An Interview with Joshua Henkin
Joshua Henkin was in town recently for a reading of his new book The World Without You. I met up with him at Annie Bloom’s Books, one of Portland’s most charming indie bookstores. We talked about the book, how he came to write fiction, the qualities that make a natural storyteller, and the question that is the mother of all fiction.
The World Without You was praised by Publishers Weekly which gave it a starred review and described it as a “less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.” People Magazine described it as a “densely detailed and touching portrait.” And Nina Sankovitch, for the Huffington Post, says, “The World Without You is a heart-searing, eye-tearing, and soul-touching novel about loss and resilience, family and individuals, and the enduring connections that bind us together, no matter how awful a wrenching we endure.”
Describe the story of The World Without You.
It’s about Leo Frankel who was killed in Iraq on July 4th, 2004. A year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and young son get together for his memorial. The parents are about to split up because of the grief. They can’t grieve together. We know they’re splitting up, but the sisters don’t know. So it’s what happens over the course of the holiday. Two of the sisters are quite successful in the traditional sort of way. One of the sisters was in a lot of trouble in high school in a kind of sex, drugs, and expulsion sort of way. She has ended up in Israel at age 25 and has become an Orthodox Jew. She and her husband and their four sons come back. There are a lot of secrets. It’s a family drama.
Is this an Iraq war book?
It’s not a war book. One thing I’ve been struck by is something my agent said to me months ago: “What are you going to say to people when they ask you about Daniel Pearl?” I said, “Oh come on, they’re not going to ask me about Daniel Pearl.” She said, “Oh yes they are.” And she, of course, was right. It’s almost everyone’s first question. The fact was that I wasn’t conscious of Daniel Pearl when I wrote the book. I mean obviously he was in the air, and it must have filtered into my subconscious. I think what a writer does, certainly for a first draft, is very subconscious. Flannery O’Connor talks about how a writer needs a certain amount of stupidity to be able to write, and I think she’s right. I think there are writers who are too smart for their own good. A friend of mine in college wrote her thesis on how adults group objects, versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. That’s a way of saying that kids are more natural storytellers than adults. I think a writer has to teach him or herself to think like a child again, albeit like a smart sophisticated child. So, for the first draft, I really proceed intuitively.
So, when I see what critics write about the book and they’ll say “Oh, the book’s about family. The book’s about grief. The book’s about the Iraq war. Or the book’s about politics,” though there’s a certain truth to what they’re saying, that’s not what the writer is thinking. For me, I’m just thinking about my characters. My goal as a writer is that at the end of the book the reader feels as if he or she knows the characters, as well as, or better than, the people in their own lives. If I’ve done that, I feel like I’ve succeeded. In order to do that I can’t be distracted by this bigger stuff. I think one of the paradoxes of fiction writing is that the way to write a broad book is to be as narrow as possible. If you are true to your characters, then those ideas will filter in the back door. The best way to write the Great American Novel is not to try to write the Great American Novel.
Think of a book like Olive Kitteridge, which I think is an amazing book. That’s a big book, but it’s big because she’s true to her characters. People say, well Updike writes about WASPs in New England, or Toni Morrison writes about the African American, or Tim O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War, but I don’t think so. I think Updike writes about Rabbit, Morrison writes about Sula, and O’Brien writes about Jimmy Cross. So it’s not that the critics are wrong, they’re right, but critics are apple banana people, and I think of writers as being monkey banana people.
What was your writing evolution?
I started later, well not late, but I started after college. I studied political theory in college. My dad was a law professor, and he always wanted me to get a Ph.D., and I think I had a very perverse idea of what was a very safe traditional career. Just crazy. So I took off a year between college and doing that, and moved out to Berkeley where I was reading fiction manuscripts for a magazine. I saw how many shitty ones there were, and I was oddly inspired. I thought if other people are willing to risk failure, I should be willing to try, too. After I started to take some workshops, I got some encouragement, and I went to Michigan for my MFA. So I kind of always wanted to be a writer. It just didn’t seem realistic.
What is one of your writing strengths?
