Eleanor Henderson Photo by Nina Subin

Writing a first novel is a gamble. Authors can spend years developing a story, typically with no guarantee it will ever get published, much less read. But for two alumni, a decade’s worth of hard work has paid off; their debut novels have been welcomed to broad acclaim.

“It’s been a big surprise,” admits Eleanor Henderson (Grad ’05), who wrote the first draft of Ten Thousand Saints as a graduate student. “I always wanted to be a writer since I was very tiny, so I had embarrassingly big dreams.”

Diving headfirst into the heyday of New York’s straight-edge culture, Ten Thousand Saints revolves around teenager Jude Keffy-Horn and his devotion to a lifestyle that paradoxically embraces ascetic purity—no meat, no drugs, no sex—alongside an aggressive punk sensibility. Though inspired to write about straight-edge culture by her husband’s experiences, Henderson didn’t show him the manuscript until two days before turning it in to her editor.

"A whirling dervish of a first novel--a planet, a universe, a trip...carefully and lovingly created." Los Angeles Times

“I think he was a little afraid to read it, and I was sort of afraid to share it with him,” she recalls. Fortunately, he liked it. So did reviewers. The Los Angeles Times called Ten Thousand Saints “a whirling dervish of a first novel—a planet, a universe, a trip … carefully and lovingly created,” while the New York Times listed it among the 10 Best Books of the Year, one of only five fiction selections.

Joining Henderson’s book on the New York Times’ list, Chad Harbach’s novel,The Art of Fielding, also explores the fervor of adolescent devotion, but whereas Henderson excavates an underground subculture, Harbach (Grad ’04) delivers a fresh look at a national pastime.

Chad Harbach

Set in a small college on the shore of Lake Michigan, The Art of Fielding takes off when scrawny baseball prodigy Henry Skrimshander makes a disastrous throw that injures a teammate. Though richly infused with baseball as both plot and metaphor, the novel is much more than a sports story. In naming it their pick for best book of 2011, Amazon.com editors wrote, “The Art of Fielding is the veritable baseball book that’s actually about much more than baseball, and it’s on par with the work of Bernard Malamud and David James Duncan. It’s rare to see a debut so confident, intimate, unpredictable and wholly memorable.”

For Harbach, who had never taken a creative writing class before arriving at UVA, writing the novel was an intensely private experience. “You sort of live in this imaginary world, like a 4-year-old or a crazy person, with these characters that you’ve constructed who’ve become very real to you, but are not very real to anyone else,” Harbach says.

"Characters so intoxicatingly engaging that The Art of Fielding becomes something special and unique, a complete and satisfying fictional universe." USA Today

Now that world has been blown wide open. The Art of Fielding was praised by USA Today for images “so lively and surprising” and “characters so intoxicatingly engaging, that The Art of Fielding becomes something special and unique, a complete and satisfying fictional universe.” HBO has plans for a series based on the novel.

With the kind of success that Harbach and Henderson have enjoyed, expectations for their next novels are high. Fortunately they’ve had little time to worry about it. Harbach is rarely at his Charlottesville home, kept away by book tours and interviews. Henderson has a new baby to keep her grounded. “Being spit up on every half an hour, it’s hard to get carried off into the clouds,” she says. “So real life has gone on in a good way.”