tarot cards and storytelling

This is a piece I wrote for Plenty Magazine a while back on the relationship between reading tarot cards and storytelling. You can read the original essay here.


Wonders and curiosities. I adore Plenty’s theme for this month, because wonder and curiosity are the primary drivers for my work as a fiction writer. In my experience, “What if..?” is the question behind all storytelling.

My curiosity leads me into musty archives and libraries. It tempts me to eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations and copy them into my notebook. It prompts me to ask people questions for which I don’t need the answers—I just want to know more, to hear the details, to hear their voices as they talk and to figure out how they feel about the topic. And it’s my sense of wonder that keeps me writing, once I’ve begun a new novel: I want to dig deeper and deeper into the mystery of the story until I discover its secret magic.

Wonder is also what led me to my first deck of tarot cards. I was 14 years old, and I’d already exhausted the “Occult” section in the local library, mostly because my Christian school teachers had warned us that it was dangerous to dabble in such things. I’d already learned how to read my friends’ palms, horoscopes and tea leaves, and I’d memorized whole sections of the Dictionary of Dreams (I knew, for example, that if you dreamed your teeth were falling out, it meant you were worried about money).

The tarot for me was a major step up from all these other methods of divination. There are 78 cards in a tarot deck. There are multiple options for laying them out and ordering them. And each card has dozens of different readings, depending on which tarot tradition you prefer.


I bought my first Rider-Waite tarot deck in a vintage clothing store in my hometown of London, Ontario. Right from the start I loved how each brightly inked illustration was so distinct from the others, how each image seemed to belong to a different story, even if I wasn’t sure what that story was.

I studied lots of tarot books back then but never really tried to read anyone’s cards—I was shy about the stigma of tarot seeming flaky, when what I really wanted was to seem smart. After a few months I tucked the cards into my bookshelf and forgot about them.

Recently, though, I’ve fallen in love with the tarot all over again. I dug out my old deck of cards. I read some more books, and made notes on each card in my own tarot notebook. I took a couple of tarot workshops. And I’m no longer shy about doing readings for anyone who’ll let me.

As a grownup, as a professor of English literature, as a fan of folklore and myth, and most of all as a writer, what delights me now about the tarot is its beauty and power as a storytelling tool. The tarot deck is a great method for telling stories to ourselves about ourselves, stories about our lives and the way our lives are interconnected. Tarot makes connections between ideas–even ideas that seem at first completely unrelated–and this allows us to think about things in new and surprising ways.

Here is a card I’ve been drawing a lot lately in my readings when I’m thinking about the novel that I’m currently revising: The Fool.


The Fool represents the young hero leaving home for the first time, setting out on a journey into the unknown, trusting to luck. According to Sally Nichols’ book Jung and the Tarot, the Fool represents the trickster archetype across cultures, a playful, deregulating force that produces wisdom in surprising, non-rational ways.

So what might this mean for me, for the next phase of work on my novel? Maybe it suggests I should cultivate a beginner’s mind and not be too married to my preconceived ideas about the story I’m crafting. Maybe it means I can approach it playfully and allow myself to experiment without worrying that I’ll make a terrible mess of it.

Do I believe in tarot? Like, believe believe? People ask me this question sometimes. Well, I believe that a tarot reading allows us to contemplate alternative ways of seeing our problems. I believe it offers clarity when our emotions and thoughts are cloudy.  I believe it creates a conversation between two people (even strangers) that cuts through small talk and dives deep into storytelling, the exploration and interpretation of tales. And I believe its insights have unique staying power–we remember them–thanks to the visual reinforcement of its symbols and illustrations.

I believe in the tarot the same way I believe in great novels. Reading tarot cards and reading a great novel both have the power to shift our thinking and make us see things in a new light. They can renew our sense of curiosity about the world. They can fill even the most ordinary situations with wonder. And for me, that’s what it’s all about.

Sarah as a teenaged fortune teller

moon poem



We decided the dog will travel back and forth with the kids.

Shark-toothed weeds edged the moon pool,

and your brow creased as though dreaming.

There’s no point talking, you said,

if we’re going to get emotional.


Last night she lay across the threshold

of my bedroom as lunacy struck and shed

its merciless light.


My plan is to stick to routines. I choose

the wagging tail for my journey between the towers,

the lolling tongue.

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…!