Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His new novel, The World Without You, has just been published by Pantheon. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
I had the singular pleasure of reading The World Without You over the two days in which the book is set–July 4th and 5th. As Josh reminded me, the timing of the book’s release was not utter coincidence and my experience was not, perhaps, as unique as I’d like to imagine. Regardless, it’s a pretty satisfying alignment. (Not so satisfying that I recommend you wait a full year to read it, however.) A few days later, Josh ever so kindly sat down with me in Park Slope to discuss the novel, as well as the ins and outs of his writing experiences to date.
When you had the idea for the story, did you conceive of it as a novel? Or did it grow into one?
I think I knew it would be a novel. I read stories, too, but I’m not someone who starts writing a story and then it grows into a novel. Even though it was compressed time, I knew it would be from a lot of points of view. So it definitely did not feel like a story.
So it was fairly structured beforehand?
No. I mean, it was in the sense that I knew it would take place over a few days. I never plan out my work. I had to write 2,000 pages along the way and I made a lot of mistakes.
Two thousand pages for this novel alone?
Yeah, for the last one (Matrimony) I had to write 3,000 pages. I always throw out a lot of pages and I don’t plan things out at all. So I had no idea where it was going, I just knew that there was a death and a memorial. In the original draft, the parents weren’t even splitting up. And now that’s the central engine driving the book. So yeah, I just sit down and see where it goes. There’s a lot of trial and error.
It’s a large cast of characters, for something that takes place in a more or less confined space over a period of a few days. I read somewhere that the original tension of the book was between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law, the gulf between their two losses. So I’m curious as to how all these other siblings made their way into the novel.
You’re right, that was the original conception. It was very much a mother-in-law/daughter-in-law book. I knew there would be sisters and I knew that I was telling it from different points of view. The more I wrote the more I realized these women, everyone, is an adult. They have their own lives. What’s going on in their lives is related to Leo, but it’s not, also. Clarissa’s trying to get pregnant, Lily has her own issues. Noelle certainly has her own issues. As I started to write about each of them, I realized the book was a lot longer than I thought it was.
I reread Rick Moody’s the Ice Storm shortly before I wrote this book. That, too, is a book that takes place over a single holiday—Thanksgiving in that case—and had to widen up the cast of characters. I think I was subconsciously influenced by that. I think most novels have a single protagonist. It became apparent to me as I was writing further that this didn’t have a single protagonist—it was really about the whole Frankel clan.
Do you see a couple of characters as more central than the others?
For some reason, I felt a little closer to Noelle than I did to the other characters.
I was gonna say—Noelle, maybe. I don’t know. I have affection for them all. Noelle’s obviously the one who’s most different from the rest, so she sticks out. And certainly Marilyn is a character who’s got a very strong personality. And Thisbe because she’s not a blood relative and from a different place, culturally, certainly sticks out, too. So maybe those three on some level. But it feels like it’s part of a whole. It’s very hard to divide.
Did you find it difficult to write so many central characters?
I mean everything is difficult. Fiction. It wasn’t any harder than anything else. Because it was a very compressed time frame and because it was compressed space, and because there was a big event—two big events—it felt like there was a lot of focus to the book. So once I had that spine, it was easier for me to move around to different points of view. Whereas, if the book was more sprawling in terms of time and space, and if there wasn’t a big central event, I think the book could’ve become diffuse. Because it was so focused already, I think it wasn’t that hard to do that—beyond the way in which everything is hard.
So I know that you’ve gotten the gender question a lot, but it is interesting to me from a male author—why did you chose to show us grief from so many female points of view?
So much of what I do, what any fiction writer does, is subconscious. They’re just the characters that came to me. I didn’t set out to write a book about women, I just happen to have written a book about women.
In my first book, Swimming Across the Hudson, the characters were both guys. In Matrimony, it was one man, one woman. It just came to me that way. I have gotten the question a lot and I understand it, but I’m always perplexed why it’s so interesting to people. Because people don’t ask you ‘what’s it like to write about a character who’s shy if you’re gregarious, who’s rich if you’re poor.’ People are very focused on the question of gender. I feel old-fashioned in the sense that I feel like fiction’s about getting out of your own experience.
