An Interview with Joshua Henkin, by Sean Jones

Joshua Henkin is the director of Brooklyn College’s MFA program and the author of three novels, including the just-released The World Without You, a meditation on family and grieving set in a Berkshires hideaway. Henkin’s strength as a writer lies in intricately and empathetically developing his characters, even when they are treating themselves and others badly. In The World Without You, Henkin had his work cut out for him; unlike his previous book, Matrimony, which focused mostly on a single couple, The World WithoutYou features an ensemble cast of sisters, husbands, widows, and other relations, all of whom are deeply affected by an echoing tragedy and an eventful weekend.

Mistakes and regrets loom over several of Henkin’s characters, and some confront their mistakes better than others. Henkin himself talked to Slice about how he thrives from his mistakes—in fact, he probably wouldn’t call his three thousand tossed-out pages of Matrimony or two thousand tossed-out pages of Without You mistakes at all. They are process, and the act of processing—for Henkin, his characters, and his MFA students—is the stuff of life.

The World Without You by Joshua Henkin book cover

Are any of the characters in The World Without You drawn from real life?

In the most basic, narrow sense the book is not autobiographical. I would say that, though none of my books are autobiographical, they’ve gotten progressively less autobiographical. In my first novel, SwimmingAcross The Hudson, the parents are very similar to my parents. Matrimony is made up but is about a writer, and it takes place in Ann Arbor where I’ve spent a lot of time. The World Without You is about three daughters, but I don’t have any sisters, and I don’t know anyone who was a journalist killed in the Iraq war, except for ways that we know about it in the press. I’ve spent a little time in the Berkshires, but not a whole lot.

I think for me—and it may be true for many writers— that as you continue to write the books become less about “you” in a narrow sense. But all fiction that really works has to be emotionally autobiographical. Ron Carlson said, “I write from my personal experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.” If you don’t feel at some level like you’re writing from something that’s dangerous, then the characters aren’t going to jump off the page.

Where do you get such detailed characters from, then?

The characters don’t exist until I write them. It’s not like I map them out in advance. Instead, I proceed intuitively; I write a lot of pages, and I throw out a lot of pages. At one point in my life I was thinking about getting a PhD, and one of the things that stopped me from doing it is I realized I didn’t like to do research. I feel like with fiction, at least the kind of fiction I write, you don’t end up doing a lot of research except in that all of life is research. You listen; you try to get to know people; you try to mine your own experiences, and you use your imagination. Flannery O’Connor, in her book of essays Mystery and Manners, said that anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write about for a lifetime, and I think that’s true.

I agree with your sentiment of letting characters guide you, but it must be hard with a large ensemble cast like that of The World Without You. How did you handle this? Was there a certain character or couple you worked from initially to guide the core plot?

My books, like many relationships, are rebounds. Matrimony took place over twenty years, but it’s principally about two characters and is told in two points of view. In some ways Swimming Across the Hudson is even narrower—it’s a first-person book and all in Ben’s head and takes place over about a year. I wanted to write a different kind of book from Matrimony because I had worked for ten years on Matrimony, and I was just sick of it. I wanted to write a book that was at once more compact and more sprawling. And so it became an ensemble cast.

It was easier to do an ensemble cast in The World Without You because I had a seventy-two-hour book with two key events—Leo’s memorial and David and Marilyn’s splitting up. Those rudders anchored the book in a wa ythat allowed me to focus on more characters. I talk about this with my graduate students a lot. You’ll see stories withthree characters in them that feel like they’re incredibly diffuse, and then you’ll see stories with twenty character sthat don’t feel diffuse. It’s less the number of charactersthan the extent to which you have a focus.

In terms of the initial central characters, I had a cousin who died of Hodgkin’s in his early twenties, and I was a toddler at the time, so I didn’t know him, but the extended family got together every year for the Jewish holiday of Purim, and one year my aunt got up and said, “I have two sons.” We were all startled because she once had two sons, but one of those sons had died thirty years before that. And she wasn’t a crazy person—she knew her son wasn’t alive—but I think it was her way of saying that a parent never gets over it. My cousin’s wife, on the other hand, did get over it—she moved on and remarried and had a family. And for me that was the inspiration for the book—the tension between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Marilyn, Leo’s mother, will never move on, whereas Thisbe, Leo’s widow, is already moving on a year later.

