Fierce passion and an unparalleled determination are characteristics shared by both the people in Eleanor Henderson’s debut novel “Ten Thousand Saints” and the author herself.
Since the book was published June 7, Henderson, assistant professor of writing at Ithaca College, has experienced a whirlwind of accolades and
acknowledgement, quickly making the transition from college professor to a nationally recognized author.
“I still feel like the same writer I was,” she said. “But I feel lucky to have some exposure, and the whole experience really feels like a dream.”
A professor at the college since August 2010, Henderson received her book deal with Harper Collins/Ecco for “Ten Thousand Saints” three days after she was hired at the college.
In the book, the main character, Jude, loses his best friend, Teddy, to a drug overdose. Jude decides to pursue a straight-edge lifestyle to cope with Teddy’s death. Henderson said her husband’s experience with the straight-edge movement in 1980s New York City inspired the novel.
Henderson’s book has garnered notable success, including a rave review from New York Times reviewer Stacey D’Erasmo in June. While Henderson received many positive reviews, D’Erasmo’s praise helped place “Ten Thousand Saints” on the national map.
D’Erasmo said she instantly connected with Henderson’s novel because she was intrigued by the beauty and exuberance of the writing.
“She’s a thick writer, she’s a dense writer, she’s an imagistic writer,” D’Erasmo said. “She really bears down not only on her characters’ emotional world, but on the sort of depth of their soul. There is a tremendous amount of inventiveness and boldness in that I really like.”
The writing process was long and meticulous, Henderson said. She spent the last nine years working on multiple drafts of “Ten Thousand Saints,” which she started in graduate school.
Henderson, a Florida native, graduated with a B.A. in American Literature/Creative Writing in 2001 from Middlebury College, and an M.F.A. in Fiction in 2005 from the University of Virginia.
Henderson said while the first draft focused on the perspective of the main character, a 16-year-old boy living in New York City, the second draft introduced other points of view to the novel, expanding the perspectives.
“Even though in the end it was somewhat torturous to spend so much time with these characters, I’m really glad I spent so much time with the book because … it made it a better book,” she said.
Jack Wang, associate professor and chair of the writing department, said he could not be more proud of Henderson’s success.
“She is someone for whom very little escapes notice,” he said. “She takes a small moment and really explodes it into something really finely observed, and that is what is most impressive about her as a writer.”
Wang said Henderson’s writing ability and influence on campus has brought attention to both the college and the writing department.
“We’ve talked for a long time about raising the profile to the national level, and having people recognize the kinds of writers and the kinds of program we have at Ithaca College,” he said. “It means a lot that there’s a national spotlight on one of our faculty members.”
Henderson spent most of June in 14 different cities on a publicity tour. Despite this claim to fame, she said that her heart still lies in teaching.
“There are a lot of writers who would like to live on writing alone and that would be nice, but I have a passion for teaching and I like to talk to my students about what I love which is crafting stories,” she said. “Even if I could retire by 33, I would still want to go back into the classroom and be able to work with my students.”
Senior Mitchell Cohen, one of Henderson’s students, said she has an incredible influence at the college, both as a writer and a professor.
“As a writer, she is amazing and the book speaks for itself,” he said. “She really is also one of my favorite professors. She’s always willing to work with people to make them a better writer, and I really appreciate that.”
Currently, Henderson is working on her second novel. When she’s not writing, taking care of her two children or working as a professor, Henderson spends her time gardening, cooking and frequenting the Ithaca Farmers Market.
As Henderson closes this chapter in her writing career, D’Erasmo said she foresees big things on the horizon in Henderson’s future.
“It definitely feels like one of those books that’s really from the heart, really from within,” she said. “I wish her the best, and she obviously has tremendous determination and drive so I’m figuring the future’s looking really good for her.”
Henderson will give a reading at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 in Clark Lounge.