Five Books That Changed My Life: Sara J Henry

It was tough to narrow this down to five – The Complete Sherlock Holmes, which I found at about 11, nearly made the list by virtue of number of times read, and Charlotte Armstrong’s The Gift Shop, The Witches’ House, and The Unsuspected were major contenders. Or heck, Go Dog Go, the first book I read on my own. But here I’ve listed books that elicited an Aha! moment, something so vivid or different I couldn’t look away and still remember many years later. Yes, most of the books here are old and some are very old – I grew up in a reclusive family, in house filled with books, and a father who brought home musty boxes of used ones, from where I have no idea.

The Deep Blue Good-by, by John D. MacDonald (1964)

I was probably 12 when my dad decided I was old enough for the Travis McGee series – heady stuff for someone just graduating from the Hardy Boys and Holmes. McGee was a self-described “salvage consultant” who lived on a houseboat in Fort Lauderdale and engaged in long soliloquies with his economist friend Meyer between rescuing lost treasures and lost women – or exacting retribution for the saves he couldn’t make. I’d never read novels this alive, this gritty, this opinionated – it was as if I’d suddenly stepped into an adult world, a raw and real one. I read every MacDonald book I could find (at 13 I sobbed my way through Cry Hard, Cry Fast, an aptly titled novel if there ever was one). Scenes from his books etched themselves in my memory, and almost certainly the underwater scenes I wrote many years later emanate from his hauntingly unforgettable ones.

Rogue Male, Geoffrey Household (1939)

I can’t remember if I found this before or after the McGee books, but I read it all of a gulp. It too was like nothing I’d ever read, excluding perhaps the Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” The details are foggy now: an experienced game hunter, bored, on an apparent lark stalks a European dictator, just to see if he could assassinate him. He’s captured and escapes but goes quite literally underground to avoid his pursuers, and there calmly, desperately devises a chilling resolution. It was the type of book where you had to remind yourself to breathe.

Nine Coaches Waiting, by Mary Stewart (1959)

This woman knew how to write suspense – she could start with a line like “I was thankful that nobody was there to meet me at the airport.” – and, step by measured step, bring you closer to the edge of your seat. She could weave in a nine-year-old bereaved French count in need (of course) of an English governess, an arrogant wheelchaired uncle simmering with entitlement and resentment, and the requisite handsome sardonic son and Jane Eyre-ish romance, set it in a gothic chateau in the Haute-Savoie … and make it fresh and real. Damn the clichés – she made it work. It didn’t hurt that she wrote lines like: “Perhaps loneliness had nothing to do with place or circumstance; perhaps it was in you; yourself. Perhaps, wherever you were, you took your little circle of loneliness with you.” This was her fourth novel and perhaps the most classic, but I loved a good half dozen of them, all of which set a more-or-less ordinary woman into extraordinary circumstances, and took us along for the ride.

Artists in Crime, by Ngaio March (1938)

This I didn’t discover until my 20s – and the earlier books in this series revolving around Scotland Yard’s Inspector Roderick Alleyn seemed a pale imitation of Agatha Christie blended with Dorothy Sayers, sprightly and almost whimsical. But in this one Alleyn’s wife-to-be, Troy, steps onto the stage, and the series came alive. Suddenly you could see the characters, know the characters, reside inside them. These were no longer just whodunnits – they were stories about people, richly developed ones. You were sitting there with those characters as they spoke or raised a hand to their head or stared in the mirror. It’s no coincidence my main character is named after Troy Alleyn.

Carry My Bones, by J. Wes Yoder (2006)

And now we leap forward. By now I had written a version of my first novel, which I knew needed an overhaul I wasn’t sure I was up to. The author lived across the street from me when he was a teenager – I was friends with his mother – and his book changed my life in two ways. I remember sitting at his launch party, him all of, I think, 25, with his first novel out and mine still sitting in a drawer, thinking, He went out and made this happen; what am I waiting for? And the writing itself motivated me – the first two-thirds of this novel, about three men, unlikely cohorts, wandering the back roads of Alabama on the lam after a crime and trying to find themselves without knowing it, is gorgeous, evocative writing. I wanted to write with the sort of resonance this young whipper-snapper had managed. And so I tried again.

Sara J. Henry is the author of LEARNING TO SWIM (2011), which won the Anthony and Agatha for best first novel and the Mary Higgins Clark, and its sequel, A COLD AND LONELY PLACE (Crown, Feb. 5, 2013). The series is set in the Adirondacks in upstate New York, where Sara worked as sports editor on a small daily newspaper, as her main character did, before beginning writing for magazines, as her main character did (but she insists she made up the rest of her books). She grew up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a town constructed as part of the Manhattan Project, and now calls southern Vermont home.