“I never could quite escape the fact that I wanted to write books,” said former journalist-turned-novelist Sarah Henning. “I think it’s impossible for us to run away from who we really want to be… Dreams don’t die even when we’re adults and have a mortgage and kids. Some people stuff those dreams down and let them rot in their guts and some of us go for it, even if it seems selfish or silly, though dreams never are. Anyone who tells you that you’re either of those things for going after what you want most likely has a big dream-shaped ulcer in their gut.”
Henning spoke to Spine about her highly anticipated and much-lauded debut Sea Witch, which hits shelves on July 31st.
What was the journey from initial idea to completed project?
Everyone loves a villain, right? After reading the original Hans Christian Andersen tale, I was intrigued—the sea witch in his version isn’t a villain at all. She’s not Ursula. She’s a more of a neutral character who questions the little mermaid’s motives for wanting to become human. Like, do you really want to leave your family, friends and everything you know for a boy you’ve never met? It’s a valid question, even if the answer is love. I wanted to examine this woman, who knew what was at stake, knew this mermaid could lose her life, and then would help her anyway.
That said, when I started writing this book, I’d just had my second child, so very little of my time was my own. I ended up writing the majority of the first draft in the Notes app on my phone while doing my morning cardio because it was the only time I had to myself. That’s not exactly as picturesque as F. Scott Fitzgerald sitting at his typewriter overlooking the French Riviera, but it worked for me.
What were your favorite parts of the process? What were your least favorite?
Drafting! Revising is when everything really shines, but I love the feeling of a story falling out of my brain through my fingertips and onto the page. It’s just so satisfying and enjoyable for me.
As for my least favorite—the waiting! I’m not exactly the most patient person by any stretch but publishing has been a long haul. We sold this book in spring 2015 but couldn’t announce until fall 2015 and then my original publication date was fall 2017 because a lot of publishing is getting in line. And then even after hitting all of my deadlines, I was pushed back again to summer 2018 because of some in-house stuff. That’s a long time. But all that waiting has been worth it to see the excitement surrounding it. You only get a chance to debut once and this summer ended up being the perfect time.
Who or what inspires you
I’m very much inspired by strong women, and I don’t just mean physically, I mean mentally. The societal constructs that define what women should be can be so infuriatingly rigid. We have to be kind, sweet, mothering, thoughtful multi-taskers who “have it all” and look like runway models while doing it. Which is both unrealistic and ridiculous. So, I very much appreciate women who break the mold in any way—just by taking the road slightly less traveled they pave the way for all of us.
Do you have a favorite fairy-tale retelling of your own?
Oh, man. That’s so tough! I’m biased but I’d say Renée Ahdieh’s The Wrath and the Dawn. It’s a retelling of 1001 Nights but it’s also sort of a Beauty and the Beast retelling too because those stories are related. I also really love Megan Bannen’s The Bird and The Blade, which is the retelling of an ancient fairytale that was the basis for Puccini’s opera Turandot.
Sea Witch has received so much critical acclaim (congratulations on that, by the way!) and you’ve sold a second book (THROW LIKE A GIRL) since. Did you feel like there was more pressure as you wrote book two? If so, how did you handle it?
Oh, thank you! I’ve been very lucky with how Sea Witch has been received—I’m very proud and honored that it was an Indies Introduce and Indies Next pick. It’s on those lists with some really terrific books! That said, Sea Witch’s reception didn’t put pressure on me for Throw Like A Girl because that book was finished long before the ARCs even went out for Sea Witch. I’m working on a couple of projects now and I imagine I’m going to start to feel the pressure very soon while working on those—I won’t be immune to it. It happens to everyone, whether it’s real pressure or the kind we manufacture for ourselves. I will likely do what I always do—go for a run to think it out, talk to friends, find solace in chocolate, and get it done.
Your first book is fantasy, your second contemporary romance. How do you manage to be so versatile? Do you have a favorite genre to write in?
I think my versatility comes from my newspaper background. When you’re a reporter, even if you have a beat, every day is different. You are constantly working with a distinct cast of characters, new themes, another storyline. I think that’s part of why moving around to various genres and categories doesn’t bother me, and also why I’m attracted to trying new things. I actually signed with my agent to write adult thrillers and believe it or not, I used some of my thriller techniques in writing Sea Witch. In fact, even though my thrillers were contemporaries, I’d say Throw Like a Girl is much more unlike them than Sea Witch because it’s the first book I’ve ever written where I haven’t killed someone off. That said, I do think thrillers and thriller-adjacent stories are my home base.
What can we look forward to seeing from you next? Any new projects on the horizon?
I do have a couple of new projects that I can’t really get into, but they are all over the map—YA fantasy, YA historical and YA contemporary.
Hiba Tahir is a YA author, a freelance journalist, and an MFA candidate in poetry at the University of Arkansas.