MJ Rose’s Backstory: Susan Henderson

When Tillie Harris goes into premature labor, she has no one to turn to but her estranged father. Their relationship has been strained since Tillie was eight years old and her mother mysteriously vanished. Up From the Blue follows young Tillie’s startling discoveries about what happened to her mother, as well as grown Tillie’s struggle with a relationship that’s stuck in the past.

Inspiration is a funny thing, and it’s hard for me to trace the roots of this story back to one particular idea. My head is like one of those cement mixers, and into the tank goes everything that leaves an impression on me—a story on the news, things I overhear in an elevator, the smell of walking down a particular street, the things I fear, the questions I’m obsessed with, mistakes I’ve made that still haunt me. All of that information churns and intermingles until one day, usually while I’m trying to sleep or often when I’m driving, some image or situation will just kind of drop into consciousness—say a young girl standing outside a closed door, afraid to turn the knob—and I won’t know who that person is or what the larger story is about, but I’ll know that I’m on one of those rides to find out.

Tillie, the young girl standing outside the closed door, is the narrator of Up From the Blue, and over time she came more and more into focus. I learned she was a biter. She was the kind of kid who would stick her tongue through the slats of a fan. She was an extrovert with no friends. And she was afraid of the person she loved the most.

Are there moments in this book of fiction that are true? Sure. My characters have worn clothes that came from my closet, for example. And, once, I did—I’m sorry to say—pee on an apple and give it to my teacher. But mostly, my joy in writing comes from sending my characters out to do the things I never dared to do. To test my fears and theories about the world. And at some point, the characters become so real that it’s as if they’re truly leading the adventure.

In the course of this novel, Tillie led me right to the issues that gnaw at me: the desperation to fix things that might not be fixable, the fear that the people you love may not love you the way you hope, the battle between following your bliss and being there for others, the failures we make against those we love, how we live with those failures, and the jagged path to forgiveness.

Writing this book healed something deeply in me. I learned a lot about love and acceptance of (and even a kind of a glory in) people’s shortcomings. And what I hope is that this story will heal something in my readers, too.

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