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Alumna Writer Drops by Amid Book Tour

Q & A with Sarah Honenberger ’74

Sarah Honenberger ’74 has been on the road for several weeks promoting her most recent book White Lies: A Tale of Babies, Vaccines, and Deception, a book that Pat Skarda, professor of English language and literature, is currently teaching in her course English 199, Methods of Literary Study. To assist her instruction of the book, Skarda requested a visit by Honenberger amid her book tour. Honenberger will visit Skarda's class on Thursday, April 19.

Meanwhile, Honenberger responded to questions about her book, life as a writer, and her years at Smith.

The Grecourt Gate: Can you give a brief description of your professional life since leaving Smith?

Sarah Honenberger: With my history degree from Smith, I worked in a D.C. law firm as a paralegal, saved my money, and went to law school after a year. My husband and I met at William  & Mary Law School and decided to move to the country after graduation. The little town we picked 30 miles north of Charlottesville, Virginia, was unusually sophisticated for a small town. We had three children, two boys and a girl, all of whom went to William & Mary undergrad. My daughter is a sophomore at 20.

When I turned 40, I had become somewhat disillusioned with the family court system in Virginia. I had been a divorce and custody lawyer for 15 years by then in our small farming community in a six-man firm that included my husband. In my spare time,  mostly late at night, I began a novel about a woman married to a rapist. It took me five years. Once I realized I was a character-driven writer and stopped worrying so about plot, my writing improved, became more natural, less forced, less overwritten.

About five years into the novel, Professor Skarda taught summer alumnae sessions then on writing and I returned three times in three years to take those classes. Candy Tufts, Smith ’52, an agent who read my first novel, recommended I wrote short stories to learn how to choose my words more carefully. Best advice I ever received.

Gate: When, or how, did it become apparent to you that you wanted to write?

SH: I’ve always been a writer. At five I had blank children’s books from one of my mother’s friends who worked for a publisher, Millions of Cats, with the illustrations, but no words. At eight, I produced a neighborhood newspaper on a hand-rolled metal press with rubber letters. At thirteen I co-authored with my best friend a romance novel with carriages and dashing lords; lost, alas, when I moved south after college, but no real loss.

Gate: What do you remember foremost about Smith?

The magic of Smith College, among other things, was passed to me from my mother, Barbara Collins, Class of ’48, mostly by osmosis long before I arrived on campus in 1970. A strong, opinionated woman, she stayed home to raise four children and wasn’t able to work in her chosen field of library science until we were grown. Living in Capen House, racing from one side of campus to the other for class or early morning swims or tennis in courts now gone by Sage Music Hall, I lived a dream. I majored in history, sang with the choir, worked as a secretary in the education department, delivered The Sophian as circulation manager, and played squash whenever I could find a partner. One history class, taught by President Mendenhall, convened in his personal library on Wednesday evenings, and consisted of his handing out one book to each of the four of us and telling us what he wanted us to write about in our individual papers. Old trees and Richardsonian architecture are in my genes, I think. Even now when I return to campus for alumnae events, if I find myself seated in a classroom, my page is covered with notes before I even realize it. 

Gate: How has your Smith experience informed your life as a writer?

SH: Smith gave me the confidence to compete, to try something new, to be flexible and open-minded. It convinced me that women are more able to change, to see someone else’s point of view and to be willing to try to change someone else’s mind in order to effect change in the world. With writing, Smith taught me to persevere. There was never the risk of not being able to find a publisher who would back one of my novels, but only when would it happen. Many writers become discouraged without really trying. It’s been the same with marketing the book.

Gate: What inspired White Lies?

SH: White Lies: A Tale of Babies, Vaccines, and Deception was inspired by a true story, but mostly by the mother of the baby who was injured. Her optimism, despite the tragedy and her sad, abusive childhood, fascinated me. She makes an intriguing protagonist. And her friendship with the very different woman who she chooses as her lawyer reflects the reality of working women who have so many things in common even if their personal and educational backgrounds are different. The power of women bound together to achieve some shared result continues to astound me, even in today’s world where women’s talents are recognized and celebrated so much more than in our mother’s generation.

Gate: What is your advice to Smithies who want to be writers?

SH: The most important part of writing is editing, being able to strike through the phrase you love to make the story is more coherent and more powerful. Like anything it’s a skill you develop over time with assistance from writing workshops, critique groups, and by reading/listening to other authors who you admire. My list of favorites includes Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Wallace Stegner, Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Hegi, and Michael Parker.


4/17/07   Compiled by Eric Sean Weld
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