One of my strengths is revision. In all three of my books I threw out thousands of pages. I totally started over. I don’t get precious. I think the best students are the journalism ones, because they don’t fall in love with the sound of their own voice. People ask me all the time how I feel about throwing out two thousand pages. I say “I feel great about it.” A lot of them are good pages, but they just don’t belong in the book. I don’t have a problem with that. You need to write some bad pages to write some good pages.
What revisions did you make to The World Without You?
In the early drafts, David and Marilyn are not splitting up. That’s huge. I don’t show my work to a lot of people, but I have a friend from graduate school who is a writer himself, and he’s an incredible critic for me. The book was originally about the death, and the memorial and David and Marilyn weren’t splitting up, and he said “Well, I like a lot about this book Josh, the stuff is powerful, but what’s the real tension here? This guy dies and his family is sad. Of course they’re sad, who wouldn’t be sad?” What he was really saying was: what’s new about today, why are you telling the story today? That’s the mother of all fiction questions. You are writing about a series of characters and you could be telling the story any day, any week, any year – so why today? I think every novel has to answer that either directly or implicitly. Where is the urgency? What’s important about now? I didn’t choose to tell the story when Leo died. That would have been a very different story. I’ve chosen to tell it a year after he died at the memorial. It feels true and also it works because it makes you realize this is what’s new. The kids come up, and they don’t know the parents are splitting up, and that sets the book in motion. That all wasn’t there, so I had to totally rewrite the book.
How does this book differ from your previous books?
This book took five years, which for me is not that long. Matrimony took me ten. Swimming Across the Hudson took me three, but that was also a less ambitious book. I feel like Matrimony was about me teaching myself to write a novel. Not that you ever learn, because each book is different.
I wanted to do something totally different (with this book). Matrimony takes place over 20 years and this takes place over three days. On the other hand this is more sprawling. There are seven characters’ points of view. Having this compressed time and this big event, the memorial, allowed me to go into many points of view without making the book fly all over the place. This was a different aesthetic challenge this time. In Matrimony I was trying to figure out what to exclude. What can I skip over? I can’t make it 20 years day by day by day. That’s going to be banal and boring. In this book I had to figure out what to include. For this kind of book, you need a lot of flashback. But you can’t have so much flashback that the book’s not moving forward. The challenges were opposite.
What is your writing schedule?
I write three hours a day, five days a week. On Christmas break and summers I write six or seven hours a day.
What is the most challenging part of writing a novel for you?
For me, the challenge of writing a novel, is it’s not that you think it’s not going to be good enough, you just don’t even know whether it’s going to be a novel at all.
What have you learned over time about the writing process?
I think I learned to tolerate the mess. In each book, you have those stages where you think “this book is such a mess, there’s no way it’s going to come together.” I think it makes it a little easier, even though the page is blank, to know that previously you have been in situations where you knew there was no way it was going to work, and somehow you made it work.
Do you get deflated when you think your book is a mess?
Yes, I definitely get deflated. Absolutely, but I’m a very persevering kind of guy. I have weaknesses as a writer, but one of my strengths is I’m kind of dogged. I think it’s part of my willingness to revise. I’m determined to make the book be the best book it can be. I’m not someone who gives up.
How do you know when your book is done?
My book is done at the point when I realize that further revision is going to weaken the book. And, when I’m so sick of the characters that I know I can’t be with them anymore. But there’s no such thing as a perfect book. Some of the books that I love best are not perfect books. I tend to like ambitious books. You sometimes see books that don’t have any obvious flaws but don’t seem like they’re taking any obvious risks. Then you see books that take risks, but don’t always succeed, but are better for the things that do succeed, and the ways in which they occasionally fail.
Who are authors you turn to when you need inspiration?
Bellow, Cheever, Yates. Alice Munro – she’s an acquired taste. There’s not a lot of fireworks in her books, but there’s a psychological insight that’s pretty rare. Structurally, her stories feel bigger than most novels. The stories are never quite what you think they’re about. I also read Lorrie Moore stories.
What are you reading now?
I brought Nell Freudenberger’s book (The Newlyweds) because I’m reading with her in New York. I brought one of my student’s novels. I promised him I would read his manuscript. I’m always reading. I think a writer who doesn’t read all the time is not a writer.
Joshua Henkin is the author of Swimming Across the Hudson (a Los Angeles Times Notable Book) and Matrimony (a New York Times Notable Book). His stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He directs the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.