Today I'm interviewing quite a talented young lady (she's young because she's my age). Cristina Henríquez is the author of the novel The World In Half and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection. Her work has been published in The New Yorker and The Atlantic along with the anthologies This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America's Best Women Writers, State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America and Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Women Writers Reflect on the Candidate and What Her Campaign Meant. She is a recipient of the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant started by Sandra Cisneros in honor of her father.
What specifically did you get out of Iowa Writers Workshop that you didn't learn anywhere else?
First, I got validation. Until I went to Iowa, I knew that I liked writing, that I wasn't terrible at it, and that the idea of being a writer one day sounded appealing. But I didn't really know how realistic it was as a career goal. And I didn't really know whether I was being delusional about my abilities. The day I got the call that I'd been accepted there (the first graduate school I heard back from), it made me feel like there might actually be potential for me. I also learned the discipline it takes to be a writer. Iowa is unique in that students' only real academic responsibility is workshop. So you have oodles and oodles of time - more so than in most graduate programs - outside of the classroom, and it's up to you to decide how to spend that time. It forced me to make my own schedule and figure out what worked for me. It sort of cemented my work habits, and that was a very useful thing. Lastly, I learned craft.
There's all this talk - writing can't be taught, MFA programs are evil, etc. - and I can only speak for myself, but I learned so much at Iowa about how to write, how to tell a story, how to develop a character, all of that, and from many different perspectives and teachers with varying sensibilities. I have all my notebooks from my two years at Iowa and I still open them every once in a while to find something that Chris Offutt said about dialogue or something that Sam Chang said about structure or that Marilynne Robinson said about subordinate clauses. I could not have gotten that specific knowledge anywhere else.
In terms of revisions and rounds with the editors, which was harder to publish in the New Yorker, fiction or nonfiction?
Fiction, definitely. Partly because the fiction I've published there is much longer than the nonfiction. But no matter the length, I will say that the editing process - including fact-checking (yes, even for fiction) - is the most rigorous I've ever been through. I've had many memorable discussions with editors there about one word (a particular chlorine vs.
ammonia debate went on for days) or one punctuation mark. That might sound obsessive, but it's simply that the editorial staff takes enormous pride in their work and in the magazine generally and in the idea of only letting into the world a very high quality product. Which, to me, is both refreshing and thrilling. It's also extremely educational.
As an artist, what do you get out of living in Chicago?
I like living somewhere that has a strong literary history and a burgeoning literary community, but that's pretty laid-back about it. I like participating when I want to, and being able to bury my head and get some distance from it when I want to, too. Chicago accommodates both of those urges perfectly.
What's your writing schedule?
These days I write Monday afternoon, Tuesday morning, and Thursday morning. 2 hours each. Occasionally I work on Sunday morning, too. Basically, whenever I can get a babysitter.
Do you feel any sense of added pressure to continue a certain amount of standard of work when critics can't help but note your young age in addition to your talent?
No. I put plenty of pressure on myself already to do work that I'm happy with. I try very hard not to let anyone add to that. Besides, I love it when people say I'm young because increasingly (and especially now that I have a child), I don't feel like I am.
Do you get a lot of people asking you for free writing advice or "how to publish a book"? What do you tell them?
When I do a reading, there's usually an aspiring writer or two in the audience who asks me some variation on that question. I have two essential pieces of writing advice. The first is: Read. A lot. The second is: The more you worry about being published, the less likely you are to be published. Meaning that getting something published shouldn't be your immediate goal as you're writing. Your goal should be to write the best thing you're capable of. That is it. If you do that, publication won't be far.
I'm curious about how you make your outlines for writing. How long does it take to put one together? Where do you do it, and (seriously) do you use outline form?
I don't outline short stories. The less I know about what's going to happen, the better the story usually turns out. But novels are a different monster. Basically, I write for about 50 pages with only the vaguest idea of what I'm doing. Then I step back and look at it, sort of brainstorm about all the different directions the plot could take, settle on one that makes sense and then start jotting down one-liners of scenes that would need to occur to fulfill it. I open an Excel file, where I list a timeline down the left. I break it up into segments dispersed over the timeframe of that particular book.
