Sunday, July 08, 2012

If Truth Be Known

SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH chats with novelist DEBORAH HENRY about her heart-wrenching first novel, The Whipping Club, a story about secrets and lies, love and redemption, joy and triumph


PASSION, PATIENCE AND PERSEVERANCE. First-time author Deborah Henry possesses plenty of these traits. Her début novel, The Whipping Club (T.S. Poetry Press), which has earned praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain) and Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean), explores territory that far more experienced novelists would hesitate to tread: destructive family secrets, the complex, sometimes heart-wrenching search for personal identity and the cruel, mindless prejudice and misery surrounding child abuse.

Crossing the racial chasm
Set against the political backdrop of 1950s and ’60s Dublin, The Whipping Club follows the journey of Marian McKeever, a young Catholic schoolteacher who falls in love with Ben Ellis, a Jewish journalist. Against all odds, the couple plans to cross the racial chasm between them and get married.

Marian then discovers she is pregnant and keeps it a secret. She gives up her baby believing that she is protecting her future with Ben and that a good life awaits her infant son in America. A decade later, Marian, now married to Ben and mother to their 10-year-old daughter, discovers that her son is not living in America. Instead, he has been institutionalised in a notorious Irish Catholic orphanage under conditions so horrific, his very survival is at stake.

Bumps in the road
Henry dives headlong into these deep, often dark issues with the consummate skill and finesse of a seasoned writer, so it comes as a surprise when she admits there were more than a few bumps in the road. “There were layers of difficulty from the beginning. The novel takes place in a foreign country I was unfamiliar with at the time,” she explains. “I spent almost two years reading about Jewish roots in Ireland, anti-Semitism and Irish adoptions, to name a few of the major topics, as well as listening to audio books read by Irish authors to hear the lilt in their voices as I learned from their novels about the craft of writing. I also studied Irish dictionaries and slang.”

Henry was inspired to write about these complicated issues because of her personal family history. Even though she endured none of the horrors experienced by the characters in her book, Henry was intensely fascinated with the challenges faced by her first-generation Irish-Catholic mother and Jewish father. “Back in the 1950s my parents’ love affair was frowned upon. No one came to their wedding. I’ve always been curious about the duality of my Jewish-Irish heritage.”

The idea for The Whipping Club took hold when Henry began to contemplate mixed unions in Ireland during the time of her parents’ marriage. “When I began thinking about a fictitious child of a mixed marriage in Ireland, I learned that my parents’ relationship would never have been tolerated across the sea,” she says.

It was the first stirrings of an idea that would eventually turn into a full-length novel. “My budding story evolved into a manuscript with uncanny similarities to harsh events that took place in Irish orphanages. The more I researched, the more I uncovered a hidden Ireland, an island in which thousands of adults and children were forcibly separated, many of the ‘orphans’ adopted by American families and living with a vague sense of identity and a yearning for connection to their roots.”

Leaving no stone unturned
Henry diligently set about uncovering all she could about Ireland and left no stone unturned in her quest to immerse herself with the knowledge and subtleties that would allow her to write a multilayered, detailed account of the “dark ages” of the Emerald Isle. “I travelled to Ireland and there, I would study the smells in the air, the people, the sounds on the street—all the nuances of Dublin and the suburbs of Dublin where much of the book takes place,” she says. “Every trip also included interviews with survivors of orphanages, the industrial school systems, Mother Baby homes, as well as interviews with police officers, lawyers and members of the RTE [Ireland’s national radio and television broadcaster].”

Henry’s unwavering perseverance and passion is especially praiseworthy because she is not a writer by profession. “Before I became an author, I stumbled around New York City working in investment research firms and then met my first mentor, Arthur King Peters, a writer and French scholar who hired me as his research and editorial assistant during the production of his book, Jean Cocteau and His World.”

Motivated by working with her mentor, Henry began to seriously consider writing a novel and her transformation into an author began in earnest when she became a stay-at-home mother to her three children. “I loved this new position and took the task of motherhood the way one might look at a promotion,” she recalls. “Although I always kept a journal and wrote quite honestly sappy, sentimental poetry, I started writing in earnest when my children were infants, practising with a young adult novel, The Box of Letters, which I am now tweaking. As the children grew, I began my research for The Whipping Club.”

