Conversation: Eleanor Henderson, Author of ‘Ten Thousand Saints’
It’s the last day of 1987, and in Vermont two teenagers are getting high together when tragedy strikes one boy. That triggers a chain of events that lands his friend in New York City’s wild and then-ungentrified East Village and its punk rock music scene.
That’s the setting for a new novel, “Ten Thousand Saints,” which is garnering strong reviews for its treatment of teens, underground youth culture and troubled family relationships. It’s the debut novel for author Eleanor Henderson, who is also an assistant professor at Ithaca College.
I spoke to her earlier this week:
A transcript is after the jump.
Henderson reads an excerpt from “Ten Thousand Saints” here:
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the last day of 1987 and in Vermont two teenagers are getting high together when tragedy strikes one boy. That triggers a chain of events that lands his friend in New York City’s wild and then-ungentrified East Village and its punk rock music scene. That’s the setting for a new novel, “Ten Thousand Saints,” that’s garnering strong reviews for its treatment of teens and underground youth culture and troubled family relationships. It’s the debut novel for author Eleanor Henderson. Che’s an assistant professor at Ithaca College and joins us now. Welcome.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is a coming of age story, of sorts. I saw a Boston Globe reviewer said, “A classic coming of age story with tattoos.”
ELEANOR HENDERSON: It’s pretty good description.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah? Does that jibe with what you set out to do?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Yeah, I wanted to tell a classic story, but I wanted to update it by telling a story that hadn’t been told before at the same time. So I had in mind old-fashioned narrative, but I knew that a lot of people hadn’t heard about straight edge culture before.
JEFFREY BROWN: Yeah, now tell us what that is, straight edge culture.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Straight edge culture, and a lot of people haven’t heard of it before, is a sort of underground music scene in some ways, and so it might seem familiar to people as a kind of offshoot of punk, because of the 1980s it was a kind of cousin of punk rock. And so you have these boys, generally, during this period in my book at least, who are really aggressively devoted to this punk, hardcore punk music, spending their weekends at CBGB’s, for example in New York City in the ’80s. But on the other hand they’re living a really clean lifestyle. The common denominator for straight edge kids is that they eschew drugs. So they’re not doing drugs. They’re often not having sex, not eating meat even, and yet they are —
JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a subculture of subculture.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: It is. It is an entirely new kind of invention — at least it was at the time. I knew that I wanted to tell a classic story in a way that shed light on this unique subculture.
JEFFREY BROWN: And was this was subculture you knew of or you had to go research or how did you learn about it?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Well it wasn’t my scene. It was my husband’s scene. He’s a little bit older than I am, and when I met him he was still involved in this straight edge movement. And it was through his experiences that I decided that I wanted to write about this scene. So I came at in a sort of second-hand way.
JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re writing a coming of age tale, as you say, you have to find a way to make it fresh. So your way in was through the details of a particular time?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: That’s right, and I think also because it wasn’t my coming of age story, that helped me to come at the project almost as a journalist in a way that I wanted to document the scene rather than retelling my own coming of age story.
JEFFREY BROWN: And what was it that when you did look at it as a journalist, what sort of hit you, oh, here’s the way in or here’s what I must tell.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: I think my husband’s stories of the intense devotion to the scene were really appealing to me. This was a family, in a way, and many of these kids were coming to this family of straight edge because they felt that they couldn’t fit in any other place. So, yeah, the details appealed to me and often those details revealed that these were kids who were really making their own scene. They were really proudly underground. They were making their own zines and pressing their own records and setting up their own shows, and straight edge is sort of, of the people, by the people, for the people. It’s entirely self-created and that was really appealing to me and something I wanted to capture.
JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned the word family, because this is a sort of modern family story, as well. Most of the kids here either have one or no parents, and if they have a parent there is very little parental support. The adults are, you know, marginal or not all that grown up themselves in some ways, right?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: That’s right, that’s accurate. Yeah, I think there’s something very special about this generation of kids who’s coming of age in the ’80s, because they’re generally the kids of the flower children generation before, and I think that’s a unique question that was posed to this generation. How do you rebel against the generation that perfected rebellion? So these kids are now having to make some grownup choices, and the models that they have aren’t the best models. Their parents haven’t necessarily grown up themselves. And so these kids are struggling to do that, as all kids do, but on top of that they have these unique paths to choose from, and one of them for these kids ends up being really inventing their own culture that draws from these different rock ‘n’ roll influences and drug influences, it sort of turns all of those options on their head.
JEFFREY BROWN: I mentioned this is your first novel, and previously you published short stories. So what was it like to make the leap to a full, detailed story with many characters and over a period of time?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Well, it was difficult to make that leap, but I actually really enjoyed the territory of the novel. It’s such a big, messy enterprise that I wanted to try to tame this big, messy story into something that was cohesive, so it was a long process. It took about nine years to write and I went through —
JEFFREY BROWN: Nine years?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Yeah, yeah. I went through a lot of drafts. It began just told through Jude’s point of view, the main character’s point of view, and I realized that it was really a bigger story and that I wanted to invite some of those other voices into the picture, and so it became more than just a coming of age story, I think.
JEFFREY BROWN: Did you feel pressures, expectations, I mean, especially to come out with a new book and be a new novelist at a time when we are constantly told, for example, not that many people are reading novels?
ELEANOR HENDERSON: That’s right. Yeah, I did. I mean, I would have a written a novel no matter what, I think. But, yeah, you always feel pressure to produce a book that readers are going to want to read. And so I wanted to write a book that would be appealing to a wide audience of people who could come at this story for different reasons. I think when people hear that it’s a book about punk rock, they might not think that it’s a book for them. But I’ve been gratified to hear that readers from all walks of life, you know, a 17-year-old, or a 75-year-old the other day that I met said that she really enjoyed the book. I think for anybody who has been part of a family or has been a teenager — I think most people fit in that category — then there is some access for them.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ok. The book is “Ten Thousand Saints.” Eleanor Henderson, thank you very much.
ELEANOR HENDERSON: Thank you.