A Television Writer Turns to Novels for the First Time
Last year was a challenge for Joshua Senter. As a television screenwriter, he was looking forward to getting back to work in 2020 after a lengthy dispute between the Writers Guild of America and the agencies that represent screenwriters. “Then Covid happened, and everything shut down again,” he says. With opportunities limited in Hollywood, and with a story he felt he needed to tell, he started writing prose instead of screenplays.
“Writing a novel, especially in 2020 and 2021, has been a blessing,” he notes, and while Still the Night Call—the story of struggling Missouri dairy farmer Calem Honeycutt on what he expects will be the last day of his life—seems far removed from Senter’s work on shows like The L Word and Desperate Housewives, he sees a common theme across his work. “I like to tell stories that nobody else is telling,” he says. “Before Desperate Housewives, there had really not been a series like that. Before The L Word, there had really not been a series like that.” Calem’s story, he knew, was another one that could bring a unique voice into the mainstream.
Senter was moved by hearing about farmers who were suffering both emotionally and financially as the shutdowns of early 2020 made their already difficult businesses even more desperate, leading in some cases to suicide. Given his own experiences of mental health challenges and life on a farm, he knew this was a story he would be able to tell. Kirkus Reviews agrees, writing that “Senter’s impressive novel is a truthful, honestly told story that puts a human face on a region that’s steeped in tradition, brimming with the allure of nature, and grappling with the constant threat of being swallowed up by the latest corporate entity.”
Calem’s narration is vivid and self-aware:
I never went to college or even trade school, and I won’t say graduating from high school around here is some incredible feat. I ain’t some brilliant mind, but I also ain’t just some dumb hick. I understand the people around here and life around here in ways somebody with twenty college degrees never could. I know what the shape of a cloud and the moisture in the air says about the coming weather without ever turning on the TV. I know when it’s time to cut hay for baling or when to move the cows so they don’t overgraze a pasture. I understand heifers better than most vets. I see the way they walk and the clarity in their eyes and know if they’s down or if they’s feeling good and how that means they’re gonna behave one day to the next.
Like his protagonist, Senter is a native of rural Missouri who grew up on a thousand-acre farm. But, he points out, “some of the way that [Calem] thinks about the world is not the way that I think.” Unlike Calem, he left Missouri to study filmmaking in college and has lived on the West Coast for many years. Instead of living down the road from his parents, he has been estranged from them since he came out as gay. “They kicked me out of the family,” he says.
For Senter, writing Still the Night Call was not only a way to be productive during an industry downturn, but also an opportunity for him to come to terms with a place he loves. “I started writing this book and it was terrifying to do and it felt so right,” he says. “It was healing for me to write about the Midwest.” The distance, both physical and emotional, gave him the right mindset to construct the book’s setting. “Right now, while I live in Los Angeles, it’s very hard to write about Los Angeles,” he says. “I do better after the time has passed.” His memories of Missouri allowed him to build the book’s rich and detailed sense of place.
Senter’s writing is also shaped by his training in screenwriting—what he describes as “the clear story structure of Act 1, Act 2, Act 3”—and the books that shaped him. He describes the process of writing Still the Night Call as “channeling my inner Catcher in the Rye,” citing one of his formative reads, but he also explains that he didn’t discover J.D. Salinger or most other well-known authors until after he moved to California. “I was not allowed to read any literature that wasn’t Christian or the Bible until I left home,” he says. At the moment, he’s in the midst of reading Harrow by Joy Williams, and he calls Barbara Kingsolver his “favorite author ever.” Her work is always close at hand, he says. “The Poisonwood Bible sits on my desk because I never know when I might need to pick it up and be inspired.”
For his own novel, Senter admits he was “terrified” of sharing the finished product with the world, so he turned to his toughest critics first: “I gave the story to a few of my best friends who I knew would judge me very harshly.” Their reactions assured him that the book was ready to be published. He decided to self-publish so that the book, with its connection to current events, could be released quickly. “I felt like [it] needed to come out now,” he says, adding that he wanted Calem’s story to get into readers’ hands not in the year or more it would take under a traditional publishing timeline, but immediately. “I feel like it is best for me to just put it out into the world.” Self-publishing also gave him a sense of ownership over his own words. “You’re always writing for everybody else” as a screenwriter working on television shows, he says. “Still the Night Call is completely mine.”
Sarah Rettger is a writer and bookseller in Massachusetts.