All of the characters in the ensemble, from the sisters to Thisbe, have an array of different jobs and talents and life paths that end up shedding light on many parts of American society. Given your characters-first orientation, do you shy away from the idea that this book is some tapestry of modern life?

Yes and no. I always tell my students how I had a friend in college who wrote for her psychology thesis about the different ways that adults group objects and kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. That’s another way of saying kids are more natural storytellers than adults are. Kids think in terms of narratives, they think in terms of the particular, whereas adults think in terms of category. They think about “America” or “loneliness” or “war.” One of the tasks of the fiction writer is to train himself to think like a child again, albeit like a smart, precocious child.

Good fiction is always about the particular, never about the general. What you have to do is inhabit your characters. So as a fiction writer I’m very committed to the idea of not thinking about themes. For me it’s about character; it’s about telling the story and letting the reader get to know the character.

That said, if I set my book in contemporary America and have characters who are engaged in political and cultural issues, then all those themes are going to come in through the back door. But to me it’s important that they come in through the back door, not the front door. I always tell my students that if you want to talk about loneliness or religion or politics or love, then you should become an advice columnist or a sociologist or a philosopher or a rabbi or a priest. Those are all good jobs, but they’re not my job—they’re not the job of the fiction writer.

I thought of Gretchen (a very rich but largely absent grandmother) as the key to the story. I was glad to see her show up in the end. How did she come into the story for you?

I thought about her presence quite early. She is loosely based on a friend of mine’s grandmother whom I’ve never met but who intrigued me—a constant sort of lurking absence who manipulates people with her money. I was interested too in what it might be like to know that, though you’re not incredibly wealthy now, someday you might become incredibly wealthy, and how that can toy with your mind.

In an earlier draft, Gretchen didn’t actually show up. But the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that it was essential that she be there, because she is the lurking presence, and the puppeteer. I felt also that because it is a domestic drama that takes place in such a confined period and during a major event in this family’s life, it felt important that everyone should be on stage at the end.

Your book made me think of a particular strain of U.S. literature about privileged people—writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James. What are your thoughts on this kind of American fiction? Is it a challenge to write about privileged people because readers might not be sympathetic?

There is, in fact, a strand of literature like this in America, and it certainly includes the people that you mention—James and Fitzgerald, and I would add Cheever to that list. But I feel that, if anything, there is a more prominent opposite strain in American literature, which includes some of Hemingway’s characters and Carver’s stories. In America in general, there’s a strong sort of anti-privilege, anti-intellectual, anti-elitist strain (just look at political campaigns where the candidates are always insisting they grew up in a shack and are the children of illiterates) and that infiltrates our culture more generally. Some people have the attitude that you shouldn’t write about privileged people, but to me that’s just silly. You write about whom you write about. No one is too rich or too poor, too educated or too uneducated, to merit serious treatment in literature.

I agree about the opposite strains in American culture and literature. American fiction about wealth is somehow uniquely fraught, which may be what you’re getting at.

Right, and this is probably in part because we have this pretense of being a classless society, when in fact we are hardly a classless society, and this stratification is becoming greater and greater. The myth about America is one of raising yourself up by the bootstraps. In America we pretend that differences of class, money, and education are irrelevant, whereas in Britain, for example, it’s just so obvious.

This is an excerpt from an interview that appears in issue 11 of Slice. To purchase a copy of issue 11 and read the entire interview, click here.

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novel Matrimony (Pantheon 2007, Vintage 2008). Matrimony was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Highlight Pick ofthe Year. He is also the author of the novel Swimming Across the Hudson. His short stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, and the Southern Review, among others; they havebeen cited for distinction in The Best American Short Stories and broadcast on NPR’s Selected Shorts. He lives in Brooklyn,New York, and directs the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College.

Sean Jones works on nonprofit development and occasionally writes some fiction and feature articles.

Author photo by Matthew Polis.