Go Ahead and Learn This Writer’s Name: Smith Henderson

photo by Rebecca Calavan

Photo by Rebecca Calavan

If you’ll indulge a goofy metaphor for a moment: Imagine a bunch of books are at a party. All the novels by famous and established authors are mingling in the center of the room, air-kissing and whatnot. First novels, when they arrive at a party like this, often linger near the door or find a seat by the wall or nervously stir a cocktail, waiting to be noticed. But this first novel is different. It walks into the party, changes the music, grabs the host’s girlfriend, and swipes a bottle of booze right off the bar, leaving all the other books wondering, “Who was that?” That was Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson.

Henderson, a Montana native, is a nimble wordsmith who writes ads (he works at Wieden + Kennedy and was the co-writer of such spots as the “Halftime in America” 2012 Superbowl ad starring Clint Eastwood) as well as award-winning short fiction (he’s been honored with the PEN Emerging Writers Award and the Pushcart Prize, among others). His debut novel gives us flawed people, a bleak setting, and a story that’s impossible to forget.

Quick plot summary, borrowed from this review by Ed Tarkington at Chapter16: “Pete Snow, a beleaguered social worker, exhausts himself both physically and emotionally in trying to save the children of others, and yet he is unable to hold his own family together. Snow’s territory is Tenmile, Montana, an equally contradictory enclave characterized by small-town charm and the beauty of the surrounding wilderness but also by the hard, heedless lives led by many of the people drawn to the edges of American civilization. Before long, through yet another child in peril, Pete finds himself involved with the most extreme element of this fringe — an anarchic survivalist named Jeremiah Pearl who drags his malnourished son along behind him as he wages his own private war against the government and waits for the coming apocalypse.”

Henderson spoke with Musing editor, Mary Laura Philpott, in advance of his visit to Nashville this Thursday.

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How does it feel for you to have this project witnessed by the world after having worked on it off and on for the better part of a decade?

SH: It’s incredible. You know how YOU feel about it, but as you find out how others feel and you realize that they like it as much as you do, there’s this intense satisfaction of having hit your mark — that what you were shooting for is coming across. That part is really the most profound act of communication that a writer gets to have. It’s really intense. Even when the response is positive, it’s emotionally daunting. I felt like I was proud of the book, and it would be all right if people didn’t get it, but generally I was pretty confident that I had written the book I would like to read — and I hoped others would, too.

Did it keep you going to have some of your other independent creative work acknowledged along the way as you were writing the book?

SH: Well, yeah, but even before that, there was encouragement. When you publish your first short story, for example. The New Orleans Review ran a short story of mine, and it was like, “OK! I’ve got something in a magazine!” Getting into the Michener program at the University of Texas — that place is incredibly competitive to get into — so I thought, “OK, maybe I’m starting to know what I’m doing here.” But of course winning awards makes me realize it, too. And also made me realize, hey, I better finish this book.

The kind of reviews first novelists dream of.   The New York Times: “First novels don’t come much more confidently written or fully imagined than this.”    The Washington Post: “The best book I’ve read so far this year.”    Philipp Meyer, bestselling author of The Son: “This book left me awestruck.”

One of the interesting things about setting the story in the early 1980s is that back then, there wasn’t all the technology we have now. No iPhones, no being “connected” all the time. Was the ability to truly isolate your characters something that went into choosing that time period?

SH: Yeah. I think setting it in 1980 was partially that. Pete’s isolated more than just by lack of technology, too — he’s also isolated by the mores of the time and the culture. And the profession he’s in, which wasn’t as advanced then as it is now. Now people recognize secondary trauma as a real thing that needs to be addressed in how it affects social workers and first responders. The lack of technology is just another way of putting him out there alone.

Why not go back further than the 80s?

SH: You know, I was just doing an interview where I was talking about my film influences, and they were mostly films made in the 70s: Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sometimes a Great Notion. I thought at first the book would be set in the 70s. But with the 80s, it’s actually on the cusp of a major shift in America with the Reagan Revolution. In picking that era, I wanted it to be a signal that things are going to change. Anytime you’re writing historical fiction, you’re kind of writing about your own times — or you’re writing for your times. As I was writing this book, a lot of the chickens had come home to roost from the the decisions this country made in the 80s to spend and cut taxes as a way through all of our problems.

The social worker is Pete Snow. The boy is Benjamin Pearl. What’s behind the choice of names there?

SH: Well, that was a way for me to indicate their whiteness. They’re white guys. I knew I was writing about broader American themes, but there’s no such thing in my mind as the “Great American Novel” — that’s a really troubling, bad conceit. Every one of those books is terribly specific — all the ones we think of as “Great American Novels,” like Moby Dick or Beloved — and they’re great because they’re specific. But they’re “American” just because of geography, just because we have these borders, and because we have this political system that we all have to live under. So this book is American, but it’s not about every issue in America, I guess, is what those names indicate.

