2018 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with S. F. Henson

S. F. Henson is a finalist for the 2018 William C. Morris Award for her novel Devils Within. After Nate Fuller kills his father in self-defense, he must find a way to redefine what’s right and wrong and learn to trust again. But when two followers of The Fort, his father’s white supremacist group, arrive in Nate’s new town, he knows blood is going to spill—he’s just not sure whose.

Congratulations on being a Morris Award finalist! Where were you when you heard the news and what was your reaction?
Thank you! I can still hardly believe it. I was at work at my day job when I found out I was a finalist. Funny story, I actually learned the news when everyone else did, through Twitter! I absent-mindedly clicked on a notification and saw a tweet about the Morris Finalists. I stared at it for a minute, unsure why that tweet had come up in my notifications. Then I saw my name. Then I stared harder, not quite believing what I was seeing. Then I cried. My editor called after that and told me she’d been sworn to secrecy and the news had gone public before she had the chance to call. I just kind of wandered around the office all day, stunned. I kept re-reading the press release to make sure it was real!

Devils Within focuses on the impact of white supremacy on contemporary society. What made you choose to tackle this topic in your first novel?
Devils Within was, sadly, inspired by real events. I read an article that I couldn’t shake and this character, Nate, popped in my head. I actually tried really hard to not write this story. I wanted to write an easy love story instead, but it didn’t work. Nate’s voice wouldn’t leave my head. Around that time, an incident happened at Ole Miss, where my brother was a student. Someone had hung a noose around the statue of James Meredith, the first African-American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. Instead of being appalled, a large contingent of students “protested” in support of the noose. I watched all of this, and I heard Nate, and I knew that his story was more relevant than I wanted to admit. I realized that this story had the potential to effect people, to make them think, and maybe even change their perspective.

You were born and raised in the deep south. How did that impact the writing of Devils Within?
I was raised in a gap. When I was a kid, both sets of grandparents lived in the same predominantly African-American neighborhood, where one grandmother still lives. My mother’s first teaching job was at a predominantly African-American school, where my parents coached basketball and where I sang in a gospel choir. I grew up surrounded by diversity, but make no mistake, there’s still quite the racial divide in the south. I’m still white. My church was all white, my school was mostly white. On one side, I had other white people making racist comments in my presence. On the other, I saw the effects of those comments on people I cared about. The high school my brother attended didn’t see its first African-American student graduate until 2011, my brother’s year. That same area had a public pool where my family would swim in the summers. One summer in middle school a bus load of African-American children from the Boys & Girls Club came to swim. My family watched as all the other white families left after they were unable to keep those children out. The city drained the pool after that for cleaning. These experiences, and so many more like them, have never left me. They’ve simmered in the back of my mind, growing hotter and hotter as I’ve aged, as more experiences were added to the pot, until they finally boiled over, flowing out onto the page to help fill out Devils Within. They’ve helped me write more honestly, which was important for this book. They’re in the little details, conversations and turns of phrase, that I’ve had readers tell me they’ve related to the most because it made the book feel real.

What do you hope teen readers–particularly white readers–will take from your book?
My hope for teens is that Devils Within will make them think more critically and be more willing to challenge prejudice when they encounter it. Not just the overt prejudices, but the small, subtle ones too. The ones they might be more willing to overlook. I hope they learn from Nate that silence equals assent, and that their voice, no matter how small, matters. The main thing I want white readers to take from the book is the idea that they don’t have to believe something just because their parents believe it. They’re free to form their own opinions and belief systems. Too often we get in the pattern of rooting for a certain team or voting for a certain party or forming a view on a certain issue because that’s what we grew up hearing. It’s okay to question those things and break away from your parents’ views.

You have a background as a lawyer. What inspired you to write for teens, and how have your past experiences in law informed your writing?
When most people find out I’m an author and an attorney, they immediately assume that I write legal fiction, but honestly, writing is a means of escaping from my day job. That’s one reason I like writing for teens. I deal with cynical adults all day. Let’s be honest: most adults are jaded. They think they already have everything figured out. Teens are just beginning to expand their world views. They’re figuring out where they fit and how they can make a difference. They still have hope. I like being part of that, and, let’s face it, it’s just more fun to write.

My background does color my writing, just in ways most people don’t expect. 90% of practicing law is writing, and it’s all telling a story. At work, I have a limited amount of space to tell my client’s story. Writing a legal brief is almost like plotting a story. Honing my craft at my day job has bled into my writing life. I can’t keep law completely out of my writing, though. I used to practice criminal and family law, which absolutely helped when it came to telling Nate’s story.

What inspires you as a writer?
Everything. I know that’s a broad response, but it’s accurate. I draw inspiration from all over the place: life, music, art, nature. I keep an Evernote app on my phone, and a notebook in my purse. It drives my husband crazy because I’m constantly jotting down notes about something I saw, or an article I read, or conversation I overheard, or snapping a picture, even in the middle of conversation.  I’m basically a giant sponge, absorbing everything I encounter and squeezing it onto the page later. Sometimes that inspiration takes over the story, like the article that birthed the idea for Devils Within. Other times it’s subtler, like the guy I saw bust his nose at a football game that wound up giving me the details for a fight Nate has in the book. A line from a song can give me a character’s motivation, or a single tree can end up forming the basis for an entire world. Basically, if you’re in my proximity, watch out because those quippy coffee cups sayings like “don’t offend the writer, or she might put you in a book and kill you” are a little truer with me.

What did you like to read as a teen? Looking back, are there any subjects you wish you’d had more to read about?
I liked darker stories. Stephen King and Thomas Harris. I read a lot of Agatha Christie and John Grisham too. I wish I’d read more YA. I loved Madeleine L’Engle and Paul Zindel, but I didn’t really have access to new books. My small town only had a used bookstore. They let you trade books, which was awesome because my family didn’t have a ton of money, but it also meant the selection was limited to what others had brought in. I would’ve loved to have had more YA books like we’re seeing in the market now. More books that spoke to me where I was. Doubling back to a previous question, I think that plays into why I write YA. I write the stories I wish I’d had as a teen.

Can you tell us anything about your next book or other upcoming projects?
It’s taken me a long time to move on from Devils Within. That book took so much out of me, and it’s taken a while for my creative well to fill back up. I’ve started and stopped half a dozen different projects since finishing Devils, but I’m finally working on a story that I think is going somewhere. It’s set in the most haunted forest in the world, in Romania, and is an allegory for my depression. I think of it like a YA Pan’s Labyrinth.

What books and other media are you loving right now?
I’m absolutely in love with Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down. I also made sure to read all of the other finalists’ books, which are gorgeous. In other media, I adore the show This is Us, even though I’m behind because I cry during basically every episode, and I recently discovered the singer Elliot Moss. I can’t listen to music while I write, but I make a playlist for each book. If you want to know what I’m listening to for my new story, you can find it at www.sfhenson.com/playlists.html.

–Stephen Ashley, currently reading Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman