Artis Henderson is the author of the debut memoir, Unremarried Widow, published by Simon & Schuster this January. The title comes from the official Army term for women like her, whose husbands died in combat. The term could also be applied to her mother, since Henderson lost her father in a civilian plane crash when she was only five. Part of what makes this book so layered and complex is its double story: how Henderson finally understands her mother’s grief by coping with her own. She chronicles two surprising love stories: between a seemingly mismatched husband and wife and between a fiercely attached mother and daughter.
Artis Henderson is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in places such as the New York Times and Reader’s Digest. I met her at an artists’ colony two years ago and immediately sensed her tremendous talent. Her story—how a feminist, “New Age light” francophone intellectual fell in love with a conservative, religious Texas soldier and lost him in a helicopter crash in Iraq three months into his first deployment—is gripping in itself. But it is the writing that makes the book hauntingly beautiful and deeply affecting.
Will Schwalbe calls Unremarried Widow “a beautifully crafted memoir of uncommon candor and power.” Rhoda Janzen says, “You stand there imagining someone else’s story, and suddenly you realize that it’s our story.” I agree.
We conducted this interview by e-mail, talking about some of my favorite topics: love and sex, death and grief—and the irrational obsession that is a requirement for becoming a writer.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? When did you feel you really were?
I’ve wanted to be a writer my entire life. My mother recently found a worksheet I filled out in second grade that asked what I wanted to be when I grew up and I had written “an author.” As for when it felt like I really was a writer—I’m not sure that I do, even now. Sometimes I think I’ve hoodwinked everyone.
How did your story—the way you met and married Miles and then lost him—contribute to your becoming a writer?
Although I always wanted to be a writer, I had no idea how people made that happen. I had never heard of an MFA program until a few years ago, and it didn’t occur to me to take creative writing classes in college. I’m too practical.
When Miles died, all that you-should-study-business-so-you-can-get-a-job pragmatism disappeared. I said fuck it to every rational belief I held. As it turns out, that’s a good way to become a writer.
How did this book come into being? Why did you decide to write it?
The book came into being in a very New Age, The Secret sort of way. My first semester at journalism school, I attended a lecture where the professor handed out worksheets and asked us to draw a picture of our greatest success. He promised we wouldn’t have to show anyone, that it was just an exercise, so I drew the thing I wanted most: a picture of this book (actually, Sig Gissler holding the book and saying, “I love it!”) At that point, the idea of me writing and publishing a book seemed beyond anything I could hope for myself.
A few weeks later, I saw that same professor in office hours and he asked what I had drawn. I was embarrassed but I told him, and he suggested I apply for the book writing seminar, a legendary class at Columbia taught by Sam Freedman. The course was notoriously difficult, but I applied and was accepted.
During the semester-long class, I put everything I had into developing a book proposal. When I graduated, the assistant professor from the class offered to introduce me to her agent. She did, and her agent took me on. We worked on the proposal over the summer, she sent it around in the fall, and the book sold just after the new year. And here we are.
One of the things I really admire is the way you don’t deify Miles just because he died young. For instance, you include a scene where he gets belligerently drunk at a party. You also don’t whitewash your marriage. You show us the brutal sacrifices that Army wives have to make even while their husbands are alive. Was it difficult to be so candid in such a public way? How did you come by this courage? How do you feel now, as the book is about to be published? Are you nervous about how people you know will react to your honesty?
I’m almost painfully candid about my own shortcomings. When I read the book now, I’m amazed at how hard I was on myself in the retelling. If I were to write the book today, seven years out, I probably would be gentler. As for the parts about Miles that were a little tough, I had to be prodded into including them. A good friend who read a late draft said I seemed unwilling to explore Miles’s faults. The drunk scene came directly out of that advice.
I read your book in two sittings and could barely put it down. Part of the reason is because the love story between you and Miles is so unusual. We follow you as you “think on the page,” trying to puzzle out your relationship. How did you make the book suspenseful even though you tell us at the very beginning what the big event will be?
I’m not sure, to tell you the truth. Perhaps because I didn’t know where the telling would take me. Even though I worked from a master outline that I developed in the proposal, so much of what made it into the book was a surprise.
Your book is devastatingly sad. But it’s also lots of other things. It’s sexy and funny. It’s unsentimental and completely lacking in self-pity. It’s also a coming-of-age story, which chronicles your emotional journey from a shy girl who puts her dreams on hold to an assertive woman who pitches to newspaper editors and travels the world. As such, it has the kind of narrative arc of a novel. Do you read fiction? Do you write it?
My first love was fiction. Even now, when I settle in to read I often choose a novel. I would like to write fictional stories, but I’m not sure I have a knack for it. My fictional narratives always feel fluffy to me—very sentimental, bordering on hokey. They never seem true in the way that the very best fiction does. Sometimes I think we’re handed our genres, and maybe mine is just nonfiction.
Your story is moving, but it’s also your style, the sensory detail, the insight, the push and pull of candor and restraint that lured me in. Like Joan Didion, you tell us so much in the white spaces. You evoke with your ellipses, the timing of your section breaks, the detail you leave us hanging with and wanting more. Were you thinking of Joan Didion’s grief memoirs when you wrote this book? What other memoir writers have inspired you?
I read The Year of Magical Thinking after I finished this book. A dear friend gave me a copy the week after Miles’s death and I cherished it but could not bring myself to read it. It took a very long time for me to be able to dip into her grief.
I love the memoirs that everyone seems to love—The Glass Castle, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, The Liars’ Club. Claire Dederer has an excellent memoir called Poser that was an inspiration. I also love the writings of Ryszard Kapuscinski, which is not exactly memoir but excellent nonfiction.
I’m reminded of what Jonathan Lethem, in his preface to Fierce Attachments, says about Vivian Gornick’s classic memoir, which “demands honor as the work of a technician whose control of a distilled form of scene and dialogue, of withheld punch lines, and of the use of the white spaces on the page, make me still wonder why she has never tackled fiction.” The “withheld punch lines” was something especially that I appreciated in your work. I wonder about your process. Did you put the “punch lines” in then edit them out? Is your spare prose the result of ruthless cutting, or do you just naturally write that way?
It’s a combination. A professor in journalism school gave me the good advice that most writers go one line too far. I got into the habit of scrutinizing my last line, and it’s true that it was almost always too much. But I’m also naturally a very spare writer. It’s hard for me to make a word limit—I almost always write too short. I’m the same way in conversation. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but because what I want to say can be condensed into so few words that it hardly seems worth the effort.
Your story could have so easily been milked for its inspirational qualities. The popular news media toss around words like “heroic” and “patriotic” and “sacrifice” so much that they become empty and meaningless. But instead you do what the best memoirs do: explore the conflict between the two sides of the self. For instance, the self that was vehemently and publicly against the Iraq War and the side that is proud of your husband’s involvement. Did you see this conflict as one of the main plot points of the book?
Only through good editorial advice. I had imagined that my internal struggle with the war and my feelings about the military would not be a big part of the book. But my editor rightly suggested that I should take more time to focus on them.
Your sex scenes are some of the hottest and most beautiful I’ve read. Again, it’s what you leave out that makes your writing so effective. Any advice? (Not for having sex, but writing about it.)
Thank you! That is the nicest compliment. In another life, I like to think I might have been a romance writer.
So much of writing those scenes was intuitive. Perhaps it helps that I’m a fairly sensual person. Also, I think about sex a lot. Did you know that “Steamy Foreign Romances with a Strong Female Lead” is an actual Netflix category? I know this because Netflix keeps recommending it to me.
How is the finished book different from the proposal your agent accepted? From the proposal your publisher accepted? How did it evolve and change and why?
The biggest and most important change was that I originally saw the book as two parts, beginning with the notification. At our very first meeting, my editor said to me, “You might want to consider making it three sections, with the first section being about your relationship with Miles.” I couldn’t imagine that people would want to read about us falling in love.
In the author’s note and the acknowledgments you say that you taped interviews with four other military widows. In an article from the Columbia Journalism School you say that half the book will be your story, half will be the story of others. Why did you originally plan it that way and why did it change?
I never thought I had it in me to write a memoir. I have a hard time talking about myself, especially anything that’s personal.
I once took a meditation class where we had to spend five minutes introducing ourselves to the person next to us. When it was my turn, I used up about a minute and a half then I said to the guy next to me, “That’s all I’ve got. Would you mind if we just sat here in silence for the rest of the time?” It was a meditation class—what could he say?
As I was interviewing the other widows and trying to write their stories, I started to realize that the information I needed—the sensory details, the personal reflections—was in me. If I was going to tell the story of a war widow the way it needed to be told, I would have to use my own experience.
Who are some of your mentors? Where and with whom have you studied?
I attended journalism school at Columbia University, where I took Sam Freedman’s book writing seminar. He championed this book from the beginning, and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
Your path to publication is fascinating and, I think, unusual. You won a blogging contest at a newspaper. You pitched a dating column. You went to journalism school, where you learned how to write a book proposal for a memoir. What tips to you have for other writers?
There are many routes to publication. The one sure thing every writer needs is commitment—even more than that: obsession. If you want it enough, if you’re willing to sweat and sacrifice and weep for it, then you will make it happen.
Do you want to talk about the editing process you went through with your agent and editor?
My agent edited the proposal before we submitted and then she edited the manuscript when it was close to being done. My editor provided insightful edits throughout the process. I remember one moment toward the end when I was completely stuck, and I asked my editor for help. She called me up and gave me the exact tools I needed to unknot my story dilemma.
Was your Modern Love column, which is an excerpt from the book, published before you had a book contract or after?
Before. I sent it in to the general submissions.
You’ve lived so many places. Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Texas, France, and Senegal. Now you are in New York City. Are you settled? Where are you going next? Is the smell of baking bread and lavender luring you back to Europe?
I’m still not settled, mainly because I don’t have either of the things that tie most people to a place—a 9-5 job or a spouse. I do think about France, and I’ve visited the last three years. In my wildest fantasies, I’d like to restore an old farmhouse and invite all my artist and writer friends to stay. Then I’d write smutty novels.
I know you don’t like this question, so you don’t have to answer it, but I’ll ask anyway: What’s next? What are you working on now?
It’s a good question, even if I don’t have an answer. I’m working on more writing projects, but they are still taking shape.
You acknowledge your educated scepticism about all things supernatural, even when psychics seem more accurate than weather forecasters. So far, all the prophecies in the book—except two—have already come true, including the one that you would be published. A psychic also predicted that you would remarry and have a son and a daughter. So what do you think? Are you buying baby clothes yet?
Not yet, although I took a trip to Ireland this summer and almost bought this adorable pair of hand-knitted booties. Sometimes I imagine a married life with children, and sometimes I think that’s just not in the cards for me this time around.
Several times in the book people make predictions about your life, which you find wildly unlikely. Psychic Suzanne says you will move out West and start wearing cowboy boots. Instead, you imagine yourself settling in Europe. Your post-college roommates predict that you will marry Miles. You shake off the suggestion, saying “he’s too country,” and anyway, you never planned to marry at all. But you became a Texan cowboy boot-wearing wife. My question is: Could you ever have predicted that your life would take the turn it has now? In the book you say that your dream was to be a writer, but did you ever imagine it would happen this way? And do you think your life is about to change again?
This summer, I was in France on my thirty-third birthday. I ran up to my room for something and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, and I laughed in disbelief. There I was, in this place I have loved all my life, on the eve of accomplishing one of my major life goals. Miraculous. But the question is—was I there, doing these things, because it was fated all along? Or, after I lost Miles, did I simply refuse to let anything get in my way? Impossible to know.