An Interview with Sharon Harrigan

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

When I met Sharon Harrigan, we were both studying for our MFA degrees at Pacific University. We seemed so different. She’s quiet, I’m loud. I was writing about the South, her characters were northerners, mostly. I think a casual observer would have thought I was the risk taker, but it was Sharon who was trying strange and wonderful things on the page, pushing boundaries, making my jaw drop at our readings. I’d never read anything like what Sharon was writing, and it was a fantastic feeling. We’ve acted as each other’s writing touchstone ever since, emailing nearly every day about our writing lives, our personal lives—and she has never stopped surprising me.

It turns out that we write about a lot of the same issues, but we do it in quite different ways. Sharon is still the big risk taker, and every time I read her work, it is like a craft lesson. A very entertaining and beautiful craft lesson. Her new novel, Half, out this summer from University of Wisconsin Press, is no different. Booklist’s starred review calls it “raw and powerful,” continuing, “Half will stay with you.” With the driving pulse of a thriller, and a poetic heart, the novel weaves the myth of a family whose center comprises twins who speak with one voice and a father who commands the weather as easily as he commands absolute obedience and loyalty. I read it in one day. It is surprising, strange, and beautiful, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read in years.

TQ: One of the most amazing things about this novel is how much you tackle in it, from both a craft standpoint and a thematic one. It’s many, many things all at once. I’d like to ask you about a seeming contradiction that I believe is actually one of the novel’s many secrets to success. It is a very lyrical book. And yet it’s an extremely quick read because it is driven forward by a riveting and suspenseful plot. The book functions as a mystery. I don’t think we expect lyric writing to also be plot driven. Though this combination functions seamlessly in Half, this could have felt like two different books instead of one book. How did the dual nature of this book come about?

SH: As you know, it went through several different versions (and diversions). Some of them are really quite different from each other. The through-line—the murder mystery—wasn’t introduced until I’d already done quite a few versions. I have to give credit to my agent and to Brett Anthony Johnston, whom I worked with at the Virginia Quarterly Review Summer Workshop. My agent said it was too episodic. And Brett said episodic is fine, as long as there’s a strong through-line. I thought, okay, how do I keep the episodic nature, but have it attached to a backbone that will drive the story forward and keep readers turning the pages? I was worried that the mystery would seem like something inserted. But through revision I managed to make it all come together.

TQ: I think “plot” can be a dirty word in the literary world sometimes, especially in some MFA programs and certain schools of thought. Can you talk a little bit about plot?

SH: It’s funny, the first review that I got was from Foreword Reviews. And it said Half is gripping and readers won’t be able to turn the pages fast enough. It sounds like they’re describing a thriller. You can have a poetic, lyrical, character-driven novel that is also a page-turner, but, you’re right, we are sometimes taught at MFA programs or elsewhere that it is either/or. Are you going to be a literary novelist and choose character and language? Or are you going to be a plot-driven genre writer? It’s a false choice. You can do both.

TQ: Another great contradiction about the book is how intimate, small, and enclosed the world of the twins often feels (the first-person plural narration compounds this), and yet how huge and mythic the world of the book is. Was it hard to strike this balance?

SH: I wanted the intimacy of the voice—the twin voice—to feel so close it’s almost claustrophobic, since we only see the world through their eyes and their bodily experiences. And at the same time, I wanted the book to sweep through a long period of time. It covers twenty-five years—moving forward in leaps and bounds. Then the magic part, the mythic part, came in partly because the point of view itself is magical. It’s not possible in the real world to have two people speak in one voice and have them read each other’s thoughts, and that gave me the door that I opened to let in more mythic, magical things. And also, the twins made me think of Zeus’s twins, Apollo and Artemis.

I allowed it all in, but at the same time, I dealt with all these really technical restrictions that didn’t allow me access to much. I had to stay within the perspective. I could only describe what can be described by two people at once, which means the two always have to be in the same physical space, for one thing. So, it was in a way kind of like what we’re dealing with now—locked down, right? Where every day we are dealing with these physical restrictions that are somewhat claustrophobic. And how do we then try to broaden our experience without breaking this limitation that we have to stay in?

TQ: Lockdown written before lockdown happened! I think this brings us solidly to the use of a first-person plural narration, which, though I know there are some successful books that utilize it, seems like the one choice that everyone would have told you not to make. If the world could have whispered in your ear, they would have said no, no, not first-person plural. And yet you do it very well. It was a great choice. What brought you to this narrative choice?