Intense research
It took half a decade of intense research and writing before Henry was happy with her book and carved out blocks of writing time despite having to juggle her responsibilities as a mother. “In the early years, I would drop my children at school and drive to a deserted field and write in my car until pick-up time,” she explains. “During the summers, I would get up at four-forty-five a.m. to write for a few hours before the first birds sang and before my children awoke.”

Henry even managed to find time to earn a degree in writing from Fairfield University, close to where she lives in Connecticut and discovered, much to her delight, that she had inadvertently found a whole network of supportive friends and colleagues. “I enrolled in the MFA program and met many fine colleagues and mentors who helped me understand and appreciate the journey to publication.”

Turning point
The experience turned out to be priceless. Henry remembers how she learned to understand the intricacies of developing a good story such as pacing, subplots, flow and rhythm and developed confidence through student readings. It was also during that summer that the central core of The Whipping Club dawned upon her. “It was a turning point in my writing life,” she says. “I thought about my own writing journey and asked myself: What is the one thing you couldn’t live without? What makes you cry? What outrages you? The answers materialised. For me, with this novel, at this stage in my life: to not be able to protect my children. That is what I am passionate about.”

Although Henry writes about tragedy, abuse and difficult choices in The Whipping Club, she admits that her own life story isn’t nearly as dramatic. “I grew up on Long Island in a wealthy, secular Jewish community. My parents divorced when I was fifteen and my mother remarried and moved to Manhattan. Though this may sound troublesome, to this day, I love my stepfather who played the piano with me, and like me, is a Francophile,” she says. “I had a lot of fun, for the most part, growing up. It was in many ways a typical high school experience. I still remain friends with kids I met in the second grade.”

Unsurprisingly, Henry’s childhood was filled with books and happy memories that revolved around reading. “I remember loving to read from my earliest years. After a warm bath, snuggled clean and cozy with my mother’s arm around me and my brother, we settled in for our ritual evening story hour. The lull of my mother’s voice ... made reading synonymous with bliss.”

Changing publishing landscape
Unlike many authors, Henry is unperturbed by the radical changes in the publishing industry and is philosophical and even positive about the advent of e-books. “We are often averse to change, but e-books are growing and changing the publishing landscape and they are here to stay. I believe that e-books will soar but I also believe that bookstores will remain. E-books and trade paperbacks and hardcovers—they are all good. E-books aid those who have difficulty with their eyesight to read again.” To her, it’s not about the medium but the content. “I think the important thing is the work. The delivery systems for books may shift and I am open to all the exciting publishing avenues but it is all about creating the best possible book and communicating with others.”

To make her point, Henry quotes Pulitzer Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck: “In 1931, at the beginning of her classic novel, The Good Earth, she gives this note to her readers: I am always glad when any of my books can be put into an inexpensive edition, because I like to think that any people who might wish to read them can do so. Surely books ought to be within the reach of everybody. I couldn’t agree more.”


1. STAY OPEN-MINDED. Read, read, read. I read many great books on the writing life. For me, one of the best is Robert Olen Butler’s book on craft, From Where You Dream.
2. FIND THE SPACE AND TIME TO WRITE, whether early in the morning or very late at night, where the details of your family or work life cannot interfere with your writing life. You will find this very satisfying.
3. DISCIPLINE IS ALSO MANDATORY. Keep a steady routine, even when you think you are too tired to go on. I often find it funny when writers say they always keep their schedule unless they are physically ill. I will write even when I have the flu because you get to enjoy at least five or six hours when you separate from yourself, when you are in the flow and relieved of your symptoms for that period of time.
5. TAKE WALKS WITH A PAD AND PEN. Ideas often come during long drives, too. Keep pad and pen ready; even waterproof pads in the shower.
6. FINALLY, PERSEVERE THROUGH ALL THE REWRITES. Hone your skills. Develop your writing and marketing muscles. Eventually, the doors will open.

Reproduced from the October-December 2012 issue of Quill magazine


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