SARANAC LAKE - Sara J. Henry remembers exactly where she was when she came up with the idea for her first novel.
"I was back up visiting the area and driving along Lake Champlain on a misty overcast day," said Henry, a former Enterprise sports editor. "I came to Port Kent, where there's an hour-long ferry ride to Vermont. For some reason I envisioned a woman standing on one ferry and seeing a child fall from the opposite ferry. I thought, 'What would she do?' In a split second, she makes the decision to dive after the child."
The scene Henry envisioned that day would end up being the opening chapter of her novel "Learning to Swim," which was published last month by New York City-based Crown Publishers.
Sara J. Henry, a former Enterprise sports editor, holds a copy of her first novel “Learning to Swim,” which was published last month.
(Enterprise photo — Chris Knight)
Set in the Adirondacks, Vermont and Ottawa, the book tells the story of Troy Chance, a freelance writer living in Lake Placid, who watches a small boy tumble from a ferry into Lake Champlain and dives in after him. She rescues the French-speaking boy only learn that he had been abducted. Convinced that if she turns him over to police he may end up in the hands of those who wanted to harm him, Chance decides to bring him home. She soon finds herself at the center of a story of kidnapping and murder.
In a recent interview with the Enterprise, Henry talked about what led her to become a full-time writer, the challenges of writing a novel for the first time and why she decided to make this area the setting for her book.
Henry grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee and graduated from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. She moved from Washington state to take the Enterprise sports editor job in 1986. Henry said she was hired even though she had little background in sports, apart from biking and running.
The opening of Sara J. Henry's novel "Learning to Swim":
If I'd blinked, I would have missed it.
But I didn't, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-size doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.
I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I'd pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on the deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one's twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.
What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.
"I thought, 'sports editor - I can do this,'" Henry said. "But it was nerve-racking at first. This is such a sports-centered town and I knew nothing about some of these sports. I had never covered football. I remember buying a book about football and trying to figure it out."
But Henry said she threw herself into her work and eventually discovered that she didn't have to know everything about the sport if she got the results right, spelled the players' names right, took lots of pictures and quoted the coach accurately.
"I loved it here," she said. "I have never been so welcomed. Not just the paper but the whole town."
Her experiences here were the reason why she wanted this to be the setting of her novel. In fact, she bases the main character, Troy Chance, on herself.
"She lives in the house on Main Street in Lake Placid, across from Mr. Mike's, that I used to live in," Henry said. "There was no question that this had to be my setting because it's such a rich area. It has so many things. But it's also because the area has a dark side and a bright side. You have this gorgeous lake, Lake Flower, here. But on my last day of work here, somebody drowned in it. It's an area where people can go for a hike but can wander off in the woods and disappear forever. It's Norman Rockwell with a blurry edge to it."
Henry's stay at the Enterprise, however, lasted just two years. When she wrote an article about bobsledding that got picked up by a magazine, she realized that it was time for a change.
"They paid me $200 for that article," she said. "At the time I was earning $200 a week and working about 60 hours. That's kind of what pushed me into freelance journalism. I loved the job but I knew I couldn't keep up with the pace. I freelanced for two years. From there, the path led to features, newspapers, magazines, a book editor job and finally into writing a novel, which of course I had to set here."
Once she had her idea for the novel, Henry set to work quickly. She wrote the first draft in about seven months. But she wasn't satisfied and it would be years before her work made it in print.
When she moved to Nashville, Tenn., Henry joined a writing group and used the feedback from fellow aspiring authors to try and polish her work. She recalled listening to a person who had been part of that writing group talk about how he started a novel years ago and only wrote four or five chapters.
"At that moment I realized it's very easy to start a novel, but it is hard to finish it," she said. "I decided I'm not going to be one of those people who runs into their friends years later and says, 'Nope, never got past those four or five chapters.' I made that resolution."
At that point, Henry said she had a book with a great opening and a great closing but chapters in between that needed a lot of work.
"It was not good at all and I didn't know how to fix it," she said. "It took me going to Australia on a five-week house swap and breaking my foot to get me to fix it. I just kept rewriting and rewriting. I went back and re-imagined every character and made myself feel what every character was feeling. I basically reverse-engineered the complex plot of the book."
Once she was happy with her manuscript, Henry set to the work of trying to get it published. That effort, she said, was easier than she thought.
"People are going to hate me for saying that," she said. "But watching your savings go down every month is a great impetus. I wrote query letters. I always attached the first chapter. I was trying to get an agent and, boom, the offers started coming in."
Henry eventually sent a 30-page excerpt of her novel to an agent - Barney Karpfinger.
"I remember putting it in the mail saying, 'Well, I'm wasting $1.90,'" she said. "But he called me and signed me. That's the advantage of having a really good agent. They know the market and the editors, and they know how to sell your work. And that's what he did."
Henry now lives in Vermont, but her budding career as a novelist has forced her to also be somewhat of a traveling saleswoman. Lately, she's been touring bookstores, doing interviews and author events, and other promotional work for the book. She was recently featured on Mountain Lake public television, North Country Public Radio and Vermont Public Radio. A review of "Learning to Swim" will be published in the New York Times on Sunday.
"You have to transform yourself," Henry said. "You're basically working alone for a long time, living on a shoestring budget. Then, all of a sudden, you're a promoter, a business woman and doing television appearances. It's nerve-racking and exhausting."
Most of the feedback so far has been positive: Publishers Weekly called Henry's first novel "impressive"; Booklist said "Henry proves herself to be a smooth and compelling storyteller"; "A compelling plot, a pervading sense of forboding, well-constructed characters," said Kirkus Reviews.
"I did not realize there would be such a wide range of people who really liked the book," Henry said. "Some like it for the setting, which I knew would appeal to a lot of people. The Adirondacks and Vermont is very exotic. But people also identify with the characters. People like the plot. It's not a whodunit. But there's some twists and turns."
"Learning to Swim" is the first in a series of novels Henry has planned. The first sequel, which will be published next year, is set in Saranac Lake, Lake Placid and Burlington, Vt.
"It begins during (the Saranac Lake) Winter Carnival," Henry said. "Both Lake Placid and Saranac Lake are almost characters in it. They figure prominently in the sequel."
Asked if she had any advice for budding novelists, Henry said the best thing to do is to just jump in.
"You gotta finish it," she said. "Do whatever you've got to do to write it. Get up half an hour earlier and work on it. Find somebody to exchange chapters with. Get good feedback. Read your work aloud. If you have a story you believe in - don't give up."
"Learning to Swim" is available locally at the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid and Fact and Fiction in Saranac Lake.
Contact Chris Knight at 891-2600 ext. 24 or firstname.lastname@example.org.