Harvard, 1969

(Henry’s last known public appearance)

 

Henry: …which is probably why I’m so dead set on writing real people. Because of the minutiae.

Mod: The minutiae.

Henry: Yes, I prefer minutiae.

Mod: (laughs) Okay, you might need to explain.

Henry: Any baseball fans in the audience?

(murmurs)

Henry: Let’s use the center fielder as an example. Now generally, the center fielder positions himself between right and left field, but his position changes constantly based on a thousand variables. Is the batter righty or lefty, is he known for power or precision, does he prefer curveballs and off speed stuff, or fastballs, and which way does that particular batter pull which pitch, and is there a runner on base already, and if so, which base, because if he’s in scoring position with less than two outs, there’s a good chance the batter is going for contact over power, which means he will more than likely try to hit to right field, which means the center fielder needs to shade shallow and a little to his left, and if there’s a runner on first who happens to be speedy, the center fielder has to be ready for the catcher’s throw to get by the shortstop or second baseman. Baseball is a game of inches, and you never know from one minute to the next which inch will matter.

Mod: Details.

Henry: Details. Minutiae. I glory in it, as baseball fans must.

Mod: I’m surprised you know so much about baseball.

Henry: My mother died in childbirth, so it was just Dad and me. He loved baseball, and he taught me to love it too. Dad worked long hours, and when I wasn’t in school, I spent most of my time reading, so baseball became the one thing we did together. I learned to love details. And I think this directly correlates to my writing shorter timelines.

Mod: In what way?

Henry: Well, which detail should I leave out? Most novels have a few “passage of time” chapters, you know? Former Principal Toadstool spent the next three months and a day watering his… fucking, I don’t know… begonias, or something. Which is a useful way for the author to let the reader know three months have passed. Over the next couple of weeks, Tracy continued hoarding socks. The sentence is more about the passage of time than it is about socks. Or my favorite, when a chapter simply starts with a date and ties it into the weather somehow. It was unseasonably warm for mid-October. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s bad writing. Plenty of authors pull it off well, I’m just not one of them.

Mod: Have you ever tried writing one? A passage of time chapter?

Henry: In an early draft of Augustus Third, I had—

(applause)

Henry: Very kind of you, thanks, now shut the fuck up.

(laughter)

Henry: In its infancy, the idea for Augustus Third was about this farm town kid’s meteoric rise through the minors into the majors, a sort of struggling prodigy story. At one point in the early goings, I wrote something like, “That summer, Auggie went nine for two hundred…” and then I moved right on into fall where he finds his bat again and becomes the baseball god everyone knew he would be. Got about halfway through writing the whole thing, but I just could not get that line out of my head. Nine for two hundred? That’s like a… .045 batting average. What the fuck happened to this poor kid, he suddenly can’t hit? So I go back, flesh it out. The passage of time transforms from a paragraph to a chapter to the whole kit and caboodle. Because for a time, Auggie wasn’t a star, he was a complete and utter failure. And that’s where the real book was, it just took me a while to figure out.

Mod: So in a sense, the process informs the content. Is that what you’re saying?

Henry: It does, but that’s not what I’m saying.

Mod: (laughs) What are you saying?

Henry: I’m saying Principal Toadstool didn’t spend three months watering his begonias, he spent three months planning to murder his wife.

Mod: You lost me.

Henry: What was the line? Former Principal Toadstool spent the next three months and a day watering his begonias. Now if I’d said, Mr. Toadstool spent three months watering his flowers, does that conjure the same impression?

(murmurs)

Mod: No.

Henry: But it indicates the same passage of time. Three months gone by. It indicates a man named Toadstool watered a plant. We know essentially what we knew before.

So why should it feel different?

Mod: Details.

Henry: Toadstool was a principal, his plants are begonias, which he watered for three months and a single day. The inclusion of details turns the exclusion of written words into actual story, which is why books are magical as a fucking unicorn, right?

 (laughter)

Mod: You certainly have a way with words, Ms. Henry, silent or otherwise. In fact, some have called you the “female Kurt Vonnegut.” How do you like that title?

Henry: Probably about as much as Kurt would if you called him the “male Mila Henry.” My guess is he wouldn’t appreciate it much and to be honest, neither do I.

Mod: I’m sorry, Ms. Henry. Certainly did not mean to offend.

Henry: I love Kurt and I love his work. But we started publishing around the same time, and have had relatively similar successes, so you understand my frustration.

Mod: I do. And I apologize.

Henry: It’s fine. Let’s just move on.

Mod: If you don’t mind, I’d like to revisit some of your own words. During an interview with the Portland Press Herald, you’re quoted as saying, “Sometimes writing is quitting. You know how many times I’ve quit? Thousands, just for the good of my own soul.”

Henry: Yeah.

Mod: For someone who so clearly believes in the magic of writing, the magic of storytelling, I wonder if you might explain what you mean by that.

Henry: That was what—a decade ago?

Mod: So you don’t think it anymore?

Henry: I don’t know.

Mod: Come on.

Henry: Saying I don’t know isn’t a non-answer. I don’t really know how I feel about writing. It’s like… any other love.

Mod: In what way?

Henry: It’s like a pendulum, I guess. If the bob swings hard one way, it’s going to swing hard the other eventually. Now if it’s just barely swaying, sort of caught in the middle, it doesn’t go very far in one direction or the other. This is why a casual acquaintance might only cause minor irritation, while someone we truly love can induce murderous rage. Do I want to quit writing? Absolutely. Do I fucking hate my life some days? Sure. But that’s because I love it. And I trust the pendulum.

Mod: So when the pendulum swings the other way, when it’s not about quitting—when it’s something you love—what is writing?

Henry: I think…

(silence)

Mod: Yes?