During the eight years Deborah Henry researched and wrote her novel The Whipping Club, she sometimes felt as if she were on a “spiritual journey,” she says; at other points, she found herself in a “dark tunnel.” Her quest ended happily, however, after she placed the book with a tiny publisher, TS Poetry Press, and earned a starred review from Kirkus Reviews, which said that Henry “weaves multilayered themes of prejudice, corruption and redemption with an authentic voice and swift, seamless dialogue.” It was later named one of Kirkus’ Best Indie Books of 2012.
“Once Kirkus said this book is worth reading, then other people started reviewing it,” Henry says. Positive notices followed from Publishers Weekly, among others, and O: The Oprah Magazine included the novel on its summer reading list; it also sold well on Amazon. Now, the author’s entertaining bids for movie options while her new agent works on selling foreign rights.
The Whipping Club details the troubles of an interfaith couple in Dublin in the 1960s. Years after a Catholic mother secretly gives her out-of-wedlock firstborn to an orphanage, she, the Jewish father and their second child, a daughter, struggle against an oppressive system to get the boy back. Henry delivers a harrowing account of the lives of the children residingin Irish orphanages and industrial schools. Abused by mean-spirited nuns and sadistic and sometimes pedophilic priests, these castaways’ misery is only slightly lessened by the good-hearted attentions of a few better souls.
Inspired by her parents—her father was Jewish and her mother is Catholic—a maternal grandmother from Ireland, and her love of her own three children, Henry traveled from her home in Connecticut to Ireland many times to absorb its ways and to interview anyone who’d help her feed the story in her head. She read Irish fiction writers such as William Trevor and memoirs by the system’s victims, such as Bernadette Fahy and Patrick Touher. She also watched Irish movies and listened to Irish books on tape to hone her novel’s dialogue.
Though the story unfolds from several perspectives, much of it centers on the mother, Marian, cowed by her uncle, a Catholic priest, into secretly giving up her son and her desperate attempts to recover him.
“I’m fascinated with secrets and shame and forgiving those missteps,” Henry says. “I really believe that truth dispels darkness. It’s not an attempt to indict the Church. It’s something I feel is important to move forward with.”
Henry loves to travel, and she’s racked up plenty of miles appearing at book clubs in the U.S. and as far afield as Barcelona. She’s also been promoting her novel via radio, TV and print interviews, social media and speaking engagements.
Meanwhile, she’s dusting off and editing a novel she wrote 20 years ago, The Box of Letters, a Depression-era tale of a trans-Atlantic love affair dashed by purloined letters. She’s also working on a more lighthearted book, Diary of a Mad Novelist, chronicling her “agonizing journey to publication, told in diary form,” and a new novel, Madness, about an abusive love affair in occupied France and Germany during World War II.