2018 governor general’s literary award gallery

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…!

the other faces of Mad Miss Mimic

One of the many thrilling experiences of having my first novel published was the cover design process. Authors typically don’t have a lot of say when it comes to the choice of cover, unless they’re self-publishing. If you’re lucky (and I was), you’ll be given a chance to offer feedback, and there will be an Option B if Option A isn’t working for you. The first mock-up my editor sent me was the image on the right, below. Soft pink background and a wallpaper pattern of poppy flowers coming through the title text.


What I liked about it: 1. the poppy as symbol, since opium figures so heavily in the story, 2. the colour scheme, which I thought would stand out nicely in the bookstore, and 3. the insider literary nod to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic feminist story “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

However, my gut told me it wasn’t the cover of my dreams. These orderly rows of poppies seemed too “Flanders Fields”-ish to me; I worried that they were better suited to a WWI-era than a Victorian story. The salmon-pink background, while feminine and bright, seemed a bit too tame. And who besides me would ever look at this cover and think of Charlotte Perkins Gilman (answer: nobody).


Sumptuous, pretty, and mysterious. These were my three keywords for the cover I was after. And what came across my desk next made my heart pound with its exactly rightness (bottom image= the book’s final cover). The opium-poppy is still central, but gone is the domesticated, drawing-room quality. Nor is it a bouquet or an arrangement in a vase. Instead, the thick, twining stems arise mysteriously from off-page, the flowers wrap around the jacket, and the black background suggests depth and danger. If you look closely (and of course I looked and looked), there is even a liberal dusting of pollen.


I never laid eyes on the other two options (the image above with girl’s silhouette, and the top-left bouquet against the peach background). I guess they were weeded out at some point by the design team at Razorbill. But it was great fun to get in touch afterwards with Grace Cheong, the genius freelancer behind all of these designs. She eventually posted them in her online portfolio as “final cover design followed by selected comps.”

Thanks again, Grace, for the beautiful cover. And thank you, Lynne Missen, Lisa Jaeger, and the rest of the Razorbill squad for your patience with me as a first-timer!

up at five

IMG_0066Yep, I’m doing it. I’m getting up at 5:00am to write. It’s been three weeks now, and I’ve reached the point where I’m reliably waking up a couple of minutes before my alarm. Slippers, robe, a cup of tea. Turn up the heat, turn on the lights. Remind myself that doing this entitles me to a 10-min nap later in the day.

Upsides: a) I’m writing from a relaxed, uncluttered mind still connected to the tatters of my dreams. b) Fending off social media and email is easy, since no one is on anything. c) I spend the whole day feeling smug and fortified by my word count. d) It’s crunch time at school, yet I haven’t lost touch with my novel-in-progress.

Downsides: a) By 3:00pm I am officially inept. Even with the promised nap I barely make it till 9:00pm.

Mad Miss Mimic book launch, High Park Curling & Lawn Bowling Club, Toronto, May 2015

mapping it out

Photo 2015-03-02, 11 46 40 AMWriting a first draft–a “discovery draft,” as I like to call it–has to end somewhere. This is a blessed relief, because drafting is scary and hard. You do it blind. You have no idea whether what you’re writing is “going anywhere” or whether it’ll be any good (in fact, it’s not good, it’s terrible, that’s why they call it a ROUGH draft).

When do you know you’re finished with a first draft? For me it’s when there are no more gaps in the basic story. Figuring this out involves laying receipt tape on the dining table and monkeying with the order of the scenes I’ve written, each of which is represented by a sticky note. What you see here is my entire draft mapped out on a single tape, plus my notebook containing the scenes or part-scenes I still have to write.

What I haven’t done yet is make tapes for individual subplots, character development/relationships, significant objects or any of the many other aspects of the book that will eventually require mapping out. I thought I might do this today too–thus the extra (blank) tapes–but I realized that it’s too early. That’ll be second-draft work, the equally-but-differently scary and hard work of revision.

PS: Instead of sticky notes, Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black uses index cards–check out his amazingly organized process.



Lynda Barry is really getting under my skin with her book Syllabus. I can only read a few pages at a time because of the extent to which it hurts my brain. Academics are fairly rational, linear thinkers, and so are writers. We deal in words, after all, and words come one after another, left to right, on the page. LyndaBarryBut here’s a writer and academic teaching a college course whose syllabi are. . .cartoons. Scribbles. Thought bubbles. Doodles.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard of Lynda Barry, actually. A decade ago now, two of my dear writer friends had taken a workshop with her here in Toronto and were singing her praises, and–as per her advice–had taken to keeping a doodle pad beside them as they wrote. Whenever you lift the pen from the writing notebook, she’d taught them, you lower it to the doodle pad and draw.

The careful, tight spiral, in particular, is a doodle that aids the free flow of inspiration. Drawing spirals helps hush the griping Inner Critic (the one who chants, “your story is stupid, you should be answering email right now” whenever you sit down to write) and reintegrates the left brain with the right.

Syllabus is making me think about the rules I follow as a professor, too, and the rules I set for my students. I wonder, what might constitute “colouring outside the lines,” in an English classroom? And what might happen if I encouraged it?

10 minute freewrite

10 minute freewrite

Do you do this? Set the timer for 10 minutes and write?* I’ve been doing it at the start of every writing session, even if I’m only planning to revise old material, even if I’m working on something completely different. It’s like warming up before a workout, flexing the muscles.

Today I looked out the window and described what I saw.** It’s not high lyric poetry but it’s a scene, right? A mini-scene. A scenelet. And it only took me 10 minutes.

*Tip: plan to reward yourself when the timer goes off. Something small but worthwhile: another coffee, a little stroll down the hall, permission to check Twitter for 5 min.

**You may have noticed the spelling errors. I wrote this before my first coffee, so yeah.

number crunching

number crunching

Trying to compare word count for different scenes. Listing like this makes it obvious what’s imbalanced, what’s out of order, what needs trimming. The orange pen helps too.

writing wild

writing wild

from Clarissa Pinkola Estes:

And so we go on, all us stubborn, liquored up on soul and riding the mustang of wild voice, go on. In some ways, there is no more to say than that, for practice, practice, living on the edges, creating past the edges is the writer’s center of work. And thus the next step in the practice is to practice, and daily.