Each year past Morris Award winners interview current finalists. This year I had a chance to interview S.F. Henson, author of, Devils Within, a book which takes a magnifying glass to white supremacy in its most extreme form. I won’t lie, this book made me uncomfortable and raised a lot of questions. It made me uncomfortable, I think, because it forces the reader to try and make humans out of those we often view as monsters. I didn’t want to bombard S.F. Henson with my thousands of questions, so here are just a few.
How hard was it to write this book?
Writing Devils Within is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. After the idea came to me, I tried not to write it because I knew how hard it would be. The research was brutal. Understanding how white supremacist groups operate and the lingo they use among each other and reading details of lives that have been affected by their hate took a lot out of me mentally. The actual writing wasn’t any easier. There were many times I’d end up in tears in the back of the coffee shop where I write. This book drained me. It’s taken two years for me to finally move on to another story.
I think you did a good job humanizing Nate. I will be honest, I had trouble sympathizing with him at times, especially at the end. He knows the outcome of his silence and yet remains silent. I understand that he participated in violence as a means of survival, which probably most people would have, and even in those instances he did so as minimally as he could, and the consequences for betraying the Fort loom over him, it is something he is afraid of, yet when he sees them coming, he feels like he can handle it on his own. Could you talk a little bit about this?
Thank you! I knew from the outset that I’d have a very fine line to walk here. Nate is not a sympathetic character in a lot of ways, and I didn’t really want him to be. He messes up often, he’s selfish, he’s a coward. But I think those things make him human, and it’s that humanity that makes him relatable. He’s terribly flawed, but he’s trying. The way his world sees him is akin to how we tend to see bad guys in real life. Monsters. Inhuman. When you see Nazis in pop culture, it’s typically an over the top, cartoonish portrayal. One that makes them seem like they can’t exist in the real world. I wanted this story to show that these people do exist, and they’re not the extreme villains we’ve come to associate with Nazis, they’re people, which I find more unsettling than the cartoons. I also wanted this book to show how easy it is to fall into the same traps. So the reader gets insight into what’s really going on with Nate, and I think that helps the reader see him as a person and not the monster everyone believes.
The relationship between Nate and his uncle is tense–I liked that. It was palatable. I felt that at any moment things were going to go down. I had my suspicions early on about why he behaved the way he did, but even when it was revealed, it was an, “Oh shit!” moment. You illustrated generational trauma so well, and as readers we were able to easily trace how Nate got to where he was. Why was that important for readers to know this history? It could have easily gone in a different direction.
Unfortunately, hate is largely genealogical. Our perspectives are colored in by our families pretty much from birth. That’s one of the main things I wanted to explore with this book. How do you break out of the patterns established by your family? Nate’s family history was important for two reasons. One, so that readers could see the effects of generational trauma. It’s easy to see someone do a bad thing and correlate that with them being a bad person and write them off. It’s harder to look deeper. To see the why. And I think sometimes we need to see the why in order to reach that person and make a change. Two, so that readers, especially teens, could see that they don’t have to fall into the same traps as their families. They can be different. Just because your family believes something, doesn’t mean you have to believe it too.
One of the things that comes to light is how thin the layer of civility is in the town. The officers take the swastika as a prank, one of Brandon’s teammates outs himself as a casual racist, not to mention how the rest of the school reacts to the rising tensions. Is this something you have witnessed or have encountered?
Continually. I’ve only ever lived in the South, so I can’t speak for anywhere else in the country, but if you’re a white person here, you’re almost always exposed to the dark layer underneath the civility. Racism never went away here, we just covered it up with a gauzy film of politeness. It’s one of the things Southern readers I’ve spoken to have said they related to the most in the book because they see it all the time. We don’t experience the overt hate often, but that undercurrent of racism is often there, and not always where you expect it. Too many of the conversations that occur in the book are things I have been privy to in my real life. One thing I hope Devils Within does is shine a light in those dark corners and help expose that subtle racism for what it really is.
So often we forget that there are women in hate groups, I appreciated you making sure that readers saw how vital the roles of women were–the nurturing stereotype is perverted into nurturing not love, but hate veiled as love and preservation of the white race. Can you talk a little bit more about the women in the book?
We tend to forget that women are just as capable of hate as men. There’s an interesting dichotomy within white supremacist groups. They’re very anti-feminist, believing that women belong in the home raising children, however, the women are just as hardened as the men. The Skinbyrds are real, and the roles they play in the book are fairly accurate to their roles in real life. I think it’s important to remember that, for the most part, the women are not there by force. They chose this life as much as the men did, and they’re as much to blame for raising their children in hate as the men are. Most people don’t like to think of women in that light. Most people automatically associate women with warmth and softness. But when I was writing, I saw pictures from the Civil Rights Movement. Images of women spitting just as much hate as men, with their hearts just as stony. I didn’t want readers to forget that.
On that note, can you also talk about the mothers in the book? They all have little camera time but are really important to Nate’s actions, his uncle’s actions, and ultimately Brandon’s actions when Nate has moved away.
I think the mothers are the strongest characters in the book. They all refuse to continue the cycle of hate, just in different ways, and it has a profound affect on not just Nate, but all of those around them.
Nate’s mother had the strength to leave her abusive husband, which is not in any way easy. She had the strength to strike out on her own, alone, and to try to teach her son to be better than her. I think her actions affected Nate more than her words. Seeing her escape The Fort, leaving behind everyone and everything she’d known, is what ultimately led Nate to planning his own escape, and is what made him believe that he could be someone different than the person The Fort wanted him to be. I don’t think he could’ve done that if she’d stayed.
