2014-01-30 / Top News

Writing memoir ‘inevitable’ for columnist

BY SCOTT SIMMONS


Artis Henderson at a book signing in Florida. 
PETER ARATARI / FLORIDA WEEKLY Artis Henderson at a book signing in Florida. PETER ARATARI / FLORIDA WEEKLY Artis Henderson survived the unthinkable.

Two decades after she nearly died in a plane crash that killed her father, her husband died in a helicopter crash in Iraq.

She wept, she mourned, and she began to heal.

Ms. Henderson, Florida W eekly’s “Sandy Days, Salty Nights” dating columnist, tells the story of that love — and the heartbreak that followed, in her memoir, “Unremarried Widow.”

She had dreamed of becoming a writer, and saw herself traveling the globe to tell its stories.

Instead, she fell in love.

“I always think I write love stories, and that’s what this book ended up being. I never thought to call it a love story. I never said that’s what it would be, and that’s what it is,” she said over lunch at Bistro 41 in Fort Myers.

Her husband, Miles Henderson, charmed her the moment they met at a Tallahassee club.

She was working as an aide to Sen. Bob Graham and Miles was on leave from Army flight school.

“He was about my height, built thin and wiry, and I could just make out his face in the dark bar. Handsome with blue eyes that make me think of the Gulf in winter,” she wrote.

On their first date, he brought her two store-bought roses — she blushed when he presented them.

It was the stuff of dreams.

The young soldier was unabashed in his wooing, never mind that she was a free spirit and he was conservative and religious.

They seemingly were very different.

Or not.

“It’s funny to think now similar our backgrounds were,” she said. “His dad was a pilot, my dad was a pilot. His mom was a teacher, my mom was a teacher. To think that we were so different, we actually were quite similar.”

Love finds a way, and during the course of 2½ years, they courted, sported and married. And then he was gone.

“Unremarried Widow” began as an essay in The New York Times’ Modern Love column. She received a glowing review for the book in The Times, which declared it, “Gold star work from a gold star wife.”

In someone else’s hands, the prose easily could have turned purple.

“It’s the difference between pathos and bathos,” said Samuel Freedman, a New York Times columnist and a professor at Columbia University who helped guide her book through the proposal process.

Thanks to Ms. Henderson’s ability to spin a story and her own restraint in telling it, the tale becomes universal.

“Because of this restraint and this distance, you project yourself onto the book,” Sarah Knight, Ms. Henderson’s editor at Simon & Schuster, said by phone.

Miles Henderson died seven years ago; Artis Henderson spent about five of those years crafting their story.

“There was just no question in my mind that’s what would happen, that’s what I would do, and one thing led into another. It felt that way,” she said.

After her husband was deployed to Iraq, Ms. Henderson moved back to her hometown, Fort Myers Beach. She got a job at ECHO International, the North Fort Myers research farm, and settled into a routine with her mom.

She and Miles communicated via letters and the occasional phone call.

In the month or so before he died Miles’ missives turned fretful.

And the day that he died?

“Women would tell me later that they knew. Just knew. They knew the minute they woke up. They knew as they cleaned their houses in fits of clairvoyant anticipation. They knew as they dressed and waited on the couch for soldiers to come,” she wrote in her memoir.

She had her moment, she wrote, though she didn’t realize it at first. About the time her husband banked his helicopter in Iraq, she backed her car into another vehicle.

She came home that night, walked in the door and she knew:

“I swept my eyes across the room: my mother in a dining chair in the middle of the living room, nowhere near where it should be; the living room lights turned off; two soldiers in dress uniform filling the space,” she wrote.

And that is the beginning of the second half of the book.

In the time after Miles’ death, she got to work.

She had always wanted to be a writer.

“It was something that I was good at and I liked and it just made sense to me. They used to have the young authors conference at Edison College. It never occurred to me that I would be an English major or just study writing. It never occurred to me to be a journalist,” she said.

She won a contest to write for the community website of The News- Press in Fort Myers, and served up slice-of-life stories and personal essays.

The practice was good, but the stories were unpaid and unedited.

Her boss at ECHO suggested she might want to do something more with her writing, so she pitched a dating column to Jeff Cull, Florida Weekly’s executive editor and one of its founding partners.