Do you tend to pick settings that are familiar to you?
In general, I do. I actually have not spent that much time in the Berkshires. So I drove up there with a tape recorder and walked around Lenox and Great Barrington and Stockbridge. I set some of my stuff in fictional towns—the college scenes in Matrimony take place in Nordington, which is based loosely on North Hampton, but it’s a fictional map. But if I’m using real places, I do tend to set it in places where I’ve lived. New York, San Francisco, Jerusalem. I’m much better at imagining people I’ve never met and hearing them say things I’ve never heard said and do things I’ve never known people to do than I am at imagining places.
How was the process of writing Book 3, compared to the experience of writing Books 1 and 2?
Every book is different. And every book is hard. I think the one thing I’ve learned over time is that you learn how to deal with the mess. For a couple years, the questions is not whether it’s going to be a good novel or a bad novel, but whether it’s going to be a novel at all. I think having been in a situation where the book is so problematic that you don’t know how it’s ever going to work out, and then it has worked out—having been there allows you to endure the mess that I think is necessary. But the page is just as blank every time. And God knows what the next book is going to be like. It’s always hard. If I write twenty books, each time I’ll feel like I could never do it again. But I’d say that of the three books, Matrimony was the toughest, in terms of how long the process took. I think for me, five years is a reasonable time. Ten years was the last book. Ten years feels like too much. But, you know, it takes as long as it takes.
I feel like I’ve often heard writers say that there was no experience like writing their first book—when they were writing more for themselves than for anyone else.
My experience with my first book was weird because I felt like I was teaching myself how to write a novel. I’d written stories in graduate school. And actually the book was under contract—my agent sold it based on fifty pages. So I wasn’t really ready for myself. So I don’t romanticize the writing of the first book, I really don’t.
What words of wisdom do you have for young writers who’ve been trained to write short stories and are trying to make that jump to writing a novel?
Yeah, I think it’s very hard. They’re very different. I don’t think a novel is just a longer story. I think a novel deals with time in a different way. In terms of advice, I guess I’d tell people to read a lot of novels. And to think about extending the arcs of their scenes. You see with a lot of story writers—even excellent story writers—who want to write novels, that they’re in love with the white space. They want to get to the end of the scene.
Something interesting about The World Without You is that it’s the longest of my books, but covers the shortest amount of time. Swimming Across the Hudson covered, I think, one year. Matrimony covers twenty years. This covers three days. So, think about extending your scenes. Read a lot of novels. For the most part novels are not simply larger stories. I think most stories are principally about a single moment. I don’t think of novels as being principally about a single moment.
Do you see them as a compilation of single moments?
Sometimes. Not necessarily. I often see among my grad students first novels, there’s too much of that. Each chapter feels like it has its own epiphany and it doesn’t necessarily have a bigger arc. I feel like I’ve come to recognize what kind of story is a story and what kind of story is a novel. Obviously a story is more distilled, a novel is longer, but it’s more than that. The arc is quite different, in general.
What effect does teaching have on your writing? Do you find it to be a burden on your creative faculties?
Not at all. The only way in which it can get in the way of your writing is that it takes time. But I’m pretty good at finding time to write.
I came to writing as a critic, in the sense that, before I was able to do it myself, I had a pretty clear sense of what was working and what wasn’t working in other people’s stories. I have friends who are very good writers who wouldn’t begin to know how to teach, because they perceive much more intuitively. Whereas I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer. So one of the ways I became a more intuitive writer was by becoming a better critic—thinking about what wasn’t working in other people’s stories and helping them.
Obviously my graduate students have not been doing this as long as I have—but I basically feel like we’re all struggling with the same thing. I see time and again, my students struggling with the same things I’m struggling with in my work. So I feel like it’s very helpful. You obviously still have to budget your time, but on balance I feel like it’s great for my writing. And I know a lot of people don’t feel that way, but I feel strongly that it is.
Why do you write?
I think I write, in part, for the same reason I read—just to get out of my own experience. Also, I want the challenge. It’s hard. Creating characters out of nothing. You can do anything as long as it works—it feels like such a tightrope walk. And I’m interested in people. It’s fun to create people. For all those reasons. It seems like a great life. I feel fortunate to be able to do it.