Eleanor Henderson considers the University of Virginia the birthplace of her first novel, “Ten Thousand Saints,” because she began the 10-year labor of writing it while in the Creative Writing Program. Now the story will come to life on the big screen.
Henderson, who graduated from U.Va. in 2005 and now teaches at Ithaca (N.Y.) College, visited the movie set last month in New York City’s East Village, brushed shoulders with the directors and actors and observed the filming in action.
The novel captures the 1980s punk music scene known as “straight edge,” whose adherents swore off drugs, alcohol, sex and meat, but still managed to get in fights at well-known nightclubs, such as CBGB’s.
When the main character, Jude, loses his best friend to an overdose, he leaves his distracted mother and heads to the city, where he reconnects with his marijuana-dealing dad and his straight-edge stepbrother. He also befriends his father’s girlfriend’s daughter, who comes to play a major role in his new life.
Shari Springer Berman and Bob Pulcini, who wrote and directed the Oscar-nominated “American Splendor” and other movies, wrote the screenplay and are directing the film.
“I adore it. It’s a skillful adaptation,” Henderson said of the script. “I was moved to hear the actors saying the words I wrote in my Charlottesville apartment.”
Her two-day visit gave her a sense that the actors are committed to the project and bringing her characters to life, she said.
The cast who play the teens includes Asa Butterfield, who starred in “Hugo” and “Ender’s Game,” among other films; Hailee Steinfeld, nominated for an Academy Award for her starring role in the 2010 remake of “True Grit”; and Emile Hirsch, whose credits include the films “Into the Wild” and “Lone Survivor.”
Ethan Hawke and Julianne Nicholson play Jude’s estranged parents. Hawke has a long list of film credits, most recently “Before Midnight.” Nicholson has acted in many films and television shows, including playing a supporting role in the 2013 film, “August: Osage County,” with Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep (who’s nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role). Nicholson also plays a part in the new TV series, “The Red Road.”
Henderson said she considers it an honor that everyone associated with the film is working to continue her version of the story. It’s been a “strange and surreal experience” reading about the movie project in magazines and tabloids, she said.
The author learned about the straight-edge movement from her husband when they met in 1997. He got involved in the late ’80s and later ended up taking her to a few straight-edge concerts. She is quick to add that her novel doesn’t recount his life, however. “The events are mostly made up,” she said.
“I was fascinated with the subculture. It was alluring, troubling and paradoxical.”
Working on the novel with U.Va.’s fiction-writing professors gave her the courage and commitment she needed to keep going, she said, crediting Christopher Tilghman, now director of the Creative Writing Program, as having been especially helpful.
Tilghman talked with UVA Today about Henderson’s novel the summer after it came out. “It’s a real ride,” he said. “It’s something that’ll make people forget where they are and give themselves to that time and place. Whether readers know anything about this scene, Henderson describes it so exhaustively that they’ll all emerge feeling as if they’ve lived in it.”
Those interested in reading more background about the story behind “Ten Thousand Saints” can turn to articles linked on Henderson’s website.
Henderson said she is drawn to writing about experiences she has learned about second-hand rather than her own life, because she can approach the subject with some distance and perspective. Her current novel-in-progress is set in her father’s time, during the Great Depression in south Georgia.
“Ten Thousand Saints” was one of two novels by U.Va. M.F.A. alumni to make the New York Times’ list of the top 10 books of 2011. The other: Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”