Allison's Book Bag

Roald Dahl Loved Her Story!

Posted on: July 7, 2014

Imagine sending a story to an author as famous as Roald Dahl and having him share it with an editor who then proceeds to contact you about publishing your story. This is what happened to April Henry, a New York Times-bestselling author of over a dozen mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults. Yet it was only years later, when Henry was an adult, that she established herself as an author.

April_RoaldDahlAccording to her biography, Henry grew up poor in a small Oregon town. The town had only 18,000 residents and the economy was based on timber and pears. While the family didn’t have much money, Henry grew up loving to read. She remembers that at the age of three, her mom taught her alphabet flash cards. Henry also often availed of the public library.

Despite that initial publishing success, thanks to Roald Dahl, Henry grew up figuring that authors were much better than her. She worked her way through university, majoring in Business with a minor in Personnel, and intended to work for the National Labor Relations Board. At another point, Henry also thought being a medical researcher would be her forte. She eventually got a job in hospital admitting, where she did consider writing about the life and death that surrounded her every day. What finally pushed Henry, however, into trying to seriously write was when she read a really bad book.


The first book she wrote didn’t attract any interest from agents. The second book got her an agent along with nice rejection letters from editors. And so Henry’s writing career limped along until her fourth book, which sold in two days. She described it in her biography as “an eight-year overnight success”.

For many years afterwards, Henry continued to work full time while writing a book a year and being a mom. This part of her life remains a blur but, at the beginning of 2008, Henry was lucky enough to be able to quit her day job. Since then, she’s written more than a dozen mysteries and thrillers for teens and adults.


AprilHenryFor Henry, AuthorTurf reveals, plot is first. Of course, because character and plot are intertwined, character quickly follows. As for whether she is an outliner or a seat-of-the-pants author, Henry shares with For the Love of YA that she has done both and everything in between. “Seat of the pants works fine for thrillers, but not mysteries, because otherwise it’s hard to leave clues about the killer. With thrillers, the character is just trying to stay alive. I just had to write an 85,000-word book in four months, and if I hadn’t had an outline, I would have been in trouble.” And when the writing is done? To recharge, Henry likes to watch crime stories and thrillers from Netflix.

To create a realistic story, Henry shares with January Magazine that she relies both on her own life experience, as well as on research. She creates characters based on family members (the side which doesn’t read her books!) and on fellow co-workers. For settings, she also draws on memories of where she grew up, as well as places where she has held jobs. For example, about working in health care, Henry says that it’s easy to find a human-interest story, and tells January Magazine about when she writing about a new lab. It wasn’t very exciting in and of itself, so she went looking for a person who had had a dramatic result from lab test. “I found this woman who had contracted bacterial meningitis, that disease with a purple rash, only it hadn’t presented with a purple rash. If it hadn’t been for the lab test, they never would have known what was wrong with her. It made a nice entry into the story, putting a human face on health care.”

SAR volunteers learning man-tracking, Photo courtesy of April Henry

SAR volunteers learning man-tracking, Photo courtesy of April Henry

Obviously though, Henry also relies on research. For example, when writing a novel which featured a sociopath, she did a lot of reading about the field. A reason for my interest in her fiction is that her newest series is about Search and Rescue. For it, she spent time with the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue, which she explains on her website is unique in two ways. First, it is an all teen-led organization. Second, thirty-percent of what the teens do is search for evidence at crime scenes.

Something which surprised me when reading some of Henry’s fiction is that her novels contain many voices. For the Love of YA asked Henry how she accomplished this task and received this answer: “Whenever I write a scene, I like to tell it from the point of view of the person who knows the least (or is finding out the most) or the person who has the most to lose.”


After making a solid name for herself as a mystery author, Henry shifted gears and started writing thrillers. She told January Magazine that she found the experience fun, because it allowed her to have characters that would swear and do bad things. She also got to play with different viewpoint characters and get inside the heads of multiple characters. One of her inspirations for how to write a thriller came from Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. She liked how it was more small scale, being really about the relationships between people and about their motivation for doing things. Henry decided that’s how she wanted to write.

Henry has also managed to balance writing for both young people and adults. For the Love of YA asked her how she managed to create a book that is heavy in a content-sense (drugs, kidnapping, suicide) but which has not gotten banned? In response, Henry explained that she makes a conscious choice to keep the language basically clean, and the sexual situations don’t progress all the way. Her books are mostly meant to be entertainment and so she doesn’t want to have a teacher or librarian risk their job because of something she wrote.

Henry is married and lives in Portland, Oregon. The couple have one daughter who is going to college. In her free time, Henry loves to do kung fu, run, cook, and read. She encourages new writers that “tenacity is as important as talent”.

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