Today, I’m pleased to be joined by my fellow 2017 Debut member, Leah Henderson, whose debut, One Shadow On The Wall, came out June 6th from Simon & Schuster/Atheneum
JR: Hi, Leah and thanks for joining us today.
LH: Hey! I’m thrilled to be here. Thanks for having me.
JR: Before we begin, can you tell us a little bit about One Shadow On The Wall and the impetus behind writing it?
LH: One Shadow On The Wall is the story of a newly orphaned boy choosing between what is right and what is easy in order to keep a promise he made to his father. It is laced with magical realism and set in contemporary Senegal, a place near and dear to my heart.
The impetus for writing it came a few years ago during a trip to Senegal. I happened to see a young boy sitting on a beach wall and asked myself what his day might be like and tried to collect my thoughts in a short story. When my grad school professor read it she remarked, “You know this is the start of a novel, right?” Although I wasn’t quite sold on the idea at first, after many, many drafts, and a couple more after that, I found Mor—my main character—and his story.
JR: I saw on your website, www.leahhendersonbooks.com, that you like taking in different traditions of people when you travel around the world. What are some of the more interesting traditions you’ve observed?
LH: That’s a tough one. I travel a lot. Wanderlust skips through every inch of my body—always! I have seen a number of things over the years that have definitely left an impression from the art of tea service in Senegal or Mali, having henna decorated on my hands and feet during a weeklong Indian wedding in Bangalore, but really my fondest memories are of each places cultural notes that are all their own. The differences between the souks of Muscat, Oman and Riyadh, Saudi Arabia compared to the shops in Dubrovnik, Croatia, or those in Beijing, Istanbul, or Capetown. There are so many differences and similarities around the world that are always so fascinating to witness.
JR: Can you tell us a little bit about your writing journey getting to this point?
LH: I’ve always loved writing, and after spending almost a year writing a novel on a speaker in an Italian nightclub, I decided to go back to school for a MFA in Writing. But I didn’t truly put writing blinders on and focus until after I graduated.
I started One Shadow on the Wall during graduate school, but really dragged my feet about finishing it. I truly didn’t believe I was the one to tell this story. I was worried I’d get everything wrong about a culture I knew so little about. And it wasn’t until my father reminded me that I had the opportunity to help kids like Mor see themselves on the page that my focus intensified.
So with the help of my amazingly supportive mentor I finished One Shadow On The Wall about a year later. Then I submitted it to a very small number of agents. I heard some really encouraging things about the story and my writing, but unfortunately no offers. I knew this quiet story set in a little known part of Africa would have an uphill journey to publication, so I decided to put it in a drawer for awhile and started writing something new. But about seven months after those rejections, I crossed paths with one of the first agents who’d read it and they wanted to take a second look. After that, things happened pretty quickly. I signed on with that agent at the end of 2014, went out on submission the last day of February 2015, and the manuscript sold by the beginning of March 2015.
JR: What’s your writing process like?
LH: It varies for each project I write. But generally an idea sits in my head, twirling around for a while before I actually start to put anything down on paper. Sometimes I will write a brief outline, and other times I will dive right in because certain scenes are so vivid in my mind.
I kind of let the story dictate how things will go. But at some point I definitely stop and assess where I am in the process and either start outlining for the first time, or add to an outline I already created, sometimes even shifting around scenes.
JR: What was your favorite childhood book and who’s your favorite author?
LH: Agh…this question… As a writer and avid reader I have soooooo many favorites! They depend on what I need at the moment. But I will say the childhood book that has left the deepest impression is Corduroy. It was the first book where I got to see an image of myself and my mom having a simple adventure and I loved it.
JR: What’s your favorite movie?
LH: Many of my favorite things depend on my mood. So any questions about “favorites” are tough for me. I like and love so many things for what they are and for how they make me feel. I’ve never been one to put a limit on my “happy” or shy away from things that evoke strong emotions in me.
But one movie I can play again and again and not get bored of no matter how many times I see it is: Beauty and the Beast though Slumdog Millionaire, Love Actually, The Piano, and Notting Hill are up there as well. But right now my whole soul is waiting for the Black Panther. I know that movie will give me life!
JR: Something people would be surprised to learn about you?
LH: To be honest, I’m not really sure anymore. I am always surprised by what people find surprising. I’ve never run off and joined the circus or anything, but I once packed up my brother’s Batmobile and headed off for a cross-country trip in my red rain boots (didn’t make it out of the cul-de-sac though . . . Momdukes convinced me there was an adventure waiting for me at the playground).
JR: Do you do a lot of research when you write?
LH: Absolutely, especially for One Shadow on the Wall. Even though I’ve traveled to Senegal a number of times, her culture is not my own, so I definitely needed to research EVEYTHING. But I have also done a far amount of research on some of my other stories as well. I have a very curious soul, so I love to research. Though sometimes it can quickly turn into a procrastination technique. But I generally do quite a bit of exploring before I ever start writing anything. And in some cases a lot more after I get a completed first draft down, because that’s when I truly know what I need.
JR: Here at the Tuesdays, a big part of our success and the purpose of this site, has been being involved in a critique group. Are you involved in one and if so, how has it helped you?
LH: Critique groups are amazing! Or at least having one or two solid critique partners can do a world of good. And I’m fortunate enough to have both. Critique groups have helped me brainstorm when I’m stuck, and have called me on things that I’ve tried to slip in unnoticed (even though I already knew they weren’t going to fly). They are also a great source of encouragement and kinship if you are fortunate to find the right one.
JR: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve received and is there any advice you can give to writers looking to break in?
LH: Just remember that: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something – anything – down on paper.” –Anne Lamott
And I would offer this: Believe in yourself, and if you can’t completely do that yet, surround yourself with others who believe in you wholeheartedly, even when you falter, and from who’s example you can learn from.
JR: What are you working on next?
LH: My heart-place is middle grade, so I am working on another middle grade that is very different from One Shadow on the Wall, but it combines similar elements—family, friendship, and finding your possibilities and stars.
JR: Before we go, I always like to ask, who’s your favorite member of The Tuesdays? And I really hope you choose me, though, You see, everyone picks Faran, and I would really appreciate it, if for once, someone chose me.
LH: There goes that word “favorite” again. This time I’m not pickin’ favorites! I’m all about people that make others smile and I’m sure each of you have a talent for bringing out a smile in someone else so I’m staying out of this one (call me a coward if you want to).
JR: Sigh . . . okay. Anyway, thanks again for joining us, and the best of luck with One Shadow on the Wall!