Twenty years ago, Patricia Henley’s novel Hummingbird House was a finalist for the National Book Award and The New Yorker Fiction Prize. Henley, a longtime professor in Purdue University’s MFA program, enjoyed the acclaim that her years of research and writing produced.
Then the novel went out of print for a decade. Henley, now 72, felt erased, as if she had to start her career anew. That’s about to change: This powerful, deeply affecting novel will come back into print in November, thanks to upstart publisher Haywire Books, which will release a 20th-anniversary edition of Hummingbird House.
Given the current crisis of immigration and detainment at the southern U.S. border, the story is as timely as ever. The novel closely follows Kate Banner, an American midwife in Central America who is caught between two worlds and rendered nearly powerless by the civil war in Guatemala. Steve Yarbrough, an author and professor at Emerson College, wrote the introduction for the new edition, calling Hummingbird House ambitious and wide reaching. Most impressive, he writes, is the novel’s depiction of the depth of human suffering, “with all the accompanying acts of malice, veniality, cowardice, courage, and humanity that one finds in places where people’s backs are constantly pressed to the wall, their character on trial every single second of every single day.”
Henley renders this suffering in poetic prose. She is also the author of four story collections and another novel, In the River Sweet. She retired from teaching in Purdue University’s MFA program after 26 years there and recently spoke with The Millions about obsessive research, finding your subjects, and the winding, unpredictable trajectory of a literary life.
The Millions: It’s said that books have long lives, and that seems true of this 20th-anniversary rerelease of your novel Hummingbird House, a National Book Award finalist. What has this book’s life looked like, from conception to now?
Patricia Henley: The idea came to me in 1988 when I first traveled to Guatemala. I’d had a romantic breakup and needed to prove my independence and thought that traveling to a war-torn country would give me some perspective, which it did. Standing on a street corner in Antigua, a British doctor told me the story of an American priest who had lived and worked in the Mayan highlands until he was murdered, a victim of la violencia, the civil war. The Mayan people asked his family if they could cut out his heart and bury it behind their church because they felt his heart belonged in the Guatemalan highlands. From that moment, my path was set. It took 10 years from the original idea to holding the book in my hand. I went through two agents. Neither liked the story or thought it had a chance. I made five trips to Central America. I was obsessed. It was a heady time. I was still young and had so much energy. I felt I could do it all. I was completely obsessed with the novel, the travel, the research. I dreamed about it.
When it came out in 1999 that was validation. When it became a finalist for The National Book Award that seemed almost secondary, after all I’d been through. Then it went out of print. It’s been out of print for a decade at least. Jon Sealy bringing a new edition into the world feels like recovering from a long illness, a generalized malaise. I’m not exaggerating.
TM: That’s fascinating. Could you describe what that time was like?
PH: I have been writing for decades. When I was young there was always the longing to keep me going, longing to be heard, to be published, to be accepted as part of the grand conversation writers are having. As time went by, and some of my dreams came true, I was fueled by that. And Hummingbird House and its accolades were validating, inspiring to me. When the book was sold to a different house than the one that originally published it, and that new house cared nothing for it, allowing it to go out of print, I felt as if I’d been erased. That happens to writers, I know. I am not saying my case is unusual. Just that the book being out of print left me feeling like an outsider, as if I had to build my career all over again.
TM: Hummingbird House covers difficult terrain in terms of the personal and political, as does your novel In the River Sweet. I recall you once saying that the most fulfilling part of the entire process of making a book was the writing itself. Not publishing, not winning awards: being alone and writing. Is this still true for you? How do you hold that pleasure in writing alongside such deeply felt and seemingly difficult subject matter?
PH: So glad you remembered that. It’s true for me now more than ever. Isak Denisen said that she wrote a little every day, without hope, without despair. Writing a little every day feels like a gift in my life, especially now that I’m 72 years old. I haven’t lost my mind. Or my health. As for the second part of your question, sometimes writing about difficult subjects requires a dispassionate approach to the job, a little like a surgeon, I imagine, engaged in life-and-death matters, but cool.
TM: Because you’re passionate about these subjects, how are you able to get the necessary distance to be dispassionate?
PH: A switch gets flipped in my brain when I start to write. My psyche becomes all about the sentence-by-sentence, image-by-image work. The process of writing supports a coolheadedness, I think.
TM: What has it been like to return to this material for the rerelease, and what have you noticed this time around? Did you make any changes for this edition?
PH: I did not make any changes to the text. Jon Sealy at Haywire Books felt that it holds up. And the tragedy of the Guatemalan people goes on. I hope the book will enlighten some readers about the history of the Guatemalan people and all that they have suffered and what drives them to the border between Mexico and the United States. I did, however, change the dedication. I decided to dedicate this edition to my grandchildren. I have six. Most of them are old enough now to read this book. Perhaps they will someday. I am always excited by my communiques with them. We communicate primarily by text message. And it has gradually dawned on me that they are beginning to see me outside my role as Nana. This book took 10 years of my life to complete. Writing it clarified my own identity. I hope my grandchildren will know me by this book, as well as by all the memories we share.
