Eleanor Henderson is an assistant professor at Ithaca College and holds an MFA from the University of Virginia. Her short story “The Farms” was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2009 and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Henderson’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in journals including Ninth Letter, Salon, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Her debut novel Ten Thousand Saints, which revolves around a teen’s conversion to a straight-edge lifestyle following the drug-related death of a friend, was published to wide acclaim in 2011. The book was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ 2011 Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and made the longlist for the 2013 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Ten Thousand Saints was also named a New York Times Notable Book of 2011; reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review; and included on lists such as Amazon’s Top 10 Debut Fiction Titles of 2011, the New York Times’ Top 10 Books of 2011, and the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Top 100 Books of 2011. Henderson previously served as a contributing editor to the magazine Poets & Writers and chair of the fiction board for The Virginia Quarterly Review.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you to describe Ten Thousands Saints, how do you answer?
This is exactly how it feels to describe one’s novel! I tend to say it’s about a sixteen-year-old boy coming of age in the straight edge scene in New York City in 1988.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about Ten Thousand Saints?
The straight edge scene. One of the main reasons I wanted to write about straight edge is because I’d never encountered it in fiction before. It’s such a fascinating subculture—this group of young people who are eschewing drugs and alcohol and yet embracing a punk ethos. It’s Just Say No with an edge. Many of my main characters, who are teenagers, go even further and give up sex and meat, too. In many ways it’s a rebellion against traditional forms of rebellion.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
My husband was involved in the straight edge scene in the late ’80s in New York City, and I was always drawn to his stories of that period and that place. I knew that I wanted to shape a story in that setting, and I quickly discovered that the edges of the scene would be even sharper against another setting steeped in drugs and alcohol. So while my main characters live squeaky clean lifestyles, they’re all recovering from drug abuse, and most of their parents are still active users.
How would you describe the way that drugs and alcohol function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a story? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
Writing about straight edge opened up a Pandora’s box of paradoxes. The scene itself itself is rich with them. For example, how do you live a life free of sex, drugs, and meat when you’re a teenage boy raging with testosterone? What do you do with all that angst?In the first draft of the novel, the point of view belonged exclusively to Jude, the sixteen-year-old protagonist, so I explored this question through his limited experience. But I felt there was a larger world to explore. So in the next draft, I opened up the point of view to include those of the parents. One is a pot seller, one is a glass blower, more than one is an alcoholic. And most of them are skeptical about the purity of straight edge. So, drugs came to define the generations in the book, in a way that I think could only have happened during this period in the late ’80s, when the children of the flower children came of age. How do you rebel against the generation that perfected rebellion?
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in Ten Thousand Saints? Are there any loose threads dangling from the book that you’d like to pick up in a future project?
I am endlessly interested in the choices people make about how to live their lives within and against a larger cultural landscape, and the way those personal decisions can often harm others, despite our best intentions. Ten Thousand Saints took so long to write—about ten years—that I vowed to seek new territory in my next novel, which is set in the South during the Great Depression. And yet Prohibition has found its way into the book. I think I’m fated to write about drug and alcohol culture for the rest of my life.
BONUS QUESTION: Let’s hope that Ten Thousand Saints gets made into a major motion picture. What song do you fantasize about hearing as the credits roll?
I’ve had the answer to this question for years! “Raised Eyebrows” by the Feelies. There are plenty of straight edge and drug-fueled songs on my imaginary soundtrack, but I think the melody of this nearly instrumental song captures the tempo and mood of the end of the novel perfectly.