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Exclusive: Cristina Henriquez Talks About her Debut Novel, The World in Half

Chicago-based writer Cristina Henriquez is the author of Come Together, Fall Apart, a well-received collection of short stories; her first novel, The World in Half, hit shelves earlier this month. After ripping through this tale about a young woman who goes to Panama in search of her father, we hopped on the phone with Henriquez to talk about what it was like swapping formats, why she always writes about Panama, and how becoming a mom has changed her work.

Flavorwire: Did you sell your short-story collection and the novel as a package? Or had you been working on this for a long time?

Cristina Henriquez: We sold the short-story collection with an option on the novel, which basically meant that, hopefully, I would get to stay with the same publisher. I sort of had a vague idea for a novel at the time, but I was much more focused on short stories then. It was about four years that I was working on the novel.

FW: Do you have preference? I know you’re working on another novel now, but does one form come more naturally to you?

CH: I think I feel more naturally comfortable writing short stories. There’s something about that concision that I just really like. That’s impossible to keep up throughout a novel. That’s something I learned. It would be so exhausting for the reader. It just wouldn’t be a pleasurable experience. So, that was out of my comfort zone, to loosen up and just try to be more expansive. But now that I’ve written one, and as you say, I’m working on another one, somehow it has kind of gotten into my system.

FW: What do you think of all this burbling about a short-story renaissance?

CH: Well for me, they’ve never gone away! All my friends are people who like short stories. But I know A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times talked about the greatness and brevity of the form. It seems like every once and a while those articles happen. I would guess that probably if you looked at sales figures, it’s pretty steady. It’s not like it has ever gone radically down or drastically up.

FW: It’s like trenchcoats in fashion.

CH: Right. Like, did they ever really leave?

FW: Can you speak a little about your connection with Panama? How has that informed you as a writer?

CH: Well, I’m half Panamanian. I was born in the United States, but I’ve been to Panama a lot. My dad’s family still lives there, although both of my grandparents are gone now and the generations are getting older. Things are changing. When I started writing in graduate school, I was writing a lot of stories that were set in the United States. And then a few stories that were set in Panama. Those weren’t the ones I showed anybody. They were just sort of for myself. But gradually, over time, I started looking at the difference between the stories, and it turned out that the Panama ones were just much better. So I took the ball and ran with it. There was something about it that was making the language of my stories work better. The characters were more real.

FW: That’s really weird. Cool, but weird.

CH: I think part of it is the distance that I have from Panama. This is my theory that I’ve worked out over the years. In the US, my experiences are just my life. They’re just normal. I don’t have heightened awareness of anything that I do just day-to-day. My experiences in Panama are just two weeks out of the year. So I have this distance, and there’s enough space between me and Panama to allow my imagination to wander. I think that fiction comes to me more naturally when I’m writing about a place like that — one that’s farther away but I’m still connected to.

FW: Your protagonist, Mira, was originally only in the final third of the book. What made you trust her enough to carry the entire story in the published version?

CH: I didn’t trust her at first. The first version wasn’t working exactly, so I needed to figure out a new direction. I really liked her as a character, and she was the most contemporary of the characters, so I thought, well, why don’t I just try writing from her point of view and see what happens. It took me a while to get her fully. I was drawing pictures of her and asking myself what she would wear. I was trying to figure her out for a while. For some reason I felt like she was the right voice. I think it was hard to get her because she was a little too close to me for comfort. So I was sort of scared to go there. Once I did, and gave her a few traits that were nothing like me, it was fine. I was able to write her.

FW: Giving her mother Alzheimer’s was an interesting move. Was that a way to prevent us from judging her?

CH: I tried not to. I tried to make her complicated enough and let any judgment come through Mira. I think Mira has a lot of trouble forgiving her at times, and that’s honest and real. I just wanted her to have some kind of illness. So Mira would travel to Panama on behalf of her mother to find her father, for her mother’s sake. That kind of gets buried in the version that’s being published. In the current version, Mira goes more for herself and then has the realization that maybe it was also for her mother. Alzheimer’s just worked nicely for memory and all sorts of themes. But I don’t know anybody in my own life with the disease, so it was a bit of a stretch for me. I had to do a lot research, and I ended up talking with a woman who has earlier onset Alzheimer’s. I tried to get all the details right. You take on something like that and you feel a responsibility to people who are suffering through it and their caregivers to get those details right. Hopefully I did.

FW: A large chunk of the Amazon.com reviews for your book mention the fact that people read it in one sitting.

CH: I know, right? It took four years to write it, and a few hours for them to read! It’s not fair!

FW: When’s the last time you did that with a book?

CH: Well I just read Katherine Taylor’s novel Rules for Saying Goodbye. It came out a few years ago, so I’m behind the times I guess. But I could not put it down. I just wanted to eat it up. I have a two-year-old, so I don’t read anything very fast, but I read that one in three or four days, which for me now is like a record.

FW: Now that you are a mother, does it change the way you’d write about motherhood?

CH: Maybe. I don’t know. Everyone keeps telling me it’s going to make my work more profound. I’m waiting for that to happen. It hasn’t happened yet, I don’t think. No, mostly it has just changed the time I have to write. But, I’m sure it will, in ways I can’t quite acknowledge. Like, it’s hard for me to watch the news now or hear about kids being mistreated. It pains me now in a way that it never had before. So I’m sure that there are things that are going into my writing; it’s just hard to identify them in an overt way.

Click here for a list of Henriquez’s upcoming readings.