Sarah Henstra is an English Literature professor at Ryerson University and the author of Mad Miss Mimic, a historical novel for young adults, which came out this May. We spoke to Sarah about her favourite places in the city, her opinion of vacationing, and what “live and let live” means to her.
1. What are your favourite haunts in Toronto?
I wrote most of my novel Mad Miss Mimic at The Good Neighbour Café in the Junction (238 Annette St.). I love everything about that place, especially the refurbished bowling-lane countertop, the 7am opening time, the steady-as-she-goes staff, the pear danish and the chickpea almond curry sandwich.
I’m a huge fan of Artscape Youngplace (180 Shaw St.), an innovative multi-arts space housed in a decommissioned elementary school. From my house it’s a perfect 25 min bike ride via the West Toronto RailPath (another of my favorite T.O. spots), and I adored the shared writing room with its high windows and its posse of serious, supportive fellow writers. Alas, Artscape recently cancelled its FlexDesk program in favor of group studio rentals, so now I’m back to café-hopping.
For a dose of urban wildness I walk my dog Nora at the Humber River, starting in the woods near Magwood Park and turning back at the Carrying Place with its tall grasses and its spirit animals carved into the rocks. Nora always heads straight up the near-vertical ravine slope to a spot where she found (and rolled in) a raccoon corpse two years ago. It’s a highlight of my day to watch her turn and hurtle back down, occasionally tumbling head over paws—a comical loss of dignity for a standard poodle.
2. What aisle do you spend the most time in at the grocery store?
I do 95% of the cooking, but thankfully groceries is not one of my regular chores. When I do get stuck with it, I wander around the produce section getting depressed at how few items are grown in Ontario and the meat section worrying about additives and feedlots. It’s better for everyone if I just write the list and hand it off.
3. Which virtue do you try to cultivate within yourself?
I’m working pretty hard on tolerance–the whole “live and let live” principal. Recently I’ve been exploring what that slogan really means. The “let live” part is obvious: I’ve got to stop seeing the faults in other people so readily, stop coming up with solutions to everyone else’s problems. But this goes hand-in-hand with the first part, the injunction to “live:” for me it means being disciplined about my own goals and taking the time to appreciate life moment to moment.
4. The receipts in your wallet would indicate what?
That I have a serious stationery addiction.
5. What did you think you were going to be when you were 8 years old?
I was going to be a missionary for sure. Missionaries would come to our church all the time and do these slideshows of the amazing places they’d lived, the exotic animals they saw every day. I was particularly taken with one little missionary boy who’d been bitten by a monkey in India and needed eight needles in his stomach in case of rabies. That was the job for me!
After I quit going to church I repressed all memories of these career plans. When we were eighteen my cousin Jenny told me how guilty I’d made her feel when we visited as kids and I would go on and on about wanting to do the Lord’s work in the savage places of the earth. I was like, “Whaaat? Me? I woulda NEVER.” But apparently I had.
6. If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’d live here in Toronto, but between January and May I’d live and write in the village of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast in Italy. An old woman would bring me a basket of bread and antipasti every day for lunch. This fantasy is very specific at the moment because my parents are on a package tour of the area and keep sending me emails with pics attached: orange trees, feral roosters, preschoolers in pink smocked uniforms.
7. What makes you happy?
Lemons. Sunrise. My duvet. My fifteen-year-old son in his Metro grocery courtesy-clerk uniform. Cycling. Notebooks. Most cheeses. Fairy tales. Mail. Vintage dresses. Anything with coconut. Writing every day.
8. What makes you cringe?
“I don’t know how you find the time” makes me cringe every time I hear it. I never know how to respond when people complain about how busy they are and how they never have time for creative endeavors like writing. The blunt answer is that no one has the time. NO ONE. No one’s life is leisurely enough to make writing an easy or pleasant activity. Writing is hard, damn hard. And the only way to do it is to be really hard-assed about sitting down every single day—preferably first thing, before your alarm normally goes off—and getting something down on the page despite all the urgent important life-saving things you must do for your work and/or your kids and/or your sick grandmother or whatever. I have to teach myself this lesson over and over again, whenever I find I’ve drifted away from my writing practice and gotten sucked into the I’m-too-busy delusion.
9. What quality do you loathe most in others?
Willful self-martyrdom (e.g., see #8).
10. What, in your opinion, is overrated?
Vacations. I mean, I am aware that most people are into them (case in point: my retired parents). Me, I end up doubling down on work beforehand so that I enter a vacation with walking pneumonia. As an introvert I get completely overstimulated with the shiny new sights and the isn’t-this-a-lark chatter over meals. Cramming “experiences” into a short window of time just doesn’t work for me. I’d sooner spread my vacation days randomly across the year so that no one else even knows I’m off—take myself to a small-town b&b somewhere for a few days of writing, or go check out an art installation or a new resto in the city I’ve been pining to try. Low-key stuff. Small doses.
PS: Don’t even get me started on Christmas.
11. What is the one thing you wish you could change about yourself? Why?
Whenever I go back and read one of my old journals—not something I do often, thankfully—I’m struck by how seriously I took everything. How earnest I was in my endless analyses of my relationships and my agony over how to improve them. How burdened I felt by my myriad responsibilities. I wish I could be more lighthearted about life, more trusting that everything will work out for the best. Because whenever I do look back I see that it has.
12. What frustrates you the most?