Interviews / Novelists

Interview with Sara Herchenroether: “It takes a very long time for your writing to get as good as your reading taste.”

Sara Herchenroether is a novelist and educator with a love for language and storytelling. She wrote her first novel in sixth grade and went on to study English at Northwestern University.

After teaching American Literature and AP English for eight years, she obtained a Master’s in Teaching and became a National Board Certified Teacher in Adolescent Young Adult English Language Arts. Sara lives in Columbus, Ohio with her family and pets. Her debut novel, The Night Flowers, will be published by Tin House in May 2023 and she is represented by Rachel Ekstrom Courage.

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Hi Sara, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Your first novel was published in serial form in the sixth grade, what inspired you to write it at such a young age?

Well, “publish” is a very loose term. I wrote a novel-shaped-thing in the 6th grade, and my teacher let me read a chapter to the class every Friday. Maybe she wanted to encourage me, or maybe she liked the weekly break. 

I started writing down stories at a young age for the same reason I write them now—I had to get them out of my head. As a kid, I read a lot, spent a lot of time alone and had a hard time falling asleep at night. While I’d lie there, staring at the ceiling, I told myself stories until I fell asleep. Then, I wrote them down. Like most writers’ first work, my first novel was very bad fan fiction. A mashup of Jurassic Park and My So-Called Life. I guess you could say I was interested in cross-genres from a young age.

Your forthcoming novel, The Night Flowers, has been described as a “haunting debut thriller.” What inspired you to write this story and what drew you to this particular subject matter?

One central theme of The Night Flowers is cancer. One of the main characters is at the end of her treatment for breast cancer. I based most of her story on my own experience having and being treated for breast cancer. I knew I wanted to include this aspect to her character because I haven’t seen cancer done well in fiction before. Typically, cancer is used as a plot device.

A side character gets a diagnosis to signal tension or to kill off a spouse or parent. There are probably other books out there where the reader sees cancer through the main character’s eyes, but I hadn’t read it. Cancer isn’t plot, cancer is character. It re-shapes your entire worldview. The parallel between cancer and crime is one of the central themes in the book. 

The crime at the center of The Night Flowers is loosely based on the Allenstown Four, better known as the Bear Brook Murders, thanks to the NHPR podcast by Jason Moon. The story of Marlyse Honeychurch, Marie Vaughn, Sarah McWaters, and the unnamed middle child takes place in New Hampshire.

It was a very old cold case that wasn’t solved until two investigations, taking place at the same time in two different parts of the county, one old-fashioned genealogy and one based on forensic genealogy, solved the case nearly thirty years later, within a week of each other, with no knowledge of the other. I wanted to take the same basic idea but solve the case in a new way. 

I also wanted to tell the story of the woman at the center of the crime. Too much crime and mystery fiction focuses on the who in the whodunit. The victim gets very little on the page, and if their story is told, it’s usually through what other characters report about them.

This was a 30-year-old cold case; there wasn’t anyone left around who knew her, and her body was never named. The only way to tell her story was to have her ghost speak for her. Once I settled on that decision, it opened another layer of what was possible in the story. 

How did you go about researching the background and setting for the novel, particularly the Gila National Forest and the 1980s?

I started to write the novel during lockdown. I’m from Massachusetts originally, and live with my family in Ohio now. My goal for setting was two-fold: I wanted to separate my characters and story from the original setting, Allenstown, New Hampshire, and I wanted to imagine myself someplace I had never been.

Especially during lockdown when I couldn’t leave my house. I was scrolling Google Earth, looking for mountains and little-known highways when I found the Gila National Forest. Then, I found the town Truth or Consequences. That name alone—it seemed like kismet.

I spent so many hours on Google Maps, moving my little icon-person through town. I read what I could about the town, but there isn’t a whole lot. I watched hours upon hours of people’s hiking vlogs, all on YouTube, as they hiked the Gila Wilderness. Those were incredibly helpful. But I had all of lockdown to imagine myself in New Mexico. 

There was also a lot of research into genealogy I had to do to write this book. I took an online course, Intro to DNA 101 through DNA Adoption, and read Forensic Genealogy by College Fitzpatrick, PhD. I spoke with Megan Sheeran, a research librarian and genealogist at Columbus Metropolitan Library. Then, toward the end, I took a long weekend and visited Truth or Consequences.

It was incredibly strange to physically stand in a place I had spent so much time imagining. I could drive around town without a map by the time I got there. Then, I drove into the mountains. I got so many little details that only come from being in a place, mostly to do with smell, the taste of the air, the sounds of local birds. And the people—you can’t imagine how people interact with each other from the internet. If a stranger starts talking to you at a bar, if people stop their cars to let people cross the street. You can’t imagine the values of a place until you’re there, experiencing it. 

