dispatch from the front lines

Here (below) is a post I wrote for Plenty Magazine last month, summarizing the battles I’ve been fighting with my teenaged son over his online gaming. You can read the original post here (and also discover a fabulous treasure trove of  family-and-parenting stories and advice!).


I procrastinated a long time before writing this report on my family’s back-to-school rules around tech time. I doubted I was the right person to testify to the positive power of parental controls, or to offer advice on how to make guidelines stick. Why? Because when it comes to my 16-and- a-half year old son (who we’ll call Elder), I’m not holding the reins anymore.

Last year, Grade 10, was a demoralizing, non-stop battle over Elder’s gaming habits. I kept the desktop passworded and shut it down at 10:00pm, after which time he was supposed to do homework (I’d long given up on trying to get him to do homework before gaming) and get some sleep. Instead Elder created admin profiles and other workarounds that would allow him to log back on after I went to bed. Once he even wired his iPod to the chandelier to film me typing in the password. (Someday I will find this hilarious, I know—just not yet). Or else he would start a session of League of Legends minutes before the curfew, and then bluster and rage about losing his standing if I forced him to quit. I spent 30 or 40 minutes each night trying to reason/cajole/bully him off the computer.

When worst came to worst and I made good on my threat to strip the house of tech altogether, he left. He stayed at friends’ houses or sat at McDonald’s all night on the free wifi. I wasn’t sleeping, Elder wasn’t making it to school, and our mother/son relationship was reduced to jailor/prison-rioter. Not a sustainable situation for either of us!

So sometime around May I gave up altogether on trying to control his tech. And what does back-to- school look like, three weeks in? It looks like this: Elder comes home from school, sits down at the computer and stays there until one or two in the morning—sometimes even later. When he tires of gaming, or not enough of his friends are on Skype to play with him, he watches YouTube or downloads a movie. Most mornings he gets up for school, so long as I don’t have to leave for work before he’s showered and breakfasted—otherwise he’s more likely to crawl back into bed. Homework does not exist, even though this same philosophy pulled him low Cs last year, and he knows that Grade 11 grades “count.” On Tuesday, a spontaneous innovation: he snuck out at 3:00am to play some Pokémon Go.

(Meanwhile, 12-year-old Younger sweetly complies, as ever, with his tech rules: homework first, limited iPod hours on weeknights, switch to a book in bed at 9:00pm, lights off when you’re tired. He’s a different kid than his brother, and his whole life I’ve been grateful to him for exemplifying the fact that parenting strategy is only part of the equation.)

What does freedom look like? I find myself asking myself this question over and over, lately, in the context of my role as Elder’s mom. What would it feel like to be free to live my life, and to set my son free to live his?

This is what I’ve got so far: there would be less chronic worry, less guilt, less nagging, less lecturing. There’d be more humour and hugs (well, attempted hugs). There’d be a deep belief that this bright, competent, iron-willed kid will come out okay, and there’d be a way to act on that belief every day.

I love you. You got this. Let me know how I can help.

That’s what I would say.


how to be cozy + productive, 5:00am


School has started and I’m teaching 3 courses this semester, which means the only time left to write is before the day begins.

Earl Grey tea: check. Granola & yogurt: check. Romantic/inspirational candle: check. Canine cheerleader: well…

Canadian Writers’ Summit 2016


I spent much of the last few months helping to plan the inaugural Canadian Writers’ Summit at Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. We were gifted with a stunning sunshine-saturated weekend and throngs of enthusiastic participants.

L-R Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Carrie Snyder, Maria Meindl and Heidi Reimer (and that’s me at the mic). Photo Credit Katrina Afonso.


I served as moderator on a panel discussion called Achieving Your Creative Dream: The Shadow Side, organized by my friend Heidi Reimer. You can read about the session here, on Heidi’s website.

L-R: Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Carrie Snyder, Maria Meindl, Heidi Reimer, Sarah Henstra. Photo credit: Melanie Martilla
L-R: Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Carrie Snyder, Maria Meindl, Heidi Reimer, Sarah Henstra. Photo credit: Melanie Martilla

I also facilitated a fun event called First Page Challenge: YA/Children’s Edition, in which Summit attendees submitted the first page of their manuscripts to be live-critiqued by a panel of publishing experts: literary agents Barbara Berson and Monica Pacheco and editor Suzanne Sutherland. Thanks to all the brave souls who participated! I learned a lot about the importance of first impressions when it comes to hooking potential readers (and publishers!) into your story.

L-R Lana Pesch, me, Suzanne Alyssa Andrew, Heidi Reimer, Carrie Snyder Maria Meindl Photo: Katrina Afonso

Mad Miss Mimic is Global TV’s book club title for March

Watch the book club discussion of Mad Miss Mimic here.


q & a: CanLit for Little Canadians

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…!



For a couple of months now I’ve noticed this same card popping up over and over in my tarot readings. It’s not a bad way to begin a new year: a youngling leaving the nest, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. But the Fool can be unsettling card, too. I mean, just look at that cliff.


I looked up the Fool in Sallie Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot and really liked what I found.

The Fool, archetypally speaking, is something of a shit disturber. He’s a truth-teller, but he doesn’t usually make much rational sense. In fact, disrupting reason is one of his primary functions in literature, especially where reason is being abused by those who seek power (e.g., in King Lear). Nichols points to the flower children of the 60s and the deadheads of the 70s as exemplars of the Fool’s playful-yet-serious anti-establishment impulse.

According to Nichols, literary tradition teaches us three ways to deal properly with the Fool: 1. Admit him at court and seat him at the royal table. In other words, be tolerant but keep a close eye on him. 2. Set aside periods of universal permissiveness and revelry: Saturnalia, Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, Feast of Fools. 3. Freely admit to and laugh at our own foolishness whenever it’s pointed out to us.

What am I supposed to do with this trickster? How do I embrace his playful, deregulating force for myself without letting it devolve me into shambles? Well, music seems to have something to do with it. Dancing, maybe. Certainly laughter.

My friend Rahul informs me that in the Baghavad Gita, Krishna (God) is a player, in several senses of the word. He fools around, he flirts, he flouts conventional morality. He knows that life is ‘leela’ (a play), and we mustn’t become too attached to our roles. It’s all fun and games. This is why Krishna plays the flute.

Hey, I thought, reflecting on all this, it might be fun to make a Fool puppet sometime. Then I remembered that I’d already done that 20 years ago. I dug him out of his box:


best Deadwood quotes


I’m late to the rumour that Deadwood might become a movie. Late, and extremely excited. Watching this show I used to press pause every five minutes to write down my favourite lines. Shakespearean syntax + facedown-in-the-gutter profanity = goosebumps-inducing dialogue. Here are some of the g-rated gems:

Truth is, as a base of operations, you cannot beat a saloon.

Hereforth, in a calamity, I’ll be sure to send for Jane.

Short of burning it all down, you got to trust someone.

I’d as soon as try to touch the moon as take on what a whore’s thinking.

I’m the simple type of man that, seeing lightning, looks for thunder, and finding thunder understands it as part of the same storm.

I don’t collude and I don’t cahoot.

You coulda just said “Amen,” Reverend.

He may have checked out short a useful amount of blood.

You do not want to be a dirt-worshiping heathen from this point forward.

Wild Bill Hickok: You know the sound of thunder, Mrs. Garret?
Alma Garret: Of course.
Wild Bill Hickok: Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?
Alma Garret: Yes, I can, Mr. Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.


PS: The character of Calamity Jane, played by the inimitable Robin Weigert, served as a kind of personal archetype for me a few years back. I wrote about it here.