8 months ago

Writer’s Block with Sarah Henstra


Sarah Henstra is a Canadian writer and professor of English literature who specialises in 20th century British fiction. She was born in North York, Ontario; her family spent some years in rural Abbotsford, British Columbia before settling back in London, Ontario when she was twelve. Henstra has published four books in her career so far, including her debut young adult novel, Mad Miss Mimic (2015). Her new YA title, We Contain Multitudes, is out in the USA and Canada now.

Henstra teaches courses in Gothic horror, psychoanalysis and literature, fairy tales and fantasies, and creative writing at Ryerson University. She is a board member of Canadian Creative Writers and Programs and was on the steering committee of the 2016 Canadian Writers’ Summit.

Henstra’s first novel for adults, The Red Word, won the prestigious Governor-General’s Literary Award, Canada in 2018. Her UK and Ireland publisher is Tramp Press; Henstra is the publisher’s second North American signing, following the success of Jade Sharma’s debut, Problems, in 2018. Set mainly in the mid-1990s, the riveting story follows young sophomore Karen Huls in an unnamed Ivy League university. She quickly gets involved with two polar opposite groups: her radical feminist housemates and Gamma Beta Chi (GBC), a fraternity that’s notorious for misogyny and date rape culture. As Karen becomes deeply embedded in both camps, she is torn between her heart and her morals. She regularly socialises with GBC, dates one of its members, and bonds with the godlike and ironically named Bruce Comfort, with whom she is secretly infatuated. When a shocking sex tape emerges from the basement of GBC, a battle ensues – but at what cost?

The New Yorker has said of The Red Word – “Henstra draws on Greek mythology to comment on contemporary issues – how assault can take on ambiguity and how the internalisation of rape culture convolutes gender politics, to the point where constructive conversation is nearly impossible.”

Sarah Henstra lives in Toronto. She is currently writing her fourth novel.

The Red Word (€15.00) is published by Tramp Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in a two-storey row house downtown with a small garden that I am slowly filling with perennials. The younger of my two sons and my dog live with me every second week. I do most of my writing at local cafés, and I love the quiet, focused vibe of a café where most customers are working—although I’m usually the only one with pen and notebook instead of a laptop.

I grew up on the west coast of Canada, in a small town surrounded by hills and woods. I remember the intense smell of lilacs in the spring, and the old bathtubs set out in the fields to water the cattle.

On formative years

My parents both read to me a lot, and my uncle worked for a children’s publisher and kept us very well supplied with books. I liked Arthur Lobel’s Frog and Toad books, and lavishly illustrated fairy tales.

I spent lots of time outdoors as a child, and despite having three younger brothers (or maybe because of it!) I spent lots of time alone. This gave me lots of time to develop a private, imaginative world. And because I was surrounded by books, the characters and stories that filled my private world naturally began to emerge onto the pages of my notebooks.

On creating

I write in a comfy, threadbare old chair with a big cabbage-rose print and a fluffy sheepskin slung over the back. The chair is in my living room, and it looks out the window at my street with its foot traffic passing by: lots of kids heading to school, deliveries, elderly neighbours out for a stroll. I like being in the centre of my house when I write rather than sequestered off in a cold corner somewhere. When things get too distracting due to regular household bustle, I flee to the closest café and hunker down with a pair of earplugs and a latté.

On independent bookshops

I’m a big fan of Type books in Toronto. They do beautiful, constantly changing window displays with handmade paper decorations, and they’ve just opened a new location in the city with a lovely event space.

On her “To Be Read” pile

My pile (and it is a pile—a teetering one on my bedside table) currently contains a couple of YA books I’ve been asked to read with an eye to endorsement. It’s got a few high fantasy novels, including Garth Nix’s Sabriel, since I’ve been a bit out of touch with that genre in recent years and recently browsed through some best-of lists. And finally, I’m halfway through Anna Burns’ Milkman, which I’m enjoying both for its intense, atmospheric narrative style and for the freshness of the narrator’s voice.

On escapes

I spend regular time at the farmhouse of a writer friend, a couple of hours outside Toronto. It’s got a wood stove, thick stone walls, and 100 acres of fields.

On visiting Ireland

It was ages ago! I hitchhiked around and stayed in Galway, where a festival was on. I want to spend more time in Dublin.

On The Red Word

I wanted to write about the experience of leaving home and going to university, where all your old, received ideas are challenged and replaced with new ones, and where the party environment can be very intense. I loved revisiting some of the settings in my memory, as well as researching things like student protests and feminist theory. Revision is always difficult for me. I’m impatient to move on to the next project, but I need to slow down and linger over my choices at a very granular level, to make certain each sentence is saying what I want it to say.

On Tramp Press

Tramp makes beautiful books! Looking at its catalogue, I fell in love with the cover images, the typography—everything about the design. I was introduced through The Red Word’s American publisher, and right from the start Sarah and Lisa impressed me with their bold, independent, feminist approach to publishing.

On what’s next

I’ll be helping along my new YA novel, We Contain Multitudes, on its path into the world. It’s a love story written entirely in letters between two high school boys. Next up is a new adult novel about the creation of a tarot deck in a pre WWI secret society.


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