Interview with Susan Henderson, author of the novel, “Up From the Blue”

by guest on March 9, 2011

Each week, we post short interviews with interesting people about their thoughts and feelings on women and drinking. There is such a wide array of perspectives about this topic, and we are excited to gain insight into as many as possible and to share them with you.

Susan Henderson’s debut novel, Up From The Blue (HarperCollins, 2010), has been selected as a Great Group Reads pick by the Women’s National Book Association, an outstanding softcover release (by NPR), a Best Bets Pick (by BookReporter), Editor’s Pick (by BookMovement), Editor’s Choice (by BookBrowse), a Prime Reads pick (by HarperCollins New Zealand), and a Top 10 of 2010 (by Robert Gray of Shelf Awareness). It’s currently being translated into Dutch and Norwegian. Susan is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award, and her work has — twice — been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She blogs at and The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in New York with their two boys.

Drinking Diaries: How old were you when you had your first drink and what was it?

Susan Henderson: I’m not sure when my first drink was–elementary school, certainly–but by the time I was in seventh grade, I was drinking every day. I kept a suntan lotion bottle in my purse, and it was filled with whatever I could steal from the liquor cabinets of my friends’ parents. I usually started drinking at the bus stop. It always tasted a little bit like coconut.

What was the worst time you ever had, drinking?

Wow, the worst time… I think it would have to be when I was in seventh or eighth grade. I’d gone with friends to the Smithsonian Mall for the Fourth of July. I think we were drinking Jack Daniels, and we were unsupervised and moving through this huge crowd. The music was terrible… The Beach Boys when they were long past their prime and singing off-key. And there was just this element in the crowd that we kept finding again and again–flirtatious 20-somethings who wanted to give pre-pubescent girls drugs and alcohol, and we were dumb and said yes.

We had beer and wine coolers and brownies and who knows what. And then time just kind of disappeared. I remember being lost and panicked and then being too out of it to be panicked, and suddenly it was nighttime. I’d lost most of my friends by then, lost whatever ride we were supposed to get, so we decided to hitchhike home. This did not go well. It was a guy in his truck, drunk himself, and he tried to kiss me. I pushed him away. And my last memory of that night was the guy dropping us off in the middle of nowhere and throwing glass bottles at us. I don’t know how we got home, but I remember I lost my shoes and I got in trouble for that.

Have you ever had a phase in your life when you drank more or less?

I stopped drinking, for the most part, when I started high school. Most of my friends went to one high school and I was in the other district. That turned out to be a real blessing–it gave me a clean slate. I claimed my inner nerd and put more energy into academics than into trying to fit in. Because I wasn’t running around with my old crowd, I lost my access to alcohol and kind of tapered off with mouthwash. Later, after graduate school, I was exposed to the kind of drinking that was brand new to me–a glass of wine with dinner and no intention of getting drunk.

What’s your drink of choice? Why?

I like scotch and very expensive red wine. And I like hot sake. In the end, I realized I like the taste–how it adds to the meal.

If you have kids, how is the subject of drinking handled? Do you drink in front of them? With them?

They see us having a glass of wine with dinner now and then. I think that’s healthy, to see that alcohol is something that can make a meal nicer. Neither of us drinks to get drunk, and I almost never have more than one glass. I don’t actually like that feeling of slipping out of control.

Can you tell us about the best time you ever had drinking?

One of the best drinking stories I have actually began as a terrible day. I was in the midst of editing my novel, Up From the Blue, and it was going really badly. I’d taken some advice against my instincts and the novel started to unravel. I was not even sure what I was trying to say with it anymore and I was considering giving up. That night, I went to a friend’s party. I wasn’t really in the mood and was planning to just make an appearance. My friend, Ritchie Blackmore, is a musician and someone I used to play soccer with once or twice a week (except now my knees are shot). He knows I like scotch, so he got out the secret stash of good stuff.

I tend to be kind of a stoic, but the drink loosened me up, and pretty soon I was telling him how I’d lost my way. I was there till 5 in the morning, and he gave me invaluable support, from one artist to another, one friend trying to pick another off the floor. And every now and then, I’d hear him sneak up behind me–he was wearing bells on his boots that night–and he’d tap the backs of my knees and make me buckle and laugh. I told him that night that if I ended up finishing the novel, I’d write him into it. And sure enough the next morning, I woke up and a character who’d had a very small role in the book was wearing his bells on her shoes. And that character, along with that all-night pep talk, showed me the way through the book.

What do you like most about drinking?

I think the story I just told says it all–the best thing about alcohol is when you can drop your emotional guard a little and bond with your friends.

Why do, or don’t you, choose to drink?

I used to worry I’d have a problem with drinking because of all the trouble I had at the beginning. Maybe because those problems were before I hit puberty, it’s different for me. But I have a healthy respect for the power of alcohol. It’s a little bit like the ocean–there’s tremendous beauty and pleasure to be had at the ocean but it can also pull you into its depths or take out a dock in a storm. So I respect its strength. I don’t go to the ocean when I’m weak and I don’t swim out farther than I’m capable of , and I’m kind of the same with alcohol. I don’t drink it if I’m in a self-hating mood and I don’t lower my defenses when I’m not around people I trust. I don’t have any desire to drink to the point where I’m not in control, but I’ll enjoy it with a meal, and I’ll let it take my stoic nature down a notch when I’m with a good friend.