She's not yet thirty years old, but Cristina Henríquez has already: published two books of fiction (an award-winning collection of stories, Come Together, Fall Apart, and the just-released novel The World in Half); appeared in the country's most respected literary publications; and inspired so much praise from discerning critics* and devoted readers that you might expect her to be, well, just a little bit cocky. But when we met her at the Arkansas Literary Festival a couple of months ago, we found she is not only charming and energetic, but she is also hardworking and humble.
Born in Delaware, Henríquez spent her childhood summers in Panama with her father's extended family. Her intimate knowledge of that country, with its unique relationship to the U.S., informs most of her work.
Henríquez has lived in at least seven states and is now based in Chicago, where she lives with her husband and young daughter. Her first article in The Oxford American, an ode to the "Big Sam" statue near Houston, appeared in our 2006 Best of the South Issue. She will also appear in our forthcoming Southern Lit/Writing on Writing Issue.
We wanted to find out more about this intriguing writer, so we asked her.
* The New York Times says that Henríquez's prose is "fluoridated with traces of John Updike and Ann Beattie." The legendary novelist Isabel Allende describes Henriquez's stories as "truly unforgettable." The Chicago Sun-Times praises Henríquez's subtle use of hope in lieu of all-too-tidy conclusion.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: Why do you write?
CRISTINA HENRIQUEZ: Honestly, I have no idea. Why does anyone do anything? Because he or she is drawn to it through a combination of genetic disposition and environment. I just like it. I like stringing words together on a page—a surface that's flat, a tool that's ordinary—to create something that's full and alive and that tells us about ourselves. I'm fascinated by the idea that we share this language, we use it every day, and yet how a writer orders the words on the page and how he or she chooses those particular words can so drastically make meaning and change meaning.
THE OA: Does reading great writing by others inspire or deject you?
CH: Mostly it inspires me. Occasionally, it pummels me with the idea that plagues every writer I know from time to time: I will never be able to write like that. But mostly it provides inspiration.
THE OA: The all-knowing Wikipedia says that "all writers are superstitious." What is your pet superstition?
CH: I have a few. I can't sleep when a closet door is open. I refuse to listen to the flight attendants when they do their safety demonstration because somehow I believe that by listening, I'm jinxing the flight. If I don't get any e-mail the first time I check in the morning, I think it means I'll have a bad day. I'm sure there are others, but those are the first few that come to mind.
THE OA: What's the best advice you've gotten from a fellow writer?
CH: This was from Elizabeth McCracken, during a workshop she led at Iowa. It was the first day of class, and she told us not to worry about writing objectionable stories. She said there was nothing worse than an un-objectionable story. I think about that all the time.
THE OA: What is the strangest comment you've received from a reader?
CH: Someone e-mailed me once to tell me that he'd liked a story of mine, but he started his e-mail by saying that he didn't usually read women writers. I thought that was so unbelievable, to have cast aside a whole set of writers, just like that.
THE OA: You have a piece about rejection coming out in our next issue. It makes fun of editors, which we think is really uncool. In any case, has rejection hurt or helped you as a writer?
CH: Ha! Well, it kills when it happens. It feels like someone socked you in the gut. But in the long-term, it's helped. It's made me tougher. And it's reinforced as simple fact the idea that the writing business is subjective. It's much better to be able to think of that as an unavoidable fact than as something personal. Not to mention that I'm often learning from the rejections. When you have an editor kind enough to give you feedback, and if you can get over yourself long enough to listen to it, you can learn a lot about how to make your work better.
THE OA: Even the greatest writers must endure a period of writing juvenilia. What happened to cause you to grow beyond the "struggling-young-writer" stage and find your own voice?
