Author Spotlight: Katie Henry talks Heretics Anonymous
Today I'm happy to be welcoming Katie Henry to the blog! Living and working in New York City, Katie received her BFA in dramatic writing from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is a published playwright, specializing in theater for young audiences. Her debut novel, HERETICS ANONYMOUS, released on August 7th along with a starred review from ALA Booklist, which said, "Most impressive here is Henry’s multifaceted take on religion. Michael isn’t searching; he know how he feels. Yet his introduction to others who feel differently—in the case of Lucy, passionately differently—opens him up. Come for the arch first-person narrative and puppy love, stay for the examination into belief."
And now, here's my chat with Katie!
Hi, Katie! Welcome and congrats on the release of Heretics Anonymous. Can you share a little about the story and what inspired it?
Thank you so much! It’s been such a fun couple of weeks. HERETICS ANONYMOUS was pitched as The Breakfast Club meets Saved! and while I don’t know how well those references land for teens, it’s pretty accurate. The story is narrated by Michael, a 16-year-old atheist who is forced to attend Catholic school after a recent move. He makes an (unlikely) friend in Lucy, a Catholic feminist who wants to be a priest. She introduces him to Heretics Anonymous, an underground support group for other kids who don’t quit fit in. Michael thinks the group should go public. They do. Chaos ensues.
The seed of the story was this: in my senior year of college, I discovered a group of young, religious women blogging about Catholic feminist and liberation theology. They were interpreting and decontextualizing the Bible and Catholic social teaching in a way that centers the experiences of women, people of color, and other marginalized groups. It was mind-blowing to see scripture I thought I knew very well used in such a new way, and my first thought was: I wish everyone knew about this. Of course, it quickly became a story involving multiple religions and a variety of perspectives.
People are talking about how funny Heretics Anonymous is! What makes humor authentic for you?
A lot of my jokes are part of dialogue, and so for that, “authentic” means “would a teenager conceivably say this?” Of course, most book-teenagers are funnier than real-life teenagers (or real-life people) but I never want my jokes to come across as contrived. For me, humor works best when it feels natural and when it feels natural to that specific character. I’ve had to cut jokes I liked a lot because they simply didn’t sound right coming from a particular character, or during a particular moment. Killing your comedy darlings is just like killing any other darling. If it doesn’t serve the book, it has to go.
What part of the writing process do you find most challenging and how do you tackle it?
Writing description, for sure. Before I wrote books, I wrote plays, and playwriting asks for the bare minimum of set description and clothing description. Some famous playwrights have very specific ideas of their sets, costumes, and characters physical appearance, but generally you’re encouraged to let the designer and casting directors do their own thing. So I never quite learned the art of description. I tackle it by writing out all the dialogue of a scene first, then the internal thoughts, and then finally, I whine and moan my way through the description. It’s sort of like going to the dentist: painful, but necessary. Less drooling, though.
Michael meets a bad of misfits in Heretics Anonymous. What are your tips for creating and juggling an ensemble?
Voice, voice, and more voice. This is probably because of my background in playwriting too, but my first step in creating an ensemble is to figure out the specific way each character speaks. All of us have verbal quirks—the rhythm of our sentences, words we overuse, how honest or reserved or enthusiastic we are in speaking, things like that. Figuring out the way each character communicates in their big group is key for me. In terms of juggling, I go through each rough draft scene and mark when characters are speaking. That helps a lot in making sure no one’s disappeared or gotten lost in the shuffle.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that every story teaches the writer something new, so what did writing Heretics Anonymous teach you?
How to take my time, and then how to let go. The first draft took me literal years to finish, and I spent a lot of time frustrated with myself for not being able to complete it faster. But this was my first real attempt at writing a book, and looking back, it’s so clear that I needed all that time. I needed time to work through all my insecurities about writing in a new genre, I needed time to read YA more widely, and I needed time to grow as a writer and as a person. I’m glad it took me as long as it did. It wouldn’t be the same book, otherwise. And then on the other end, going through the publication process for the first time taught me how to let go of a story. It’s scary to sign off on those final laid-out pages, because you know the story won’t belong just to you, anymore. Having to accept that it’s the best book I could have made and giving it over to the world was a really valuable lesson for me, and I feel like I’ve carried it over into my non-writing life.
What are you reading, watching, or otherwise currently infatuated with?
So many things! I’m always watching about eighteen things at once and they all have wildly different tones. First, I’m totally in love with THE MARVELOUS MRS. MAISEL—it’s so funny, the clothes are so beautiful, and every episode is just such a pitch-perfect delight. And then, to swing in the complete opposite direction, I just binge-watched the first season of THE SINNER. It’s one of the most unsettling TV shows I’ve ever watched, in the best way possible. Plus, there’s a ton of weird, over-the-top Catholic imagery, and as you can probably guess, I’m always down for that.
And finally, what’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far in your writing/publishing career?
No matter what, you need to live a life outside publishing. I love the people I’ve met, the experiences I’ve had, and all the friends I’ve made who I can’t imagine not knowing, but it’s so easy to make that your entire world. But I’ve made a real effort lately to keep in touch with my non-writer friends, working on my non-writing hobbies…sometimes, I even go outside. Sure, my first inclination is to hiss at the sun and call my legion of bats to take me back to the castle, but I stand strong. That’s my biggest takeaway: resist the urge to be Book Dracula.
Many thanks go out to Katie for taking the time to tell us more about HERETICS ANONYMOUS, what makes humor authentic for her, and the importance of voice when tackling an ensemble. Add Katie's 'divine comedy' to your Goodreads list, or (better yet!) order your copy RIGHT NOW from retail sites such as Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Or you can always request it at your library, or local independent bookstore!
And, as always,