“Talent is not always easy to spot, but with Artis, I felt she had something special,” he said. “So, we turned her loose, with little help from us, and she delivered terrific columns week after week. None of her success is a surprise to me.”

That was in 2007, barely a year after Miles’ death.

Ms. Henderson kept on writing, and began dating again.

She dated one man for a while, but has not seen anyone seriously.

And when she does go out, she is slow to reveal the sadness in her history.

She mentions one date.

“He was funny, we had a good time. Then toward the end of the evening, we talked about relationships,” she said. “I told him my husband was killed in the war. He took a sip of his drink and he set it down on the table, then asked one or two questions and he said, ‘I had a great night.’ It ended the evening very quickly.”

It was a lesson well taken.

She went back to school and earned a graduate degree from

Columbia University’s

School of Journalism. She spent 10 months in West Africa as a Rotary International ambassadorial scholar studying West African literature in Senegal.

“Hemingway had to go Paris to write about Iowa. I was in Africa writing about Texas and North Carolina,” she said.

She participated in a program at Columbia in which she learned to write a book proposal.

“What really tells you a lot about Artis is that when she proposed a book on military widows, she did not reveal her own status,” said her professor, Mr. Freedman.

Of journalism school, she said, “It felt almost inevitable. I went to journalism school with the idea of being a foreign correspondent. I felt journalism was the right path. At the end of one of my first semesters, I had a professor who had us draw a picture of what our biggest success would be.”

She drew a picture of a book.

Later, during a conference with the professor, he asked what she had drawn.

“He said I should take this book-writing class the next semester and then it just happened inevitably,” she said.

It obviously worked, and she signed a deal with Simon & Schuster.

“She really is unlike any other writer I’ve worked with before in that every draft I saw of this book felt so polished and just so naturally balanced,” said her editor, Ms. Knight. “I would draw out of her additional themes and ask questions to elicit new information from her, then she would go back and write new scenes that blew me away each time. I would say, ‘This was great,’ and then she would come back with more.”

There is an honesty to her work.

“She just has a natural grace on the page,” Ms. Knight said. “The thing that I really responded to, both in the proposal and the finished book, was her candor. She has been really honest and provided a journalistic eye to the story.”

She writes openly about the difficulty of being a military wife and simply being married.

“She was honest about Miles, warts and all,” Ms. Knight said.

The military world is very different from the civilian world. The men and women function as a unit, both on and off-duty.

After Ms. Henderson complained about something to Miles while he was in Iraq, she received a call from the wife of one of his comrades, who reminded her that her No. 1 job was to support her husband, especially while he was overseas.

“I spoke to a woman who grew up in the military — she was an Army brat — and she was saying it was interesting that Army life would be a shock,” she said.

She started to fire off a missive, but ended up writing him a love letter. He would be dead in a month.

Through it all, Ms. Henderson said she remains friendly with the wives and widows of her husband’s former comrades.

The book has been cathartic.

“I will say that it must be. It doesn’t feel that way, but it has to be,” she said.

There is nothing easy about reliving the pain.

“I think writing the book was really hard. I was just in a really terrible place that whole two years of writing,” she said. “It’s amazing I still had friends. But now I feel, not better, but the whole thing is manageable.”

Her in-laws also have been supportive.

“They’ve been really nice, really encouraging. I sent Miles’s mother an advance copy because I wanted her know what it said and give her the opportunity, so that if there was anything she was unhappy with, I could address it.”

So far, no one seems unhappy with “Unremarried Widow.”

“I would say this is the book that has the most fans of any book I’ve worked on so far, Ms. Knight said. “People have loved the book.”

More than 60 people showed up on a cold Wednesday night at Copperfish Books in Punta Gorda for Ms. Henderson’s first public reading from the book. By all counts, it was a success; many in the audience wept as she read.

The book is widely expected to become a bestseller.

Could a movie be far behind?

Ms. Henderson smiled at the prospect.

But her editor, Ms. Knight, said there had been many inquiries about a film.

Then she pondered the future.

“I’m really looking forward to what she does next. This was the story that was already there from beginning to end and she was able to write it with a good six to seven years of perspective,” she said.

So what’s next?

Ms. Henderson is rapidly lining up readings and signings across the country — Florida, Texas, New York and Philadelphia.

It’s a lot to process, and she has not thought about her next book.

“You let a field go fallow and I think I need to let my brain go fallow and rest,” she said. ¦

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