Did Octopi Come From Space? A conversation with Emily Henry on magical realism, the role of setting in her novels, and how Young Adult literature has shaped her point of view.
Emily Henry is the author of The Love That Split the World and A Million Junes. She 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.
On March 15th, 2018, Young Adult Novelist Emily Henry joined Interlochen Arts Academy faculty member and bestselling YA novelist Brittany Cavallaro, along with YA novelist Jeffrey Zentner, for a YA Novelist Master Class and Panel with Interlochen Creative Writing students. Interlochen Review editor Ash Freeman sat down with Emily for a conversation about her influences and inspirations.
Ash Freeman: What intrigues you about magical realism?
Emily Henry: There’s so much. One thing that I often say is that I’m just a big believer. I love conspiracy theories and I love the interconnectedness. I studied dance in college and I loved learning about how physical wellness affects your psychology. My roommate was studying to be a dance therapist so she always had research on that. With magical realism, I know it started out very culturally significant, but what really draws me to it is that the world is more complex than your little view of it and you can become something from what you know and what you understand and it can seem very magical because it’s not a part of your vocabulary or your world. The world is actually so much bigger and so much more complex, so things that can come across as magical can be scientific and psychological.
I don’t fit neatly into the tradition of magical realism because I try to put logic behind it. I did that a little bit less with my second book than with my debut, but I really want the logic to work almost as if it were more of a sci-fi and I think that’s because I just believe. You could tell me something so ridiculous and if you had good reasons for believing it, I would be open to it. I’m constantly the person who is following the clickbait such as, “did octopi come from space?” and I think, yeah they probably did because if you read about how different octopus DNA is from any other living creature on earth, it’s fascinating! I think with magical realism is this exploration of the seen and the unseen world and the fact that there is so much more than you understand. I’m not necessarily gullible but I’m open to things that can’t really be proven and open to considering “how could this make sense? How could this seemingly impossible thing be real?” Even with something like time travel, there are enough scientists who really believe that kind of thing is possible and it might not even be technology that does that, just some natural force in the world.
AF: How does this technique of “magical realism”, and the open-mindedness that you have, help you explore the themes of identity, inheritance, grief, friendships, and love?
EH: You probably notice this in reading my books, but almost everything physical that happens is just a manifestation of the internal. Which I love about books, because I think in real life it’s going on too but it’s so much harder to see until years later. I think back to one of my friends in college and I remember she was doing counseling and realized “my throat hurts when I’m holding in my words,” and this crazy realization that she was having this physical pain that was a reflection of something that was going on with her internally. I love the idea that the physical manifestation of this magical realist world can perfectly pressure cook what’s going on internally.
My first book is about growing up and figuring out who you are, especially in the face of being different [from] people you love and who love you. That’s a thing that I feel humans in general [go through], but hopefully as teens so you don’t have to go through it as an adult. I think magical realism has such a unique opportunity to make the unseen, seen and the internal, external. I’m not often accused of subtlety, I definitely like those big emotional themes and those big hits and I think that’s the kind of work that I’m drawn to as a reader.
AF: Where do you get these inspirations for these ideas? It could be from clickbait!
EH: It’s from the octopus! I actually have just been waiting to write my octopus book. In actuality, everything I write, even when I’m trying to write against myself, still ends up pulling so much of myself into it. Sometimes the more you think, “I’m going to write this thing and it’s totally detached from my real life,” and then you realize, “wait, why is this exactly me?” I can remember letting my family read something and they would say, “why are you writing about us, what is going on?” There’s definitely a lot of me in both of my books and actually after my first book I thought, “I hope I never write something this personal again,” and then my second book was just as personal, even though it was a little bit more removed from my own upbringing.
I think, weirdly enough, the biggest thing that inspires me is often setting. I spent my childhood in Kentucky, and then spent my high school years in Ohio, and went to college in Michigan. So I have a lot of nostalgia now for a lot of these places, less so for Ohio because I’m back there so it actually makes it harder to write about it in clarity. But having that distance and having my own memories in that place that distinctly colored it [made me realize] this is what Kentucky is to me, and this is what Michigan is to me. And I think that with setting, when I really have a deep love for a place, it’s so easy for me to imagine the magic of that specific place.
Kentucky is very humid and it gets very hot in the summer and everything is very lush and sticky. I think the magic in a place like that is going to be a slower magic, a warm, sensuous dripping thing, and I think with time travel it works so perfectly. When you’re in a small humid town like that, you feel like time is moving differently and it really is moving differently than different places. You can just get on Instagram and everything is the same here as it’s always been, then realize other cities are changing and adapting. That can be a blessing and a curse. I haven’t written anything set in a place that I don’t have a deep love for, so that would be a hard challenge for me. Now I think I have to move somewhere else because how am I going to keep writing books if I’ve gotten everything I have to say about a place out?