CH: I think what happened was I found my material. I found Panama. I had been writing stories set in the United States, and they all sounded like terrible rip-offs of the writers I was reading and admired: George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Jason Brown, Aimee Bender. Then I read a story by Sandra Cisneros and I realized that there was a whole side of myself that was untapped. I hadn't written about Panama because I wasn't sure I had the authority to. I was only half-Panamanian, after all, and I had never lived there. But reading her work made me at least want to attempt it. And when I did, it just felt so different. It was like making this giant leap. I had never read a single other story set in Panama. For me, it was uncharted literary territory in the way that the United States wasn't. There was so much freedom in that.
THE OA: You published a collection of stories (Come Together, Fall Apart) before your first novel (The World in Half). How did you have to adjust your writing process to move from the short-story form to the novel?
CH: In terms of process, the biggest change I had to make was to learn to outline. When I write short stories, I don't think much about the plot until I get to a second draft. But I couldn't imagine writing two-hundred-plus plotless pages and then raking back through the thing to find the threads of a plot. So I had to plan ahead much more than I was used to. And what is an outline anyway? How detailed should it be? What worked for me was essentially making a list of scenes that I knew needed to happen. I laid them out on a very loose timeline, with many, many gaps in between. But that was all I needed to keep myself on track. I always had at least a vague sense of where I was headed, even if I didn't know exactly how I was going to get there.
THE OA: You've written some lively and insightful nonfiction as well, notably the "Texas" entry in the anthology State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. (And, of course, an ode to the famous Texas statue "Big Sam" in The Oxford American!) Are you interested in pursuing more nonfiction projects? For you, how does creating fiction differ from creating nonfiction?
CH: I enjoy nonfiction once in a while, but it isn't what I naturally gravitate toward. My impulse is always to make things up, so it's hard for me sometimes to rein that in and stick to the facts with nonfiction. Writing fiction is a challenge in other ways, though. I had a teacher once who described writing fiction as creating a puzzle and putting the pieces of it together all at the same time. That's often what it feels like. It can be dizzying, whereas writing nonfiction feels to me more straightforward. But for me, fiction is also so much more exhilarating.
THE OA: What did you learn from writing your first novel—about the writing process, editing, publication, etc.? As a result of what you learned, are there things that you will do differently next time?
CH: You know, the one thing I keep saying I'll do differently is that I will try to avoid writing under contract for as long as I can. I have a great publisher. They were fantastic about not giving me a deadline with the novel, and they gave me all the space and time and support I needed to write. But I'm working on something new now, and from the beginning, I've felt very strongly that it was somehow essential to my creativity that I keep this project mine—and mine alone—for as long as I can manage.
THE OA: Your novel is tightly focused and structured: A young woman goes in search of her father, a journey that lasts approximately three weeks. Could you talk about the process of writing the first draft (I think you said your editor rejected it?) and revising/writing the second?
CH: Ah, the infamous rejection. Yes, I wrote about three hundred pages of material, a full first draft, and then I showed it to my editor and she very tactfully suggested that I start over. Essentially, she thought that the story should have been told from the perspective of one of the characters in the first draft, Mira, who eventually became the narrator of The World in Half. It was a heartbreaking moment, to think that I had to throw out three hundred pages of work. But I told my editor that I would give it a shot, at least, because I think deep down I knew, as she did, that the first draft wasn't quite working. So I changed the point of view and started over. The second draft came fairly quickly in comparison to the first and that alone, I think, was evidence that I had made the right decision. When I finished the second draft, there was still some rearranging (for example, the first page of the book was originally the first page of Chapter 5), and there was the late addition of a new character, but mostly I had found my story.
THE OA: Miraflores, the main character in The World in Half, is an avid student of geophysics. Do you have a scientific background? If not, why did you choose this as her passion, and what did you learn from weaving it into the story?
CH: I took an Earth Sciences class in high school that I loved and still frequently think about for some reason, even though I have absolutely no aptitude for any of the sciences. I knew early on that I wanted to give Mira at least a few traits that kept her from being too similar to me, so I gave her a facility with geophysics. I bought a geology textbook from eBay and read it cover to cover. It was so much fun stumbling upon geological phenomena that I could use to metaphorical effect. It made me view the world differently as I walked through it, too. I became much more conscious of the earth as a living thing.
