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

Watch the book club discussion of Mad Miss Mimic here.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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

Calgary Herald recommends Mad Miss Mimic
Calgary Herald recommends Mad Miss Mimic

bookseller for a day

IMG_0163May 2 was Authors for Indies Day here in Toronto, and I had the great honour of visiting 3 different independent bookstores to chat with readers and talk up my favourite titles.

Audrey Niffenegger's THE TIME TRAVELLER'S WIFE was one of my Author Pics for Authors for Indies Day at Book City BWV.
Audrey Niffenegger’s THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE was one of my “desert island reads” at Book City BWV.

First up was my local Book City in Bloor West Village, where I sat at the sidewalk table and attempted to entice passersby with free bookmarks and buttons. The indefatigable Sarah R. had arranged for bakery cookies and lemonade, which made my son very happy when he stopped by to say hello.

She also set up a very pretty display of Mad Miss Mimic up at the counter!IMG_0147

When a passerby did duck into the store, it was either to buy a newspaper or to meet the great Terry Fallis. After a while I narrowed my sales pitch to calling out, “Terry Fallis is inside!”–path of least resistance.

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A Novel Spot

Next I popped into A Novel Spot in Etobicoke, a warmly lit oasis tucked into an interior courtyard of Humbertown plaza. I hung out with authors Jennifer Robson and Jane Mullis, signed copies of MMM for owner Sarah P. and chatted with a customer about whether her daughter will be able to find work after finishing her PhD.

After lunch I hit the road, travelling 90 min east to The Avid Reader in Cobourg. And here’s where I finally got down to the business of book selling. Kelly and Julie took the whole “Author Recommendations” thing seriously, stacking my chosen titles at a centre-of-store table and positioning me behind it while they led customers over one by one. “Well?” Kelly said. “Tell people why they should buy The Scorpio Races (my YA pic by Maggie Stiefvater). “And what is Circle of Stones (by Suzanne Alyssa Andrew) all about; it’s been getting great reviews!”

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Hawking books for happy customers!

I sold books. I sold several. Possibly a handful, not counting Mad Miss Mimic, of which I also sold a few. It helped that Kelly and Julie had gotten the word out far and wide, and that everyone who came into the store (and there were dozens) was greeted by name. The Avid Reader is evidently a community hotspot in a community that takes its reading habits very seriously.

Three things I learned on Authors for Indies Day about being a bookseller:

1. You have to like people enough to talk to them all day. 2. You have to read everything you want to sell, pretty much. 3. You have to be savvy about business/publicity/survival.

I’m in awe of the amazing bookstore staff I met on May 2, who meet (exceed!) all three of these criteria with good humour and grace.

handmade sign at A Novel Spot
handmade sign at A Novel Spot

BookTube video MADness!

Check out the official Mad Miss Mimic book trailer video:

A bazillion thanks to my writer/producer friend Lana Pesch for the slick professional touch (and the unflappable good humour). Thanks also to Ryerson students Kelly C., Madison S. and Rebecca T. for their participation.