Writing Through the Shifting Sands of Depression: Author Interview with M. Todd Henderson
During an open mike segment of a reading hosted by Marjorie Hudson, I heard M. Todd Henderson read from his new novella, Shifting Sands, about a mentally ill husband and father. I’m always eager to understand others’ insights about mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are challenges that many Americans face daily. I’ve had close friends struggle with various mental health crises. And, as a creativity coach, I’ve worked with clients who struggle with depressive cycles. I also recently interviewed Eric Maisel about his new book on depression. Intrigued by Henderson’s reading and also impressed that he is donating 10% of the profits of the novella to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, I got a copy of Shifting Sands. After reading it, I knew I wanted to interview him about his experience with depression and exploration of mental illness through narrative fiction.
Other than the ABCs, my first taste of writing was when I was 10. I wrote and edited The Local News, which my Mom, a school teacher, mimeographed copies at the high school for me to distribute. That was before Xerox. The newspaper was actually a combination of school, church, weather, and sometimes international news. It ran sporadically from December 18, 1969 to October 1, 1972. Yes. I keep copies of all the issues and most everything I’ve ever written. They are a big part of me and I can’t seem to part with them.
In high school I mostly read American classics (e.g. Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, etc.) and learned the mechanics of writing. Then I took a creative writing course my freshman year at Indiana University. I won the award for outstanding freshman essay for a story about my Granddaddy’s house. It was a thrill and it compelled me to continue writing throughout college and to submit to creative magazines, including The New Yorker. I failed to publish, but appearing in The New Yorker is on my bucket list.
The next several years I journaled some, but concentrated on my advertising career. Over my almost-thirty-year career I worked for five different Midwest ad agencies, a non-profit, and an international corporation. I wrote extensively – mostly memos, plans, research papers, and direct mail. I also travelled quite a bit internationally (Australia is a must see.) and throughout the US.
The advertising business is definitely exciting, but it’s also extremely intense and high stress. After I got married to Lori and we had our two sons the stress doubled and I ended up with high anxiety and low depression.
Ultimately, I left the advertising business, resumed journaling, and published my first book. Just. Like. That. Well, maybe it was slightly more involved. Much of my journaling was while I was in the dark- unrelenting- clutches of depression and anxiety. I wrote extensively in blue and black Moleskin journals about the effect of mental illness on myself, my family, and our friends. It was the lowest part of my life.
Then my novella emerged. Shifting Sands: His Hell. Her Prison. was born out of my journaling, yet it’s not autobiographical. I chose to write fiction for a few reasons: fiction is my forte, fiction provides room to speculate and embellish, and fiction is simply fun.
Why did I write Shifting Sands? In the end I wrote this story to assure my family, my friends, and my readers that when in the depths of despair they will always have hope for a better tomorrow. Perhaps I was also trying to convince myself.
What is your favorite scene in the book and why do you love it?
I love this scene from the book and really enjoyed writing it. At the lowest point of depression, the main character Scott T. Walters, runs from his responsibilities and drives to the North Carolina Outer Banks.
“Scott hitches up the pop-up camper to his ‘91 Ram pick-up, and heads east on Highway 64. He plans to stay at the KOA in Rodanthe for a few days. Maybe take a drive to Buxton. Or on to Ocracoke by ferry to see the wild ponies. Salty, clear air welcomed him at Whalebone Junction where the truck turns south onto Bodie Island, and crosses Oregon Inlet on a narrow, high-flying bridge alongside gliding pelicans and gulls and onto Hatteras Island.
Scott pulls into the KOA, eases the camper into its site next to the twenty-five foot dunes, and settles in. He has brought along seven bottles of cab, two six-packs of PBR, chips, cheese, salsa, eggs, and bacon. Scott takes his customary first-day-back hike over the dunes and up the beach toward the new Rodanthe pier. It’s a three-beer journey. As it is early in the season, prime sea gifts that waves have tenderly carried and placed on the sand—angel wings, sand dollars, sea stars, and a rare intact horseshoe crab—remain scattered along the beach long after high tide. Amongst all the loot ghost crabs scurry to and fro rearing back with front claws raised in defensive mode as Scott approaches.
This is a familiar stretch of beach for Scott; he walks it at least three times a year. And three times a year the sea oat-topped dunes have a new story to tell. On this go ‘round the dunes tell tales of Hurricane Dennis. Dennis came ashore two times. On the first visit, he danced a slow graceful waltz with the dunes. They inched this way and that till they all rested fairly close to where they took their first step. The second visit was a herky jerky two step. Moving this way and that, the dunes found themselves uncomfortably closer to the breakers with their sea oats tossed to and fro like a bad hair day.
From a front row seat on the dry side of low tide, Scott scans the waters for live sea critters. Out a bit over the water, a grouping of three brown pelicans in a row skims the valley of a swell, looking beyond their reflections for a meal underneath. The most famous pelican to fly over these waters was black and larger than life. Legend has it that the black pelican scanned the shore and the sea from the Core Banks to Corolla, searching for those in peril. Many a survivor described a Black Pelican guiding their ship to safe waters. The savior hasn’t been seen in recent years, but most ship crews and locals believe he will return one day.”
This is my favorite scene because my soul can be found in the Outer Banks. In its salty perfume, its sea oats waving to me from atop dunes, its sand pipers scurrying to snag sand fleas, its breakers washing the top of my bare feet, and so much more.
What does your writing practice look like?
My writing practice starts with journaling. Most days I journal off and on in my pocket-sized Moleskin. Mostly I journal about interesting people or events as well as dialect and interesting word uses. At the end of the day I rip pages from the small journal and tape them into my large red Moleskin (my color of this month). Then I usually journal more about pocket-sized entries. Since I fill one to two large Moleskins a month, I spend some time in completed journals adding notes, highlighting key thoughts, and entering the best ideas into my current project.
When I’m on a specific project I spend the majority of the time on my Toshiba until the book is in the editing phase. Then the cycle starts all over again.
Without a doubt, Scott T. Walters will be front and center for my next two works. We’ll follow him and his family as they face new challenges and old foes.
What’s been your experience of being a self-published author?
I would never have had the opportunity to publish and sell my stories if it hadn’t been for online publishers. So, I’m very grateful that they exist. My publisher, iUniverse was very professional and helpful during the editing and production phases. The process was flawless.
However, after Shifting Sands was published, iUniverse began to push their added-value services, like marketing, printed copies, promotion kits, design, and publicity. Frankly, I found them to be too aggressive in their approach.
In the long run I consider self publishers to be another tool available to me, like my Toshiba, The Chicago Manual of Style, and my Moleskins. I can use some or all of iUniverse’s service depending upon the project.
What’s one piece of advice you would give aspiring authors?
In my case the key to success is actually two: observation and recording. Look so you can see. Listen so you can hear. Taste. Smell. Pick up on the nuances because it’s often the smallest of observations that are the most telling and interesting.
And, record them into your handy dandy journal (or, sometimes take a photo) for further observation.
M. Todd Henderson was born in Indianapolis, Indiana. He graduated from Indiana University’s School of Journalism in 1981. His career includes nearly thirty years in the advertising and marketing business. In addition he served as an AmeriCorpsVISTA volunteer to help fight poverty in his adopted North Carolina. Todd and his family live near Raleigh, North Carolina. Currently Todd is working on his second book which will continue the story of Scott T. Walters.
He invites your questions and thoughts on writing, your work, and his work at email@example.com.
Find out more about Todd and Shifting Sands through his Amazon page