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Can you share any insights or lessons that you learned about the writing process during the development of The Night Flowers?

I had written a novel before The Night Flowers that got me my agent, but that ultimately didn’t sell. The two things I learned from that novel were one, I was onto something (I signed with an agent) and two, if I sat down at my writing desk every day, I’d eventually have a novel.

When I started to write The Night Flowers, I knew I had to make a few changes, mostly in terms of genre and structure. I wanted to write crime (the first novel was spec fi) and I knew I wanted to go more literary than most of the market. I must have read over 50 books in the genre during the year I was working on my early drafts. 

The second major lesson was learning how to, well, actually write a novel. Writing The Night Flowers was a little like mountain climbing in the fog. I couldn’t see the shape of it before I started. But I laid some rope, then followed the path I set for myself, laid some more, and kept climbing. The route was awkward, haphazard, but I got to the top and climbed back down again.

Once I had gotten to the ground, the fog had lifted and I could see the whole thing. Draft after draft, I kept moving scenes where they needed to be, which was never easy because I had a multi-POV structure. One change in one thread meant several changes in the other two threads.

I read as many craft books as I could get my hands onto and watched every Masterclass on writing. Matt Bell hadn’t published Refuse to Be Done: How to Write and Rewrite a Novel in Three Drafts yet, but that was essentially my approach. I knew I could write a good book if I just kept working until I got it right. I kept re-writing until I got there.

What does a typical writing day look like for you? Can you share your writing process with us and how you maintain focus while writing with a husband, four young children, an old dog, and two cats at home?

I wrote short stories, and my middle-school novel, when I was younger, but when I didn’t get into the creative writing major at Northwestern, put aside fiction writing, thinking I wasn’t good enough. And I wasn’t. Art cooks slowly.

I had some natural ability to line up words on a page, but didn’t have anything to say. I didn’t start writing again until my 4th child was sleeping through the night. I had tried, off and on, to start some ideas before, but they never went anywhere because I was afraid to commit to the process of writing a novel.

It’s a scary thing to declare you’re writing a novel. It’s not something that happens overnight and requires you to reorganize your life’s daily schedule. I wasn’t ready to make that commitment until I was certain I had something to say, and that certainty didn’t come until my late 30’s. 

To write The Night Flowers, I had to follow my kids’ schedule. I got up at 5am most days and wrote for two hours while my husband did breakfast duty. Then, I got another hour in during the afternoon while they were napping. That routine, repeated obsessively, even through COVID, yielded a novel. Once I finished one draft, I’d take a week break and go back to the beginning.

If you could have a conversation with any artist throughout history about their creative process, who would that be and why?

I’d love to talk to prolific female writers who also had houses full of children to manage. Ursula Le Guin and Shirley Jackson come immediately to mind. I’d like to know how they managed their careers while also balancing their home lives. It’s a tightrope I walk each day. I’d like some more encouragement that it can be done and continued over many years. Or one that’s possible without time travel, I’d like to know how Stephen King writes 6 clean pages a day.

So much about novel writing involves the time you spend when you’re not at your desk. The time your subconscious needs to work through an idea while you’re gardening or doing the dishes or sleeping. How do writers who put out a book a year organize their days to maximize the number of active writing hours?

I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?

I am currently reading and thoroughly obsessed with Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zavin. I’m reading it slowly because I don’t want it to end. I know it will go on my bookshelf next to All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The River by Peter Heller, two other perfect novels that, at their heart, are about friendship. Before that was Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka, and next in my TBR is the new Elly Griffiths’ Bleeding Heart Yard. I’m a huge fan of her work.

The Night Flowers is your debut novel, what advice would you give to aspiring writers who are just starting out?

Decide what your goals are. If you want to write for you because you enjoy the process of story-making, great. I think we should all be happier to view writing as an artistic hobby, like photography or painting. If you’re writing with the goal of traditionally publishing a novel, be prepared to fail and keep going. It takes a very long time for your writing to get as good as your reading taste. In that time, you will be met with rejection.

George Saunders said in his craft book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain that the aspiring writers who make it learn two things: how to adapt to criticism and causality. Understanding causality is a much longer answer but learning to listen to and incorporate feedback is necessary if you’re going to make it through the various publishing gauntlets ahead of you.

What does your current workspace look like?

I typically write in the dining room, which for a while, doubled as the kids’ art room, and before that, the puzzle table. It got to the messy point of being swallowed whole by watercolor paints and crayons. The kids have been moved, and I have got the table to myself again.

The room doesn’t follow Stephen King’s maxim of having doors. Like Toni Morrison said, you can’t really have doors with kids. But it does have great staring-into-space, which for my two cents, is more important anyway.

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