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Midwestern Gothic staffer Rachel Hurwitz talked to author Emily Henry about her book The Love That Split the World, balancing a very complex character, and more.
Rachel Hurwitz: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Emily Henry: I’ve spent most of my life here! My childhood was mostly split between Kentucky and Ohio, and after I went to college in western Michigan, I came back here. This area definitely feels like home to me.
RH: Your debut novel, The Love that Split the World, has a sort of fantastical element to it, as the world in which Natalie, the protagonist, lives begins to fade into and out of another world, which in a way, allows time to stop. People often speak of how time stops when you’re in love, so why did you decide that this love story had to be told with time actually stalling?
EH: One of very few other goals I had going into the writing process was capturing the feeling of nostalgia you get at the end of one phase of life and on the cusp of the next, the way you miss things even as they’re happening and can feel both eager and afraid to leave your past behind. One of the reasons I’m so drawn to the young-adult category is that everything in that stage of life still feels earth-shattering, ground-breaking, and big. To me, the fantastical elements of the book all felt like natural extensions or progressions of Natalie’s inner world.
What I remember most vividly about my summer after high school (and to a lesser degree any pivotal time since) is the way that time seems to go all wonky: how it seems to stop and start at random, to slip through your fingers no matter how hard you try to hold on, and to speed up no matter how hard you try to slow it. I didn’t set out to write a scene where time literally stops as two people consider falling in love, even though that happened. I just knew that I wanted to write a book about a highly emotional and sensitive girl navigating an unpredictable, intimidating, and magical world. Time changes its pace when she’s falling in love because, I think, that’s really how it feels. And as summer draws to a close, time stutters and jams up and shuts her off from the boy she’s falling in love with because that’s how that really feels too. Sometimes you are simply carried away by passing time and sometimes you can dig in and hold onto moments a little longer than usual.
RH: Similarly, while The Love that Split the World is, as the title would suggest, a love story, it delves into some much deeper issues such as identity, introspection and hallucinations caused by Natalie’s PTSD. How did you balance interweaving these difficult issues together with the sweetness of young love?
EH: First and foremost, this was the book where I said, “I’m going to write my perfect book.” I threw in just about everything I was interested in reading and thinking about at that time and I knew that meant that it might not register with anyone else the way it did with me. I actually didn’t even tell my agent that I was working on it until it was finished because I needed to be certain I could do it, and the only way to do that was to write the whole book.
I’ve always been a huge fan of books, and shows and movies, that feel like puzzles. I especially love stories that read like all these little pieces are being set out one at a time, and they only slide together at the last moment. I wanted to create that kind of book, where all these seemingly disparate elements come together to tell this epic love story. And I don’t necessarily mean a romance. I wanted to create a full image of all the love in Natalie’s life and how it had conspired to bring her to this point. I didn’t want to erase the bad things–the PTSD, the hallucinations, the complications of her identity and the feelings of loss she has over not knowing her biological family–but I wanted to take this very confused, very complex girl and enable her to step back and see her whole story.
In my own life, I’ve found that a lot of the most painful experiences have, years down the road, led directly to the most beautiful, the most meaningful. In a lot of cases, the struggles of life end up being what forges a person. Natalie has this complicated history, complicated feelings about her past and her future. She has a lot of fear.
I imagine most people have wanted to reach back in their lives to their past selves and comfort them, show them that everything would be okay. I wanted to do that for Natalie, and that meant confronting head on all the things that made her feel Not Okay while also drawing attention to all the bright moments, all the love in her life, new and old.
RH: Since this novel is so complex, did you ever struggle with writer’s block? If so, what was your best remedy for it?
EH: I definitely struggle with writer’s block but did less so with this book than others. Probably moreso, I struggled from logic block. Anytime you’re dealing with time travel, there’s a lot that can go wrong logic-wise. In some cases, I was trying to fix inconsistencies and gaps that my editor spotted and in some, I was just trying to figure out how to explain the logic I understood as this book’s Omnipotent Being. Either way, there were a lot of decisions and changes that couldn’t be rushed. I couldn’t just force out a logical explanation and the harder I focused on certain aspects of the book, the harder they became to grasp.
I honestly think the best personal remedy I’ve found for this and other types of blockage is walking away. Physically doing something different, that pulls your conscious mind away from trying to unravel a plot or logic hole. It seems like sometimes, when you shift gears and do something physically active, your subconscious keeps needling away at all your book’s tangles and knots and it does a better job than your conscious mind. I also think “sleeping on it” is a legitimate move. When you’re stuck like that, the last thing you want to do is walk away and leave an issue unresolved but for me that’s always been the best thing: physical activity, sleep, and plain old thought-incubation time.
