiences and feelings are mine. We both like bicycles and computers and dogs and kids. And when I write her, I am her.

Are you a swimmer? Have you ever dived into Lake Champlain?

SJH: I love being in the water, but can’t say I’m much of a swimmer. I essentially learned to swim when I was living in Lake Placid – all my friends did the weekly mini-triathlons, and I was determined to. All I could do was the side stroke, but it got me there. While on a magazine assignment to a swim camp I was filmed underwater while attempting to do the crawl, which showed all the things I was doing wrong.

A diver I’m not – I think I only dived in anywhere twice, and that was to pass a water safety class I took in Ottawa. I’ve crossed Lake Champlain on a ferry, but don’t know that I’ve actually been in the lake.

What is the actual swim blog that's quoted throughout the novel? Is there an actual blog, or is it a compilation (or is it simply fictional)?

SJH: It’s an actual swim blog suggested to me as a possible source for my section titles. I pulled those quotes almost at random and stuck them in, but they seemed to fit those sections.

I know you have ties to the south (Nashville, I think). Why New York and Vermont? Isn't it cold there? It seems like such a foreign place to a southerner like myself...

SJH: I was born and grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and lived for years in Nashville. My first full-time job was in Adirondacks in upstate New York, the sports editor on the  daily newspaper there, and I nearly froze my tail off, before I learned how to dress for the weather (layers, lots of layers, and Sorel boots with thick wool liners). Later, at a crossroads in life, a friend who lived in Vermont said, “Why don’t you come up here and work at the bike shop?” – I’m glad no one suggested going to work on a freighter or moving to Antarctica. But in many ways Vermont suits me – I run to the grocery store or post office in my ripped painting overalls. In Nashville (at least in Green Hills or Brentwood) I think you might be arrested for that.

Have you read Kathy Reichs' Tempe Brennan series (I won't say Bones series, because I think the books are very different)? I thought about the deep south/ Montreal connection from her books as I read your book.

SJH: I’ve read one and I remember that the southern scenes resonated with me. I like the idea of using place as essentially a character in the book, and in the sequel I’m finishing up now that comes into play even more. 

I love your references – AND, I got them. Maura Tierney, Groundhog Day, Highlights magazine, Perry March and Susan Smith (those two you explain in the book). Do you think most readers would have connected so thoroughly to them? References I "get" make a book so much richer to me, yet authors sometimes leave them out.

SJH: It’s a tricky line to walk.  I originally had more references but because I didn’t want to date the book or confuse or frustrate the reader I took some out (and the copyeditor, I seem to remember, wanted me to take them all out). But readers are a lot smarter than people give them credit for, and these and other references seemed integral to the book. And in these days of Google, if you don’t get something you can look it up in a heartbeat.

I took out most restaurant names, because restaurants change hands so often. But when I talk about getting an ice cream cone at Stewart’s or a certain type of bagel at Great Canadian Bagel – you can walk into those places and buy those foods there. And I counted the number of steps from that house in Lake Placid up to Stewart’s, a walk I took often when I lived there. I do love my ice cream. 

Not to dwell on other series, but there seems to be something intrinsically Kinsey Milhone-like about your main character, Troy Chance. I also mentioned that I see  similarities between her & V.I. Warshawski. Do you have influences from authors like Grafton or Paretsky? I suppose I also see Harry Bosch in Troy, since we met at a Michael Connelly event.

SJH: I read Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, years ago, as well as Karen Kijewski Stabenow, and loved that there were series based around a strong female character. But I’d say the authors who influenced the most were the ones I read when I was very young: Mary Stewart and her romantic suspense novels (if you haven’t read Nine Coaches Waiting, do so! I think I even named one character after a character in that book) and John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee series (it’s no coincidence that this book’s integral scenes take place on or near the water). My novel references authors Ngaio Marsh and Leslie Charteris, you know those had an impact as well. While growing up our house was filled with books, some really old ones that my dad brought home from a second-hand store, so I read a lot of stuff other people these days may not have stumbled across (okay, I think I could have lived without the Elsie Dinsmore series, but there they were, so I read them). 

I know there is a second book... And it is a Troy Chance novel, correct? So – series, or sequel only?

SJH: Series, as far as I’m concerned. I’ve got books 3 and 4 mentally roughed out, and can’t wait to write them.

Sara J. Henry and Dogs, Photo from

Sara J. Henry is currently on book tour. To find out if she's coming to a city near you, check her schedule. I'm hoping to be there in March when she visits Nashville!

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