Author With Local Roots
Pens a Powerful Memoir
While the pain of a beloved’s sudden death can derail a life, the legacy of love can also sustain and strengthen those left behind. Artis Henderson, raised and schooled on Fort Myers Beach, has written a memoir of love, tragedy, and hope that mines both the depths of despair and the power of determination. Her book, Unremarried Widow, published by Simon & Schuster in January 2014 to wide acclaim, is the sharp, unsparing tale of a young woman’s life, bracketed by the deaths in aircraft crashes – 20 years apart – of her father and her Army-pilot husband.
The book has won praise from numerous award-winning authors and from the venerable New York Times Sunday Review of Books. Artis Henderson’s clear, compelling voice captures telling details as she explores the dizzying eroticism of young love, the comedy of life’s awkward moments, the deep roots of family dynamics, and the unimaginable pain of loss.
Artis’ writing sticks, not to the surface of things – though it abounds with sensory details – but to the bone. The author is clear-voiced and frank about human attributes and foibles, including her own. She conveys the visceral horror of losing a young husband and the bewilderment of weathering bereavement’s uncontrollable storms.
The Island Sand Paper spoke recently with Artis Henderson about her path as a blossoming writer, and her life since her husband Miles Henderson’s death on November 6, 2006, in a helicopter crash in Iraq. When we met at a local café, the difficulty of crafting a book with its genesis in young love cut off by death was evident. Also palpable was Artis’ perseverance as a writer building life anew.
How does such a powerful, moving book as Unremarried Widow (the military term for the status of a deceased combatant’s wife) come into being? During Miles’s deployment to Iraq, starting in July 2006, Artis had moved back to Fort Myers Beach and worked in public relations on an experimental farm north of Fort Myers. Not long after Miles died, she signed on to write a column for Florida Weekly. Through the fog of pain and loneliness, she inched closer to fulfilling her lifelong dream of living as a writer.
The book’s concept germinated during Artis’ time in journalism school at Columbia University in New York. Writing the story of Artis and Miles had come to seem inevitable, especially after Artis’ short story in the New York Times’ "Modern” Love column resonated deeply with many readers.
"The actual writing of the book took two solid years – of every day, 9 to 5,” Artis recalled. "I sold the proposal in February 2011, before even writing the book. In graduate school at Columbia I had taken a semester-long class – a book-writing seminar. Over the course of that semester I developed a book proposal. An agent took me on, and then I signed a contract, and said: Oh, now I have to write a book!”
Asked about how she coped through the writing process, Artis responded: "When I was writing, it didn’t feel cathartic. It felt terrible, really terrible. But now that it’s done, it must have been cathartic, because I can talk about it without falling apart, which is new. When I was writing, I couldn’t talk about it. Every single day was tough.”
Since the book’s recent publication, Artis has been engaged in a whirlwind of book promotional appearances, from Texas to southwest Florida, with upcoming stops in New York, Connecticut, and California. The book is selling steadily, garnering strong praise, and the author’s appearances are well attended.
"Usually 50 or 60 people show up at each event,” said Artis. "I go and read for a little bit, I answer some questions, and then I sign books. It has been amazing. It’s painful and it’s weird, but it’s also lovely. People have been really generous and kind.”
Formative Years on Fort Myers Beach
The dedication to Unremarried Widow reads: "For Miles and my mother”
The author and her mother share a unique moniker. "It’s an old family name,” explained Artis Chester Henderson, a retired teacher. "From the very start, Artis’ dad wanted her to have my name.”
The elder Artis still lives in a house on the Gulf, near mid-island, that her parents built in 1948. The setting, with its star-filled night sky and soothing tidal rhythms, is a recurring theme in the younger Artis’ book.
Her mother figures prominently in Unremarried Widow. As is the way of mother-daughter dynamics, the parent is not always cast in a flattering light. But by book’s end, her daughter empathizes with the grief and isolation a mother experienced and then locked away. They are finally able to reach out through shared pain to forge a deeper connection.
"I didn’t want to read it for the longest time,” admitted Mrs. Henderson. "I wouldn’t look at any of the editing proofs, or read any of it until Mother’s Day 2012, when it was in pre-book form. When Artis asked why, I told her that I knew it was going to make me cry. It did.”
