Writer Drops by Amid Book Tour
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
Meanwhile, Honenberger responded
to questions about her book, life as a writer, and her years
The Grecourt Gate: Can
you give a brief description of your professional life since
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
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.
or how, did it become apparent to you that you wanted to
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.
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.
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.
inspired White Lies?
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.
is your advice to Smithies who want to be writers?
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.