Although novelists working outside their comfort zones often do research, Susan Henderson, author of The Flicker of Old Dreams (HarperCollins, Mar. 2018), took hers to an extreme when, in 2013, she spent a month living in a motel room in a dying Montana town to understand the atmosphere of the place and the people she would be writing about.
“I went to Winnett, Mont., population about 180,” says Henderson from her home on New York’s Long Island. “My father was born in Winnett and I used to visit when I was a child. Part of my protagonist Mary’s character developed from my own feelings of being an outsider there. I was different, and they don’t want you to be different in Winnett. I was always terrified when we’d visit my uncles and grandparents there every couple of years. I was the only girl in the family, and we’d go to the cemetery and everyone would have a rifle. We’d clear the rattlesnakes out of the sagebrush.”
Henderson keeps her grandfather’s old cigar box in her ivy-covered office behind her house. Inside are a few bullets, an old photograph, and an assortment of rattles the adults cut off the snakes to give to the kids in town.
Her hotel room during her Winnett month had no landline, no TV, and no internet connection. She had to drive 200 miles to call her family. “Today it’s a town where all the buildings are tipped sideways, and a lot of them are empty,” Henderson says. “The train tracks have grass grown over them. There’s a gas station with no gas pumps. The barber shop opens one day a week.”
Henderson says she felt like she was watching the death of a way of life, of an industry, and of a people. “It wasn’t until I got home that I thought: ‘Who could best tell a story about death? Maybe someone who knows death and isn’t afraid of it.’ There was no funeral home in Winnett, so I created one for the story and made Mary a mortician. I decided to just make a giant metaphor of death in general.”
In Flicker, the town is called Petroleum. It was a thriving place until a terrible accident in its grain elevator, 25 years before the story begins, took the life of a popular teenage boy, one of two brothers working there that day. As a result, the grain elevator was shut down, many people in Petroleum were suddenly unemployed, and the town began to die.
Mary, whose mother died during childbirth, lives in emotional unease with her father in the mortuary they own; their living quarters are upstairs, the embalming workshop in the basement. For authenticity, Henderson threw herself into studying how to be a mortician. “I learned everything I could about embalming, bathing the dead, what decays at what speed in the body,” she says. “I talked to morticians, read books, and watched YouTube videos of surgeries and autopsies. Then I gave all of that to Mary, who took it and made the process of preparing the dead into something tender and artistic.”
In Henderson’s hands, there is nothing grim in these preparations, but a warmth and respect for the dead that reflects who Mary is. “She is so aware of her own flaws and vulnerabilities—her awkwardness, her plainness, her discomfort in social settings,” she says. “It’s easy for Mary to work with the dead; they can both be themselves with no judgment.”
Henderson notes that she was trying to capture how complicated grief is. In one of the book’s early scenes, a young Mary sees her first dead body and asks her father if she can touch the leg, which he allows. And, after the boy’s death, his mother has a photographer come to the mortuary to take a picture of her on a love seat with both Robert and the deceased Eddie (a common practice in 19th-century America, rarely done today).
“The whole mortuary process is so weird and intrusive, Henderson says. “I had to tunnel down deep into it to understand why anyone would want or need a photograph like that. Writing the book, I felt kind of lost. But when I had the death photo, and Mary touching [a corpse], I thought, now I know what the book is.”
The narrative in Flicker shifts when Robert, younger brother of the boy killed in the grain elevator, returns to Petroleum after fleeing decades before. The townspeople had shunned him for his unabashed sobbing at the top of the elevator when his brother died; in Petroleum, masculinity doesn’t allow for emotions.
“Robert comes back to take care of his mother Doris, who is terminally ill,” Henderson says. “I needed a reason for him to come back, and this was it. Doris is my favorite character.” Mary’s visit to the house to discuss Doris’s funeral plans results in a friendly evening spent with Robert and his still-lively mother over glasses of wine. She says to Mary, “You’re going to make me look pretty, right?”
Flicker is about loss and death, but also about emotional freedom. After living in lonely isolation in Petroleum, meeting Robert connects Mary to her passions. When the book ends, the reader feels that these two might spend the rest of their lives together.
Henderson, 50, lives with her husband, a professor at Hofstra University; their two sons are college students in Boston. She was born and raised in Virginia, and studied creative writing at Carnegie Mellon. She also studied at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers in 2009, where she workshopped what would become her first novel, Up from the Blue (HarperCollins, 2010). “Like a lot of first novels, it’s more memoir,”she says. Henderson feels she’s grown as a writer with Flicker. “I’ve learned about story shape, how to keep it simple.”
She probably could not have written Flicker without spending that month alone in Winnett, difficult though it was. “When I was there, my hair fell out in clumps, either from the stress or the weird water,” Henderson says. “One of the questions I was asked again and again in this town was whether I was frightened to live in New York. And what I couldn’t tell them was how frightened I was in Winnett.”
On Henderson’s first night, she went to the only bar in town, where, she says, “a lot of the guys seemed really ginned up, ready to start a fight.” She adds: “That was the last time I went to that bar, and the last night I went out after dark. But my grandmother’s friends invited me over for dinner, and every week I went to the seniors’ group. Many of the locals who were my age looked 15 to 20 years older, so the difference between our worlds felt physical, too.”
Ironically, inspiration didn’t exactly strike Henderson during that month. “I got no writing done in my room,” she says, laughing. “Pitiful! I couldn’t watch Netflix because there was no signal in my computer. So I brought books, and a giant blank notebook. When I got back to New York, I found I’d only written about the wind.”