Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University, where she teaches courses in gothic literature, fairy tales and fantasy, and women in fiction. She lives in Toronto with her two sons (one teen, one tween), and a poodle named Nora.
Of course, you might also know Sarah as Guest Speaker Coordinator for BWS. It’s our great pleasure to finally get her on the blog, to talk about her hot-off-the-presses debut novel, Mad Miss Mimic!
BWS: Writing a young-adult novel, one could presume your imagined reader is a teenager. How conscious are you of your audience when writing?
Sarah: My impulse to write Mad Miss Mimic for a young-adult market had mostly to do with the approach I wanted to take to the story and the elements I wanted to include in it: a seventeen-year-old protagonist, a suspense/adventure plot, and romance. While I was writing the book I didn’t think about my audience as teenagers, specifically; I recently read that 65 per cent of YA books are purchased by adults, anyhow!
BWS: Teenagers today have never known a world without the internet, and since 2011, according to the to the Beloit Mindset List, they may not even realize that the expression “off the hook” once had something to do with a telephone! What’s it like trying to write historical fiction for a younger audience?
Sarah: In a way, the historical setting lets me “off the hook” when it comes to understanding the mindset of today’s teens. Rather than trying to capture a contemporary teen outlook or “voice,” I can take my readers someplace entirely outside their everyday experience. Like a science-fiction or fantasy author, my job is to build a convincing world for my characters. But this has inherent challenges, too. When I teach creative writing, I find a common problem with sci-fi is that the story gets bogged down in exposition. There’s a temptation to belabour the world-building, spending dozens of pages at a time describing the architecture or energy systems of the foreign planet or future society. With Mad Miss Mimic I strove to include just enough period detail to draw readers into the world of 1870s London, but not so much that it would overwhelm or distract from the story.
BWS: Though set so far in the past, Mad Miss Mimic is full of concerns just as relevant in our time: gender equality, terrorism, the war on drugs, the wealth gap and more. Can you talk at all about “translating” today’s issues and those from generations ago in a manner that today’s (younger) audience can relate to?
Sarah: I didn’t set out beforehand to fill Mad Miss Mimic with contemporary thematic concerns, but in crafting a set of tensions to drive the story forward I naturally turned to types of conflicts that would feel tense to today’s readers. The role of women in society, addictions, the marriage contract, voice and agency—these are topics that interest me personally and professionally. I had great fun exploring the dramatic possibilities of these topics in the “historical” contexts of opium importing, pharmaceutical experimentation, conspiracy and sabotage.
One issue I didn’t set out to elaborate with any degree of historical accuracy, though, is class. It’s nearly impossible that a Victorian girl of Leonora’s standing would consort with a Tom Rampling no matter how extreme their circumstances. Nor would theatre acting ever have been a possibility for a titled lady like Aunt Emmaline—not without total social condemnation. Finding the balance between faithfulness to the “realities” of the period and openness to exciting, unlikely scenarios as they presented themselves was half the fun of writing this book.
BWS: You teach the Gothic novel, and in addition to its 19th-century London setting, the narration in Mad Miss Mimic largely shares a style and a vocabulary with novels of that era. Are there specific authors you’d cite as influences on this novel? How did you develop the style that you used?
Sarah: I spend a lot of time with a novel I teach, reading and rereading, making lecture notes, researching scholarly opinions about the text, and choosing passages to examine with the students in class. I teach the same courses for several years in a row, too, and only swap out a few novels to keep things fresh. So yes, the books I teach have an enormous influence on my writing. Mad Miss Mimic borrows elements from Jane Eyre (the mistreated orphan, the journey towards love-with-independence), Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (the eccentric benefactress, the urban underworlds), the Sherlock Holmes mysteries (the egocentric bad guy, the plot to bring down the government), and others.
Mad Miss Mimic is a historical novel, though, not a 19th-century novel. While it imitates some of the syntax and vocabulary, its sentences aren’t nearly as long and convoluted—for that matter, neither is its plot! Still, when my agent read the first draft she made a long list of vocabulary words that I needed to cut from the text. These were words that I’d used for the sheer joy of using them and not because there weren’t more familiar, straightforward synonyms. It was a process of scaling back and simplifying without losing the nineteenth-century aura.
BWS: What do you make of the argument that, to some extent, young-adult fiction is less about “what” tweens/teens are reading than simply making sure “that” teens are reading? Do you feel any conscious drive to inspire a love of classic literature with your work, to inspire young readers to look back to the classics or maybe even resurrect older styles by being themselves inspired to write?
Sarah: Part of teaching literature is evangelizing for literature. In studying a text with my students, I’m always already making a case for why I believe that text is worth reading and studying. It would be fantastic if reading my novel made someone want to read more of the classics! However, teaching undergraduate readers and chatting with readers of Mad Miss Mimic since it was published has shown me again and again that people who really love reading and are curious about writing don’t have rules for themselves about what genres and periods they will and won’t read. I was a greedy, omnivorous reader as a teen. I guess that’s the kind of reader I’m thinking about when I write, too.
BWS: What are you writing next? And will we ever see Leonora again?
Sarah: My next book, The Red Word, is a campus novel (for adults, not teens) about a war between a group of militant feminist students and members of a frat house. It’ll be published in early 2017. After that is another YA novel, but contemporary, this time. I am not sure if we’ve seen the last of Leonora. I’d dearly love to send her to America…!
BWS: We’d love to see that, too! Thanks so much, Sarah.
Sarah Henstra visits the Brockton Writers Series on our sixth birthday, Wednesday, September 9, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Irfan Ali, Lana Pesch, Sabrina Ramnanan and a special guest talk by Nancy Jo Cullen, “What to Consider if You’re Considering an M.F.A.”