Violeta Garcia-Mendoza: I’m guessing that you, like me, get asked from time to time, “What are you?/Where are your parents from?” by people who are trying to put together your face with your name. How do you identify yourself?
Cristina Henriquez: I usually say, “I’m half-Panamanian. My father’s from Panama, and my mother’s from New Jersey.” For some reason, the New Jersey part always elicits a chuckle.
VGM: When did you first want to become a writer? When did you first describe yourself as a writer out loud?
CH: When I was very young, I remember writing poems about animals and astronauts and fantasizing about having them published in Highlights Magazine. So I guess you could say that was the first urge. It wasn’t until high school, though, that I fell in love with writing in any real way. A boy I liked had given me a blank journal and told me to write down in it everything I wanted to say to him for a year, mainly as a way to keep me from professing my feelings for him aloud (which I was fond of doing). Writing in that journal every day was a revelation. I was thrilled to learn that I could write anything — anything! — with no fear of consequence, which was quite a different experience from writing things for school all the time. I was writing, first, to impress him, and the longer it went on, to impress myself. Oh, it was all so angsty, but there was something alive about it, too. Around the same time, I became pretty nerdy about writers — staying home on weekend nights to read obscure Dylan Thomas plays, Dora Carrington letters, and James Joyce stories. I became enamored with the idea of actually being one of them, one of a league of writers.
I didn’t describe myself as a writer out loud until after my first book was published, and even then I did so cautiously. I think I felt l needed to prove my legitimacy before I could claim the title. But looking back, I think that was overly precious. You’re a writer if you write. The end.
VGM: You started off writing short stories and publishing the collection in Come Together, Fall Apart. What do you think are the advantages of the short story — both in terms of writing practice and as its own literary form?
CH: In terms of writing practice, it’s very workable. For the writer, it’s not quite as intimidating to write 12 or even 20 pages of material as it is to consider writing a novel-length 200 pages or so. The same is true for that writer’s readers, of course — 20 pages is digestible for a reader, whereas 200 isn’t always. Plus, the 20 pages has the advantage of containing the beginning, middle, and end, so it’s easier to give meaningful feedback. If you criticize 20 pages of a novel, the writer can always say, “Oh, that’s going to be addressed later, in a portion you haven’t seen yet,” or whatever.
One of the reasons I’ve always liked short stories is because of how tight they can be, which is different from a comment on length. I’m enraptured by the idea that every word counts, that nothing is misplaced, that everything serves a purpose. And what’s more, a short story can support that sort of pressure. If a writer were to pen something as long as a novel with that kind of hand-cranked fine tuning, it would be tremendously exhausting to read. A novel has to have an ebb and flow, but a short story can exist at a fever pitch for the duration. I like that sustained intensity of energy.
VGM: The main character of your novel, The World in Half, is Mira/Miraflores -the American-raised daughter of an American mother and an absent Panamanian father. In your novel, she narrates, “Spanish was just something my mother had fallen in love with, the way other parents are in love with music or baseball or books. She wanted to share it with me the way people want to share things that mean something to them with those they care about. And she wanted to give me a connection to some part of my background. She wanted to hold open a doorway to myself.” You grew up and were educated in the US, but your writing focuses on Panama. Do you see that as a way to “hold open a doorway” to that part of yourself?
CH: Definitely. Writing about Panama has allowed me to learn about my family and about part of my heritage that, growing up, was never really a focus. I mean, my family and I went to Panama almost every year, but no one ever made a point of, as Mira says in the novel, my “cultural connections of disconnections.” Writing about it now feels like a way to claim that part of myself.
VGM: You write about Panama: “It feels like I went really far away, but it also sort of doesn’t. I mean, there are all these familiar places, like Wendy’s and McDonald’s and Costco, overlaid on this completely unfamiliar landscape. There are plants running wild everywhere.” This is one of the qualities that mesmerized me when I traveled to Central America, too. What else mesmerizes you about Panama?
CH: What doesn’t mesmerize me about it? The ridiculous traffic, the stewy scent of garlic in the morning, the optimism evident in all of the construction everywhere, the heat, how incessantly noisy it is. I mean, dogs barking all the time, how people leave their front doors open but have bars on their windows, the parties on the patio, the bureaucracy (which I just accidentally typed as “bureaucrazy,” which might be more accurate), everything. Even the size of Panama City is impressive. People outside of Latin America seem to have this impression that it’s a small place, but whenever I fly in and see the city below me and whenever I’m on the ground actually traveling through it, it always strikes me how big it is.
