Interview With Jennine Capó Crucet

Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of two books: the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers, which was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book, the winner of the 2016 International Latino Book Award, and was cited as a best book of the year by NBC Latino and the Miami Herald; and the story collection How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Book Award, and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award. A Contributing Op-Ed Writer for the New York Times, her writing has appeared on PBS NewsHour, the Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. She’s the winner of an O. Henry Prize and the Picador Fellowship. Raised in Miami, she currently teaches at the University of Nebraska in the Institute for Ethnic Studies and the Creative Writing Program.

The interview took place at Miami Dade College during the Miami Book fair last November. I was able to catch up with her for half an hour before she was off to speak on a panel and to read an excerpt from her new book Make Your Home Among Strangers. I had just finished reading her debut novel the month prior to this interview and How to Leave Hialeah during the previous summer. I was excited to ask about how the process of writing a novel differed from that of short stories and to discuss the importance of place in storytelling.

T.C. Jones: When did you first begin writing?

Jennine Capó Crucet: I’ve been writing since I can remember. When I was a kid I’d have dreams then I’d wake up and write them down. They were very strange stories—I guess you could argue that as a child, I sort of started off writing magical realism. I’d read these stories and to my parents and I remember they became kind of concerned; I suspect they were worried I would become one of those artist types. As years went by, they tried to discourage me from what they told me over and over again couldn’t be more than a weird, pointless hobby. A lot of the messaging I was getting from them was that you couldn’t really make a life from writing. They really wanted me to be a doctor and kept sort of telling me that I wanted to be a doctor, and for a while I bought into that, though it was never really true in my heart. I went to college as a biology major and after a few weeks I switched to English. It wasn’t until college that I began to formalize my training as a writer, to see it as much more than a hobby.

T.C.: Is your family supportive of your writing?

JCC: They get very anxious. They see things in my fiction that remind them of our life, or our family, or me, so they figure the rest of it must be true. Part of their anxiousness, I think, comes from the worry that readers won’t get that this stuff is made up. They worry a lot about what people think about them; it’s something I’m trying to actively unlearn. In related news, I’ve started writing nonfiction (as an Op-Ed columnist for the New York Times), and they are very unhappy about that.

T.C.: Your writing, particularly you book How to Leave Hialeah, has a strong sense of place. How did growing up in South Florida, particularly Hialeah and your Cuban Heritage, influence your writing?

JCC: Growing up in South Florida made me observant about my surroundings. Miami is a busy place and growing up here made me fearless on the page. I’m so lucky to have grown up down here, I’m grateful for it. There is so much going on at the same time in this city, and I didn’t realize how much it influenced my aesthetic. For instance, I’ve never really struggled with plot—my issue has always been reining the action in. I’ve always had very active characters, and that’s a consequence of growing up here.

T.C.: You grew up in South Florida, spent time in New York, and now are a professor in Nebraska. Has the movement and transition between places been difficult? You’ve tackled some of these issues in your latest book Make Your Home Among Strangers, and I am hoping you can elaborate a little more on the intersections of home, travel, and place.

JCC: Before the election, I would’ve told you that Lincoln, Nebraska is great because there’s always a parking space and shit is cheap. Also, people sort of do their own thing and respect each other’s spaces—it leans westward that way. But since the election—and this is happening nationally, so it’s not specific to Lincoln—we’re seeing more boldness in people’s expression of their bigotry. That said, part of the reason I was willing to move to Nebraska is because that part of the country has weirdly always been a productive climate for me (I wrote all of How to Leave Hialeah while living in Minnesota and Illinois, for instance). I get really homesick in these places, I feel it like a literal ache, and that ache—that sense of lack or loss—is a productive emotion for me to write from. I tell my students who want to be writers to get away from the place they are from for a while, because the only way they’re going to really learn about that place, and about what they care for the most, is to lose it.

T.C.: As fiction writers, is it our duty to make political statements? Is fiction a form where the political should be embraced?

JCC: If I were to enter a story with the goal of conveying a particular political agenda, the story will fail, and whatever I was hoping would come across won’t. Ultimately, a writer’s job is to create and shape a sensory experience that encourages compassion and empathy in the reader. That is the political act. I try to render the lives of my characters as accurately as possible: it is our job as writers to show people’s problems accurately and for the reader to draw judgements from that. With Make Your Home Among Strangers, I’ve always said I didn’t set out to write a political novel, but when I got to the end—when I finished writing the book—I realized I’d done just that: I’d written a very political novel. And in revision, I embraced that—but it emerged naturally from the materials.

T.C.: A couple of stories in How to Leave Hialeah utilize the second person point of view. What was the reasoning behind this choice? What did the second person allow you to do with the story that other point of view choices would not have?

JCC: Normally I try to avoid the second person. I started to write the title story of that collection in the third person and realized, in the writing of it, that it didn’t feel immediate enough. There was a bit too much distance between the narrator and the main character. So third person was not the point of view the story wanted to be in (Yes, I believe stories tell us what point of view they want to be in). So I tried writing it in the first person and elements of the story ended up feeling very… whiny? I sort of knew from the beginning that this story might need to be in the second person but I avoided it and tried everything else first. The second person can be such a powerful choice that I worried it would dominate the voice. But I realized that the story needed to evoke empathy and make the reader feel like they were in that place, and the second person worked because it allowed the voice to single out the reader.

T.C.: You’ve written both an award winning short story collection and a nationally acclaimed novel; are you equally at home in both stories and novels?

JCC: The experience of writing each was so, so different. I think my temperament is better suited to the short story, as I can be a little manic when it comes to my energy, and story writing suits that. There is a real comfort for me in writing nonstop for three or four days in a row and finishing a draft of a story, then sleeping for two days straight. With the novel, it was more about stamina and pacing myself. My whole life revolved around it. And I had to train myself to be a healthier worker while writing it—the binge writing method I use when I write stories was totally not sustainable in my work on the novel. I had to become more disciplined in my sleeping and eating habits. Seriously, writing a novel changed my life. For that reason, the novel has become more enticing to me as a form, because it helped to regulate my life in a way that nothing else could. But ever since the election, I’ve drifted back to what I think of as my natural pattern, and as a result stopped the work I was doing on a new novel and I’ve gone back to stories and shorter forms like essays. So yeah, my heartburn is back. My addiction to coffee has reached new, terrifying levels. These days, I am awake and working when most people have been asleep for a few hours. Sometimes my hair goes unwashed, emails go unanswered, whole bowls of cereal go soggy after I’ve poured them because—in the rush of trying to get back to work—I’ve forgotten I was hungry in the first place. I feel at home in that pattern, yes, and it’s always proved productive. But just because it’s home doesn’t mean it’s a healthy place for me to be. I’m slowly circling back to the new novel. Hopefully I’ll get there before I have a heart attack or something.