AF: Does setting help drive your characters?
EH: Yeah, I think so. You get to be in art school, where you hopefully get to be surrounded by people who are like you. I was from a small town and I was often pretty weird and out of my element. I also had a lot of friends because I was outgoing and they would say, “You’re so weird, I love it!” And it was like, is that a compliment? I think you think it is. It just serves to remind me that I’m not really in my place. I think that’s such a common feeling that does continue, especially in my teen years so intensely, feeling so lost. [What interests me is when] people really love these places and they feel so connected to the physical setting and the world they live in, but on the other hand they totally feel at odds with the world. That creates a really interesting and relatable character. Such as in A Wrinkle in Time––Meg was so out of place in her own family and in her own town. She had a close relationship with her brother but she felt so out of place. And I think a lot of kids feel that way. But then they think “what is happening and why is the world so hard?” So that influences character. I want my characters to feel like they grew up in the place where [my books are] set. I do think that [my character] June is Michigan as a person.
AF: I can definitely tell, she’s just so immersed in her setting. She has these moments where it’s almost “should I do what I want or should I obey the rules and not go to the falls?”
EH: She feels so drawn to it but at the same time, her father is sort of Michigan so it’s like, “do I betray what he’s always taught me?” I love the idea of a kid who really wants to honor the person they admire most in the world. She wants to be like him and she has to accept that nobody’s perfect, so what she thinks about him isn’t always accurate. And it’s okay to be different from the people you love. I think there’s a lot of that in both of my books. I’m very lucky that I’ve had a family that accepts that it’s okay for me to not exactly be like them. I think that’s a weird, painful thing when you realize, “I’m so different from my family.” Well, you might have different beliefs or you could be totally at odds with them, and if you’re lucky you’ll have a family that [understands] that you’re going to become your own person. I think there’s a lot of that in both of my books so far.
AF: Do you strive for connections between your books or does it just happen?
EH: Both. When I sold my first book I knew that I wanted to do a Kentucky book, a Michigan book, and an Ohio book. In my mind they’re sort of part of a disconnected series. The stories themselves don’t have anything to do with each other but here is the weird magical world that I think we live in and we’d have weird stuff like this going on if we were open to it. To an extent, I knew going in that I was going to be writing three books that have to do with identity and love. That’s what I’m working on now, it has to do with identity and love, and is somehow even more personal. Why do I do this to myself? Because I love crying at events, when someone asks me a simple question like, “Where did this idea come from?” and I just cry. Obviously, there is a romantic thread in both my books. They’re always pitched as romances and people say there is a strong romantic narrative, but the love that actually is going on is more familial and friendship love and self-love. I’m fascinated by [love] endlessly. It can look so different and you never run out of people to write about.
AF: Do you have any characters that you relate to in your books?
EH: Yeah, I’m looking forward to relating more to side characters than I have to POV characters that I’ve written. It’s so personal that it’s challenging to keep yourself separate from this character that’s not you. I’ve related to both of my main characters. I started dancing in high school, I was on a dance team, going to jazz dance practice. I realized, these are the people I’m spending the bulk of my time with and they think I’m just absolutely bananas. I know they loved me, but it was just the Emily show. I recently read a review and the last line said, “the main character is the weird, outgoing girl that everyone knows lol.” I feel like me at eighteen was very much in those books.
I’m getting to the point where I relate to the parents in books and I never thought about that change happening to me. I remember when I read The Fault in Our Stars, I was too devastated because I related to Hazel’s mom and felt like I couldn’t deal with it, it was too sad for me. That’s the thing about becoming an adult and realizing that your parents are just people. It’s weird to know that they mess up, but to realize that they mess up in the same ways that you mess up.
I’ve started writing some women’s fiction too but not published because I’ve always wanted to write YA since before I was even a young adult. I love the pacing and the characters. I had this YA that I was working on and suddenly the grandmother had a point of view and the middle aged hotel manager had a point of view and suddenly she was my favorite character and I [couldn’t] stop writing her. My agent is great and understanding, but I’ll send her things that’ll make her say “how do I gently tell you that this is not what you promised me?”
AF: What did the publishing process look like for you?
