Sharon speaks about her debut novel Half, writing about twin sisters who speak in one voice, publishing during the pandemic, the inspiration for her story, and much more.
Sharon speaks about her debut novel Half, writing about twin sisters who speak in one voice, publishing during the pandemic, the inspiration for her story, and much more.
Half can be purchased at Murder by the Book.
Sharon’s 7 recommended reads are:
book, pandemic, authors, memoir, people, story, publisher, bookstores, simpler, goodreads, writing, read, called, close, year, childhood, title, reviews, feel, understand
Cindy Burnett, Sharon Harrigan
Cindy Burnett 00:10
This is the Thoughts from a Page Podcast where I interview authors about their latest works. Listen to what inspired the storyline, how their covers and titles were chosen, their personal connection to the story and other fascinating tidbits about the author's themselves. My name is Cindy Burnett, and I love to talk about books. If you have any comments, questions you want me to ask authors or feedback for me personally, feel free to contact me through my website, thoughtsfromapage.com. Also, check out the new holiday book gift list that I recently posted on the blog section of my site if you are in need of a present for a loved one, close friend, coworker or even a gift exchange. Today I am interviewing Sharon Harrigan. Sharon is the author of the new novel Half and the memoir Playing with Dynamite. She has a BA in English from Barnard College, Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Pacific University. She teaches writing at Writer House in Charlottesville, where she lives with her family. Thank you so much for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show. Welcome, Sharon. I am really looking forward to talking with you today. How are you?
Sharon Harrigan 01:16
I'm great, Cindy. Thank you for having me.
Cindy Burnett 01:18
Well, I would love to hear all about your book Half. Would you like to tell me a little bit about it?
Sharon Harrigan 01:23
I would love to. Yeah, it came out in June of this year. It's my debut novel. I have a memoir that came out in 2017 called Playing with Dynamite but this is my first book of fiction. And it's about two twin girls. And what makes it unusual, I think it does something that no other novel has done at least I haven't heard of a novel that's done this, is that it tries to make the reader believe that these two girls and women can speak in one voice. So uses a first person plural narrator, a "we" voice. And there've been a lot of other "we" voice novels in the past. But often their collective voices or the voice of a group or they're the voice of a group of people who we know are different people. In this case, we're really supposed to believe that they're thinking the same thoughts. They're doing the same things that they are so much as one, that when their voice breaks apart, when they become separate people speaking for themselves, they really feel like they are broken in half. And that's where the name of the novel comes from. So it's a coming of age story. They recount, these adults are remembering their childhood beginning from age five. But it's also a little bit of a murder mystery. It begins they've come home to Michigan for their father's funeral. They haven't seen them since they left for college. And someone accuses them of killing their father. And they have to go through their childhood and collect evidence to find out what really happened. It's a story about intimacy, about how intimate is it possible to be with another person? There's a lot that's very magical about it. And so people ask me if it's based on my life, I say, Well, no, because these impossible things couldn't happen. But the seed of the novel did start with something autobiographical, in that my brother and I were always very close, growing up. He is year and a half older than me. And we also, like the girls in the novel, had a traumatic experience when we were young. In my case, my father died when I was seven. And so my brother and I had each other, and we couldn't explain what was happening to us. We couldn't talk about our feelings, but with each other, we didn't have to talk. And sometimes it felt like we could read each other's minds, even though we couldn't. We had a kind of secret language. And it seemed normal back then, but as I look back on it, it does feel kind of magical - the way that we can bond with someone else and take refuge with someone else as a way to protect ourselves through difficult times difficult, childhoods.
Cindy Burnett 03:54
Did you talk with him before you decided to write the story?
Sharon Harrigan 03:58
So the the novel is grew out of the short story. And he had read the short story before I turned it into a novel. And it's funny because he responded by telling me it made him cry. And when I asked what he meant, he said, I remember. I remember what you're writing about. And I and I protested. I said, No, it's fiction. I wrote a memoir. But that's not what this is. And he said, when you caught the experience of what it felt like.
Cindy Burnett 04:26
Oh I love that. And you know, people always say that when you write what you know, it really comes across and that that's the good place to start. So it sounds like even though you weren't necessarily reflecting on your own life, you were kind of writing what you know.
Sharon Harrigan 04:41
Yeah. Writing the emotion. I guess.