So for The World in Half, which took place over the course of about a month or so, I broke it up by days. One cell for each day of the week. Next to the day, I insert my one-liner of a scene that will take place on that day.
Sometimes, there are a few scenes in one day. Sometimes none. But that way, by the time I'm finished, I can see the basic ebb and flow of the novel from beginning to end. Of course, as I keep writing, the scenes change or get rearranged. The plot changes direction and I have to redo the outline from that point on. Nothing's set in stone. But it's my loose map as I move forward.
Like you, my editor basically asked me to do a whole rewrite before she could seriously consider my book. Did you at any time just consider scrapping the whole thing?
No. I had 400 pages of a book that I had never been sure in my gut was working. I kept thinking, maybe I'm just being paranoid. Maybe it's fine. But when my editor read it, she validated what I had suspected all along, which is that it needed help. When she said she thought I needed to start over, of course it was total heartbreak. I was in tears about it for a while.
But I also knew she was right. So it wasn't so much the trauma of rejection that got to me as the terrifying thought of having to start over. From scratch. Page 1. But that's part of being a writer. Write 400 pages, realize it won't fly, start over. I might have thought, How will I do this? But I never thought, I won't do this. Almost immediately, I went into problem-solving mode. Okay, then. If I need to start over, what's the new story going to be? How will I tell it? The usual questions. I told my editor I would write 50 pages, and if it felt better to me by then than version 1, I would forge ahead. If not, I would start over again. And again, until I got it. I don't know. I think I just understood that all that sort of stuff - throwing out work, rejection, etc. - is part of the game. You have to understand that if you're going to survive.
What do you do when you're supposed to be writing and just aren't into it?
Research, if I'm still attempting to work in some capacity. Or else I just look at Twitter and Facebook and all the other various and sundry things on the Internet. And if I can't even stand to be around my computer anymore, I clean the house.
How were you selected to contribute to the anthology of essays about Hillary Clinton? Would you write anything different about her today?
The editor of that book was Susan Morrison, who works at the New Yorker, and because I'd been published there, my name somehow got on her radar, and she emailed me to ask if I'd like to contribute. The essay I wrote was about identity because I had started noticing right around then that Hillary was going by Hillary Clinton, as opposed to her former Hillary Rodham Clinton and before that, Hillary Rodham. I wondered what was behind the change. It's still an interesting topic to me insofar as I'm always fascinated by names and naming protocol and identity issues. But it's funny that you should ask if I would write anything different about her today, because almost immediately after the book came out, it occurred to me that I should have written something else altogether. I think it was because I heard a few of the other contributors to the book interviewed on NPR, and there seemed to be an assumption among them or by the interviewer (I can't remember now exactly who said what) that women would back Hillary simply because she was a woman. Which seemed absurd to me. But to many women it was reason enough to vote for her and to want her in the White House. I think there was something generational in that divide, and as one of the younger contributors to the book, I wished I had explored that divide, those assumptions, etc. in an essay.
You contributed to "This Is Not Chick Lit": what chick lit have you read and enjoyed (either guiltily or not?)
I think the foundation of my entire literary career was built on the Sweet Valley High books I read as a girl. I read them cover to cover, again and again. But as an adult, strangely, I haven't read much that would be considered Chick Lit. Maybe that means I should branch out more, or maybe it simply means I know what I like.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a new novel that I'm very excited about, but that is all I will say.
What do you enjoy when you go for lowbrow entertainment?
TV, TV, TV. I'm a pretty big General Hospital fanatic, and I'll watch almost anything on Bravo or HGTV. I turn to MTV, too, on occasion, although I've gotten old enough now that often it causes me to shake my head in dismay and say things like, "What is this world coming to!"
How does it feel to be the 243rd person interviewed for Zulkey.com?
I can't even explain the feeling. Maybe this is what it would be like to win the Pulitzer. Or no, the Nobel Prize. Honestly, it feels incredible. I'm over the moon!