SH: A book that inspired me was Justin Torres’s novel We the Animals, which is written in the “we” voice. I love that book so much. It has a really lyrical and intimate quality. It made me think of how much that point of view could portray intimacy. So, I started thinking about who has the possibility for the most intimacy, that is, platonic intimacy. Siblings share a lot. And wouldn’t they share even more if they were twins? And what if I push that to its logical extreme and had them be able to operate as if they’re one person?

And yeah, it sounds like setting yourself up for something that’s more difficult than it has to be. It’s just like writing a sestina. The form itself is the part of the joy, having to figure out how to fit into this form, create something that you would not have created otherwise. The limitations are part of what gives it energy.

I like to try new things and experiment and keep myself interested. But I did not predict that it would be as much work as it actually was. Not as many drafts.

TQ: I think that’s often the way it goes. Speaking of the drafting and the writing of this book, Half started as a short story—an award-winning short story, actually. Can you talk about how developing it into a novel changed what you were originally doing?

SH: It was harder than I thought it would be. The short story is only twelve pages, but it spans from age five to age thirty. So, I thought, if I can span twenty-five years in twelve pages, it’ll feel luxurious to have 275 pages to do that in.

The beginning, which is when the twins are five years old, is pretty close in the novel to what it was in the short story. The ending—not the very ending, but the scene in which the voices split in two, that moment—is the ending of the short story. So, I knew what I was starting with and what I was ending with. That’s something, right?

But then there’s this whole middle, you know, like, middles are—

TQ: Middles are hard.

SH: Yes, middles are hard.

TQ: Let’s talk about theme a little bit. One of my favorite things about this book is its exploration of love. A more thorough explanation than maybe I’ve ever read in a single book. There’s just all kinds of love in here. Difficult kinds of love.

SH: This is a complicated family, but they’re bound together by a fierce love. They hurt each other, and they all betray each other. But they all love each other with this huge, all-consuming love. Even the father’s cruelty comes out of wanting to mold his daughters into what their destiny is, their fate. He thinks he’s doing the best for them even when he does brutal things. The love between the parents—there’s some violence and some complicated, not very pretty things in that relationship, but in the end, they share that all-consuming love. Everything they do comes out of that.

The twins’ love for their father is more complicated because he’s kind of a hero/monster. They love and hate him simultaneously. When they’re younger, they mostly worship him. As they grow older and become disillusioned, they are still in his power. Even after they move away, they still see the world through him and in contrast to him. His absence looms large. You know, hate is close to love. What they never feel is indifference. What the twins feel for their mother is also an intense kind of love, even though they’re often very frustrated with her and the way she doesn’t protect them. But when they go off to college, they imagine that she’s there with them and wish that they could protect her.  

The main love in the book is between the two sisters, right? And that is an amazing gift, but it’s also a curse. It keeps them from forming the kind of attachments that most people form. When they go to college, they have trouble finding friends. Then when they do find their love partners, they choose them because they’re also a pair. They choose two best friends. They choose people who will not threaten their love for each other and their bond.

TQ: Is this sort of thinking about the thematic concept of love just something that you can do now that you’re outside of the book, or did you see those gears coming together while you were writing it?

SH: I think I was seeing the gears. I read a memoir by Christa Parravani called Her. She’s an identical twin. Her sister committed suicide or overdosed on heroin when she was in her early twenties. She described the close bond between the sisters, and I think this idea [in the book] that when you get married or you have a boyfriend, you say, “You’re actually only getting half of me. We are one unit”—that idea really resonated with me. So, I tried to filter that idea through everything else. The twins in Half can’t really give themselves fully to anyone else because they’re so connected. That is a magical idea, but it also has some truth to it, even for people who aren’t twins. Loving someone so much that it’s an obstacle to getting close to other people is something we all deal with, whether that person is your husband or your child or someone else. Love can be a blessing and a curse.

TQ: I really was astounded by how alien the twins could feel in their closeness, but also how familiar that kind of closeness felt, though I’m not a twin. That impediment, that closeness that can close in on us for good or ill is in itself a potential universal.

Another thing about the book that I really admired is the way you tackle violence. It’s ever present, but you rarely actually depict the violent act head on or directly. There’s something sinister in the way violence is covered up: closed doors, clothing pulled down to hide bruises, scenes cut down. Can you talk about that choice?

SH: As you know, writing about violence is tricky. I was careful not to use violence to titillate. It’s actually creepier to have violence be something that is always possible, but not usually shown, because then we can imagine that it could happen anytime. That’s the state of mind I was trying to get at. That’s what it’s like to live as a child in an environment that’s not safe. It’s not even the violence itself, it’s the ever-present threat of violence that creates an adrenaline rush, a sense of having to be hypervigilant.

TQ: I think it’s one of the scarier things in the book. The ever-present potential for violence, your success with portraying this hypervigilance, that makes it read like a thriller.

This book is also about class. It comes to the forefront in several places: the mother having to open the daycare center in the house, the father losing his job at the factory, and especially when the girls go to college. You very quickly, but very starkly, create class lines in the way the classmates are described. It’s clear. It’s stifling. It’s there. Why do you think this focus on class is so important to the book?

SH: It comes from my own experiences being a first-generation college student and feeling this distance from everyone else. When I was talking about the girls having trouble connecting with people at college, it’s not just because they’re twins. It’s also because they feel like they don’t belong, because they’re first-generation college students. That was a very vivid, visceral experience for me. I don’t see it portrayed that often in novels. So, I wanted to put that experience out there. I no longer have the same level of imposter syndrome I had when I was in college, the fear that people will find out I’m this blue-collar, working-class girl who doesn’t belong. But I don’t think the imposter syndrome ever totally goes away. So, I wanted to funnel that through my characters.

TQ: Speaking of college, there’s something interesting about the way you adjust the language of the narration as the twins age. It is very subtle but powerful. Was this a conscious decision as you wrote, or something that had to be developed in revision? Or do you think it was just you channeling their ages as you went?

SH: I think it was me channeling their ages as I went. Because it’s in the first person, I was trying to tell the story in the voice of each age the twins pass through. So, the thirteen-year-olds sound like a thirteen-year-old. Although, because there’s this frame to the novel, it’s really thirty-year-olds looking back at their early life. So, I’m trying to do two things at once. One is that, as they remember, they are inhabiting those ages a little bit, and using the language of those ages, but they’re also filtering the narration through their retrospective voices as adults. So, it was kind of a balancing act.

TQ: The other gradual change I noticed is the separation of the twins: they slowly move away from being one mind. This is also done linguistically (and in a lot of other ways). Readers see it coming faster than the twins do themselves, which I think is artfully and subtly done.

SH: Thank you. I did try to make it so that the readers knew more what was going on than the twins did. Because the first-person plural point of view is kind of claustrophobic, one way to open a window and let some air into the room is to try to show something that the reader can pick up that the twins can’t because they’re in denial.

TQ: That’s a lot of what drives the book forward. Again, the mystery in this book, in a lot of ways, is: when do the twins finally understand these things? How do they come to understand them? That’s not a traditional mystery, but it’s still thrilling. Was it scary writing (and then trying to publish) such a nontraditional book?

SH: Yeah, it often felt a little crazy.

TQ: Was it hard to capture the lives of teens today, and even growing adults in a tomorrow that hasn’t happened yet?

SH: Yeah, I really wanted these twins to go to college in contemporary times, because there’s so much interesting stuff that I wanted them to have to deal with. Like having their professor ask them what pronoun they want to use, since this book is so much about pronouns. So, I set the frame ten years from now, in 2030. That was fun, because I got to foresee what would happen. Climate change, for one thing. And I’m raising a teenage daughter, so I was watching her go through things and letting my characters go through the same things. And sometimes I would have her read a bit and say, “Does this seem authentic?” And she told me yes or no, and I dealt with it. That was fun, too.

TQ: As a matter of fact, you bring to life a lot of the issues young people today champion, issues they’ve helped to change for the better in ways maybe our generation couldn’t have imagined, such as LGBTQ issues, issues of equality. Do you think this is due to your closeness with your daughter and watching her tackle those issues?

SH: Absolutely. My daughter is a fierce LGBTQ advocate. She identifies as gay, and is part of that community socially. I wanted to have that be a part of my book. It’s a little tricky, of course. I am a heterosexual cis-woman, so I have to be careful when I represent people whose experience is not my own. I tried to be sensitive and not overreach.

TQ: Finally, your memoir, Playing with Dynamite, which Truman State University Press released in 2017, tackles some similar issues as this book—for example, the mythic father figure—but this doesn’t feel at all like a rehashing or a novelization of it. Half is its own, wholly separate, very different thing. Do you think you found more enjoyment delving into those themes in a novel that wasn’t about you or your life?

SH: It’s a relief to hide under the cover of fiction. But also, maybe part of why I made the father literally mythic, not metaphorically mythic, is because I wanted to clearly make it not my story. One way to do that was to allow it to be something my memoir couldn’t be—speculative. And maybe it’s a relief to hide under the cover of myth and magic a little bit these days. When the real world can be a little too much.