Cindy Burnett 04:43
Yeah, that's a good way to put it. But what do you hope your readers take away from the book?
Sharon Harrigan 04:48
So I had one reader, she said that, she's I think she's 80 years old at this point. She's a bookseller at a bookstore in Kalamazoo where I did one of my readings and she said after she read my book, it made her realize how much she misses her brother, who she's been estranged from. And she hadn't talked to him for years. But after seeing both the rewards of being so close to someone, and also the risks, and how hard it is to be close to someone who you grew up with, she decided to contact her brother and they are now in, they have that connection again. So she said, your, your novel changed my life. But I guess I want them to think about empathy. I think what's happening in the world today, especially makes us have to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and trying to imagine what what life is like for someone else, what someone else feels like, and to try to fiction can get readers into other people's heads. That's something that's really amazing. And once you're in someone's head is really hard not to empathize with that person. You really see how he or she sees the world. So I really want to show these two characters getting in each other's heads, and let readers think about how their relationships with other people are in that way, and how they could maybe try harder to get into other people's heads and to understand other people, and especially people who are different from them.
Cindy Burnett 06:13
Well, certainly empathy comes from understanding. I completely agree with that. And until you have some idea of what someone else is going through, or at least try to understand it, it's a lot harder to empathize.
Sharon Harrigan 06:24
Mm hmm. Yeah, and there are some difficult characters in my book to most notably, the father, who the twins are really trying to understand. Part of, the big part of, why they're revisiting their childhood memories is they want to understand exactly what if what they did to their father was justified, and what exactly he did to them. And it's an exercise in trying to see if it's possible to have empathy for a character who has done bad things, and to try to understand someone who has hurt you. And not to give too much way. But in the end, the girls do break apart; their we voice becomes the I and I because they have very different responses to trying to understand their father. And it's easy to look at him as a villain, but one of them is able to really see him as a, as a, as humanity.
Cindy Burnett 07:19
I always think that the reason that people write about family so much is because it's the most complicated relationship. So whether you have something happened to you, by someone you're not related to a lot of times, you're going to be a lot less likely to repair it. But because you're tethered to someone by blood, whatever the relationship is, sibling, parent, it's just much more complicated than just a simple friendship.
Sharon Harrigan 07:42
Yes, the twins think that they can put their past behind them, put their family behind them and go off and live a new life. But as a lot of readers have said, family is something that is always with us. And no matter how hard we try to to be our own person, we're always kind of haunted by where we came from, who we came from.
Cindy Burnett 08:03
Absolutely. And I also think that the relationships we have when we're young are so much simpler and less complicated than the relationships we have as adults.
Sharon Harrigan 08:13
Yes. And so if you take something that's simpler, it's easier to see the truth, right? And then it's kind of amplified. And so that's what's so appealing about writing about childhood. I think it's so vivid and so large for all of us.
Cindy Burnett 08:29
I agree completely. But it also is just so much less pressure, there's so much less you have to think about as a child, the responsibilities. It's just a simpler time than when you you grow up and you've got a lot more you're having to focus on.
Sharon Harrigan 08:43
It is, and it isn't. I mean, I think that my book opens up with these five year olds who are nostalgic for what the simpler time, and that they're pretending that they're babies in when they say I'm half years old, they mean, they're pretending that they're six months old. So yes, the younger they are, the simpler things are. But I think that even even small children, because they don't understand so much. The world is scary, because it's inexplicable. And I think because they don't have control that they don't always know what's going to happen. And especially in an environment, like the one in my book where danger is always possible. I think it might seem simple from the outside, or it might seem innocent, but I'm really trying to get closer to the dark side of childhood and how scary it can be. I remember being five years old and telling myself I wouldn't forget how scary it felt to be a child and how helpless. I was trying to get to that feeling that's still quite vivid.
Cindy Burnett 09:40
That is true. If you're experiencing a situation where you do feel like danger could always be present. That's a completely different dynamic and you're right with new control as a child that can be a lot scarier because you're not exactly sure how to handle it or what to do. Well, I would love to hear a little bit about the title. How did you come up with the title for this one
Sharon Harrigan 10:00
The whole book, which as I said started from the story started with the first scene in chapter one with these five year olds pretending to be babies. And it came from that line which my brother and I used to say to each other. How old are you? I'm half too. Yeah, at first. At first, we meant we've been alive six months, just half a year later, half no longer suited for anything half empty, half full. It's a weird title. People often are waiting for me to say like half of what? And there have been a lot of jokes. They send somebody something in an email, it's like, here's Half. Well, when you get them give me the other half. Will you read Half? Yeah, read it. And let me know when the other half is ready. So it seemed like a little bit of a risky title. And I kept trying other titles, and this one kept drawing me back.
