This interview with first appeared on the book-review blog CanLit for Little Canadians in May 2015. You can read the original piece here, and Helen’s great review of Mad Miss Mimic here.
Helen K (HK): Mad Miss Mimic delves into a great number of issues. When you set out to write Mad Miss Mimic, which was the issue (stuttering and mimicry, explosives, overuse of opium, morphine and laudanum, etc.) that spurred you on and why?
Sarah Henstra (SH): The first idea that started to grow in my imagination into something like a story was Leonora’s ability to mimic other people’s voices. A talent like this could mean trouble for an upper-upper class girl like Leo who is expected to speak with perfect decorum and sincerity at all times. She’d have to keep her mimicry tightly under wraps, right? But what if she couldn’t keep it under wraps? What if she couldn’t control when she falls into mimicry or whom she imitates? What if, despite her beauty and her good connections and her inheritance, Leo has to be hidden away from society for fear of gossip? What if she keeps accidentally scaring away the eligible bachelors who come to court her? Now that would be a story!
HK: Did you always intend to make Mad Miss Mimic into a historical romantic mystery, or did the plot take you there without your knowledge?
SH: I started to think about Mad Miss Mimic on a research trip to London. Mornings were spent at the British Library, reading about mourning customs during the Victorian period. In the afternoons I would ramble all around the city, searching out tiny shops in back alleys and sitting under trees in the public gardens. Because of my academic work my mind was already in the nineteenth century, I guess. I love London for the way history is crammed cheek by jowl with the modern commercial stuff. Right behind a Topshop there’ll be a cobblestone lane with huge wooden doors on iron runners and a trough to feed the carriage- horses—that sort of thing. So the historical setting came first, followed by the romantic mystery plot.
HK: As a professor at Ryerson, your teaching of Gothic literature and women in literature has undoubtedly helped enhance your own writing. Whose writing most influenced your own?
SH: I’m a big believer in the role repression plays in romance: the steamiest scenes result from what the lovers are unable, or unwilling, to say to one another. Nineteenth century fiction perfected this formula: Jane and Rochester, Catherine and Heathcliff, Lizzie and Darcy. So I had lots of models to work from.
I was teaching Bram Stoker’s Dracula while writing Mad Miss Mimic, so that book in particular made an impact on mine. The newspaper articles written by Leo’s cousin Archie and scattered throughout the novel are a structural trick I lifted straight from Stoker. In fact, at one point Dracula led me astray when it came to historical accuracy in my manuscript. Stoker has his characters employ all the latest gadgets and medical theories and communication technologies to outmaneuver the vampire (who wants to colonize the ‘new world’ of London but is stuck in the past). Telegrams, phonographic recordings, cinema shows, blood transfusions, steamships— Stoker geeked out about all this newfangled stuff in his 1897 novel.
In one of Mad Miss Mimic’s last rounds of editing, my hawk-eyed copy editor/fact-checker flagged a scene in which Archie is speaking to Leo while trying to meet his deadline for reporting the train derailment. I’d described Archie typing furiously and then tearing the paper out of the typewriter with a flourish and handing it off to the printers. Except that my novel takes place in 1872, and the first QWERTY typewriter—which of course gets heavy play in Dracula—wasn’t manufactured until 1873. Oops!
HK: I find so much to love about young CanLit but I’m especially enamoured with writing that is rich and evocative and your writing is both. I wrote down quote after quote, loving how your words mean so much more than their simple meanings, such as this one passage:
“Where I balanced now, though, was a world askew. Oh, it was still peopled by beer-sellers and fishwives and scavenging children, but all these poor souls went about their business in perfect ignorance. They did not know what I knew. How could they? They had not leapt as I had. They couldn’t possibly see how disordered the world had become, how its most basic elements had been shuffled and scattered and turned on end.” (pg. 158)
What experiences (e.g., education, workshops, reading, etc.) were most important in shaping your writing?
SH: I’ve been reading for pleasure and keeping some kind of journal since I was very young. I first learned to write fiction by copying out passages from my favorite books and writing my own stories in the style of my favorite authors—in other words, through mimicry! Graduate school taught me to read texts more carefully, to notice how they were put together and what effects they created for readers. But what taught me how to write novels was writing a novel. It’s such a long, solitary task, and when you’re finally finished the first draft is when the real work begins! Nothing can really prepare you for that ahead of time.
HK: This is your first novel. Was Mad Miss Mimic the book that you always dreamed of writing or are there still more books in your future?
SH: Mad Miss Mimic is the first novel I finished—there were others I got partway through, including a first installment of a YA fantasy trilogy. I have more ideas for books than I’ll ever be able to write in this lifetime. Luckily, I’ve discovered that writing is like yoga or multivitamins: doing it every day makes me a healthier, happier person. So stay tuned…!