The Raw Materials of Our Fiction: An Interview With Smith Henderson

Smith Henderson’s debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, a 2014 New York Times Notable Book, was the winner of the 2015 John Creasy Dagger Award and the 2014 Montana Book Award. It was also a finalist for the 2015 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, the James Tait Black Prize, the Center for Fiction’s Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize, the Ken Kesey Award for the Novel, and the Texas Institute of Letters Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction.

The novel follows social worker Pete Snow in a maelstrom of changes in his life, while capturing a transitioning 1980s America: “We’re all animals. Just dancing bears in tutus and monkeys with cigarettes. Painted up and stuffed into clown cars.”

Set in Montana, Pete spends his days attempting to mediate in the lives of others, while estranged from his wife and daughter. Enter Ben, a malnourished, feral boy, who lives in the woods. As Pete attempts to help, he follows into the world of Jeremiah Pearl, a conspiracy theorist on the outskirts of society, balancing on the verge of violence and chaos.

He is a staff writer on the “The Son” for AMC and, previously, his work at an advertising agency contributed to the Emmy-nominated “Halftime In America” Super Bowl Commercial.

As an author, Henderson’s writing is brunt and poetic as Faulkner, at times effortless, almost simplistic in its poignancy, summoning a myriad of other American classics, yet confident and stylish in its own right.

 What do you try to achieve when you sit down to write, and how do you know when you’ve achieved it? 

SH: On a daily basis what you’re trying to achieve is a shifting target. Sometimes you’re doing revisions and focused on a particular problem with a character, tone, or some other aspect of the thing. Other days you’re doing a lot of thinking and a lot less writing. It just depends on where you are with a given project. And I’m always working on making my sentences as good as they can be. That’s always a joy — I hope that work remains so.

For me, I know when a piece is done when I’ve gone completely granular into the punctation choices and such. At some point, you have to recognize that the things you are obsessing over are minuscule and overall meaningless.

I write books I’d like to read. I could read and hope to find that book, but it’s so much more fun to write.

 With the setting of Montana playing such a large part in Fourth of July Creek, do you feel that your surroundings shape your writing? 

SH: Not really. I mean, of course, I am the products of my environment. And I wrote this novel with my Montana upbringing to draw on, but I wouldn’t say it shaped my writing. As in, I didn’t meditate on nature before writing about it. I think the shape of my writing is really just a reflection of my enthusiasms, some of which are in nature, but also ideas, sentence structure, rhythm, degree of caffeination, blood sugar… you name it.

 What interested you in setting the story in the late 70s/early 80s? 

SH: The Reagan Revolution was a pivot point in American history. A huge swath of Americans of a certain income bracket moved into a worse bracket, pretty systematically. I wanted to signal that the book takes place at the moment this change began.

The second reason was that the practice of social work was much more rudimentary. I dunno, maybe in some ways its gotten worse. Certainly the field has made progress and had setbacks. The key change is really the degree to which America has gutted social services. And the perception that people who require social work are failures is still quite prevalent, but I feel like the ethos of the Great Society was stronger then. Hell, who even talks about the Great Society as a goal in America anymore. No one! Reagan demolished that.

 How did you approach writing two such extreme characters with Pete and Jeremiah? 

SH: When I realized that the two books I was writing — one featuring Pete and one featuring Pearl — were actually the same book, then the two characters snapped into focus. Or they moved away from one another like opposite magnetic poles, and the book came into it’s shape that way.

They really taught one another how to be extreme—not narratively, mind you, but creatively, in the process of writing them.

 In a previous interview you said “no-one’s asking you to write a novel.” So what drives you? 

SH: Well, I’m asking me to write a novel. I write books I’d like to read. I could read and hope to find that book, but it’s so much more fun to write.

 How did your work as a copywriter fit in with your ambitions as an author? 

SH: I became a full-time copywriter shortly after I’d sent my novel off to my agent. Not long after that, we were shopping it around where it fell into the inestimable hands of Lee Boudreax at Ecco. During the long run-up to publication, I took the opportunity to learn about advertising in a serious way, and for me, that meant getting more exposure to television production, which is something I’m doing now, as it happens.

 Fourth of July Creek explores different kinds of narratives with the use of Q & A to tell Rachel’s story. What made you decide this worked above others? 

SH: I can’t definitely say that it works better than another way I could’ve written it, but I chose to write Rachel’s sections in Q&A because the form itself conveyed the anxiety I was feeling as a reader about her journey. A young girl out in the world alone making a lot of bad choices…it felt like the most fraught way to tell her story was in conjecture.

 How much do you consider an audience when writing, and has this changed since being published? 

SH: I think of the audience within myself, which is a shifting and evolving (or devolving) mental state. I think of whether or not I’m bored or if the language is doing enough work or the events justify the prose and so on. I always look at my own work as a reader. I’m a tough nut to crack as a reader. I finish fewer books and television shows and movies every year it seems. I’m just less easily enchanted anymore. And there’s more to read and watch and write, so if something isn’t firing on all cylinders for me, it’s time to try something else. With writing, you have to keep at it once you commit, so you’re naturally more generous there.

 What is it that draws you to a character in your own work and others’? 

SH: Complexity, but privileged insight. A character shouldn’t be inscrutable to me. But she shouldn’t be boring either. I realize that the “inscrutable/boring” axis is an individual one. It’s absolutely fine to set aside a work that has character you don’t understand or that you understand so well as to feel you’ve encountered him before. And it’s fine to keep reading. Character isn’t the only reason to we read. Though good characters certainly carry a lot of water for the art overall.

 Cormac McCarthy said The Road was inspired by his son. Did you draw any inspiration from your own experiences as a father for Jeremiah and Ben? 

SH: Of course. The raw materials of our fictions are found in our lives and the books we’ve read. But the events and characters we create are probably not shadows of real events or people. Mine aren’t so much, anyway.

 If you could have written one book by another author, which would it be? 

SH: Like, is there a book I admire so much that I wish that I’d have written it? I can’t think of anything I’d want to appropriate. And the effort! It’s hard enough to give shape to your own dream. Imagine being as sick and miserable as Orwell! Or encountering the deafening silence at the unveiling of Moby Dick! Or the feeling the rage that shaped Ellison…sorry, I’ll pass. My demons and I are pretty content over here on here on our own, thanks.