Cindy Burnett 10:44
Well, I love the way it's done on the cover where it's sideways. And I love that cover. Did you have a say in that?
Oh, I love the cover, too. I was so glad that the publisher didn't ask me for any input on the title. Because I'm so pleased with the results. When I got the email, they said we had lots of different versions, but we voted on them, and this is the one we like the best. And I'd love it because when you first look at it looks like it's the face of one person, you've got two eyes, two eyebrows. But when you look more closely, you see that it's two people, two women whose hands are right next to each other. And we've just got one eye from each of them. So we've got half of each of their faces, which makes one whole that looks like it's one person and that's what the book is, two people as one.
Cindy Burnett 11:28
I think it's the perfect representation of your story. So tell me about your publishing journey.
Sharon Harrigan 11:34
Yeah, it's a pretty circuitous journey. But I guess a lot of writers say that that's the case for them, too. So I wrote the story a long time ago. It was in 2013. It won the Key West, Key West Literary Seminars Prize for a short story. So that was exciting. They flew me to Key West in January. And then I submitted it to a few places. And it was it was accepted pretty quickly, which was also a good sign by magazine, a literary journal called Pleiades. And then later it won the prize, the Kinder Prize for best story that year for Pleiades. So I started to think that this is a story that had some potential, and the story spanned a long period of time, 25 years, just like the novel does. It had the same beginning, when they're five and the end, when they're at their father's funeral, and they have their own five-year-old children. And so I thought, well, it since it has a novel like, like thread, I could expand it into a novel. Which, of course, sounds a lot easier than it was. But I did. In between that time I started writing my memoir, which I had felt like I had to do, because there are people I had to talk to while they were still alive. So I put aside the story still wanting to make it into a novel, wrote the memoir, published a memoir. And then I picked up this idea again in 2015. And I wrote a draft that is about the same length as the final one is now, and I sent it to my agent and was very excited about it. And she said, Oh yeah, this is such an unusual kind of structure, you're doing innovative things, which of course makes it tricky to sell. But I had a manuscript kind of that was also doing innovative things. And I sold it to a pretty good publisher after about, oh, I don't know, five to seven drafts. And I get those emails back. And I'm like, I don't say I say thank you very much. And in my head, I'm thinking, no way. Are you out of your mind that I'm going to do seven drafts. So yeah, long story short, five to seven drafts later, she says it's ready. And she sent it out. As I said, it is a unusual structure, you have to make a leap of faith. But to even imagine that two people can speak in one voice. So eventually, she wasn't able to send it, to to sell it to a big commercial publisher. And told me that I could send it out on my own which I did. And I was attracted to the University of Wisconsin Press because of some of the recent books that they put out, notably short stories by Jesse Lee Kerceval, who, whose work also seemed to me like it was taking structural and stylistic risks, and I thought totally pulled them off. And so it seemed like they had an aesthetic that would make them welcoming to my kind of book; that turned out to be true. It also I had sent it out to the AWP Novel Award. Every year they give awards to the best novel, short story collection, and poetry collection. And it was the finalist for that. So it did get and it has been getting quite a bit of attention, like it got a stared review from Booklist; it got it some rave reviews in Publishers Weekly and The New York Journal of Books and places like that. I think someone called it like a little powerhouse of a novel. I've always known it's kind of not going to be the easy thing that people are going to reach for because it's a little bit different. I've been happy with the attention it's gotten at the University of Wisconsin Press. It's been fantastic. As you can see, the cover is beautiful. I think the book itself is beautiful typeset. And then publishing in pandemic is has has really been unprecedented for everyone having to have books come out when bookstores are closed. But a lot of authors have banded together to support each other. And I think I've spent the pandemic reading. I've been reading so many books by other authors who are publishing during this time when the bookstores are closed when live events are canceled. So that's that kind of act of solidarity is also been a beautiful thing.
