An Interview with Smith Henderson

3 Jul
Smith Henderson's novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel Fourth of July Creek is already in the works to become a television series.

Smith Henderson’s novel, Fourth of July Creek, made news before it was even released, in part due to the bidding war it inspired among publishers. So far, the novel has been called “the best book I’ve read so far this year” by the book editor of The Washington Post and “a hell of a great book” by Esquire. The novel is set in Montana and follows a social worker whose life becomes entwined with the delusional and grandiose actions of a would-be prophet and revolutionary, Jeremiah Pearl.

Henderson was the recipient of the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award in fiction. He was a 2011 Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University, a 2011 Pushcart Prize winner, and a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers in Austin, Texas. He currently works at the Wieden+Kennedy advertising agency, where he wrote the Chrysler Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. His fiction has appeared in American Short Fiction, One Story, New Orleans Review, Makeout Creek, and Witness. Born and raised in Montana, he now lives in Portland, Oregon.

In this interview, Henderson discusses the challenge of dramatizing a character who spends much of his time off the page and his method for capturing the voice of a man who believes the Antichrist is alive and well.

To read an exercise on using summary in dialogue and an excerpt from Fourth of July Creek, click here.

Michael Noll

I love the way that you make Jeremiah Pearl present in the novel, even when he’s not actually on the page. The biggest way you do this is with the coins that have had holes somehow cut into them. Pete finds one of the coins in his change, and then he runs across individuals who’ve encountered the coins and are collecting them, which leads him to someone who’s had a face-to-face encounter with Pearl. I’m curious if the coins were always present in the novel or if you introduced them to solve some issue you were having, perhaps the difficult of writing about a guy who would necessarily spend much of his time in hiding.

Smith Henderson

I’m sure the coins were a solution, as you suggest, but it was also just one of those things that felt right, and may have been something I was going to have him do all along. You have a character in mind and you start to think of things he or she does and what those things could mean for the plot.

But as you say, Pearl is in hiding quite a bit, so it began to be important that he do enough things that he wasn’t hiding from nobody. People—not just the protagonist, Pete—needed to want to find him. And so then you just start to look at things that a guy like that would do that would draw attention. The coins were definitely part of that.

If there’s a craft takeaway from all this, it’s probably that a character’s actions should both move the plot and be expressive of that character’s core identity.

Michael Noll

While Pearl makes his first appearance early on in the novel, he isn’t seen a second time until about halfway through. In that span of pages, you’ve created a tremendous amount of suspense about his activities and who, exactly, he is. Did you worry about how you’d satisfy the intrigue you’d built up? In other words, how did you approach the scene that you must have known that your readers would be dying for—Pete’s second encounter with Pearl?

Smith Henderson

I honestly don’t recall approaching that scene. I remember being more concerned with making Pearl off-stage as compelling as scenes with him in them. A scene with characters in the same time and place is technically easier to do than having a character relate a story to another character.

But of course, there was pressure to make Pearl-in-the-flesh as vibrant, interesting, and troubling as possible. To have earned that intrigue. But then, the intrigue itself gives the character a certain degree of power. Playing against the created image of the man was a large part of the fun in writing those scenes.

Michael Noll

Smith Henderson's highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called "the best book I've ready so far this year" by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

Smith Henderson’s highly anticipated debut novel, Fourth of July Creek, was called “the best book I’ve ready so far this year” by Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles.

One last question about Pearl (he’s tremendously fascinating). How much research was required to write his rants? Did you try to research the kinds of things he would have read about? Or did you research people like him to see what they talked about?

Smith Henderson

Well I’ve been to churches where people spoke in tongues and where the religious intensity was hotter than say, at a Unitarian church or something. I was privy to conversations about who exactly was the antichrist. So a lot of Pearl’s basic worldview was familiar to me, as it is to millions of Americans.

Also, people in Montana are generally suspicious of “outside” authority…so I was steeped in that kind of thinking before I ever conceived of Pearl. But as it came time to bring him to life, I did research into separatist movements and militias and the different flash points of the past 30 years. The Unabomber’s capture, the Ruby Ridge standoff, the hunt for Eric Rudolph. But Pearl’s voice was drawn from more older sources. I read a lot of Thoreau, Emerson, and even Nietzsche to get his pronouncements to sound properly grand. He’s as much a product of the Jesus who threw the money-changers out of the temple as he is Timothy McVeigh.

Michael Noll

The novel is written from a few different points of view, and in the sections about Pete’s daughter Rachel, you use a Q&A format. Was this a way to break up the pace of the novel? Her story takes place pretty far from Pearl’s story, and so I’m wondering if you felt the need to give her sections some extra velocity, some snap, to keep the reader’s mind from wandering back to Pearl and Pete.

Smith Henderson

The Q&A format is basically a way for me to generate material. I will often write that way to figure out a character or write my way out of a problem. With the Rachel sections, I just found that I liked them in the Q&A style. For a couple reasons. First, the identities of the Q&A aren’t really identified and work like a Greek chorus, sort of commenting on the action as they disclose it. But also, there is an inherent anxiety to the questions, which I felt really gave the reader Pete’s perspective on his daughter’s fate, his worry, his fear, his imagination running away with the possibilities…it’s as if every question is some version of “Is she okay is she okay is she okay is she okay…?” I found that much more satisfying experience as a reader.

July 2014

Michael Noll

Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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