This Side of West Interviews Lee Henderson
Interviewed by TSOW 2021-2022 Intern, Meghan Romano.
This Side of West’s Issue 20 intern, Meghan Romano, interviews UVic Writing Professor and award-winning author, Lee Henderson..
Meghan Romano: Has there been a creative project where you felt like you’ve learned the most about yourself as a writer?
Lee Henderson: Every big project, you learn that over and over again. And putting together a collection of twelve stories, you begin to see the journey that took you from the first story, to the actual book out there. And each time you learn about yourself, again, for the first time. Even when you’re writing fiction, you’re still thinking about yourself. Then the completion of a project really does mark a period of time.
I also find that there’s another emotional journey that you always end up going on, between the elation and excited beginnings where everything feels so fresh, and open, and full of opportunities, to the kind of like, crashing despair of a certain point where you just can’t figure out how to get it any further. You feel like all those plans you had at the beginning, must have been all wrong. And what are you going to do next? The whole experience of writing is so gratifying and challenging that he can’t help but mark you and help you see yourself.
MR: Have you had this moment of crushing despair with all your projects?
LH: I think with a novel, you have it every eighty pages or so. If you haven’t had it sooner than eighty pages, you’ll definitely have it at eighty pages, and then again at about one hundred-sixty. I think it’s just inevitable.
Part of the choreography, of fiction at least, is throwing out threads. When you get to about eighty pages, the threads begin to require braiding and threading and weaving. You can’t just keep throwing [in] more threads; novels want to be integrated. So, what, in fact, looked like disparate elements are suddenly becoming unified. But there’s no roadmap to doing that. No, no. No writing book can actually tell you how that’s going to braid together. There’s just a part of you that wants to quit, where this is just too hard. You know? But again, it’s just a mind game. Of course, we know how to do it. It’s just hard. You just have to figure out how to trick yourself into doing hard work.
MR: Do you have any advice for Writing students who, the night before an assignment is due, say: “This idea is too hard. I’m going to start it all over.”?
LH: I’ve been through this with novels. It’s worse with novels. It’s okay with short stories. When you’re eighty pages into a novel, and you realize, ‘I don’t know what to do next. I’ve done all this stuff. But I can’t figure out where it’s all going’. And then suddenly, you’ll get this amazing new idea. And it’s so beautiful. And it looks so good. It’s like, “Wait a minute. No, no, no, no, that’s what I should be doing. Maybe this new idea is the solution. It’s not that I’ve reached a hard part, it’s that my original idea just wasn’t good.”
So, we start something new. And then we keep letting ourselves start new stuff, without finishing something. Without finishing, we’ll never figure out how to finish. There’s so many important elements of writing that happen in the last third of something, that if you never tried to get there, you’re missing out on a major challenge. And I wonder what could be done to reassure someone in those final hours where you switch projects? Wouldn’t it be incredible what could happen if you just tried to get to the end?
MR: With your experience working on The Malahat Review, do you have any advice for students looking to be published in literary magazines?
LH: I happened to fill in for Iain [Higgins] while he went on a sabbatical during COVID. So, I spent this semester last year editing the [Malahat Review]. It was so much fun to just read the enormous amount of submissions, wondering what is it that keeps attracting me? It’s about that feeling that only this writer could have told this story, no one else could have written it. This person’s voice is just so essential, for being so honest.
A lot of what stands out in the journal submissions is an understanding of how voice controls structure. So, there are kinds of stories that are just stories. Like, this is what happened to these people, and this is the story of it. If it’s done well, it can be compelling. But it’s the story that tells it in the voice of one of those characters. And in doing that, can change the way the story is told. There’s a kind of inevitable linearity to a lot of the writing that we get. And some of it’s really good. But it’s harder to stand out. The writing that readers engage with is something that knows how to be bold without being offensive, or derogatory, or needlessly provocative, but knows how to be brave on the page.
MR: How would you describe UVic’s Writing community?
LH: We get freakishly talented students here. Makes my job so much fun. And then the level of basic quality that you see around you, which is already so high, spurs you to try to get above that. And then that keeps raising the bar in completely community-oriented, supportive ways.
Hopefully your best allies in your career as a writer are going to be other writers, people you meet and can connect with now, rather than being rivals and people you’re competing with. There’s many book deals out there and no one’s competing for the one book deal. There’s no reason to feel competitive. In fact, what happens is that if we, as writers, support each other, it only ends up helping us all a lot more. Some people’s careers just skyrocket, it’s like, ‘Wow, holy smokes that just happened to you’. And then in other people it’s step by step, and they still get there. You get to the same place but it’s in a different pace. So, you know, I think we should be our best allies.