Five Questions with "Ten Thousand Saints" author Eleanor Henderson

What do Barack Obama, Henry David Thoreau, and Ithaca College writing professor Eleanor Henderson have in common? All have written books selected for IC’s First-Year Reading Initiative. In fact, Professor Henderson’s first novel, Ten Thousand Saints, is the book all freshmen received at their Summer Orientation.

She began the book in 2002, writing longhand in a notebook on the subway, and finished it while teaching at Ithaca, nine years later. The events she describes took place when many of your parents were the same ages as the characters in her book—and also the same age that most of you are now.

But in Ten Thousand Saints, the parents are the ones who need to grow up. While they smoke—and sell—pot, their kids are the ones who start saying no to drugs. As the New York Times Sunday Book Review put it, “The difference between the stoned parents and the turpentine-huffing kids who go clean isn’t . . . one of sober versus altered states; it has more to do with those who seek intensity and those who shield themselves from it."

Whether it’s young people trying to break away from their dope-dealing parents or young people taking the first steps on an unknown four-year journey, the road to adulthood is not for the faint of heart.

The New York Times named Ten Thousand Saints one of the top 10 books of 2011. Equally as important, Professor Henderson has received positive feedback for her story from readers as young as 15 and as old as 75.

“I hope the incoming class of IC students finds the book worthwhile,” she said. “I can’t wait to be part of the conversation.”

That conversation starts right here with a Q&A session.

Five Questions with Professor Eleanor Henderson

Q: What life lessons do you think Ten Thousand Saints has for incoming Ithaca College freshmen?

A: There are plenty of lessons that my main character. Jude, learns over the course of the book—extreme sainthood is as dangerous as extreme depravity; parents are usually right but rarely perfect; you can’t revive the dead; you can sometimes choose your family; never go into Alphabet City alone.  But I don’t think of literature in terms of moral instruction, and my characters certainly aren’t role models.  What I think fiction can do well is create a world for readers to inhabit—one that is both comfortably familiar and expansively unfamiliar.  When the freshmen reading Ten Thousand Saints close the book, I only hope that they will have had a one-of-a-kind experience—that they will have lost a friend, gained others, moved to a new city, fallen in love.

Q: Your students are roughly the same ages as Johnny, Jude, and Eliza, the characters in Ten Thousand Saints. How do you think students will relate to your characters’ coming-of-age experiences?

A: Because the novel has so many points of view, it presents a wide range of universal experiences, so I expect that every student will find something to relate to in it.  Even though most college freshmen aren’t straight edge, and haven’t been pregnant or homeless, as some of my characters have been, most teenagers have faced questions about experimenting with drugs, or rebelled against their parents, or formed intense friendships, or fallen in love for the first time, or just felt alone.  Students for whom coming of age also means “coming out” might find a special connection to some of the characters.  Others, who have lost a friend, or found solace in music, might find other kinds of connection.

Q: People say you should ‘write what you know.’ Are the characters based on real people? How much did you know about the straight-edge movement before writing your novel?

A: I get bored writing what I know!  With this novel, I wanted to write about a world I didn’t know.  The characters aren’t based on real people, but the world is the one my husband, Aaron, grew up in and was involved with when we met.  I knew a fair amount about the straight edge scene through his stories, and through going to some hardcore shows together, and he was my number one source of information.  I found that imagining my own emotional experiences into unfamiliar territory was one way to stay invested in and curious about my characters’ world.

Q: In an era where texting and tweeting have become commonplace, formal writing is still an essential skill. Do you have any tips to help members of the Class of 2016 articulate their experiences in writing?

A: Yes!  Embrace process.  Keep a journal.  And revise, revise, revise.  As Joan Didion wrote, “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means.”  In order to do that, you have to fiercely interrogate your own writing, word by word.

Q: What did writing your first novel teach you? How have those lessons made you a better teacher?

A: Writing my first novel taught me how to write a novel!  And it taught me that good writing usually takes time.  Ten Thousand Saints went through hundreds of pages of revisions over the better part of a decade.  I like to bring my own writing failures and victories into the classroom—the times when I couldn’t find the right words, and then, through draft after draft, finally found them.

Originally published in Fuse: Five Questions with "Ten Thousand Saints" author Eleanor Henderson.