Interview with Joshua Henkin

By | on June 7, 2012 | 2 Comments

DH: Joshua, I think you decided at an early point that The World Without You would take place in a single weekend and almost at a single place, the Frankel homestead in Lenox, Massachusetts. It sounds like a classical idea to me…you know, the old unity of time and place that used to be considered ideal for drama. This strategy implies a love for a high degree of organization.

I imagine these restrictions imposed a special concentration and discipline on your writing and also presented special challenges. What appealed to you about this format.

JH: I think of novels as being similar to love relationships.  Your new relationship is a rebound from the previous one.  I spent ten years writing Matrimony, which takes place over the course of twenty years, and I wanted to do something different this time.  I went back and reread Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, like The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday.  I also returned to Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm—another book that takes place over a single holiday.  I was thinking, too, about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, also a family saga told in relatively (if not quite as) compressed time, with the various family members arriving from their respective cities and lives.  All this was percolating around inside me, and I was thinking about the difficulties of writing books like those, all of which I admire a lot.

I agree—writing in compressed time presents a particular set of challenges to the novelist, two of which jump out most immediately to me.  With Matrimony the challenge was determining what to leave out, whereas with The World Without You the challenge was determining what to leave in.  With compressed time, you often have to rely on flashback more than you otherwise would, and you need to do that without losing the forward momentum of your book.

The second challenge—and it’s related—is to deal with what I call the Updike problem.  Updike once wrote a review in The New Yorker of a novel that took place over 48 hours, and he essentially said, “Come on, it’s not believable that so many important things would happen in so short a stretch of time.”  I always tell my graduate students to think of the Passover question:  Why is this night different from all other nights?  Every short story, every novel has to answer that question either explicitly or implicitly.  But the bar is set higher when you’re writing a book that takes place over seventy-two hours.  How do you make these days so important that you can encompass everything you need to encompass in a way that’s both organic and true?  What you need to do is make this night so radically different from all other nights that it absolutely, indisputably couldn’t take place on any other night.  And that’s the case with The World Without You.  You have a memorial for a young man who has been killed in Iraq.  You have a family flying in from all corners of the earth.  You have parents who are separating.  You have a widow who’s moving on.  The book starts with everyone at a crisis point, and that’s the kind of novel that does well in compressed time and space.

DH: I know you are a proponent of realism in fiction. That fantasy and surrealism in fiction don’t appeal to you as a writer. Presuming that I have characterized your position correctly, can you expand on what turns you off about approaches other than realism?

JH: I don’t agree with your characterization of me.  I’m a practitioner of realist fiction, not a proponent of it.  In fact, I don’t think of novelists qua novelists as proponents of anything.  Politicians, theologians, sociologists, philosophers:  those are proponents.  Novelists tell stories, nothing more and nothing less.  They try to write characters who come so fully to life the reader knows them as well as she knows her own friends and family.  And I’m not turned off by surrealism.  Kafka and Borges are great writers.  It’s worth noting, too, that the same guy who wrote Dubliners also wrote Ulysses, so there are writers who do both.  

But you’re right—in terms of where my interests as a writer lie, they’re in realist fiction.  I think the world as we know it, the world as I know it, is infinitely wondrous; I don’t need any more magic than that.  My own heart lies with writers like Alice Munro, whom I could read endlessly, with writers like Tobias Wolff, whose memoir This Boy’s Life I take as a kind of model.  That book (and here I don’t think it matters that it’s a memoir, not a novel) feels so not written it’s as if Wolff just stepped out of the way and let his characters take over.  But I know from experience how much writing and rewriting goes into making something feel not written.

DH: Joshua, you lead the program in creative writing at Brooklyn College. You’ve also depicted writing workshops in your earlier novel, Matrimony. I once lifted that great joke from Matrimony about the writing student who had rigor mortis setting in depicted in first person. As a reader, what do you look for in great writing and how often do you find it in your students?

JH: I’m very fortunate to teach only graduate students and to teach the very best of them.  In a typical year at BC, we get 500 fiction applications for 15 spots in our incoming MFA class.  Year after year I make sure that our admissions committee is aesthetically diverse (I mean, we have people reading whose taste is deeply, deeply different from that of the other readers), and yet year after year we all agree about the applicants, certainly about the very strongest of them.  With the best work it just announces itself.  It’s like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said years ago about pornography:  “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”  The same is true of good writing.

DH: You have one character who almost makes a contest out of picking up stray tennis balls and putting them in a bucket. Your characters are, for the most part, intensely competitive. You have a potential Nobel Prize winner in the Frankel family. And those family members who can’t compete, like Aram at word games, stick out almost like family embarrassments.

Your novel is full of games and contests. There are the contests between people who are in conflict with each other. Some of those conflicts are verbal. Other conflicts are behavioral, like when Noelle and her family refuse to eat the non-kosher food. Another conflict draws blood.

When you write, Josh, you seem to be looking for a fight. You seem to be asking where the contest is because that’s what you want to write about.  Is that the way you think about it?

