Cristina Henriquez interview: The World in Half

Illustrious classmate Cristina Henriquez, author of Come Together, Fall Apart, has published her first novel, The World in Half, to rave reviews from readers and critics alike. We'll spare you the enviable blurbage and get straight to the interview. Cristina was kind enough to talk to us once again to us about the book and her writing process.

Can you give us some background on how the novel got started and how long you worked on it?

It started with a very vague idea to write something about the Panama Canal. It's probably the most salient association many people have with Panama, and I was interested in telling the story of it from a perspective that's underrepresented in most historical accounts of its construction -- that of the West Indian laborers who were brought in by the boatloads to do the dangerous and messy work of building the thing and of the Panamanians whose country it irrevocably changed and has consequently defined.

So I started down that path and had written about 300 pages when it was brought to my attention (by my editor) that perhaps there was a better way to tell the story. I was writing in third-person, with a huge cast of characters, and she thought that maybe one of those characters -- Mira -- should tell the story. As heartbroken as I was to have to throw out 300 pages of work, I suspected maybe my editor was right. I'd always had the feeling the something was off in the first version. So I told my editor I'd give it 50 pages and see if having Mira as the narrator felt any better. Of course, as soon as I shifted the point of view, the entire story changed. Some of the stuff about the canal is still in the book, but it became Mira's story, which soon enveloped me in its own way.

From that first failed start until the end, I was working on the book for
about four years.

How was writing a novel different from writing stories?

The main challenge for me was this idea that I could never see the novel as a whole. I couldn't wrap my head around something so large and unwieldy. With stories, I have a fairly strong handle on what it is by the time I finish a first draft, but that was never the case as I worked on the novel. I¹m always aiming for a finished piece that feels spherical, and I rely a lot on that sense of shape to tell me whether something is done and whether its successful. Because I never felt like I could see the whole of the novel all at once, I never felt like I could accurately ascertain the shape of it. I had to rely much more on outside readers to tell me whether it all made sense from beginning to end because I just lost sight of it at some point.

It's kind of hard to talk about your book without spoilers, but your protagonist goes to Panama looking for her father and finds something -- a few things -- other than what she was expecting. How did you decide what would happen -- I mean, did you know the whole time, or did the solution emerge somehow more or less on its own?

The solutions emerged as I wrote. Generally speaking, I'm a very practical writer. I don't subscribe to the idea of Writing As Mystical Experience. But at the risk of sounding hokey, I do often find that the story leads me more than I lead the story. Characters say things I didn't expect them to say, they change the course of the action, they respond to a question and something in their response suggests a whole character trait that then, as the author, I want to track down and come up with back story for and everything spins outward and outward. For me, that's how I HAVE to write. The less I know in advance, the better the writing, the more natural the plot. So I tried -- I always try -- to know as little as I could when I sat down each day. Or even when I thought I knew which direction I was headed, to be willing to deviate from the plan. That's more or less how I operated throughout. Naturally, because it was a novel, I had to work ahead a least a little bit, but for the first draft I tried just to follow the story for the most part and to deal with the sense-making/fine-tuning/does-everything-match-up stuff in revision.

The character of Danilo felt especially real to me. Did you make him up whole cloth, or is he based on someone you met, or did certain Panamanians or national characteristics coalesce into him, or...?

I saw a photo years and years ago of a boy whose expression had always intrigued me. I mean, I just saw it randomly on a website or something. But I saved it as inspiration for a character one day. So I think, physically at least, I had that boy in mind when I was writing Danilo. But otherwise, he's entirely invented.

Your father's family lives in Panama. How often do you visit and do you speak Spanish down there?

I visit every year on average. The last time I was there was in February. I speak Spanish when I have to (meaning, when I'm not near anyone who can translate for me) and I can make myself understood. But I'm SO self-conscious about my Spanish and so crippled by the expectation that I SHOULD be able to speak it, that I tend to withdraw and not practice it as much as I could while I'm there.

Your book strikes me as essentially about communication -- what it conveys, how the simple presence of information changes people, what is lost when it is blocked or hidden. This theme occurs both in the uncovered secret that ends up changing Mira's life, but also in the opposite way with her mother, whose Alzheimer's is systematically stripping her of information. Did you consciously set that up -- that Mira's mother, who hid information from Mira, would be herself "punished" by a disease that does the same thing to her?

I would love to say I set it up that way from the start. That would make me seem very clever. But no, it was more a case of having those two elements in the book and then seeing much later how they related to each other and deepened the themes of the book. I had a teacher once who said that the goal of writing was to bring the unconscious to consciousness. And that's exactly how it works much of the time. I'm just writing, writing, writing and I don't necessarily know on first glance why I'm throwing in the things I am. It's not until I step back and look at it that I can start to suss out the ways my unconscious was doing work for me -- in magical, amazing ways that my conscious mind probably never could -- and then I can start drawing all of that to the surface and making connections more explicit and shaping the narrative in response to what's already there.

You've said you looked at your Panamanian stories and your American stories and realized your Panamanian ones were better. Better in what way, and why do you think that was so?

I've been thinking and thinking about this question, and I'm still not sure about the answer. I think I just found that the stories set in Panama were truer in some way. To break that down even further, I think they were more personal. I was writing about something closer to my heart than than anything I had written before, and that showed. I also think that a lot of the "American" fiction I was writing was terribly derivative. I was trying to imitate the writers I loved -- George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Donald Barthelme -- even though each of them is of course inimitable. But when I started writing the Panama stories, that felt like untreaded terrain. Those stories were mine. I stopped imitating and just wrote.

You recently complete a book tour. How was it? Where did you go? Did you get a good reception? What's happening out there in the world of readers?

I started off in Little Rock at the Arkansas Literary Festival, where I met some great authors (including Kevin Brockmeier -- Iowa represent!) and had a lot of fun. Then I was off to Seattle for two readings, then to Austin, Houston, New York City, and finally I did a reading in Dallas. I love to tour because friends I haven't seen in ages come out and say hello, and also because it reminds me how many people out there are honestly interested in reading. People get very excited to have a book signed or to ask questions about characters they've fallen in love with, and that's so, so heartening to see.

Are you using social media to promote your work? What are you doing in that arena and how is it working for you?

I'm on Facebook (become my fan!) and Goodreads. Facebook in particular has been great for spreading the word. Book sales are largely generated by word-of-mouth, and buzz has the potential to spread quickly online. It seems to be very useful in getting people out to events, too, which is great. And, you know, beyond that it gives me an easy way to bug everybody from time to time about what I'm up to writing-wise or to remind them that they should buy my book for their entire family at Christmas.

How is Ryan? How is Sofia? How is Chicago?

Great, great, and finally warm -- hooray!

What's next? I've heard you're already working on another novel. Have you put short story writing on the back burner?

I am working on something that feels novel-ish, but it's so early that it's entirely possible it will fall apart. I've been working on stories, too. I've written two in the past few months and for me, there's just nothing like it. I adore short stories. I will never give them up entirely. But longer work seems to have wormed its way into my system as well.

See the previous Earth Goat interview with Cristina.

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