April Henry: Kung Fu Mystery Maven

2013 Truman Award Nominee

In celebration of Teen Read Week, we continue our interview series with YA author April Henry. Today, she talks with librarian Angela Scott about kung fu, corpses, and her next book, “The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.” Best of all, April shares her advice to help young writers develop their storytelling swagger.

Angela: What is a typical day like for you? Are you a morning person who immediately starts writing at the beginning of your day, or do you have another routine?

April: My typical day goes like this: get up at 6:00 a.m., make coffee, check the headlines in the New York Times, check my email, and go for a five-mile run. After breakfast, I start work. I usually have two projects I am working on at the same time, if not more. One is usually a book for adults, the other for teens. Sometimes I split my time evenly. Other times it’s dictated by whichever deadline is coming up first. Sometimes I feel like I’m sneaking around behind one book’s back to spend time with a different book. I always tell myself I am not going to write in the evenings or on weekends, but I usually do.

I make time to read every day. Sometimes I read books for research and sometimes I read books on how to be a better writer, but I always have a novel I’m reading, too. Right now I’m reading “A Storm of Swords,” the third book in the “Game of Thrones” series.

I also take kung fu classes three to five times a week. I even spar (in a class that is otherwise all male), which does not come naturally to me. I have a hard time not apologizing any time I hit or kick someone. It has proven to be great for research and great for helping me get outside my head and into my body.

“I’ve seen a few photos I wish I could un-see.”

Angela: What are some of the challenges mystery writers face?

April: I do a lot of research, but it’s very easy to go down the rabbit hole. What color are the vests that this type of law enforcement officer wears? Exactly what is the radio protocol? At the same time, I don’t want to make mistakes. You can’t count on TV or movies to be accurate. How many times have you seen a police officer on TV or in the movies fire on a fleeing bank robber, for example? Unless there is the imminent threat of deadly force, that is not legally justified. I run anything I have questions about past some of the sources I have gathered over the years: FBI agents, death investigators, cops, etc.

Another challenge is that if you do research, you are going to run across some images you wish you had never seen. I have seen a few photographs of corpses that I wish I could un-see.

A third challenge is making your plot believable. It’s easy to come up with a cool hook (“What if the boy is found alone in the woods with no sign of his missing friends? And the outsides of his boots are dry, while his socks are soaked in blood – but it’s not his blood?”), but far harder to come up with an explanation that makes sense. I have a book coming out next year called “The Girl Who Was Supposed to Die.” It’s about a girl who wakes up on a cabin floor with no memory of who she is. All she knows is that two men are standing over her discussing how she needs to be killed. It took me months to figure out why she lost her memory and why they wanted to kill her.

“Read, read, read. Read all kind of books.”

Angela: What tips would you offer teens interested in writing as a career?

April: Read, read, read. Read all kind of books. If you don’t like it and want to stop reading, try to figure out why it’s not working. If you love it, try to figure out why it’s so good (although that part is much harder).

If you have a local bookstore that has author readings, attend some. You don’t have to buy a book. It’s a great way to get to know authors personally, and to see that they are not really that much different from you.

When you first start writing, you might have a great story idea but then find you don’t know where to go after the first few pages. That’s pretty normal. Put it aside and work on something else. Over time, you’ll get better at powering through to the end.

However, one thing I have learned is that you can always edit bad writing. You can’t edit nothing. So sometimes I make myself write knowing that I can always make it better with editing.

You may need to have a day job, at least for a while. Any kind of job where you write and have to meet deadlines is good practice. For years, I was a health care writer and wrote my books after work.

If you are discovering April Henry’s books for the first time, be sure to check out “Girl, Stolen.” This title is a nominee for the 2013 Truman Readers Award. Tomorrow we discuss some of April’s favorite books and ask about some of the famous people she’s met.

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