Cindy Burnett 15:32
I do think that's been the silver lining of the pandemic, is watching all these author groups come together and support each other so much. And then also just learning all this online technology. You're really able to reach more people online than you would be in person. There's nothing that can replace in-person events. But it has been a nice thing to be able to see Zoom events, Facebook Live Events. I can see authors that I wouldn't normally be able to hear them speak about their books.
Sharon Harrigan 15:58
Oh, it's been fantastic. I've been able to go to so many virtual events. That really has been my pandemic experience and cheering on other authors and then then going on Goodreads and Amazon writing them nice reviews, because that's important, too. That's something that we can do. And I think we're relying more on that, that kind of publicity than when we weren't in a pandemic.
Cindy Burnett 16:20
Well, I've always used Goodreads as sort of my go to. If I hear about a new book that I'm not familiar with, that's the first place I go and read the reviews and kind of see what people have to say about it. And your book has fabulous reviews on Goodreads.
Sharon Harrigan 16:34
Oh, thank you. Yeah, I've been lucky.
Cindy Burnett 16:36
Well, no, I mean, it's, it's because it's a good book. But it's just nice that people go on and review it. Well talking about that, tell me some books, you would recommend some of the things you've read that you really liked.
Sharon Harrigan 16:46
Yeah, well, I will mention just a few of the books that came out during the pandemic. Someone on Twitter the other day, said how about this year, we just don't do "best of the year"/"end of the year" lists. And we just give everybody who managed to publish during the pandemic a big gold star because you did it. And I really do kind of feel like that a lot of books that came out during this time and won't get the same attention. But we should try to shine more light on them, as much light on them as we can. And I read a whole bunch, but I'm just going to give you a list of a few here. There's a great short story collection by Mary South called I Will Never Forget You. It's kind of like Ishiguro crossed with the TV show Black Mirror, very much about you know interest internet culture gone wild and what it's doing to us. Another novel called You Again by Debra Jo Immergut, which is a really wonderful literary slash thriller slash supernatural book about a woman who sees her younger self. She's haunted by her younger self literally. The Book of the Little Axe by Lauren Francis-Sharma is a really, really beautiful book of historical fiction that follows a family from Trinidad in the early American West. Pale Morning Light with Violet Swan by Deborah Reed, which just came out. It was originally slated for June but her publisher, like a number of publishers, decided to push publication further and have come out in the fall with the idea that seems I don't know it was a good idea back then, that by now, bookstores would be open again. The Heart and Other Monsters which is an amazing memoir, debut memoir by Rose Andersen, about her sister's suicide when she was in her 20s. I Have the Answer, the short story collection by Kelly Forden. Her stories are set in Detroit and other parts of Michigan. And The Fear of Everything by John McNally, wonderful book of short stories. So it's been really great to be able to go to the Zoom events for these authors, and I wouldn't have been able to go to a lot of them in person. And that's been a thrill. And it's been fun for people to be able to come to my events who normally wouldn't be able to. I think my mom came to every one.
Cindy Burnett 19:05
That's a good mom. You Again keeps catching my attention. And I haven't read it yet. But I see it periodically or somebody will mention it. And I think oh yes, I want to read that one. And I'm not familiar with the others. So now I've got a long list of books I can go look up.
Sharon Harrigan 19:20
Yeah. Oh, You Again is so good. I actually met Deborah Immergut at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, like not that long before the pandemic started. And there's a tradition that the fellows read before the in front of the fireplace a little bit and she was reading from this book and I was just mesmerized by it and couldn't wait to get the ARC when it was ready.
Cindy Burnett 19:41
Okay, then I'm gonna have to pick that one up. Well, I really appreciate your time. And I thank you so much for joining me on the Thoughts from a Page Podcast. It's been a delight to talk with you about Half.
Sharon Harrigan 19:51
Oh, it's been so fun. Your questions are fantastic. Thank you so much.
Cindy Burnett 19:55
Thank you. Thank you so much for listening to my podcast. If you liked this episode, and I hope you did, please follow me on Instagram at @thoughtsfromapage, tell all of your friends about the podcast, and rate it wherever you listen to your podcasts. I would greatly appreciate it. Sharon's book can be purchased at Murder by the Book where I work part time, and the link is in the show notes. Thanks to K.P. Regan for the sound editing, and I hope to see you next time.