In her first novel for adults, in The Red Word, author Sarah Henstra uses the poignant setting of a mid-1990s Ivy League college campus to examine cultural mythology and how it might imbue our daily behaviour when a sexual assault occurs. She speaks to Jennifer McShane about the transition from Young Adult (YA) to writing post-#MeToo and the pressure to up the likeability of her female characters
“It was a merging process for me,” the Canadian author explains of her decision to write her first novel for adults. “I’ve been toggling back-and-forth between YA and adult fiction for a while now. It’s not a conscious choice, it’s all about the world of the novel and the idea that I have – and whether they suit different audiences – it’s an organic process. I’m not sure there’s a difference in the way I approach the novel but the demands vary. In YA, there seems to be more of a demand for a strong resolution than opposed to adult fiction, for example.”
She agrees there can, amongst some critics, be a snobbery when it comes to the YA genre.
“One or two of the reviews of The Red Word in North America although mostly positive were dismissive in varying notes and said something along the lines of ‘one can catch the YA tone’ and it’s not meant as a compliment. I think it’s people who write or read in that genre that tend to be that way and it’s because YA sells; 65 per cent of adults read YA and there’s something vaguely threatening to those who write literature with a capital L.”
Sexuality, debauchery, power dynamics and misogyny
In Henstra’s book, Canadian student Karen becomes embroiled with members of a sorority-bashing, fraternity-loathing feminist group while living in an off-campus house, nicknamed Raghurst. Word gets out that fellow fraternity member Bruce Comfort has gotten a girl pregnant and refuses to accept responsibility, so Raghurst ringleader Dyann decides to drug or “roofie” the entire fraternity at a party – but a woman ends up gang-raped after accidentally consuming it. Henstra uses Greek myths to explore sexuality, debauchery, power dynamics and misogyny with sensitive and sharp writing – and a keen understanding of what is a complex subject matter.
Henstra, who is also a professor of English literature and creative writing, says she drew from her own college setting when writing the book “a real stew of memories in terms of that grey area around sexual activity” for the first draft – before #MeToo had become its movement – and then for the second, research was key. “Because I started writing it before #MeToo, I felt the need to do my own research – originally I thought ‘I can’t put this out there, it’s too dark’ for some of the more visceral moments. But even to ensure my own memories of the fraternity culture and all those elements were correct because I’m in a similar culture all the time as a professor.”
“The conversations I had when I was on the second draft weren’t to change any elements post #MeToo as it was gaining momentum, but more to widen some of the conversations around class and privilege and everything that tends to be associated with ivy league campuses,” Henstra continued, while talking of the ‘goldfish bowl’ element that characters exist in, and wanting to broaden the books’ setting.
“I remember we kept comparing it to a baseball novel As in, if we didn’t know the first thing about baseball, would it still be of interest to anyone else who hadn’t the first idea about baseball?”
“The solution wasn’t to start explaining the rules of baseball because that would be dead boring but make the story itself an analogue for wider experiences.”
The Likeability Factor
Likeability also comes into female characters and Henstra’s lead isn’t exempt from this as she tries to stay on the edge of events – rather than get involved – as they unfold throughout. “I had different editors say to me ‘I just believe that the lead character Karen was so hapless for so long, I wanted to shake her’ so there was that element. But that willful blindness of her or the mistaken belief that she could remain untouchable in the scenario was very important to me as I wanted to explore that – when someone believes they are ethically not obliged to act.”
“We authors need to retrain our readers in a way, but it’s already changing. Women readers, in particular, are open and curious about the full range of female emotions and I love that.”
“It’s really a way of keeping women tightly controlled because we’re threatened by women expressing that range of “negative” emotions.”
The unique greek mythology elements of the novel, she says, are used to heighten the experiences of the women’s lives. “They are significant events, but in the lives of these post-adolescents in this privileged little world. So I wanted to juxtapose that with grandeur and using it to show some of the emotional truth of the characters.
“At that age, you feel your life is over if you get a bad grade or the boy you like doesn’t like you back – and in a way, that’s what Greek mythology is: writing large the experiences of humans. To imagine there are higher beings that care about our every day was a way of me making meaning of human experiences – as well of magnifying their gender.”
The Red Word by Sarah Henstra (Tramp Press, approx €14.99, out now).
Main photograph: Tramp Press