RH: What is your favorite way to write? Is there a certain coffee shop you sit in, something you drink, a pen and notebook you use, etc?
EH: I’m so easily distracted that I mostly write at home. I can’t even listen to music unless it’s something ambient that I don’t know well enough to be anticipating certain parts or humming along. I write to the sounds of silence or my dog’s snores and I drink more black coffee than anyone should. I actually had to start brewing half-caf (okay, three-quarters-caf) so that I could drink as much as I wanted to without having a complete meltdown later in the day.
I mostly write on the same couch and I ignore all personal hygiene and health standards. I end up eating things like a handful of mini marshmallows, whatever I can grab on my way to get more coffee, and if I have to pee I might accidentally hold it for two hours if I’m really in the zone. I try to draft very quickly because if I lose interest in a project, I’ll rarely go back to it. I also finish a lot of complete first drafts that I don’t care enough about to revise. I know this is why a lot of authors swear by outlines but any time I’ve tried to write from a thorough outline, I feel sort of like I’m writing a book I just read and it’s not all that fun for me. At this point, I’d rather write three books a year and throw two away. I figure even failing at a book is good practice. I’m sure someday I’ll meet a book that demands to be drafted in a very organized and thorough fashion but for now, this is what I prefer.
I also find it really hard to write without windows! Second-floor windows are ideal because there aren’t as many distractions as on the first floor but you can still get some atmosphere. I always find rainy and snowy days the most inspiring.
RH: What inspired you to become an author? Was there one pivotal moment or was it more of a conglomeration of many events in your life?
EH: I think it was mostly just a love of reading that overflowed into a fan art and fan fiction. I was particularly obsessed with K.A. Applegate’s Animorphs series. I was reading the books as they came out so whenever there was time between releases, I did a lot of drawing and writing. I also made an early realization that while you really need another person to play an effective game of make-believe, you can write (or even daydream) a make-believe scenario entirely on your own.
In the third grade, we were assigned to write short stories and mine was twenty-seven pages long. We had to read them in groups and at least one kid in my group fell asleep while I was reading. I’m not sure why that didn’t discourage me more. I was probably just impressed I’d written something long enough to lull a person to sleep. In the fourth grade, we had to write “autobiographies” of ourselves. We had to guess at our future careers and I said I’d either be an author or play in the WNBA. I had not ever, and still have not ever, played a single game of basketball but I was in awe of bad-ass lady athletes and plus, I think all the popular kids at my school played basketball, so there was that.
Apart from a few years where I was convinced I wanted to be a professional modern dancer, I went on wanting to be an author until I finally was one. I’m sure it was a conglomeration of a lot of things, but primarily an overactive imagination and an obsession with the unlikely brought me here.
RH: Your Twitter profile, which you actively use, is filled with pictures of dogs, giveaways, books, and frankly, happiness. How did social media become such a large part of your literary persona? Do you think that having a social media presence is necessary to being a successful writer in the 21st century?
EH: I would like “dogs, giveaways, books, and frankly, happiness” on my headstone someday! I think social media became important to my literary persona partly because I’m a millennial and partly because I’d been told so many times that it did matter in the 21st century. I actually don’t think this kind of presence is necessary to being a successful writer, but I do think it can be a really special thing. Getting to connect with teen readers who loved, and in some cases felt they “needed,” my book has been one of the most humbling and incredible experiences of my life. So much of a writing life is spent entirely alone, just you and whatever project you’re working on, and it’s both gratifying and surprising to encounter the people who love your book as much as you do.
On the other hand, social media can also be a serious distraction and I’ve found that too much connection to the book world while I’m drafting can stunt that free-flowing creative rush with questions about marketability and competition, and all that. For me, it’s been a big adjustment learning to use social media as a published author rather than unpublished one. I think a good rule for social media, and really any other type of self promotion, is to only use it if you enjoy doing so. Otherwise you might just be wasting valuable writing time and energy.
RH: What’s next for you?
EH: My second book, A Million Junes, will be coming out in early 2017! It’s another genre-bending mystery/romance, this time set in Michigan. If The Love That Split the World was my “love and identity book,” A Million Junes would be my “love and grief book.” It’s as close to my heart as my first book is and I can’t wait to be able to share it.
Emily Henry is a full-time writer, proofreader, and donut connoisseur. She studied creative writing at Hope College and the New York Center for Art & Media Studies, and now spends most of her time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the part of Kentucky just beneath it. She tweets @EmilyHenryWrite.