Author Chat with Jeff Henigson (WARHEAD: The True Story Of One Teen Who Almost Saved The World a memoir), Plus Giveaway! ~ (US Only)
Today we're excited to chat with Jeff Henigson author of
WARHEAD: The True Story Of One Teen Who Almost Saved The World.
Read on for more about Jeff, plus an interview and an giveaway!
Meet Jeff Henigson!
Jeff Henigson grew up in South Pasadena, California. After a teenage battle with brain cancer, he attended university at the London School of Economics and graduate school at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has worked for UNICEF and the United Nations in humanitarian emergencies, and for a nonprofit in human rights. He has lived in London, Seoul, Rome, Beijing, New York, St. Petersburg, and Ko Samui. Today he calls Seattle home. WARHEAD, Jeff’s young adult memoir, is his first book.
An often hilarious and always relevant memoir about one teen boy's battle with brain cancer and his Starlight Children's Foundation wish: to meet Mikhail Gorbachev in Russia and plead for nuclear disarmament and world peace.
It's 1986, and Jeff is an average fifteen-year-old: he thinks a lot about dating, he bounces around with his friends, and he's trying his hardest to get a car. Conversely, the world around him feels crazy: the United States and the Soviet Union are at glaring odds, with their leaders in a standoff, and that awful word, "nuclear," is on everyone's mind. Then, boom--Jeff learns that he has brain cancer and it's likely terminal. Well, that puts a damper on his summer plans and romantic prospects, doesn't it?
Jeff's family rallies around him, but they are fiercely complicated--especially Jeff's father, a man who can't say "I love you" even during the worst of Jeff's treatment. So when the Starlight Children's Foundation offers to grant Jeff a wish, he makes one certain to earn his father's respect: he asks to travel to Moscow and meet with Mikhail Gorbachev to discuss nuclear disarmament and ending the Cold War. Nothing like achieving world peace to impress a distant father, right? Jeff has always been one to aim high.
Jeff's story is dark, but it's also funny, romantic, and surprising. As his life swings from incredibly ordinary to absolutely incredible, he grapples with the big questions of mortality, war, love, hope, and miracles.
~ Author Chat ~
YABC: What gave you the inspiration to write this book?
In 2008 I was at a low point, having recently split with my partner and, due to the onset of seemingly insurmountable health problems, ending my career at the United Nations. While my ex and I were going through our things, I stumbled upon on old U-Haul box with NOSTALGIA written across the top with a Sharpie. It was a box I’d sealed shut twenty years before, as a teenager emerging from a long battle with brain cancer. Inside the box I found something extraordinary: a package of handwritten letters, all in Russian, sent to me from citizens of the Soviet Union in the Summer of 1988 after they had read a story about my peace mission there earlier that year. I’d packed the letters away back then, wanting to free myself from my experience with cancer. But in 2008 those letters not only brought me back, they also ended up determining the next decade of my life—and that ultimately produced my forthcoming memoir, WARHEAD.
YABC: Which came first, the title or the novel?
It’s a little different with memoirs, of course, because what becomes the story is an aspect of one’s life, and that almost always precedes giving the story a name. I worked on my memoir for nearly six years, and it went through three titles. My working title was Letters from Leningrad, which highlighted the extraordinary gift given to me as a teen by citizens of the Soviet Union. My agent pointed out that “Leningrad” in the title would be unfamiliar to most of our target teen audience, and so we decided to go with ROCKET. When I signed with Random House Children’s Books, my editor said, “We’ve got to do something about that awful title.” She wanted something that captured both of my teen battles—one against brain cancer and the other against nuclear weapons. “It needs to be succinct,” she said. “Maybe just a single word.” I thought for a minute. “How about WARHEAD?” I said. Her response—“I love it!”
YABC: What scene in the book are you most proud of, and why?
I absolutely love the closing scene where my father and I are out at the beach. I’m a little kid then, so the beach trip takes place long before the teen years covered in my book. The scene neatly captures the complications I had in my relationship with my father, but I agonized over its placement. One night, around three o’ clock in the morning, it came to me: this scene, originally part of the opening of the book, needs to woven into its ending. I promptly got out of bed, switched on the computer, and wrapped things up a few hours later—the scene, the final chapter, and my memoir. I celebrated by going straight back to bed and promptly falling asleep!
YABC: Thinking way back to the beginning,
what’s the most important thing you've learned as a writer from then to now?
Strike a balance between planning and writing. It’s just as easy, and equally unproductive, to plan endlessly as it is to aimlessly write. I would’ve saved a lot of time and energy if I allotted a certain amount of time each day to the planning side—like plot development, character development, and the like—and to simply writing, which is the execution of these plans. Both are necessary, it turns out, and it took me quite awhile to come to that realization!
YABC: What do you like most about the cover of the book?
I absolutely love the whole thing! What’s interesting is that it wasn’t one of the Random House cover designers who came up with the idea of the silhouetted version of me with the mushroom cloud of thoughts. It was a general graphic designer who had heard about the book, came up with the idea, and sketched it out on a piece of paper. While the cover designers enhanced the design, they stuck to the original idea, something that was wonderfully spontaneous—and spot on.
YABC: What was your favorite book in 2018?
Educated, Tara Westover’s stunning memoir. I actually went to see her speak at Benaroya Hall in downtown Seattle a few months ago after being blown away by her book. Unsurprisingly, I found her a powerful orator as well.
YABC: What’s up next for you?
I’ve got a few projects in the works. One is a continuation of my YA memoir, Warhead, focusing this time on my visits to Russia beginning in 2011 in which I tracked down the beautiful human beings who wrote me those remarkable letters when I was a kid battling brain cancer. That’s been an ongoing process, and I anticipate returning to Russia this year for my research. I’m also working on a YA novel. It’s a teenage love story, a tragic one, set fifty years into a future we seem intent right now on creating. I’m excited to get started on it full time.
YABC: Which character gave you the most trouble when writing your latest book?
My father. The difficulties of our relationship are a centerpiece of my memoir, so perhaps it’s not terribly surprising that I found him very difficult to portray. He was a complex man, truly multidimensional, but my earlier manuscripts portray him so flatly. I found it difficult on multiple levels, particularly an emotional one, to step into his character and imagine what motivated his actions. As difficult as it was, the process allowed me to understand this person who dominated so much of my life in a completely different way. The result was understanding—and love.
YABC: Is there an organization or cause that is close to your heart?
Thirty years ago, when I was in treatment for brain cancer, Starlight Children’s Foundation offered me a wish. They granted it, and they play a central part in my memoir, Warhead. I’ve felt a great debt to them for the gift they gave me, and I reached out to them recently to see if I could somehow give back. Their focus now is on improving the lives of kids in hospitals—delivering happiness, as they put it. And what’s wonderful is that we’re joining forces. Random House Children’s Books has kindly donated 300 copies of my memoir to Starlight Children’s Foundation for the organization to share with teen patients through partner hospitals nationwide, and I’m soon to embark on a hospital tour, meeting kids facing the same challenges that I was so fortunate to have overcome. Starlight—and their cause—couldn’t be closer to my heart.
By: Jeff Henigson
Release Date: July 2nd, 2019
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Five winners will each receive a signed copy of WARHEAD (Jeff Henigson) ~ (US Only)
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