The Iraq War, Judaism, George W. Bush, a quiet home in the Berkshires. One of these seems to lack the visceral heft when it comes to writing a novel, but that is exactly where Joshua Henkin found inspiration for his brilliant new novel The World Without You.
While the weightier topics help build a foundation, Henkin focuses on the fragile relationships of an extended family attempting to deal, one year later, with a tragic death. Taking place over just a few days, truces dissolve and secrets are revealed as Henkin deftly winds through the nuanced lives of characters that range from a toddler to a great-grandparent, taking expert care to give each of them a voice all their own.
After receiving enthusiastic critical acclaim for his novel Matrimony, Henkin has further honed his gift of wholly inhabiting the lives of people who never seem much different than us, filled with self-doubt, regret and a longing to make things right.
Before leaving on his book tour (which will hit Elliott Bay tonight at 7pm) Henkin discussed the novel as well as his position as director of the MFA Program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.
Is there anything noticeable that you took away from the work on Matrimony that changed how you approached The World Without You?
The magic of books is that they are like relationships. They're rebounds from the previous one. I definitely wanted to write a different kind of book. Matrimony took place over 20 years and it’s basically in two points of view. I wanted to do time very differently. I think it’s a very conscious thing to write a book in compressed time. It’s both more compact on some levels and more sprawling in other ways. On another level you’re in seven or eight different points of view.
Beyond that, I think you always take lessons away from everything you write. It’s hard to figure out what they are. I’m five years older than I was when Matrimony came out and I’m at a different stage. The key thing aesthetically was that I handle time differently.
Certain authors, when they start a new book, they want new challenges. Were you seeing this as a new challenging way to write a book?
It's a new challenge, but I wouldn’t say it’s a more challenging way compared to writing Matrimony. That book took me longer to write in part because it took place over so many years. The challenge of this book is that there isn’t a single protagonist; it’s much more of a group book.
When I started the book, the inspiration on some level was my cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when I was toddler and he was in his late 20s, but his death haunted the family for years. We’d have this family reunion every year, and one year when I was in my 30s, my aunt stood up and said I have two sons. We were all kind of struck dumb because she had two sons, but her older one had died 30 years earlier. That was her way of saying that was a seminal event in her life. A parent never gets over that kind of death. Whereas his wife eventually moved on, remarried, had kids. There’s a gap between what it’s like to lose a child and what it’s like to lose a spouse.
The central challenge was how do you write a group book. How do you have so many protagonists and not have the book be incoherent.
You’ve mentioned before that you've always had in the back of your mind the urge to write the big, sprawling American novel, but end up cutting everything down. Even a couple years ago, you had an early draft of this novel. Did you have an idea of the length and breadth of what this book was going to be?
I had some idea, because it was more compressed in time. It is a bigger, broader book in some ways. This is a longer book than Matrimony. It’s certainly broader in terms of vantage point. Just about all of it is told in three days. I think the key to writing a book is to stretch your horizons, and challenge yourself. Also, recognizing where you strengths lie.
The story of The World Without You is very secondary. Is that something that you see as something that’s harder to sell now in fiction?
On some level, I think it’s easier to sell than Matrimony. But there’s actually a lot going on in my books. I think the way I write is very focused on characters. The fiction I love best is character-driven fiction, so the story feels secondary. In general, literary fiction is a hard sell. I actually think this book may be easier to sell because there is the Iraq War, death and July 4th. I think nowadays there is very literary fiction that’s marketed. I think what you hope for is that people read it, get into it and it spreads by word of mouth.
There are various ways in which characters are developed. We’re these just sketches of characters that you eventually ended up putting together, or were you able to dig out the personalities of these characters by how they interacted?
It’s a combination. I plan out close to nothing in advance. I think you just have to sit down and write. I knew I had this death and the reunion. But, I think the way you create characters is you put them in a crucible moment in which something happens. To me, the relationship between narrative and characters is complex and symbiotic. It’s similar to real life. We’re creating our characters. We get involved in relationships, things end badly, we get fired from jobs. These things happen.
It’s not that I have a preordained plot and characters, and I set them on their path. I think that I have very little sense of who anyone is and I just start to write. If you don’t do things that way, they aren’t organic. A novelist who’s writing the kind of novels I’m writing has to just tolerate the mess.
When you were writing this book, did you find yourself expanding into this many characters or did you find yourself taking them away? You almost have no secondary characters.
You have to think of your minor characters in this book as major characters in another book that are making a cameo appearance. Even though the minor characters are important, this is not a book with a lot of minor characters. It is about a clan, so people are sharing the spotlight.
You have two daughters aged eight and six. Obviously the death of a child in the book is the death of a child who is much older. Is there some sort of loss of child you felt you were channeling as a parent?
The idea of losing a child is too hard to bear. Something I won’t allow myself to imagine. I think if it was a daily, constant fear of mine, I wouldn’t be able to write this book. I think you need to write a book that’s close to home, but not so close that you have it overwhelm you.
Your books are very deep in character, but I never sense there’s that sense of deep, personal exorcism involved.
I think my books have gotten progressively less autobiographical. I think you want to write about things that are closer to you that offer some kind of emotional risk. The idea that you have to have those experiences in order to write about them is not true. The imagination is limitless. I find it more interesting and challenging to write from it.
This novel is dedicated to your father who passed away. He was Orthodox Jewish?
