WASHINGTON — Eleanor Henderson greets her crowd at the Politics and Prose bookstore on Sunday, taking her thick, black rimmed glasses off to clean them and one last sip of her to-go coffee before she begins reading a chapter of her newest novel, The Twelve-Mile Straight.
Henderson’s novel, was just published on September 12 and tackles the issue of race, social division, and financial struggle in Cotton County, Georgia in the 1930’s.
In the small audience, many of the people were fans of her first book, Ten Thousand Saints, which led them into the bookstore to hear her speak about her newest novel.
Henderson’s second novel follows a mother who gave birth to twins – one black and one white. She read a chapter aloud to the Politics and Prose audience, giving everyone a look into both her writing and the and after a round of applause for Henderson’s reading, she took questions from the audience.
As a white woman, Henderson addressed the question of how she felt about writing about the issue of race in the south in the 1930’s.
“It felt very important for me to tell a story that had a rich cast of characters,” Henderson said. “It was clear to me that the cast of the time had to be represented, but for me, the technical craft question was ‘can I go inside and why would I want to evaluate a character through her point of view?’”
Henderson is an associate professor at Ithaca College, but got a year off in order to finish her novel and write full time. She is from Ithaca, New York, but has always been fascinated with the visits she took to Georgia and the stories she heard there.
“I’m not from Georgia myself. My father was born in Benhill County, Georgia in 1932, so I spent a good amount of time in Georgia as a kid, seeing family,” Henderson said, when asked if she was from Georgia. “We had a large family with seven siblings and lots of cousins and so I spent a lot of time there as a kid. But much of the material from the book, at the least the world of the book the story takes place in, was derived in large part from stories that I heard growing up with my father, visits to the land that his family farmed. They too were share croppers and had 200 acres of cotton plants and corn and tobacco so the landscape is very much inspired by that Georgia that I know, but then the stories themselves, the central stories derive from imagination and research.”
Because Henderson never directly grew up in Georgia in the 1930’s, she explained that her motivation for writing a novel with such an unfamiliar setting was her husband and father.
“I think because both my husband and my father spoke about those times with nostalgia and love, I loved those people and so, I also was not inclined to write about myself or the places I grew up in very directly, at least not very much and not yet,” Henderson shared. “I think that enthusiasm that they had – and they’re storytellers too – but they have this really high level of detail that they could capture and I was just stealing it even though they maybe didn’t know it just writing down notes in notebooks. But then it wasn’t really my intention to tell their stories.”
She also added the importance of doing accurate research and ensuring that the world being written about is a believable one, even if the novel is fiction.
“I’m not speaking from direct experience and in both books that was a really terrifying experience for me, on every page I would say to myself ‘who am I to tell this story?’ That can be really frightening but is also a really necessary question for any fiction writer, so I hope that my fear of getting those worlds wrong prompted me to keep diving deeper into research and doing my best to create a place that would be recognizable to people who lived there, but of course as fiction.”
As an author of a previous novel, Henderson explained her need to maintain distance from the setting that she is writing about.
“Setting and character kind of grows out of the earth and I can’t just set a story on a blank page and so I kind of in a secondhand way, in an almost journalistic way, I’ve come to the stories,” Henderson said. “I think that kind of distance, for me, has been helpful in that I really want to get to know a place really well. I get to know a place better than I could know my own reality with more authority than I can at my own which is sort of ironic and impossible.”
Henderson shared that The Twelve-Mile Straight took her six years to finish – a feat considering that her first novel took her nine years.
“My high school English teacher said ‘it’s done when it’s due,’” Henderson laughed. “Luckily I had a deadline waiting for me or we wouldn’t be here.”