Karen Hayes, one of our store owners, says this may be the best book she’s read so far in 2014. When I asked if she had a question for you, she said: “I just want to know, ‘WHERE did this come from?'” Can you remember the first seeds of this story — what it grew out of?

SH: It grew out of two things. First, I knew I wanted to write about Montana when I got down to Texas. I had moved and then realized it’s such a strange place. And I had this image of a boy scampering out of the woods and the father watching and waiting by the side of the woods while the boy goes digging through a dumpster. I was curious about those two and what their story was. I wanted to write a novel about them.

And also, I knew I wanted to write about a social worker. I worked in a group home for several years, and I got to experience a lot of very troubled kids. I got to see first-hand the aftermath of going through just terribly abusive, neglectful environments. I got to know the kids’ social workers a little bit. I worked there for years and got really emotionally wrung out. When I worked at that home, after that first weekend, I remember coming home and then going, “Whoa, I just drank nine beers and I don’t even feel anything.” I was in my 20s, right after college. It was just a home — where they went to live for a while — it wasn’t like I was a therapist. I just made sure they were fed and safe. They had a lot of hidden issues and things in their past you had to be aware of. I’m always really clear about this, though: I never used any of their stories. That stuff is sacred. That’s their stuff. But the environment, the scenario, in general — it seemed to be rife with possibilities.

Pete Snow is estranged from his wife, Beth. His relationship with his daughter, Rachel, is a mess. He’s under extreme stress and medicates himself with alcohol. Mary Grey James, one of our staff members who loved the book, pointed out the line Pete says to Beth: “I take kids away from people like us.” It seems like one of the themes of this book is self-care — taking care of your own body and mind and soul so that you’re even capable of caring for others. What drew you to that theme?

SH: Yeah, as I was writing the book I noticed that notion of self-care dovetailed with the philosophical notion of that Thoreau quote at the beginning. [“If I knew for a certain’ty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.”] If someone’s offering unsolicited advice and help, there’s probably a reason you should be wary. And this goes for everyone who puts themselves in some kind of peril for another human being. It’s heroic — but there’s an aspect of insanity there. Why is your job to go put yourself in dire straights all the time? What’s wrong with you? Let’s even assume you’re completely healthy — maybe you’re a born hero — what happens when you’re injured? Who takes care of you? The things that make people compassionate enough to do that kind of work also make them sensitive. So they start out incredibly sensitive, and their sensitivities get abused by the job. Then they may end up more damaged than other people if they’re not careful.

Looking around at how people interact — in person, and online, and how corporations interact with humans — do you think not taking care of each other is a problem America has right now?

SH: I think our discourse is disgusting. The way people talk to each other is pretty awful. The kinds of things people say in public forums and in places where people are supposed to be having intelligent discussion . . . respectful dialogue has completely gone away. That’s a shame. The first thing we need to do is be polite to each other. Then worry about coming to a consensus about values and money and everything else. There’s something pretty broken with how we do that.

A few people I talked to, when I told them I’d be interviewing you, asked similar variations of the same question, which was, “How does he reconcile writing novels with working in the ad industry?” To me, that’s a funny question. You’ve worked in corporate communications, advertising, writer-for-hire situations — which I do as well — and I don’t see a disconnect between creatively writing about an assigned topic or product and creatively writing about a character or storyline you’ve invented. Would you agree with that? Or not? 

SH: There’s a long tradition in this country of propaganda — I think people are legitimately suspicious of “corporate overlords” or whatever. But what it comes down to is this: If there’s a writing assignment in the world, I’ve probably done it. I wrote correspondence for a the chancellor of a university. I wrote poems to get girls to like me in high school.

I get it though. Where’s the line between art and propaganda? I’m really lucky. I know not everyone is familiar with Weiden + Kennedy, where I work, but this place has things on the walls like, “Fail better.” This is a one of the last independent ad shops; most now are part of a larger corporate structure with several agencies within one group. We don’t believe that advertising sucks. We want artists to be involved and to do meaningful work. It is what it is — it’s advertising — but it doesn’t have to be bad.

One last thing. I just heard that Fourth of July Creek is going to be a TV series. What can you tell us about that?

SH: That’s what I’m working on next, trying to figure out how it would be a show. Nothing is very far along — there aren’t stars assigned to it or anything. You’ve heard, “Have your people call my people”? It really is like that. There are a lot of pieces involved. But I think it fits well for TV. The story certainly has enough ambiguity at the end. It’s basically a detective story, and it lends itself well to that form. There’s quite a bit of plot in it. There are more stories to tell. So I’m trying to figure out the collaboration. It’s easy to make a bad thing; it’s hard to make a good thing. There are lots of moving parts and people and different skill sets that have to be involved. And I definitely want to write it.

Can’t wait to see how that turns out. Thank you.

SH: Thank you. See you soon.

Bonus — Read an extra piece of this conversation on our tumblr, Lucky Stars. 


This event is free and open to the public! Details here. 

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Read it:

ISBN-13: 9780062286444
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Ecco Press, 5/2014