Were there early signs that her daughter had the makings of a writer? "She had always kept journals, ever since she was in Beach Elementary, and when she traveled. Artis was always jotting things down. On the first day of second grade, they asked the kids to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up. And she wrote: ‘I want to be an author.’ With the last word misspelled.” Her mother laughed.
Beach Elementary School was very influential on young Artis. "There were two teachers who especially had an impact on her,” said her mother. "Gertrude Shevlin, the Librarian, was wonderful. Artis was a voracious reader, and Mrs. Shevlin gave her reading material way above her grade level. And Winny Yordy, her Grade 4 teacher, also encouraged Artis in everything she did.
"I’m so proud of her for doing this,” added her mother of Artis’ authorship. "It was very difficult for her to write this, but she needed to do it. She is the epitome of a survivor.”
The Next Chapter
Along with its tale of blissful, if complicated, young love, Unremarried Widow explores a subculture very different from the milieu in which Artis grew up: military units, and their wives and families. Being left behind on the base as a deployed soldier’s spouse can be "hell on marriage,” Artis acknowledges.
Artis and Miles’s two-year romance and four-month marriage had suffered some strains due to frequent moves from one small-town Army base to another. Artis chafed at the expectations and restrictions of being a military girlfriend or wife. Sudden tragedy threw her together with the family of Miles’s deceased fellow pilot, casting marital and cultural issues into the far distance.
"The military is a hard life, especially for spouses,” Artis said. "I admire them. I don’t know how they do it, year after year. The problem with military guys is that they have qualities of toughness that a civilian guy can’t imagine. It’s not easy to follow that, or to find the perfect balance.”
Artis sought friendship among other military wives. That was not always easy, for a young woman from a liberal background with no previous military ties. But in the years since her husband’s death, Artis says she has found community with other military widows, and with friends and fellow soldiers left behind.
"Even though I was against the war in Iraq, I’m very pro-military now,” Artis said. "The military has been very generous to me. And soldiers have said to me that there are reasons we were at war that civilians will never know. We just have to have faith in that. But I want to plant the idea that we think long and hard before we go into another war. Because it seems to me that the people who made these decisions had no stake in this war. They didn’t send their sons and daughters out there.”
Asked what she wants readers to take away from the book, Artis responded: "I guess there are two layers. One is that it’s a sad story, but I think it’s also a hopeful story. When you get to the end, there is hope that somewhat makes up for the devastation.
"The other part – the thing that was guiding me when I was writing it – was that I just wanted people to feel how I felt. Because I felt so terrible, and I just felt like this war was so separate from most people. It was separate from me, until I met Miles. People just don’t realize the devastation that it causes.”
The urge to travel swept Artis overseas after journalism school. "I got an internship with AP and went to West Africa, to Dakar, Senegal. I thought being a foreign correspondent would be a good balance.” Artis soon realized she had coped with enough danger zones for a lifetime.
"I was there for a year, and it was really exciting. I’d always wanted to live in West Africa. But the bureau in Dakar was the bureau for all of West Africa, and when I was there, Ivory Coast was having a civil war. And I remember the AP photographer digging through the closet and trying on flak jackets so that she could go cover the civil war. That was the moment when I said to myself: ‘This is not for me.’ "
After several months in France in spring and summer 2013, Artis has established a home base in New York City. "But I sort of split my time between New York and here,” she said. "My mom’s here. All my best friends from high school are still here. Every time I try to leave definitively, I always keep circling back. I love the Beach. I love the community.”
What’s next for the newly published author? Artis continues to pen the saucy, irreverent dating column, "Sandy Days, Salty Nights” for Florida Weekly. The column’s tone is light and playful, but it also displays a shrewd eye for the quirks of our species – especially those looking for love or romance.
"A writer is what I’ve always wanted to be,” Artis concluded. "And I love being abroad. I hope to go back to France. That’s my dream. It’s exciting and it’s daunting. Maybe I’ll live and write there; maybe I’ve got another book in me. Next time
it will be something fun. No more sad stuff. I can’t do this again. I’m not really sure where to go next.”
Wherever she goes, Artis will have at her disposal the eye, soul, and voice that make Unremarried Widow such a stand-out debut. She has already touched greater depths than many people who have behind them decades more of living and writing. Artis has grasped paradoxical truths about love and loss:
"That Miles would be the catalyst for this blossoming life, that my time with him would lay the foundation for some braver, more fearless me. That through knowing him and loving him I would become someone with the wherewithal to seize my dreams.”