Author Q&A: Eleanor Henderson
- December 27, 2011
Discussion with the author of Ten Thousand Saints
Questions for Eleanor Henderson on “Ten Thousand Saints”
Why “Ten Thousand Saints”? Please make the connection between the title and the story for our readers.
The title comes from the novel’s epigraph, which comes from the Book of Jude: “Behold, the Lord cometh with ten thousands of his saints, to execute judgment upon all.” I think of the group of straight edge kids in the novel, led by the main character, Jude, as being an army of thousands, set upon executing their judgment on the other characters in the book. In many ways, Jude’s saintly behavior is admirable, but it also comes with its own consequences.
What do you say to the reader who wants to know why you chose to write a 385-page book about misguided kids with irresponsible parents? Is their voice unheard?
I do think that the voice of straight edge kids is largely unheard by the mainstream. I think the story of kids rebelling against their parents’ legacy of rebellion with a new brand of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’’ roll is an interesting and relevant one.
Is this the end of the hippie story? Is this the way all good hippies go?
Certainly not all of them. Many of them cleaned up and still managed to maintain the lofty, lovely ideals of the flower children in raising their own children. But those that couldn’t or chose not to have stories to tell.
Do you believe that art has any special responsibility? Sometimes, is it just to make the reader see things in a place where he/she wouldn’t ordinarily look?
Yes. I believe that fiction has the responsibility to bring readers outside of their own experience. Sometimes that means the writer has to write outside of his or her own experience, too.
There is senseless violence, senseless sex acts, essentially a story about a band of young folks stumbling through their adolescence. The one character that at first seems the most directed is a closeted homosexual, which, of course, wouldn’t matter except for his discomfort. It’s the only thing that anyone is ashamed of in the entire book. Do you think young men are still having this same struggle in spite of our declarations about acceptance and diversity?
Well, I don’t think Johnny is the only character who feels ashamed. I think many of the characters regret their choices. But I am amazed and saddened when I still hear stories of men struggling to stay in the closet. And of course, this was true to an even larger extent during the advent of the AIDS epidemic.
What can the reader take away except that the world seems to keep on churning whether we grow up or not?
I hope that readers take away a story about the different ways people, young and old, manage to go on living, and to come together, after a loss. I hope they take away a love story. I hope they take away a new and fully imagined world.
There isn’t really a sympathetic character – is this purposeful? You don’t pretend that the characters are seeking redemption, nor do you provide any. Is it more true to life than a happy ending?
I think most of the characters are seeking redemption; certainly that’s a description of Jude’s movement through grief and guilt and cleaning up. There’s a difference between a flawed character and an unsympathetic character, and I hope other readers will sympathize with these characters despite and because of their flaws, because I care for them deeply.
Do you have a real life connection to the characters? Is all fiction 50% author reality?
My husband’s experience in the New York straight edge scene in the 1980s inspired my interest in the material, but the novel is wholly fiction. I think fiction is either 0% author reality or 100%, depending how you look at it. A narrative is always an invention, and it always comes from the author’s perceptions of the world. There isn’t always a clear line between memory and imagination.
You did a lot of research. What kind of facts did you unearth about Tompkins Park, St. Mark’s Place, Alphabet City? How did it change your story? Was the Straight Edge community large? Was it rumored to be homosexual or were they really celibate?
I was fascinated by the turbulent history of this neighborhood, which truly made history with the Tompkins Square Park riots (it’s hard for me not to think about those riots when hearing about the Occupy Wall Street protests today). The story began as a coming of age story about a teenage boy, but as I researched and revised, it also became a larger story about an evolving New York City. As for the straight edge community, it was quite intimate in the eighties, but it’s grown much larger since then, becoming a global movement. I have heard rumors about homosexual activity within the scene, but I don’t think it’s rampant. The scene has grown so large that there are many interpretations of straight edge. Some straight edge kids are celibate, but I’d say mostly they value meaningful relationships and eschew casual sex.
Why wouldn’t Eliza give Teddy’s baby to his rightful grandfather? This was just a spiteful, immature act and yet, it is allowed to stand. Is this where the truth intrudes? Was it difficult not to give your readers a happy ending?
I don’t know that Ravi was the rightful guardian for the baby. I think ending the novel with two anonymous adoptions–Teddy’s baby goes to a good home, and Ravi adopts a child of his own–is a hopeful note to end on, and one that brings Jude closer to accepting his own adoption and his own family.
What makes Jude, one of the main characters, want to come back and revisit his past?
I think the birth of a new generation—Jude’s daughter–and the death of a landmark–CBGB–add up to a pretty emotional reason for Jude’s return to New York.
How do you see your audience reading “Ten Thousand Saints,” on a screened porch in a rocker, in an airport with an E-Reader?
I’ve heard from readers who’ve done both! I’m happy that so many different kinds of readers are enjoying the book in all its forms. But my favorite reader testimony is from one of my writing students, who emailed me to say that she read my book in Tompkins Square Park! I can’t imagine a more fitting landscape for it.
How does it feel to be on “Poets and Writers” Magazine’s list of The Best Young Writers?
It feels wonderfully gratifying. I’ve had a subscription to the magazine since I was eighteen, and I’ve written for it for a long time. It’s surreal to finally be one of the subjects, and not just the byline.
I’ve begun a novel about a sharecropping family living in South Georgia during the Depression. But I also have a two-month-old baby, a three-year-old son, and a full-time teaching gig, so it just might be another decade before it sees the light of day.