JH: It’s a practical issue, in part.  Novels need conflict; without conflict, all you have is a character sketch, or even worse.  I’m always telling my graduate students that if they have their character sitting alone on a bus doing nothing but thinking her thoughts, the reader will learn only so much about her.  Inertia—doing nothing—isn’t very illuminating, certainly when it comes to the exclusion of everything else.  And too often with student writing that’s what you see—solitude and inertia, and that’s it.  But if you put your character on a bus and a stranger sits down next to her and places his or her hand on her thigh, then your character has to do something:  she has to make a choice.  She can move to another seat.  She can scream out.  She can put her hand back on the stranger’s thigh.  She can do nothing—but in this case, doing nothing is doing something.  Character is revealed during crucible moments, and that’s why the novelist needs conflict.  It’s why characters must always be placing their metaphorical hands on each other’s thighs.

In The World Without You, specifically, I’m writing about fairly high-powered characters, and it’s been my experience that high-powered people tend to be competitive.  The kid in your high school class who always got the best grade on his calculus test didn’t do it by not giving a shit about getting the best grade on his calculus test.  I tend to think of writers as competitive, but then if you talk to lawyers they’ll probably tell you lawyers are competitive.  And doctors will say the same about doctors, and engineers about engineers.  Maybe people are just competitive.  There certainly are a lot of wars out there.  The other thing I’d say is that writers engage in sublimation.  We’re allowed to live things on the page that we can’t live in our own lives without doing serious damage to ourselves and the people we love.  I think if you asked my wife and kids, if you asked my friends, they wouldn’t tell you I was looking for a fight.  That’s because I get to do my fighting on the page.

DH: Another way of looking at The World Without You is that you are exploring the idea of family. Your title indirectly implies the idea of family since the person missing is presumed to be significant and that implies a larger social grouping than just one person.

The Frankel family is sort-of like a galaxy spinning itself part. It somehow coheres but maybe the coherence is temporary. It’s not clear that the family will ever meet as a group in Lenox again. Distant sisters vow to keep in touch while inwardly wondering why they should bother.

What’s your verdict on the family? Is family the most important thing or is self-fulfillment the most important thing?

In the same way that novelists aren’t proponents, they aren’t in the business of rendering verdicts, certainly not on something as broad as family.  You say I’m exploring the idea of family in The World Without You, but I don’t agree.  Ideas are poison for novelists.  Flannery O’Connor once said that fiction writers need a certain amount of stupidity, and I couldn’t agree more.  I don’t mean that a good novel doesn’t make you think, but the way it makes you think is different from, say, how John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” makes you think.  If you’re writing about thinking people, then what they think will permeate your novel.  But it’s what they think, not what you think, and in any case, what a character thinks—her opinions—is only a small part of who she is.  I’ve read stories where it’s clear that the character is simply a mouthpiece for the writer, and those stories don’t work; they’re lies.

Good fiction is always about the particular, never about the general.  The critic may tell you that Toni Morrison is writing about African-American women, but she isn’t.  She’s writing about Sula.  Tim O’Brien isn’t writing about the Vietnam War; he’s writing about Jimmy Cross.  Updike isn’t writing about New England WASPs; he’s writing about Rabbit Angstrom.  You should be able to finish my novel and have no idea how I feel about family.  I don’t even know how I feel about family.  I mean, I know how I feel about my family.  But your family?  I’ve never even met them.

DH: Stories are about what happens next. That’s strongly implied in your novel. One writes a sentence and another sentence, which is linked to it somehow, has to follow. You step out your front door in the morning and something is bound to happen.

In your novel, you mention some isolated sisters who are neighbors of the Frankels who have never married and pretty much have lived their whole lives in their house. It seems to be implied that those are characters who you would not want to write about.

I think Calvino says somewhere that either the lovers live happily ever after or they die chained to opposite walls. I think that Northrop Frye says something like either the story traditionally ends in a marriage or characters die.

Is writing an optimistic act? Do you write because you feel positive about life? Or do you want to cultivate objectivity about reality and explore it? What kind of call are you making?

Thanks for the interview, Josh.

JH: I do think fiction is about what happens next.  If it’s not, why would anyone read on?  And even at the end of a novel, there’s always going to be the question of what happens after that, because unless you kill off your characters (rarely a good idea), there’s always going to be more to come.  Almost inevitably, then, you’re capturing only a part of your characters’ lives, and so you need to do it sufficiently well that what you reveal implies more.  The tip of the iceberg implies the whole iceberg.  As for those sisters I mention briefly toward the end of the book, don’t be so sure I wouldn’t want to write about them.  It’s true that I tend to be most interested in characters who are out there engaged with the world, but one of the pleasures of writing fiction is that when you start to live with your characters you find depths to them that you hadn’t been aware of.

I don’t know whether I’d say writing is an optimistic act.  I mean, on some level you have to be wildly, delusionally optimistic to write fiction.  It’s so hard to do well, and the material rewards are so paltry.  But I wouldn’t say I write because I feel optimistic about life.  I happen to have an optimistic temperament, but there are plenty of writers who don’t.  No two writers are alike, because no two people are alike.  That’s the starting point for me.  The old-fashioned, almost quaint belief that every human being is unique.  If you don’t believe that as a writer, you’re in trouble.

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2 Responses to “Interview with Joshua Henkin”

  1. June 7, 2012

    Jhenkin Reply

    Thanks, Dennis.  I really enjoyed doing the interview.  Josh

  2. June 7, 2012

    Dennis Haritou Reply

    You’re welcome, Josh. You can have a beer at any time.

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