Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: Sarah Henstra

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Sarah Henstra (photo credit: Paola Scattolon)

Leonora Somerville, the protagonist in Sarah Henstra's Mad Miss Mimic (Razorbill Canada) may be excellent at imitating others, but Sarah herself is as original as it gets, and so is her literary debut. Set in nineteenth century London, Mad Miss Mimic tells the story of 17-year old Leonora. Beautiful and wealthy, she should be the toast of the town as she prepares for her formal presentation to the upper class society she was born into. But Leonora is not like other 17-year old girls. When she is speaking as herself, she is burdened by an uncontrollable stutter. Yet when she is imitating someone else, not only does she speak flawlessly, but her mimicry is uncanny. Leonora's story is a rollicking adventure through old London, featuring opium, courtships, gangs and madness, all as Leonora pursues the one thing she most needs to find — her voice.

Today we're speaking to Sarah as part of our At the Desk series, which asks writers to pull back the curtain on their workspaces and give us a peek into their writing processes.

Sarah takes us with her to her various writing spaces, from bedroom to kitchen to café, and explains how a "desk" can be many things — including, under the right circumstances, a person.

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I spent a lot of years trying to figure out the best location to write. Key factors in the equation: two active, growing boys (now 11 and 15, and noisier than ever); recurrent lower-back pain; on any given day, a tendency to take care of to-do lists before writing instead of writing.

A desk is a structure for work. Ideally it will be solid, level and expansive enough to keep the elements of my project in order. My home office is the other half of our master bedroom. In an effort to solve the back-pain issue I use a DIY treadmill desk. I saunter along at a pace of approx. 1km/hr. This keeps my spine warm and my hips loose, and research suggests the increased circulation to the brain boosts creativity too.

But there are still the children and the to-do lists. So more often than not I’m driven out to a local café, where I block out distractions with my Great Lakes Swimmers playlist on shuffle or the free app Rainy Café (an ingenious source of white noise in the form of a muted café soundtrack plus a rainstorm).

The single biggest productivity-booster for my writing, though, has been writing with a buddy. My “desk” has become a set of like-minded writers who are solid, level and expansive enough to keep me on track. I have three friends with whom I meet up very regularly to write, either one-on-one or in threes: Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, Suzanne Alyssa Andrew and Heidi Reimer. We don’t read each other’s writing or spend much time chatting about our projects — at least, we don’t do those things when we meet to write. We simply open our notebooks or laptops and get to work. For me, knowing a friend is at the café waiting for me is the key difference between a) putting in a load of laundry, answering ten emails and deciding I may as well grade a few papers since I’m not writing anyhow and b) actually sitting down to write.

Take, for example, my 7:00-10:00am Saturday morning sessions with Heidi. If Heidi and I didn’t text each other on Friday night and agree to meet — if it was me, all by myself, trying to choke down breakfast in time to be at my desk by 7:00am on a Saturday — well, there’s no way it would happen. But together, Heidi and I have found we can get a substantial amount of writing done before our families rub the sleep from their eyes.

Having more than one such friend helps with scheduling. And of course I write solo all the time, too. But it’s easier to write at home or at school when I’m already midway through a scene, and it’s easier to begin a new scene sitting across from a buddy who can raise an eyebrow at my screen and say, "Hold up there, is that Facebook?"

Every so often my writing does require a physical work surface, and that will generally be my dining table. When I’m mapping out a novel-in-progress I use a lengthy snippet of receipt tape to outline subplots and character arcs. This is big-picture narrative work, and for me it involves staring down at the tapes, moving sticky notes back and forth, writing and erasing, rolling out one new tape after another. Throwing a tablecloth over the whole thing at dinnertime is always an acute reminder of the things competing for my attention. It reminds me that finding time and space to write isn’t something separate from being a writer. Finding time and space to write — and, for me, people to write with — is being a writer.

Sarah Henstra


Sarah Henstra is a professor of English at Ryerson University, where she teaches courses in Gothic Literature, Fairy Tales & Fantasy, and Women in Fiction. Some of her best story ideas come from class discussions. She lives in Toronto with her husband, two sons, and a poodle named Nora. Mad Miss Mimic is her first novel.

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