Foster Henderson is the author of The Sunshine Stone, a new young adult novel unlike all others. Project Dreamscape was dying to know the inspiration behind the extraordinary novel that inspires readers of all ages to stay brave during trying times and maintain a positive outlook. Read more in our interview with the author, and discover the inner-workings of how this meaningful novel came to be.
Tell us the premise for The Sunshine Stone and the inspiration for writing it.
The book is about how everything your life in can be ripped away in a heartbeat and yet if you persist and remain courageous, you can find meaning and strength in your suffering, ultimately growing positively from the experience. It’s also about how help can arrive in the most unexpected forms, if you just remain open to it.
There were two strong inspirations for The Sunshine Stone, both from my childhood.
When I was seven or eight years old my father bought me, a book called “Bohemian Fairy Tales”. It was a collection of magical stories but the last story, “The Sunshine Stone” was, by far, the most powerful. It’s about a little girl who suffers unimaginable cruelty and deprivation but always remains cheerful and brave. One night, she falls asleep and dreams of a beautiful stone. When she awakes, she is gripping the same stone in her fist. The girl must then discover why this mysterious gem appeared to her – and when she does, it changes her life irrevocably.
Maybe two years later, came the second inspiration. I watched an old cowboy film, made around 60 or 70 years ago. In the film, a real magician performs magic tricks for the town folk, producing wild animals out of thin air and levitating members of his audience. Yet the surrounding crowd are completely unimpressed and boo him off the stage, even though he is not performing illusions but genuine magic.
This made me think how even 150 years ago, people were so absorbed in their own drudgery and reality, they could not recognize genuine miracles even when they were performed directly in front of their noses. These days, we are even more hardened and cynical.
On a deeper level, it shows how we fail to recognize the miracles that surround us all the time. Every time, we see, feel, breathe, love or hate, we are experiencing the wonder and miracle of living. The animals that surround us, the astonishing natural scenery, our amazing human ingenuity, even the darker aspects of life are all miracles. Miracles are everywhere. Yet they pass us by.
The Sunshine Stone combines my two childhood inspirations to create a fast-paced thriller that also intends to make you think.
Your hero, Antonia Davidson, loses everything because of the mistakes of her father. How do you think young readers will identify with this scenario?
All of us, no matter how confident and capable we appear, are vulnerable, mortal beings. We cannot escape the fear of loss and failure. However, much we achieve and obtain, we remain perpetually subject to what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”.
Indeed, the more you have, the greater the underlying anxiety. As Notorious BIG rapped:
“It’s like the more money we come across,
the more problems we see.”
For younger readers, the fear of sudden loss is a more acute anxiety as they have much less control and power over their surroundings. They are much more dependent on their parents and their friends. When terrible things happen to younger people – and sadly they do – their ability to cope may be badly compromised if they also lose their closest support structures.
Yet I think younger people are frequently capable of extraordinary resilience and courage. This can be seen in how many children and teenagers learn to rebuild their lives and become successful, after such tragedies as bereavement, war, famine and illness (both physical and mental).
Tell us about the world you built to write this story—how much is it your imagination and how much is based in reality?
The book is set in the sordid reality of Rotney, an East End London slum where violence, arson, drugs, gangs and police corruption are commonplace.
Rotney is not a real place but many Londoners will still recognize it. Despite London’s vast affluence, it sadly contains a huge amount of poverty and teenagers are fatally stabbed with a sickening regularity.
The Sunshine Stone took me over 9 years to write because I painstakingly researched my source material. In the case of Rotney, I visited parts of England’s most deprived towns, took photographs and used them to create Rotney’s streets.
Much of Rotney High – the brutal school Antonia is forced to attend – is also based on personal experience.
How do you create your characters? They are very rich, real and authentic, can you talk about the methods you use to bring them to life?
There are two major characters in the book, Antonia – the young girl who narrates the story – and Frank – the mysterious, octogenarian Medal of Honor winner and performance magician who helps Antonia.
Antonia was easier to create because I could base her on members of my family and their friends. Much of the book contains dialogue and I repeatedly asked young people of Antonia’s age to read through it and help me hone it until it was just right.
Frank was more difficult. I wanted to base him on a real Medal of Honor winner but – to fit in with the plot – he had to be born at a certain time, live in a certain place and receive the Medal of Honor for certain specific acts of heroism.
I spent days and days looking through Medal of Honor winners – a humbling and overwhelming experience. In the end, I found my perfect hero, Jerry Kirt Krump, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions, in 1951, in the Korean War. An incredibly courageous and amazing man.
Tragically, Jerry Krump was killed in a car accident in 1977 but I sincerely hope the character of Frank pays homage to his memory.
As I don’t exactly know many Medal of Honor winners or veterans from the Korean War, I listened to numerous recording of old American soldiers, noting how they spoke and recalled their war memories. I even watched Gran Torino several times (Clint Eastwood plays a decorated Korean war veteran)! Then I put it all together to create the dialogue and story.
There are numerous minor characters and these are similarly based on personal experience, listening attentively to how other people talk and conduct themselves and my imagination.
The words and dialogue are fantastic, readers feel like they are actually hearing the conversations in your book! What is your philosophy for writing dialogue?
Thank you so much for your kind words.
There is a very simple formula. You must speak the dialogue out loud. I did this repeatedly until I got rid of anything that sounded contrived. It was a slow and arduous process but in the end, I removed over 5,000 words of dialogue from my earlier drafts. I just kept working and horning the conversation until it sounded completely authentic.
Since this is geared to a YA audience, how did you tap into your inner child to write for them?
I remember my childhood vividly and kept a detailed journal as a teenager. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant time, I found the world a difficult and overwhelming place and overcompensated by being a terrible attention seeker. It was desperately important to me to be popular in school and college because of my huge insecurities and low self-esteem.
Although parts of the book are quite brutal, the real conflict is taking place in Antonia’s head. She suffers intensely from rage because of what has happened to her and this is combined with a deep distrust of the police and authority figures. She also worries constantly about money and her mother’s health. Yet as she bonds with Frank and discovers the extraordinary truth about him, she regains her confidence and overcomes her physical and emotional torments.
Every writer pulls from their own experiences when writing, how much of you is in The Sunshine Stone?
It’s all there. I put my heart and soul into the book over 9 years and some of Antonia’s experiences are autobiographical. Ultimately, however, the book is a work of fiction designed to entertain and uplift you.
Who would you recommend your book to read?
It’s primarily written for the Young Adult market but I certainly hope that more mature readers will enjoy it too. I have tried very hard to write the book on various levels so that there is a positive message for everyone who reads it.
What is next on the horizon, what else are you working on?
I’m currently working on a political thriller but have some great ideas for the return of the stone…