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I weathered winter storm Izzy in a cottage Trudy Hale built at The Porches writing retreat center in Nelson County, Virginia. Outside my window, sleet pinged the glass in time with my typing fingers. While I love my writing desk, retreats are sacred, solitary spaces that nurture my writing life. In the stillness of retreat, I can dive deeply into my projects, see them in different ways, and churn out a ridiculous number of pages.
During the month of January, we’re looking at how you see yourself, from your internal messages and writing practices, to how you approach the subjects you write about. There’s nothing like a retreat to heighten that focus.
I scheduled my first writing retreat in 2015 at the suggestion of Sharon Harrigan. At the time, I was a student in Sharon’s Memoir in a Year class at WriterHouse. During that course, she was working on her memoir Playing with Dynamite, a story about searching for her lost father that grew from a Father’s Day essay she’d written.
Already an accomplished poet and fiction writer, I watched Sharon’s publication list grow to include a Modern Love essay, “Fois Gras, the Vegetable,” published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, and of course her memoir.
In 2020, at the height of the pandemic, her novel Half was published. The story, uniquely written in the plural first-person “we” point of view, deals with another father who’s part mystery, part myth, and the twin daughters who don’t understand him. The novel is a captivating, haunting work of art that pulls you in and keeps you hooked. Sharon’s stellar prose could serve as a Zinnser-like primer on good writing.
Over the years, Sharon has served as a mentor to me—introducing me to other writers, pointing out opportunities for growth, and serving as a cheerleader for my writing projects. I am humbled and grateful to now call her colleague and friend.
I’m deeply honored she took the time to share her wisdom with all of us.Interview with Sharon Harrigan
You’ve written two books that feature larger-than-life father figures. In your memoir Playing with Dynamite, you go on a quest to understand your father, a man who’d blown off his arm while playing with dynamite and then died tragically in a car accident when you were seven. In your novel Half, twin sisters reflect on their lives after their father’s death, hoping to discover whether they had indeed killed him. How did these books help you explore different aspects of father-daughter relationships?
In my memoir, the father dies when his children are so young that their memories of him are fragmented. The father in my novel lives long enough for his daughters to grow up and reject him, long enough to regret or not regret what they did, long enough for them to have their own children and wonder what it would be like to be rejected by them, long enough to grieve or celebrate their father’s death. And by having twins who each come to different conclusions, readers can discover more about themselves (for instance, how much they would be willing to forgive an imperfect parent), based on which twin they side with.
Was there something you were able to explore or do in your novel that felt impossible to achieve in your memoir?
Memoirs have to be told in a single voice by a narrator the reader can trust, but in my novel, I was able to play with the idea of unreliable narrators and to use a plural point of view. I also didn’t have to stick with pure realism and could include some (possible) magic.
The importance of a robust author platform is hammered into creative nonfiction writers’ heads to the point that many fear they’ll never get a book deal if they don’t achieve some form of notoriety. What are the strengths of your author platform? As a fiction writer, do you focus on different aspects of your author platform, or place value on different things?
I’ve heard that a lot of agents pressure their clients to build social media platforms, but mine never did. She said that a writer’s best platform is her previously published work. So, I focused on trying to publish in high-profile places, like the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and in places that are respected in literary circles, like the Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, and The Rumpus. I started a blog before I started querying literary agents because someone in my MFA program told me I should, but I don’t think it helped me get an agent or a book contract. It was fun, though, and did help me learn to write fast and on a regular schedule. And my memoir grew out of a blog post, which was a nice and unexpected side effect.
What are you currently working on?
My agent is sending out my latest novel to editors, and it’s always hard to write when that’s happening, even though the best advice is to forget about something once it’s out of your hands and focus on the next project. I’ll just say that my work-in-progress is inspired by a book called The World Without Work: Technology, Automation, and How We Should Respond, by the economist Daniel Susskind. He argues persuasively that in the near future so many jobs will be automated that there won’t be enough work for everyone who wants it. Even the most high-level jobs will be taken over by artificial intelligence. There’s a lot of potential for drama and moral dilemmas in a world like that. How do people compete for the few jobs that are left? What happens to those who fail?
What are you currently reading?
I just finished A Calling for Charlie Barnes, Joshua Ferris’s latest novel. I fell in love with his work when I read his first novel, And Then We Came to an End, a tour de force written in the first-person plural (“we”) voice. (It’s one of the “we” books that inspired me to use that same point of view in my own novel.) Charlie Barnes is narrated by a man who is writing a memoir about his father but who ends up having to write about everybody else in the family. The narrator becomes a pariah because no one (except the father) likes how they’re portrayed. Memoirists, in particular, will find this novel entertaining. And maybe all-too-accurate.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given by another writer?
So hard to choose, but here’s one, from Benjamin Percy: “Get into the scene as late as you can, and get out of it as soon as you can.” Readers can fill in the blanks. Trust them.
What’s the best advice you’d like to pass along?
Don’t compare your work-in-progress to your favorite book and then despair. That book was not nearly as good when it was a work-in-progress. Just keep working, making every draft better than the last one.