VGM: Your description of place, your setting, finds the perfect balance between an outsider’s and an insider’s point of view. When you come to a new place, how do you start to experience it, take it in, and process it before you put it into your writing?
CH: As naturally as possible. For years — for most of my life — I was visiting Panama without any idea that I would write about it one day. As soon as I went there and consciously tried to mine it for my fiction, as soon as I found myself riding around in the car with a notebook in my hand, jotting down impressions, the well dried up. So I’ve learned now just to relax and trust my subconscious. Whatever’s meaningful and interesting will stick; whatever doesn’t stick wasn’t something I was meant to use in the first place.
VGM: Two major themes in your novel are the search for origin (not only in terms of ethnicity or nationality, but also in terms of parentage) and the value of memories, and of the act and ability to make memories and to remember. Mira wants to understand the mystery of her father, and his legacy to her, and claim experiences and memories in Panama; his influence on her journey is more obvious. But Mira’s mother Catherine’s importance to these themes, and to the plot, sneaks up perfectly on the reader. Did you realize when you started working on the novel how big a piece Catherine’s early and quickly-progressing Alzheimer’s and her back-story would end up?
CH: Not at all. When I started, all I knew was that Catherine had some illness, and that that illness would precipitate Mira’s journey to Panama. Once I got about 50 pages in and stepped back, I saw what a large role memory could potentially play in the book, so Alzheimer’s was the natural choice. Of course, that also meant that then I had to do months worth of research about Alzheimer’s, a disease I have no first-hand knowledge of, but I think it was the right decision.
VGM: In your novel, you include letters in a way I found fascinating. The book begins with Mira finding and reading all of her father’s letters to her mother all at once and ends with her reading all her mother’s letters to him in the same way. Your reader experiences the rise and fall of their love story in a condensed, but cryptic way. Can you talk a bit about your decision to include their relationship in letters, and to handle it this way?
CH: First I should confess that I have always had a soft spot for love letters. In high school I had a book of them by writers like Victor Hugo and Goethe and Proust and the Fitzgeralds (Zelda’s were my favorite) that I read over and over and over and over and over. I’ve been known in my own life to write letters obsessively to a person I have feelings for. I even remember doing an admissions interview for an Ivy League school and the interviewer saying, “So, you like to write? What do you write?” My answer: “Letters.” I didn’t get into that school. But given all of that, I don’t think it’s surprising that letters snuck their way into my fiction as well. From a logistical standpoint, it’s a convenient way to get other characters’ voices into the narrative, especially when you’re using first person. I think I just wanted both Gatun and Catherine to be heard. They both exist somewhat off-stage (Gatun more so than Catherine) yet their story is absolutely central to the entire book. It seemed important to let them tell it, at least in some way.
VGM: Why did you choose to tell The World in Half from Mira’s point of view? What is your favorite thing about the first-person point of view?
CH: Initially, I wrote the book from a third-person omniscient narrator. The reader went inside the heads of Gatun, Catherine, Mira, and a host of other characters who eventually got dropped. It had a big, sweeping feel that I adored, and yet it wasn’t working. Something about it was just off. My editor is actually the one who suggested I approach the book from Mira’s point-of-view. (My editor, I should say, has an uncanny knack for pinpointing any problem in my work and helping me figure out the right solution. She is absolutely the best at what she does.)
As for my favorite thing about first person . . . I’m not sure. I’ve used it a lot in my fiction because it’s always been very easy for me to hear voices in my head (not necessarily the sort of thing you want to admit), although I do find myself gravitating more toward third person these days. For me, that’s always been where the challenge lies. I’m only recently feeling up to tackling it.
VGM: I can’t think of one of your stories or your novel (in which the relationship between Mira and Danilo is so definitely charged) that has a typical love story, yet they all contain definite love and undeniable moments of intimacy. It makes me think of the lines in your novel “Humans try to be like the continents. We stumble and crisscross and stagger all over the world in an effort to find our way back to one another. It seems to be the main business of life sometimes: our disordered attempt to bump into other people. Straining, straining, just to touch.” What case do you make for the atypical love story?
CH: I just abhor cliche. I think that’s the bottom line. I always think of something Elizabeth McCracken (the queen of atypical love stories!) said once in workshop. It was so simple. But a classmate had written about Character A who was visiting Character B in the hospital. Character B was in the hospital bed, under a blanket, and Character A went into the room and squeezed Character B’s foot. Elizabeth said (I’m paraphrasing), “How much more intimate to have her squeeze his foot than to kiss him on the cheek or something, which would have been expected.” It was true. Truth and Beauty are in the atypical.
