In the mid-1970s, author Patricia Henley lived on a commune in Washington state, an experience that influenced some of her earliest stories.
“It was a special time in my life, learning to live without modern conveniences, aiming to cooperate closely with other people,” says Henley, Randolph College’s current Pearl S. Buck Writer in Residence. “For instance, there was a cow co-op. Those involved shared responsibility for one cow, and we received our share of milk. Some of my first stories are set on a communal farm. My senses woke up there, partly because I spent so much time outdoors.”
Henley has since set her novels all over the world, from her native Indiana to Vietnam to Guatemala, where her debut novel, “Hummingbird House,” takes place in the midst of its civil war.
The novel follows an American midwife as she travels there from Nicaragua in the 1980s and “finds what feels like her true cause in fighting the Guatemalan government’s persecution of its indigenous Mayan people,” according to The New York Times review of the book, which notes the relationships the woman forms there and how that impacts her activism. “… The message here seems to be that personal connection is the wellspring of political involvement, and Henley frequently expresses this in expert language.”
A finalist for the National Book Award, “Hummingbird House” celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, which is being marked by a reissue from Richmond-based publisher Haywire Books.
Henley was one of publisher Jon Sealy’s professors at Purdue University, where she taught for more than 20 years.
“The kind of book I’m looking for … is generally realistic fiction that also has a good story,” Sealy says. “… Literary fiction is kind of a fraught term. Generally what I think that means is books that focus as much on a character’s interiority as what’s going on in the external world. This book has both. It’s about this woman’s journey of spiritual regeneration. She’s been working in this war zone for years and kind of looks up and realizes she’s sick of it. So she goes on a physical journey to start going home and that physical journey has a lot of action and obstruction, and there’s a story around it. But that external story parallels sort of her internal journey.”
The reissue comes out Nov. 5, but Sealy is sending advance copies to Randolph in time for Henley’s reading there next week, part of her writer in residence duties. During her four-week residency, which ends Oct. 26, Henley also will teach a workshop seminar master class and meet with students about their work while, ideally, finding time to pursue her own work, says Laura-Gray Street, chair of Randolph’s English department.
“Many writers have started, completed or revised books that have made it into the world afterwards,” says Street, who reached out to Henley about the residency and says she was honored the author accepted their invitation.
“Our students are fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Patricia, to benefit from her careful attention, and to have her and her work as models.”
Here’s more of what Henley had to say about her work in a recent email Q&A:
It’s been 20 years since “Hummingbird House” was released; can you tell me a little bit about what inspired it? It started with a story you were told about an American priest in Guatemala, right?
“I went to Guatemala in 1989, curious about the civil war and the fate of indigenous people. A British doctor told me a story about an American priest who had been murdered during what the Guatemalans called ‘la violencia,’ the 36-year civil war. That set me on a path I had never envisioned taking, writing a novel set in another country.”
What is it like to look back on it 20 years later?
“The entire process, from the initial idea to holding the book in my hands, took 10 years. I was incredibly happy, as a writer, during those 10 years. I think because I was deeply committed to the project. I will temper that — the book did not land with a publisher right away, so the last two years of that 10-year process were not particularly happy. I was anxious and sometimes filled with doubt about the worthiness of the project. But the writing years, and the research, were amazing years for me. One of the great things about the writing life is not knowing what you’ll become obsessed with in five years time or 10.”
You’ve spoken before about how stories have the power to change hearts and minds; was that your intention when you wrote it?
“No. I only wanted to document in story form what I had observed and discovered. Readers respond to fiction more emotionally than they respond to reportage. I think those lessons stick with us.”
What are some stories/books that have done that for you in your own life?
“My early reading in elementary school included ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’ Those are feminist stories of resourceful, strong girls.”
You’ve also talked in the past about the importance of place in your work — how do you establish that? Is it all in the research you do beforehand, or actually visiting a place or being familiar with it from your own experiences, like setting “In the River Sweet” in Indiana, where you grew up?
“Establishing place is done on several fronts. First, the writer pays attention. You become aware of details that may be useful. You put yourself in situations that are rich in detail specific to the place. You keep notes, not really knowing at that point what might be useful. My next step is reading non-fiction about the places in my story. I go back and forth between that book research and down-in-the-street research until I feel I know enough.
“About ‘In the River Sweet,’ it is also set in Vietnam. I went to Vietnam to acquire the details I needed. So you have to be willing to travel.”
You have written in so many genres — fiction, poetry, short stories, even a stage play. Can you talk about your process and how you determine what a story needs to be?
“With ‘Hummingbird House,’ I instinctively knew it had to be a novel because of the scope of the story. A civil war. An entire racial group being persecuted. North Americans caught up in a dangerous situation far from home. These aspects required a large canvas.”
You spent nearly 30 years teaching in Purdue’s creative writing MFA program; what is it like working with aspiring writers, and what advice do you typically give them as they try to find their own voices?
“Stop listening to music with words. Aim for a wordless existence as much as possible. Except, of course, you must read and re-read the work of the writers you love. Those language patterns get embedded in your mind. They become almost like muscle memory. Then you use your own raw material in the form of those tried and true language patterns. You also need to claim solitude for your own. In that space, you’ll begin to hear your own distinctive voice.”
Are you working on anything at the moment?
“I am working on a book-length manuscript of micro-memoirs, short autobiographical lyric essays.”
What’s the best book you’ve read recently?
“I loved ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was published in 2006, but I read it recently. It’s set during the Nigerian Civil War. I honestly could not put it down.”