An Interview with Sharon Harrigan
Author of the novel HALF
University of Wisconsin Press
by Virginia Pye
Writers have a way of finding each other in Virginia, thanks to several strong literary non-profits. Sharon Harrigan teaches at WriterHouse in Charlottesville and I used to help run James River Writers in Richmond. We met years ago at the annual JRW Writers Conference. When my first novel came out, Sharon generously reached out and offered to interview me for Fiction Writers Review. I moved to Cambridge several years later, but we continued to keep track of each other’s careers, cheering on each new publication. I’m delighted to interview her now about her debut novel, HALF. In sparse, lyrical prose, it tells the story of identical twins who speak in one voice, until they can’t any longer.
Virginia Pye: It’s a daring idea to write a novel from the perspective of identical twins. I gather that you’re not a twin yourself, which makes me curious why you chose to tell the story this way?
Sharon Harrigan: I didn’t set out to write about twins. What I wanted to do was write about empathy and intimacy, the kind of platonic closeness I had with my older brother growing up. So originally, the characters were singleton siblings, different genders. But then when I took this concept of sibling bonding further—because exaggerating our real-life can distill the experiences and make them clearer—these characters became so close they were indistinguishable. That’s when I realized they had to be twins or my readers (and I!) would get confused.
I’m also using sibling love to say something about all non-romantic love. That when we empathize with someone, we feel their pain—and their joy. It’s as if what happens to them happens to us. That’s something we especially need to be reminded of during these increasingly divisive times.
VP: When the two sisters are children their story is told in vignettes that have an immediacy to them. The scenes and other characters are described in poetic detail, using the senses and focusing on how a child might process the world. How do you think that showing the story through the twins’ eyes in this intimate way helps your reader relate to them?
SH: Children don’t yet know a lot about the bigger world, so they experience things more close up, more focused on what they can immediately perceive with their senses. There’s something magical that we lose once our world enlarges, and as a child, I promised never to forget what it felt like to be small. I’m trying to remember on the page that helpless quality, that sense of awe for people who are bigger, and the credulity, as well as the fluidity between the real and the magical. That’s a lot of what the novel is about: the blurred lines between the actual and the imaginary, the spillover between mythology and mental illness, the lies we tell each other and ourselves so much we believe them, the truth that stares us down but we don’t see it because we’re in denial and the crushing disillusionment that sometimes arrives at the end. Isn’t that an apt description of what it means to grow up?
VP: The twins share the same perceptions and perspectives in their early lives, but as they grow and start to know other people, they begin to become distinct from one another. This transition comes about slowly and leads to a surprising rupture. Can you talk about the way that difference is introduced as a crucial element in your story?
SH: We know at the beginning that the girls can’t speak in one voice forever, and it’s that instability that drives a lot of the dramatic tension. I tried to make their gradual separation feel natural. That’s the way it often is when we drift apart from people—whether it’s our twin, our best friend, or our spouse. Sometimes we don’t see it coming, and it’s a shock when we can no longer deny it. One of my readers described the separation like this: “The narrator dissolves before our eyes.” The whole book is held together by the dual narration, so when that is gone, it’s like the floor falls out from under our feet. At least that how I wanted it to feel.
When my daughter read the novel, on the other hand, she said the twins’ separation felt like a relief. “The twins were never exactly the same,” she said. “Nobody is. But their closeness is so important to them that they hide all their differences, not just from each other, but from themselves. When they finally break apart, they don’t have to cover up anymore.”
People suppress their differences in order to be part of a group all the time. Think about high schoolers and their desire to fit in. They end up dressing the same, talking the same. We also do this when we join a church or a profession or a political party. I had my students do an exercise using the “we” voice and one of them said something I found fascinating. He is in a men’s group, and the facilitator tells people not to use the “we” voice when they are sharing because it is often used to hide from personal feelings or assert unity where there is diversity. The “we” voice allows people to hide. And yes, that is true for my twins.
VP: One crucial way the twins are bonded to one another is through their understanding of their abusive father. And yet his death is what finally separates them. In this way, he has a divisive effect on them in both life and death. Was it difficult to write such a destructive character?
SH: He became more intense in later drafts because I let myself give him mythic proportions. He is, in a way, Zeus. At least some people think he is. And just like a Greek god he can destroy things on a whim. He can also be so powerful and charismatic that he’s irresistible. He’s a hero-monster, like some of the men we see in the news every day. He is also a real man, the kind of real man I’ve read about in memoirs. I read a lot of them, because that’s what I teach. One of my early readers said the father exemplifies a Midwestern type: the tough but truly loving father who is determined to make his children strong by bullying them. And yes, this is how I remember my own father. He truly thought he was doing the right thing.
VP: Without giving away too much, I’d love to hear you say more about the end of your novel when the twins reveal their very different views of the past. The distance between them becomes vast. Can you share more about how memory plays a role in defining who they are and who they aren’t to one another?
SH: That’s a great question. One of the reasons I used the structure I did—one chapter for every year from ages five to twenty-two—is to give readers the sense that they are seeing a life being lived in real time, the way it is for the characters themselves. Then by the end, when the twins are adults and remember that life in two different ways, we can recognize how memory works, how it is not an objective truth but something filtered through an individual’s biases.
VP: Finally, I love to hear about the journey debut novelists have traveled on their way to publication. Can you share yours?
SH: I remember when your first novel was published, and I was so inspired by your success. It made me feel hopeful. Thank you for that!
I’m a late bloomer. I’m 52 and this is my first novel. My first book, a memoir, was published three years ago. It’s funny because I started writing seriously when I was 14 and thought I was getting an early start! I took poetry classes at the Detroit Institute of Arts. My brother and I got special permission to be able to attend because these were adult writing workshops. I gave a reading at the DIA when I was 18. I’m pretty sure I was the youngest person ever to do so. In my early twenties, a small press was going to publish my poetry collection. It was typeset and everything, and then they went bankrupt. (That collection has still not been published, but I now have a press that’s interested, all these years later!) I became a mother too young and then a single mother, working as an editor full time and also freelancing, hustling to make rent in New York City. My writing became something it didn’t feel like I could afford to do. Only many years later, after I remarried, did I get an MFA and start writing prose and restart my stalled writing career.
I love to hear stories about other writers publishing late. Margaret Renkl, who wrote the amazing memoir-in-lyric-essays Late Migrations, one of my favorite books of the past year, published her first book at age 57. And that book has brought her acclaim, including an invitation to become a New York Times columnist. People like her inspire me to think: It’s never too late!
Sharon Harrigan teaches at WriterHouse, a nonprofit literary center in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is the author of Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir. Her work has appeared in the New York Times (Modern Love), Narrative, Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere.
Virginia Pye‘s collection, Shelf Life of Happiness, was awarded the 2019 IPPY Gold Medal for Short Fiction. Her debut novel, River of Dust, was an Indie Next Pick and a 2013 Finalist for the Virginia Literary Award. Her second novel, Dreams of the Red Phoenis was chosen as a Best Book of 2015 by the Richmond Times Dispatch. Her stories and essays have appeared in Literary Hub, The New York Times, The North American Review, The Baltimore Review, and elsewhere. She’s taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania, in high schools, and most recently in Boston at GrubStreet. She can be found on FB, Twitter, Instagram, and at www.virginiapye.com