Yes, but it’s complicated. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who was born in Russia, and moved over here when my father was five years old. He was a rabbi in the lower east side of Manhattan. My grandfather lived in the U.S. for 50 years and never learned English. He didn’t need to. He lived in Yiddish. That was the family my father grew up in. But he ended up going to Harvard Law School, and he was a law professor at Columbia for 50 years, and he remained religiously observant throughout his life. It was an important part of his life, but it was also compartmentalized. He didn’t hang out with friends from synagogue; his friends were from the university. I’d say a lot of his friends were Jewish, but a lot were more secular Jewish. My mother grew up secular Jewish, but she made a lot of compromises for my father, though she didn't become observant on her own.
There’s much talk about Judaism in Israel and the strict, difficult rules that the characters Noelle and Amram adhere to. Are you centering that on them personally or is that a larger discussion about Judaism and how it meshes with American culture?
I feel strongly it’s about them personally. A fiction writer should not be making political, religious statements. If you want to write about politics, be a politician or speech writer. You don’t want a character to be mouthpiece for the author.
Do you consider Amram and Noelle people who are just trying to find their way to enlightenment through Orthodox Judaism or are they holding on to it as a life vest?
Both are binge and purge people. I think there are a lot of difficult people in this book. They are real believers, but I think it serves as an emotional purpose for them.
In the book, these characters have several scenes in Israel. Have you ever been to Israel? Are those things you’ve heard of or experienced?
I lived there for a year between high school and college. I’ve been back a few times. I would say I have a sense of the place where Amram and Noelle lived. There are a number of rabbis who pick up lost souls by the Wailing Wall. Everything in those scenes is factually accurate. There’s nothing that I’m writing about in terms of Israel that isn’t fully plausible.
I assume Daniel Pearl is the rough inspiration for the character of Leo?
Yes, in the sense that 100 people have said that to me (laughs). I got to say I wasn’t conscious of it. I didn’t set out to write a book on that. I bought Marianne Pearl’s book and didn’t read it because I wanted to wait until I finished my book. I’m sure it was in the air when he was thought up.
Was there any point while you were writing the book where you wanted to be more explicit about what happened to Leo?
There was a time when I thought about doing a little bit more with it. Early on there was a reference, a flashback when Marilyn was on the plane and rumors were swirling that Leo didn’t follow journalistic protocol. I thought about running with that a little bit. But the book is not about how he died. For me, the book, for all the political stuff in it, it really is a domestic drama. One of the things interesting to me is the people who wouldn’t normally be touched by the war are actually touched by the war.
The book is coming out several years after the start of the war. Even though you didn’t want to make a political book, do you think it would have been hard to stay so far away from the war, had you been doing it back in 2005, when the war started?
I wrote the first hundred pages of this in late 2004 and 2005, and picked it back up again in 2007. I was writing closer to the time. I knew if I set it in 2005, I knew it would be a good deal of time later. One of the dangers of writing about real life events is so much can happen. My concern is allowing myself the room to write, although the world may make it impossible to do so.
It’s becoming increasingly hard to write about the world because so much technology is around – Twitter, Facebook, etc. Is there any concern about being able to tackle these kinds of books and retain the regular discussions without seeming like you're ignoring technology?
I think writers need to plug out on some level. A friend of mine told me a few years back that cell phones are the worst thing for fiction and I think he’s right. The ability to get in touch with anyone at any time certainly feels like a bad thing for fiction. If I wrote this book 20 years ago, it would be much more plausible for characters to be out for a long time, without anyone being able to get in touch with them. But now, I can’t do much with that. The ability to always be in touch poses a problem for fiction. People in books used to write each other letters, and the great tension in the book is that the person didn’t get the letter until two weeks later. There is no receiving a letter two weeks later now. It’s absurd, but it’s also unfortunate.
For younger novelists, it’s hard to even imagine life without internet.
I think that’s the problem. There are novels written about social networking and it creates a great sort of fodder. I do think the frustration of not having information when you need it, I think that it's starting to disappear.
You've said your attempts at short stories recently have been blooming into novellas. What do you think prevents you from nailing down the shorter form?
I think I could do it. I do think that when you write novels the arc of your story tends to be longer. What really prevents me from writing shorter stories is that it’s hard for me to do more than one thing at a time. I think about stories a lot. I teach graduate stories, I love to read stories. I think they are incredibly hard to do well. The reality of the marketplace is you talk to an editor about a book of short stories and they faint. They are a very hard sell. There are certain publication exigencies that need you to write novels.
On that topic, how is the literary teaching going for you?
I’m very fortunate. We typically get 500 applicants for 15 spots, so it’s getting harder to get in here than it would be to get into Harvard Medical School – just sheer numbers wise. It’s a privilege to teach these students. I feel like teaching has always taught me as a writer. I feel like it’s a privileged life. I’m able to teach and I’m able to write.
Are there any thoughts in the back of your mind like, ‘What if these students read my book and think it sucks'?
I’m sure it happens. There’s a lot of insecurity among graduate students. Their egos are on the line and it’s very hard to make it. I see it all the time. My students have seemed to like my work, but it’s not their job to like my work. It’s also not my job to make them like my work. I think the fact that I’ve published a few books and they’ve done fairly well gives me some credibility. I see my authority as a teacher less based on the success of my books, and more based on my performance in the classroom.
Do you see any sort of themes that are dominating students' work?
There are certain writers who become lightning rods. A lot of our best applicants are young, in their mid to late 20s. They are writing about the typical college types of themes -- breaks-ups and stuff like that. But if they are good writers I’m not against it. I’m a big believer in those topics, if it works.