VGM: There’s a scene in your novel in which Mira visits the Panama Canal, specifically the structure after which she was named. I could so relate to where you write, “For a girl who was never able to find a key chain with her name on it, or a personalized pencil, or a hat with her name stitched in above the bill, it’s a shock . . . My name is familiar here.” In your novel, as well as in your short stories, your names are so apt. Can you talk a bit about the process of finding the right names for your characters?
CH: Character names usually come to me fairly easily. I keep an ongoing list of names I like. Whenever I encounter a name that strikes me, I add it to the list. That’s usually the first place I look when I’m naming a character. The only time I have a lot of trouble naming characters is when I’m having trouble understanding the character in a more general sense, and then I know I have bigger problems than the right name.
VGM: Was it easier to name your characters or your daughter?
CH: It’s easier to name my characters.
VGM: Where were you in your writing career when you became a mother?
CH: I had published my short story collection and finished one draft of my novel by the time my daughter was born. I worked really hard to get a full draft of my novel completed by the time she arrived because I knew my writing time would never look the same afterward.
VGM: What does your writing routine look like? How has it adapted to motherhood?
CH: These days, I write Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and occasionally on weekend mornings. I would love to be writing every day, which is what I had done pre-motherhood, but that’s just not a sustainable reality right now. Fortunately, I have an exceedingly supportive husband who has basically said, “Look, your job is just as important as mine,” and has encouraged me to hire a babysitter to watch our daughter so that I can have sufficient writing time. Right now, I’m making it work with two or three mornings a week.
VGM: What’s the first piece of your own writing you hope your daughter will read as an adult? Why?
CH: I’ve never thought about this before. It frightens me to think of my daughter reading anything of mine. Not because I feel she shouldn’t or because there’s anything particularly objectionable in my work, but because it represents a different side of me than just being her mom. And that seems odd. You know, that idea of getting to a point in your life when you finally see your mother as a flesh-and-blood person, with faults and limitations, instead of as your all-mythical, all-powerful Mother. For now, and for a long time, I just want to be her mother.
VGM: What books from your childhood do you look forward to sharing with her?
CH: She already reads more than I think I ever did. We cannot tear the girl away from her books. But as she gets a little older, I think it will be fun to see her read the Nancy Drew books, which I loved. I can’t wait until I have to help her with book reports — Johnny Tremain, Where the Red Fern Grows,Tuck Everlasting.
VGM: Who are your favorite writers who are also mothers?
VGM: You’ve had such success — you did your MFA at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, won the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, and have had your writing published in some of the country’s top litmags — at a relatively young age. Of course, readers often only end up knowing about the successes, not about what doesn’t work. So, amongst all your achievements, what have you found the most daunting challenge as a writer?
CH: One of the hardest things for me to learn has been how to stay focused. There are so many potential distractions out there — you check your email a hundred times a day; you look up books on Amazon; you read the table of contents of the literary magazine that was just delivered to your door and feel a pang of envy that your name is not there, too; you watch bad television; you twitter; you facebook; you refill a sippy cup. It’s endless. And yet writing has to fit into the equation somewhere, too. I say “has to” because if I write, I’m in a good mood; if I don’t write, I’m in a crappy mood. Simple as that. So I’ve had to learn — I’m still learning — how to turn my back on the rest of the world, crawl inside my cave, and just do the work. Stop talking about it, stop dancing around it. Just do the work.
VGM: How do you recharge after rejections or a tough day of writing?
CH: I usually mope around for a while until my husband says, “What? Bad writing day?” And then I tell him about it, which makes me feel better. Otherwise, I forget it and go to bed. Tomorrow’s another day. Rejection and failure are just part of the game, but they’re nothing to get hung up about. You just have to move forward and tell yourself that before long you’ll write something that will knock everyone’s socks off.
VGM: What’s the writing advice you call upon most frequently?
CH: Probably this gem from the late and very, very great Frank Conroy: Have faith in the process, not the project.
VGM: What are you working on now?
CH: Much to my own surprise, I’m working on a new novel, but I’m keeping my lips zipped on what it’s about. I’ve simultaneously been working on stories, too, and to me, there’s still nothing like the satisfaction of finishing a really strong story, or at least one that you believe in.