EH: I had the long arduous road that you’re promised and had some strokes of luck. I had queried a fantasy novel and I’m bad at rejection so I sent it to twenty publishers, all rejections. I waited a year and revised a book and my query because I was mostly getting passes before anyone had even read the pages of my book. So I tested the query and wanted to just send it to one agent and found this one that looked super cool and editorial. I sent one query and didn’t realize that she was the most active agent and the fastest requester. She would request anything she had an interest in. Five minutes later she requested the whole manuscript. I had been revising the book and tried to clean it up. An hour after I sent it to her, she replied and said that she was really looking forward to it. It was fantasy based in Norse Mythology and she told me that she had a soft spot for Norse Mythology and she felt really good about this. The moment I read that I knew she was going to offer me representation. I had a feeling. So I sent five more queries just to be sure, so I knew I was getting the right agent. The next day she offered me representation so I had to email everyone else and told them that I had an offer.
We cleaned up the book, did one round, got a lot of passes but a couple of them were really positive passes. So when I wrote The Love That Split the World, we went back to those editors and had a feeling that one of them would be the right editor. I’m so lucky that I wrote my second book before my first one ended up coming out. Second books are very hard because by then you realize that everyone in the world won’t love your book and that people will dislike it and I’m going to get tagged in negative reviews. I then had the experience for book three, which hasn’t been formally announced, but my third book I’m writing under contract which is totally different because you realize that somebody wants it and I have no ideas and I don’t remember how to write a sentence. It’s really good to stockpile your writing and then give someone one thing and then have the next seven years set for you.
AF: Is that the writing advice that you’d give to your younger self?
EH: I would but I know I wouldn't have listened. I don’t have regrets because I would’ve eventually had to learn how to write under contract. Even if I had stockpiled seven novels, at the end of those seven novels I still would've had to write something new, knowing how hard it would’ve been to share it with the real world. I do think you and everyone at Interlochen are in a position where they are going to come out so much more prepared because you’re doing critiques and workshops. You’re all set up for success in a way that a lot of people aren’t because they’re just stumbling into the art world.
AF: Are there any artists or authors that inspire your work?
EH: Yeah, there are so many but this is always such a hard question for me to answer. There aren’t a lot of things that I’m very confident in as far as my own ability, [but] I definitely think I’m one of my harshest critics. I’ve managed to find my own voice pretty naturally. I have been compared to Maggie Stiefvater and Alice Hoffman. So at that point I realized I needed to read both Stiefvater and Hoffman and when I did it I realized it was the best compliment on the planet. It wasn’t an intentional thing, I can’t trace what has inspired the way I write. Going back to A Wrinkle in Time, I do know that Madeleine’s weirdness as a kid was really inspiring to me. I loved how weird the worlds she made were. She also was a believer, she knew the world was weird. This kind of intersection of fantasy, sci-fi, and magical realism and fabulism, is probably from loving her so much as a kid. I also remember reading The Giver in fifth grade and that might’ve been the first time I read a book and realized it could change the way you saw the world. I was so shell-shocked to realize that you can create a world that’s so different from the world we live in. I think that that was something that stuck with and changed the way I thought about the world and books. At that point, that’s when I deeply fell in love with reading.
AF: What intrigues you about young adults and Young Adult literature?
EH: I think what initially started it is when I studied creative writing in college and a lot of what I was reading I wasn’t connecting to on an emotional level. What I was being presented with was what the canon of “good literature” looks like. A lot of American literature has just been straight white cis males, and not to say that those books aren’t great, but with that came the post-Hemingway movement of just stating the facts and clean, typical, stereotypical, masculine writing. I think that what I loved about YA was that it didn’t try to limit emotion. And what I was reading for school was a distant, removed feeling to me and it was harder for me to get into because I’m a very emotional person. I wanted something that didn’t put sentiment as this negative thing or that made it seem like you were failing in your writing if you were writing sentimental or hyper emotional, melodramatic. I love that in YA people are emotional and it’s not bad writing to talk about it, or to admit it, or to show your characters being emotional or try to let your readers feel that character’s emotions. I felt like it was a very safe place to be writing emotional characters and that’s what I’m very excited about.
AF: Exactly, we can’t always have only images. Images are wonderful but it helps to have feeling to the image.
EH: And it’s amazing when a writer can do that and just give you the image and you’re still crying because they’re not in the character’s head. I hope that I can get better and better at that element, but I’m still very much a character writer. I hope that I can develop subtlety while still having the emotional punch. I love that about YA and I love that it’s big feelings because I’m big on feelings. I love how intense everything was at that time in my life; I was never in the middle. I was either way high up or way low down. It’s a confusing, hard time, but looking back sometimes I realize I don’t miss the low lows but I miss the high highs because I don’t get them nearly as often as I did. It’s a time in my life that I still really value and I think I’m only now unpacking everything that has formed me from that time and I still just love to dwell in it.