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Madeleine Henry

Year of Graduation: 
2010
Author and Exeter alum Madeline Henry

"Yoga is a lot about what’s in your heart. ... It gave me a sense of security in myself to take a risk."

Over the past decade, Madeleine Henry ’10 has been a sketch comic, neuroscience lab assistant and financial analyst. Now the Yale grad is a full-time writer. Ditching what she refers to as "the rat race" to pursue her dream job wasn’t easy, but the experience did provide a compelling plotline for her debut novel, Breathe In, Cash Out. The story centers on a 20-something who quits her stable investment banking gig to become a yoga instructor. Drawing on real-life anecdotes from her days crunching numbers at Goldman Sachs in New York City, Henry peppers her book’s pages with juicy, insider tidbits that range from improper interoffice instant messages and bathroom meditation sessions to a steamy affair with a boss. 

With Breathe In, Cash Out in bookstores, Henry is busy pitching a television series adaptation to Hollywood, building her Instagram feed, and putting the final touches on her second novel. We sat down with her at a picnic table behind Jeremiah Smith Hall, just before she headed to an author’s night in the Hamptons.

You were on the pre-med track at Yale, then went into investment banking after graduation. Why not go directly into writing? 

I did a lot of writing at Exeter. I was editor of The Exonian. But for some reason, I switched into science at the beginning of college. I think it was a fear impulse that led me into science. I felt like there were a lot of options and being pre-med was a track and it led somewhere. I can be a linear thinker sometimes. It took time to overcome the fear. 

What helped you overcome that fear? 

I started practicing yoga while I was in investing. Yoga gave me peace in a way I hadn’t felt before because a lot of my life had been very intellectual. Exeter, Yale, Goldman Sachs — it’s a lot about what’s in your brain. Yoga is a lot about what’s in your heart. I was really taken with that and it gave me a sense of security in myself to take a risk. I know it sounds really weird. It’s not something a lot of people talk about, but that happened to me.

 How did you get introduced to the practice of yoga? 

I came to it through a very New York City way, which is exercise. Then I started following these Instagram yogis who post pictures in cool poses and I just wanted to learn the poses. They usually caption each picture with a bit of life advice or wisdom. Over time, those became very meaningful to me — the ideas of calming down, living from the heart. I got that through an Instagram yoga community, which is not traditional. But that is how I found it and it really transformed my life. 

Your book is really about transformation in a way. 

At its center, the book is about someone leaving the rat race for something that’s more fulfilling, and that’s resonating with people who have their own dreams.

Was the book difficult to write? 

While I was writing it, I was working a full-time job in finance, where you are not told or encouraged to be creative or artistic or come from a soulful place in your everyday life. You’re basically told to be productive and excellent. So, it was really hard to write it because it was like two different ways of being. I would get feedback from the people I was working with on the book and they would say things like, "All your characters suck. They don’t have hearts." And I was like, "Well, yeah. Welcome to my world."

You worked at The Yale Record, the oldest university humor magazine, and did improv as well. Are you a funny person?

I am. I’m hilarious. It’s like one joke after another with this girl. No, I wrote and performed sketch comedy. It was really just me having a good time. That’s where I found my creativity in college, through this humorous route. The group I was in was called His Majesty and the Baby. 

 Is it true you started at The Exonian in the first week of your first fall term? 

Oh, yeah. I was there the first meeting. I went to every meeting basically my entire time at Exeter. I loved it.

I read the op-ed piece you wrote about eliminating the dickie. You made a strong argument.

That’s a very professional way to put it. You know what? I like to be a little provocative. There’s a little bit of rebellious spirit in the Exonian pieces I wrote, but obviously it was done respectfully. The book’s a little provocative too. I’m pushing the envelope. I also wrote a piece in The Exonian that was pro-leggings. My writing is entertainment; it gets people going. 

You wrote both "just-for-fun" and "think" pieces.

Exactly. I think a teacher came up to me after that leggings piece and said something like, "You know, you need to choose subjects worthy of your argumentative ability.” And I was like, “That’s a great point, but I’m a second-semester senior, so maybe next time."

Do you remember anything else about your instructors?

I really enjoyed Mr. [Nathaniel] Hawkins and Ms. [Patricia] Burke-Hickey. They stood out because they encouraged me to experiment. In Mr. Hawkins’ class upper spring, I wrote a prose piece that was filled with internal rhyme. I read it aloud to the class and I remember thinking, "What an amazing teacher that he’s encouraging his students to do something so unusual." Ms. Burke-Hickey was just very kind. 

Are you working on a second novel? 

Oh, that’s already done. It’s called Love Proof. It will be out next summer. It’s a love story, which I’m really excited about. Part of it takes place at Yale, but it’s much more focused on relationships than an insider-y view into anything. 

I understand Breathe In, Cash Out may get adapted into a TV series, a workplace comedy like "Sex and the City" in an investment bank. How did that opportunity come up?

This book is represented by William Morris Endeavor, the talent agency. They came to me a couple months ago and said, "Hey, this is going to L.A." That’s not my world. I didn’t grow up with any screenwriters. I didn’t grow up with people going into entertainment. Where I’m from, people are lawyers and doctors and business people. This is new. 

Are you writing the pilot? 

No, I’m not going to write the pilot. I don’t want to be a TV writer. But I wanted to be involved, so I’m writing the pitch. It’s all happening now. I’m also working on a third novel that I want to finish before Love Proof comes out, just to ride the momentum. 

You’re flying from coast to coast on your book tour. What’s your airplane reading? 

The last book I bought was Recursion, by Blake Crouch. It is a science fiction novel that got picked up by Netflix. It’s about false memory, so it’s kind of trippy if you want to get afraid before you get on a plane. I’m also reading Where Reasons End, by Yiyun Li. It is an imagined conversation between a mother and her son, who is now dead, so that’s pretty heavy. I write light things; this is off-brand. I can’t be caught with this. 

Do you worry about the book being successful?

For sure. But I think that if you just take your ego and you put it in a box and you leave it alone, then you’re fine. It’s like, so what? Does this failure or success affect what I actually do every day? No, I still get to write. Hello? That’s great.

— Jennifer Wagner

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.