By her own admission, Heather Henson backed into the world of children's books. She never meant to start a career editing them, and she certainly never meant to write one. But somehow, at the age of 35, she has ended up doing both.
Her first novel for teenagers, Making the Run (HarperCollins/Cotler), is the result of a long journey. Born in a small town in Kentucky, Henson moved to New York City to attend college at the New School. "I actually came to study filmmaking," she says. "I'd always written, but didn't think that's what I'd do. But I had some great writing teachers in college, and ended up with a degree in creative writing."
A series of temp jobs followed graduation, including one in the children's division of HarperCollins. Henson discovered she liked working with artists and with texts, and found creating picture books somewhat similar to the storyboarding process in filmmaking. A permanent job in the division opened up; she was hired, rose in the ranks and became an editor.
Then came a crossroads. "At some point," she recalls, "I had stopped writing. I loved working with writers and books, but I missed writing. I was at the point at which I might have been promoted, and I knew I'd have to dedicate my life to editing if that happened. But I just knew I wanted to write. Of course, my husband thought I was crazy at first!"
So she left Harper to go freelance, doing some editing and also her own writing. It was a productive time: she finished up her master's in creative writing at City College, had a son and wrote what turned out to be Making the Run.
Her first and only submission of the book was to her former boss, Joanna Cotler. "When I finished it," she recalls, "I thought it was something she'd like. I had worked for Joanna for several years, and we have the same aesthetic when it comes to books. I finished it the week before I gave birth to Daniel [now 2 years old]. Within a few weeks after giving birth, Joanna called and said, 'I love it, I'll take it.' I was so happy, it was amazing."
Since she was so familiar with the editorial process, Henson was a bit surprised to experience life on the other side of the fence. "I didn't think it would surprise me at all," she says. "But it was very difficult to send my book out, even though it was to Joanna. And then there was the waiting. I used to be so busy as an editor. I didn't think about how long it took to get back to an author."
The editing part came as less of a surprise. "There were not a huge amount of revisions, but Joanna definitely asked for some, and I agreed with her. Because I've been an editor, I felt, 'Look, I know I need to be edited.' I do think writers can fall in love with their own words."
Lu, the heroine of Making the Run, is just finishing high school in Kentucky; she is poised on the brink of going out into the world, longing for new experiences but a bit afraid to leave as well. Henson says the book is "not totally autobiographical, but still there's some truth in fiction. The hometown is very similar to my hometown. I really wanted to write about my own experience of growing up in a small town, of being 17 or 18, not an adult but almost one. I also wanted to write about that intense feeling of being in love for the first time, which is never quite the same again."
All of Henson's writing, she says, is set in Kentucky. She has written several short stories, and an (as yet unpublished) novel for adults, but admits the idea of writing for children hadn't previously occurred to her. "And now I have so many ideas for middle-grade or YA novels that I don't have time to write them all!"
Her current project is a middle-grade novel, "again a little autobiographical. It's about a girl growing up in the theater [Henson's father runs a 52-year-old summer-stock theater in Danville, her hometown]. Place is very important to me, almost as important as the story. I'm so familiar with Kentucky and that culture." Henson has also sold a picture book to Atheneum, "which will come out in something like 2005."
Now that Making the Run has been published, and she can finally hold it in her hands, Henson says, "I love the way it looks. I'm so excited to have it published." Reflecting on the serendipitous route in which she discovered the world of children's books, left it, and then ended up writing a children's book of her own, she says, "It's like that line from The Godfather: just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"