New Voice: Karyn Henley on Breath of Angel

A map of Melaia’s World.

Karyn Henley is the first-time author of Breath of Angel (WaterBrook/Random House, 2011)(teacher guide (PDF)). From the promotional copy:

“The stranger’s cloak fell back, and with it, a long, white blood-stained wing.”

Melaia, a young priestess, witnesses the gruesome murder of an emaciated stranger in the temple courtyard. Just after she discovers wings on the stranger, the murderer enters the temple, and what Melaia has known only through song and story suddenly takes on flesh. Angels and shape-shifters were myths and stories . . . until now.

Melaia finds herself in the middle of a blood feud between two immortal brothers who destroyed the stairway to heaven, stranding angels in the earthly realm. 

When the feud turns violent and Melaia becomes a target, she finds refuge with a band of wandering angels attempting to restore the stairway. But the restoration is impossible without the repayment of an ancient debt, the “breath of angel, blood of man,” a payment that involves Melaia’s heart, soul, and destiny.

Looking back, are you surprised to debut in 2011, or did that seem inevitable? How long was your journey, what were the significant events, and how did you keep the faith?

Debuting in 2011 was a surprise, but a long-awaited one. In 2002, the first semester of my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I began what became my debut novel.

I was already published (for young children and teachers), but had never tried to write a novel. This one became my MFA creative thesis, completed for graduation in 2004. I began submitting the manuscript to publishers and agents right away, but rejection notes and feedback from my critique group told me the manuscript needed work.

Now I see that I needed to learn more about crafting scenes, specifically how to “turn” a scene, creating a twist or reveal while maintaining the momentum of the story. I also needed to learn how to deal with backstory – which, as I learned, is crucial in creating those turns, twists, and reveals.

In short, I had a lot of learning to do. I attended writing seminars, read craft books, and listened to the published writers in my critique group. The journey from start to finding an agent took seven years. It took my agent another year to find a publisher. Then it was another year to publication. So all in all, nine years.

How did I keep the faith? The encouragement of my critique group was crucial, as was the knowledge that my MFA mentors believed in me. But the other factor was that I felt like I was making progress, even if it was turtle-slow. I came to understand that most of the life of a writer is spent in the process of writing, not with the end product. So I sink into the process and truly enjoy it, very grateful for the privilege of writing.

As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children (and Young Adults), how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

Karyn makes her home in Nashville.

My education challenged me to stretch. The MFA program also provided a link with critique partners and a supportive community who happily cheered me on.

I would never have written a novel if my first adviser at the MFA program hadn’t challenged me to move out of my comfort zone. I entered the program to learn how to better write picture books. But when my adviser asked me what I was afraid of, I realized I was afraid to write a novel. Novels are marathons as opposed to short sprints, and I didn’t believe I could go the distance and reach the finish line. But I knew that my fear of failure meant I had to do what I was afraid of.

As for the transition into publishing, I learned one size doesn’t fit all. It’s not helpful to measure my career by other writers’ careers. Some of my class published as soon as they graduated. Others are still working on their manuscripts, still submitting, still looking for agents and publishers.

It’s sometimes hard to cheer the successes of others when you’re wondering why you’re not there yet, waiting for your time to come.

The reality is, both success and failure have their own difficulties. Being published doesn’t solve your problems. It just gives you new ones.

That’s where the community of fellow writers is so important. Published or unpublished, we all need each other, and it’s a joy to share the process with a community of writing-focused friends.

2 thoughts on “New Voice: Karyn Henley on Breath of Angel

  1. Amen to this post, to keeping the faith, and to a strong community of writers. As a fellow VCFA alum, I share your enthusiasm for our community, and appreciate the lessons learned from students and advisors there. Congratulations, and I look forward to reading your novel.

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