If you’ve been following me for a while, you will know I am obsessed with Sarah Henning’s books. Seriously, if you search Henning, you’ll find that I’ve read like 7 of them and I love them all! So when I had the chance to chat with Henning about her latest release, It’s All in How You Fall, I knew I had to!
About It’s All in How You Fall
Gymnast Caroline Kepler has three state balance beam titles, a new trick even most elites can’t do, and chronic, undeniable back pain. While she might never be an Olympian, she has dreams of leveling up to elite, making Nationals, and competing in college. But when one epic face-plant changes all that and Caroline’s back pain goes from chronic to career-ending, her dreams are shattered and her life is flipped upside down.
Enter Alex Zavala, a three-sport athlete who’s both incredibly cute and incredibly off-limits. He offers to give Caroline a crash course in all the sports she’s missed, and she has an offer for him in return: For every sport Alex teaches her, she’ll play matchmaker for him. Deal done, Caroline “dates” new sports with Alex for the rest of the summer, which is loads more fun than wallowing in despair. Just as Caroline starts to see herself as more than her past athletic successes, she picks up something she didn’t bargain for: a big fat crush on Alex. Turns out life was way easier when it was just layout-fulls and beam burns….
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I know in your afterward you talked about your own experiences with gymnastics, but for readers who haven’t read it yet, do you wanted to give a brief summary about your own personal connection as well as any additional research you had to do?
Well, It’s All in How You Fall is all about a near-elite level gymnast named Caroline, who has to give up gymnastics and answer the question of who is she if she’s not a gymnast, running through training 35 hours a week in a gym with her two best friends?
I was a competitive gymnast—not nearly anywhere near as talented as Caroline—but I had to give it up for a chronic back injury right before my freshman year of high school. And I felt like I spent a least a year trying to recalibrate who I was without all those hours spent in the gym, while navigating high school and everything that comes with that. It was a really big change for me, the literal close of a chapter, and has been on my mind for at least twenty-five years.
I’d always wanted to do a gymnastics book, and given my own experience, it felt right to explore that idea of working through the loss of self that happens when your identity is all wrapped up in something that’s no longer part of your daily routine.
One of the most moving themes of your book that I loved was this idea of a dream needing to be re-evaluated. This process of grief and anger and loss, but also acceptance. What drew you to this idea of the theme and what drew you to your MC? Was there a challenging moment when exploring this theme for you while writing or drafting?
I think for many teenagers, there are a lot of new chapters with various activities—even if you aren’t a gymnast or even an athlete, if you’re a person with dreams, those dreams also take a different shape as you get closer to adulthood or evaporate all together. It’s a universal feeling for so many people growing up, and I wanted to capture that feeling and explore it through a lens I knew well—gymnastics.
When I quit, I was a lot like Caroline in that I was super athletic and had built up all this muscle and stamina and flexibility, but I’d spent so much time in a gym that I literally didn’t know the rules of basketball or how to play or adapt myself because I’d never done any other competitive sports casually. It’s completely disorienting and awkward and can make you feel at a loss over and over again.
What’s funny is even though it’s been so long since I went through this myself, I could still draw on what it was like to have one significant door close and start anew. That wasn’t challenging so much as it was affirming because I knew that if I could still access the way it felt and put it on the page through Caroline’s character arc, that it was true and valid and probably how other people feel or have felt.
There aren’t many gymnastics novels, do you know and love any you’d like to share? Why don’t you think there are more novels about gymnasts?
I really wish there were more! Gymnastics is such an incredible sport and the people who do it are so dedicated and work so very hard to basically make the near-impossible look easy. I think the reason there aren’t more gymnastics novels is like why you also see very few sports romances with actual, on-the-page sports: authenticity.
Honestly, even as a former competitive gymnast and a former sports journalist, I still get nervous with getting the particulars right, so I can imagine other writers feel the same way. I did a lot of double-checking with the current codes of difficulty and studied how Level 10 routines were pieced together within the last few years so I could make sure Caroline’s skillset was in line with her accomplishments.
That said, I really think it’s worth it to have on-the-page sports, and not just allusions to practice or a team, and I’ll always work to include the actual actions front and center, because such a big part of an athlete’s character shouldn’t be glossed over, or simply used as an excuse for a character to have a six pack. I mean, six packs are nice, but I’m an absolute sucker for a character who shows a passion for what they’re doing on the page.
There are some lovely swoony and palm-to-the-face moments in your book. We love it when a character denies their feels! What was your first image or impression of Alex and Caroline? Talk us through a little bit of what is going on in Caroline’s mind when she re-connects with Alex.
Ha. Yes, I love those too! In a way, it’s very classic—that’s exactly what’s going on in most of Jane Austen’s novels, and not just Emma! And it really is so delicious and true when a character realizes what’s been right in front of their faces for so long. Julian Winters’ Right Where I Left You is a recent release that does exactly this so very well! (Check it out!)