THE OA: Geography is a central theme in your novel. Could you talk about the concept, expressed by Mira, that "geography is an illusion"?
CH: Mira makes this contention during a scene where she's trying to convince her companion that geography is little more than lines on a map, and that the lines are more or less arbitrary. She says that "the land doesn't belong to anyone. It only belongs to itself." In other words, the whole concept is just for the benefit of humans to make sense and order out of something that's constantly changing.
THE OA: As you mentioned, the earth itself, the ground and the layers beneath it, is a "living thing" in the novel. Here is one of many vivid observations in which you juxtapose man and nature:
"Humans forget everything eventually. Memories march out. They march away. But the universe keeps it all—in a rock, in the ocean floor, in the inner reaches of a mountain, in the fault lines in the crust—millions of years packed into the dirt."
For you, is writing a way to preserve and remember human experience?
CH: I don't consciously think of writing that way. I mean, it *is* a distillation of human experience, but when I'm sitting in front of my computer, it's solely about telling a story and inventing interesting, complex characters and putting them in interesting, complex situations and seeing what happens. I have a very narrow view when I'm working. And when I step back from that, when I consider what the goal of writing is for me generally, which is really the question, it's to say something meaningful not only about human experience but about the world, to give my impressions of this huge, tangled, beautiful place we live in, and to do so in a way that's artful and original.
THE OA: Mira struggles with her identity and at one point says that she doesn't know where her "home" is. Her Panamanian friend, Danilo, says home "is where you feel most like you belong." Where is "home" for you?
CH: This is the second time in my life I've been asked this question and I don't think I'm any closer to being able to answer it now than the first time. I've lived in Delaware, Florida, Virginia, Indiana, Iowa, Texas, and Illinois. I've spent extended portions of my life in Panama. And yet, where is home? Is it where I live now? But I've only been here for three years. It doesn't feel any more like home than any place I've been. Is it where I primarily grew up and where my parents still live? But when I go back there, I hardly recognize it anymore. The best I can do is to say that home for me is with my family—my husband and my daughter. When I'm with them, I feel at home.
THE OA TEN: Questions we ask of every interviewee. Wee!
1. What is your earliest memory?
CH: A lizard crawling up my wall in the middle of the night when I lived in Miami. It was probably a gecko, but at the time I could have sworn it was as big as a dinosaur. For months afterward, I was convinced it was living under my bed.
2. What would you like to change about yourself?
CH: I wish I were more fearless. And funnier.
3. What are you still trying to accomplish in your professional career?
CH: I'm still trying to write *better.* I feel like I have something bigger inside of me without the words to say it yet. In a more practical vein, I'm still trying to get my books translated into Spanish.
4. What is your hidden talent?
CH: I can walk on my hands.
5. What subject causes you to rant?
CH: Any multi-leg combination of transportation. Having to take a train to a bus to a taxi will work me up for days in advance.
6. What is the biggest mistake you ever made in your professional life?
CH: Writing what I thought other people wanted to read, instead of writing what I wanted to write.
7. What is one thing that you used to dislike but that you now like?
8. If you could champion one profoundly underrated book, album, or movie, what would it be?
CH: There's a book I've always loved and have found really useful for writing, but I know hardly anyone else who owns it. The book is Gig (edited by John Bowe et al), and it's a compilation of short nonfiction pieces about various jobs, told from the perspective of the people who work them. It covers everything from a Walmart greeter to a carnival worker to a surgeon. Sort of an update of Studs Terkel's classic Working.
9. What is your favorite line from a song?
CH: This seems unfair. It's impossible to choose! I'm going to go with the first one I thought of when I read this question, which is a line from the Frente! song "Oh Brilliance": "Yesterday I noticed I love you."
10. What was your favorite childhood toy?