Then you have Brandon’s mother, who has been directly affected by Nate’s lies. She is perfectly within her rights to never forgive Nate for the things he’s done, to cut him out of her life and her family forever. But she doesn’t. For her, she can’t truly heal while harboring her own hate. So, she finds the strength to forgive, which is huge, and it opens the door for Brandon to start healing as well. Not necessarily forgive, and certainly not forget, but to let go of anger and hate.
I don’t want to spoil anything, but I’d be remiss if I left out Nate’s uncle’s girlfriend, who is almost another mother figure. She has her own biases in the beginning and is one of the toughest characters in the book. She is able to set aside those biases and allow herself to be proven wrong. She’s the one who starts to drop her defenses first, which is an important example for some of the other characters.
I recently visited Kentucky for the first time and was so taken by how green it is and could totally see where Nate was. In a lot of literature nature is a symbol for peace, tranquility, that place where we find the self. This is true for Nate. How did you decide to make the place where he kills his father, a place of peace? It is obviously not the same locale but they are woods nonetheless.
The woods were the one place where Nate felt safe at The Fort, but it was false safety. The place he felt the most peace ended up being where he encountered the most strife. It’s an external mirror for what’s going on internally. He thinks there’s security in silence. He clams up, withdraws into himself, and ignores the monsters on the other side of the trees. His mental woods aren’t any safer than the real ones, though. The safety he feels in silence is as dangerous as the safety he felt in Kentucky. He’s still trapped within the confines of The Fort. In both instances, he had to disrupt the peace in order to make progress.
This was a hard book to get through on account of how frightening it was to know that you’ve written this based on true events. Also, because of some of the violence inflicted on young men of color, something that we see continuously in real life, though I did understand that it is a reflection of Nate’s life and part of his story. For the most part, I did feel for him. I was angry for him, even. Angry at the abuse, at the indoctrination he received, at his uncle’s inability to sympathize, at his father, at a lot of things. I could see him trying to heal and to be a better person. His life, like that of many children growing up in abusive homes, was chosen for him and his only way to survive was to inflict violence, and therefore he has a lot to unlearn, and to navigate moving forward. Where do you see Nate’s life going? Who do you hope he speaks to (in regards to readers)?
I see Nate continuing to grow. The end of Devils Within is really his beginning. He’s going to mess up, probably a lot, but he’ll learn from each misstep. That’s something I hope readers get from the book, especially readers who might have grown up in a similar environment as Nate. People mess up. Those mistakes don’t define you as long as you learn from them. I have several scars. Each one reminds of a mistake I made in the past. From as minor as cutting my leg while rushing through shaving, to as major as slicing my finger open while carelessly washing dishes. Those scars will never leave me, but I learned from them. That’s the important thing. Nate will never escape the terrible things he did. Those scars will always be a part of him. I can see him using them to help other people. I actually picture him becoming a counselor, reaching out to kids like him, showing them that they can’t help where they were born, or the abuses or injustices they might have endured, but they can help who they become, and they can break the cycle. I hope that readers see that too.
The conversations about race and violence and inequity is at a fervor in our country. We are having those conversations that we’ve avoided for a long time and often refuse to still have. Why was it important for you to tell this story? And what do you want readers to take away from it?
I ultimately decided to tell this story because, like Nate, I have been silent for too long. These are important conversations because nothing is going to change unless and until we have them. The South places a lot of emphasis on manners, and conversations about race and inequality are not “polite conversation,” so, too often, they just don’t happen. Or, if they do happen, you end up with people talking past each other without really listening. I hope this book starts a dialog. I hope it makes people think about the cost of silence. I hope it causes readers to examine themselves and those around them, and, especially for white readers, engage in the tough conversations instead of accepting the prejudices of those around them.
What are you working on now? And how do you balance lawyering and writing?
It’s taken me a long time to move on from Devils, but I recently made progress on a story that’s close to my heart. On the surface, it’s about a girl searching for her missing brother in the most haunted forest in the world, but underneath, it’s an allegory for depression. My depression. As you can see, I enjoy writing light, fluffy stories.
It can be difficult to balance my day job and writing. I write in the evenings, usually at a coffee shop, but some days my battery is too drained from work to do anything creative. Other days, though, writing is my escape. I sink into it like a hot bath and let the work day melt away. I’ve learned to embrace those days and to not fight the others.
Where were you when you found out your book was up for the Morris?
I was actually at work when I heard the news. I’d just checked my email and noticed a Twitter notification. I glanced at it briefly, almost in passing, and saw that it was an announcement of the Morris finalists. At first, I thought it was one of those “your friends have liked this tweet” things, then I saw my name tagged. I looked at the tweet for at least a full minute before I realized what it said. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t stop staring at that tweet. I couldn’t believe that my little book was a finalist. I still can’t quite believe it, to be honest.
What is your favorite food? Least favorite food? And why.
Favorite food is, hands down, chicken fingers. I wish I could say something sophisticated like steak or crème brulee (which, don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy), but I’d probably starve if chicken fingers suddenly disappeared. Least favorite is tough because I’m kind of a picky eater and the list of foods I don’t eat is long. Beans are pretty high up there, though. The smell, the texture, blech!
I’m incredibly introverted, which can lead people to believe I’m stuck up. I swear, I’m not. I’m just generally afraid of talking to people and am terrible at engaging someone in conversation. So, if you see me at a conference or author event and I’m awkwardly standing alone in a corner, please don’t interpret that as anything other than shyness, and don’t be afraid to approach me. I’d love to say hi, and I’d definitely love to talk about books. You may have to be the one to instigate, however.