TM: In some ways, the 20 years since Hummingbird House came out are a blip in time, especially given the current situation on the Mexico/United States border. Along with that history, has the latest news been on your mind as you prepare for the rerelease?
PH: Yes. I have not returned to Guatemala since I finished the book. Of course, I naively thought that once the civil war ended life would improve for all Guatemalans. But from what I read, that has not been the case. Gangs are a problem, the climate crisis is a problem, on top of the issues that have always been there, primarily the severe inequities monetarily. An oligarchy runs the country and takes in most of any profits and those people pay little or no taxes. That’s my understanding. So for the average Mayan family, nothing trickles down. Who can blame them for wanting to send someone to the U.S. to make a decent wage?
TM: Do you have a favorite part of the craft of fiction? What do you gravitate toward as a writer and a reader?
PH: Hmm. I started out as a poet, so I suppose lyricism is fun, always fun. What Robert Olen Butler calls “sensual selectivity” is an enjoyable part of writing, being observant then figuring out details to include to create what John Gardner called “the vivid and continuous dream.” As a reader my tastes vary. I spent last winter reading all of Jean Thompson’s books. I love how messed up her women characters are. But they are also resilient, a trait I admire, a trait I imagine many readers admire. I’m in a period of enjoying family stories. Stories of women becoming more who they are always appeal to me.
TM: Does your subject matter choose you, or do you choose your subject matter?
PH: There has to be an urge in the writer toward certain subjects. Then, you open yourself to exploring those subjects. Once you open yourself, the universe sends news of that subject matter to you. Does that sound too New Age? I hope not. When I went to Guatemala for the first time I was interested in the civil war and the fate of the Mayan people, particularly the women and children. I was also interested in the ex-pat life, how people make that work. So many people walked right up to me and gave me gifts that allowed me to write the book. They told me stories. They took me places.
TM: Your first book of stories, Friday Night at Silver Star, was published by Graywolf in 1986, and your most recent collection, Other Heartbreaks, came out from Engine Books in 2011. Now you’re working with a new press, Haywire Books, for Hummingbird House. What have you gleaned about publishing over that time?
PH: When I was young, without any books to my name, I thought naively that publishing would go on as it had before and that I would connect with a publishing house and an editor and be with that house and editor my entire life. [Laughs.] I’ve been published by Three Rivers Press, Carnegie-Mellon Press, Graywolf Press, MacMurray & Beck, Pantheon, Engine Books, and now Haywire Books. You go through the doors that open is one way of looking at that.
TM: So you’ve encountered some closed doors?
PH: Are you kidding? I get rejected on a regular basis.
TM: You describe writing as a gift, but it also seems like something you’ve chosen, a life you’ve made. Where did that come from, for you?
PH: I started reading before I went to elementary school. The life in books was endlessly fascinating to me. I wanted to be a writer from an early age and I was fortunate enough to have been encouraged by my mother and my teachers.
TM: What’s next for you?
PH: I have about 65 pages of micro-memoirs, inspired by Abby Thomas and Beth Ann Fennelly. Some have been published in journals. Brevity and Atticus Review most recently. I kept thinking these short essays would leave me alone but they keep coming. Now I’m on my way to a full-length manuscript entitled You Could Live Here: Migrating to Cronehood. Dictionaries describe a crone as an older woman with magical power. These micro-memoirs, as a whole, are about embracing aging and living alone. I think some people still pity women who live alone, but there are, I dare say, millions of us who celebrate our solitude and freedom.
TM: We met when you were a professor and I was a student in Purdue’s MFA program. How has your writing life operated around teaching, and now in retirement?
PH: I taught at Purdue for 26 years. Before that I taught high school and at a technical college, and before that I taught in the Poets-in-the-Schools program. Around 40 years total. It’s very easy to give up writing for teaching. Teaching has immediate rewards, even something so small as a stack of papers graded can feel more satisfying than sitting down to a blank computer screen. So I had to pay myself first, as financial advisors tell us we should do. To pay myself first required getting up early, around five or six in the morning, and writing for as long as possible before going in to my day job. Sometimes that might have meant only a page or 250 words. But I did it. Now I’m so lucky to have the freedom to create the shape of my days. I still teach—and love short-term teaching stints. But not being tangled up with an institution and its meetings is the greatest freedom.
TM: What do you advise fledgling writers?
PH: Don’t take on too many domestic and financial responsibilities until you have established the writing habit. Decide what you’re willing to give up in order to be a writer. Are you willing to leave social gatherings early so that you can get up and write the next morning? Are you willing to give up being in control of how your home is cared for, to hire a cleaner, to train your 10-year-old to do his own laundry? When asked how she raised so many children and still wrote books, Ursula Le Guin said, “Benign neglect.” Will you learn to say no when volunteers are called for? Certain habits and sacrifices are necessary. And it’s likely no one else will enthusiastically support you in these decisions. It’s all up to you.