I think there’s a special magic in reconnecting with someone you’ve known for basically your whole life but seeing them in a different space and way than you’re used to. Under the right circumstances, it’s like you’re truly seeing them and what they’ve become for the first time. When Caroline connects with Alex that first time on the page, her brother Nat isn’t around, and they have a conversation that doesn’t involve him as a buffer. That sets the stage for the deal they make a few chapters later because in a way, Alex is seeing Caroline in a fresh way. She sees him as he’s always been, almost to a fault, which definitely keeps the wool firmly in place over her eyes as the summer progresses.
Caroline’s sibling relationship was SO cute and there were some seriously precious moments in there. Were there any sibling scenes you had to cut out? How was writing Caroline’s entire family?
I really did enjoy writing Caroline’s family. I don’t have an older brother, but I have a front row seat to the relationship between my son, who’s older, and my daughter. Their relationship at this stage (ages 13 and 7) is perhaps more antagonist and lopsided than Caroline is with her older brother Nat, who is only one whole school year older.
Nat believes in the tough love approach and enjoys needling Caroline to her wit’s end because he thinks it’ll force her to see things his way. She doesn’t take too kindly to that, especially after losing out on gymnastics when he also faced a near-career-ending injury in his chosen sport—basketball—and managed to not only get past it but thrive while she’s been unable to do the same. Nat’s just trying to help in his own way, and that becomes clear later in the book when he has some opinions about Caroline accepting Alex’s help in “sports shopping” rather than asking him in his capacity as her big brother.
Caroline’s family is rounded out by her dad and his serious girlfriend, Olga, who happens to be Caroline’s former gymnastics coach. It makes things a little awkward, but I liked constructing a network around Caroline, that while a little unconventional, very much cares for her and supports her as she goes through a huge life change over the course of a summer.
Would you ever want to explore more stories within this world or do you feel like you’ve completed that chapter? How do you approach writing standalones because all your contemporaries have been while you’re also the author of a fantasy series?
Oh, I would LOVE to do a Ryan Rodinsky book. He’s begging for his own story and has been since Throw Like a Girl. I’m not sure that’s in the cards, but I’d love to do one if I get the chance. I love writing sportsy romances and this little ecosystem is based on where I grew up in Kansas City, which you don’t see a lot of in YA contemporary land. I’d love to keep that up.
As for the writing process—it’s definitely a different animal, writing sweet, emotionally driven contemporaries versus magic-and-mayhem fantasy. In a way, it’s almost tougher to write these contemporary books for me because it’s so intricate and organic—when everything is character based, moving the plot forward is less tactile. Honestly, Throw Like a Girl was the first book I wrote where no one dies. There’s nothing that’ll move a plot forward like a good murder. LOL.
So, when its simply emotions strung across this tight, close-knit high school world, it’s harder to pull off perfectly because there’s no big dramatic, set piece to hang your hat on. There’s a look, or a response, or the lack thereof that moves mountains. And that has to feel real, or you have nothing at all. That’s not to say my YA fantasies don’t have complex emotions, I think they do, but in these books the antagonist is the main character herself in many ways, and that’s much different than literally crossing swords with someone out to get you. I hope that makes sense!
How was the writing process of this book compared to THROW LIKE A GIRL? Were there some unexpected challenges? I did feel like I caught some easter eggs!
Even though both books have similar themes of starting over and trying something new, they have much different stakes, so that made writing them feel different. In Throw Like a Girl, Liv joins the football team on an offer from the softball coach’s son, with the express goal of making the softball team at a school that had been her rival for most of high school. She’s perfectly adaptable to the new sport, has something to prove, and must integrate herself in a team atmosphere not just as a newbie, but as a girl in a male-dominated sport. In It’s All in How You Fall, Caroline is mourning the end of her gymnastics career and is feeling very untethered. Her impetus for finding a new sport is really to get her mind off of all she’s lost and focus on all she can do. She’s not going to take to everything new perfectly like Liv did to football, because she’s a different athlete with different goals and an injury to manage.
I pitched this book as 50 First Dates meets She’s All That with a pinch of Cyrano de Bergerac, and I think it lived up to that expectation, but maybe with a little more of Emma than I’d originally intended. Anyhow, because the majority of the second act requires Caroline to try on new sports with Alex, I feared it might feel episodic in a way. Much like the one Alex makes early on, I had a chart of all the possible sports for Caroline to try, and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out a reasonable order for them that would work with the emotional beats of the novel. That was definitely an unexpected challenge because I had so much to pick from, and basically had to hold myself back so that Caroline didn’t try everything before finding something she liked. This book definitely couldn’t been five-hundred pages of her trying every sport imaginable with Alex because I love them both so much!
About the Author
Sarah Henning is a recovering journalist who has worked for the Palm Beach Post, Kansas City Star and Associated Press, among others. When not writing, she runs ultramarathons, hits the playground with her two kids, and hangs out with her husband Justin, who doubles as her long-suffering IT department. Sarah lives in Lawrence, Kansas, hometown of Langston Hughes, William S. Burroughs, and a really good basketball team.