Sunday, March 1, 2009

Author Interview - Joshua Henkin

By Melissa

Joshua Henkin spent ten years working on his latest novel, a sweeping portrait of a marriage and the decisions, reactions, problems and happinesses that face every day life. In Henkin's words, the novel is "about what it's like to be in your twenties and thirties--even your forties in some cases--when you're waiting for life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences that you're not even aware of yet." He has spent considerable time and effort reaching out to the blogging and reading communities, not only to promote his book, but to connect with readers. He was more than willing to take the time to answer a few questions.

MF: I liked Julian and Mia's relationship; it felt at times, very ordinary. Why did you choose to explore marriage and commitment as a major theme in Matrimony?

JH: Thanks for these questions, Melissa. I really appreciate them. The “why” questions are always the hardest ones to answer because they assume fiction writers are much smarter than they are. I’m always saying that novelists need to be a little stupid, and if they’re not stupid naturally, then they need to cultivate stupidity. I’m only sort of kidding. I’ve seen a lot of writers who were too smart for their own good and their books ended up suffering. In any case, a novelist doesn’t think in terms of themes. At the very least, I don’t. I’m not saying the themes of marriage and commitment aren’t in Matrimony, but I certainly didn’t think about them as I was writing the book. I think purely in terms of character and narrative, and I let my characters guide me. I happened to write about characters who got married young and then endured a variety of difficulties over the course of the next fifteen years. But I wasn’t thinking about marriage and commitment when I was writing my novel. I was thinking about my characters, doing my best to inhabit them as fully as possible. Whatever themes that emerged came in through the back door.

MF: Interesting. I've never thought of it that way, but it does make sense. I'm sure you get this question a lot, since your main character is a writer, but: is the book in autobiographical in any way?

JH: Matrimony is not autobiographical in any obvious way. The only character based on a real character is the dog, who’s a dead ringer for my wife’s and my dog (except that our dog is a golden retriever and female and Cooper is a Labrador retriever and male). All the other mammals in the book are invented. I didn’t meet my wife in college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, she didn’t cheat on me with my best friend (of if she did, she hasn’t told me yet!), and, alas, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is. A lot of people assume that if I’m anyone in the book I must be Julian, since he’s a writer and I’m a writer, he grew up in New York and so did I, and both our names begin with “J.” But if anything, I’m more similar to Mia. Her background is certainly a good deal closer to mine. I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish, and we’re both children of professors.

MF: I read somewhere where it was noted that you shied away from many of the big things in life: birthdays, anniversaries, deaths (Mia's mother's death is mentioned, but not dwelt upon). Is there any particular reason for this?

JH: I’m not sure what you’re referring to—if anything, I’m always telling my students (and myself!) that one should always shoot for high-stakes situations, which is why birthdays, anniversaries, funerals, Bar Mitzvahs, Thanksgiving meals, etc. are among the best occasions for stories. In fact, when I started Matrimony, I thought the whole book was taking place at a college reunion (I was wrong, it turned out). Perhaps what you’re referring to is something I’ve said about how the seemingly mundane moments of life can be the most revealing. The dinner party scene in Ann Arbor, for instance, while not monumental in terms of the plot of Matrimony, is essential in terms of the feel of the book—the way it gives the reader the sense of Julian’s feeling like an outsider, which is central to the book and leads to some of the trouble Julian and Mia experience. As for Mia’s mother’s death, while it’s true that we don’t see the actual funeral, Mia’s mother’s illness and death are dwelt on quite a lot. In fact, to my mind Mia’s mother’s death is the central incident in the novel. It’s what changes everything—what prompts Julian and Mia to get married much early than they would have (and should have). Without Mia’s mother’s death, I’m not sure they would have gotten married at all. It’s the life-changing event for all the major characters.

MF: Yes, that is what I was getting at; the exploration of the mundane. Though I can see what you mean about Mia's mother's death being the central incident of the novel. Which brings me to: which character or situation was hardest to write? Easiest?

JH: They’re all equally hard. Nothing’s easy. My job as a writer is to try to make things seem easy, but that’s one big illusion. Matrimony took me ten years to write and I threw out more than three thousand pages. There wasn’t an easy moment.

MF: That's an interesting fact. As readers we get the impression that everything just dashes off the ends of writer's fingertips.

I'm from the Ann Arbor area, and I have to admit that I was distracted by the presence of the city in the book. (Perhaps that's solely because Ann Arborites are notoriously attached to their town...) Why did you choose to set so much of the book in Ann Arbor?

JH: A fellow an Arborite! Anyone who’s spent time in Zingerman’s Deli is a friend of mine! I probably set a lot of the book in Ann Arbor because I lived there for eight years. I tend to set my fiction in places I’ve lived. I’m better at imagining people I don’t know than at imagining places I’ve never been to.

MF: I know you're involved in blogging and participating in reading groups. Can you tell us about some of your experiences there? What have you found/learned by interacting with readers in this way?

JH: I could go on for hours. It’s all been incredibly positive and helpful—from guest blogging to talking to book groups to all sorts of other things. I’m now up to 100 book groups, and there’s more to come. It helps sales of the book, certainly, and that’s an important thing, especially in what’s a very difficult publishing climate. But even more important than that, blogs and book groups have allowed me to have contact with so many readers out there, and that’s been extremely valuable.

MF: I'm always curious about the technical aspects of writing. Do you have any writing rituals, like a specific time or place to write?

JH: I try as much as I can to write every day because if you write every day you live with your characters—you think about them even when you’re not writing. If you take a few days off, you have to reintroduce yourself to your characters. I prefer to write in the morning when possible because that way the work’s not hanging over me all day. It’s like going to the gym. If I go early in the day, then I’ve gotten it done, and I don’t spend the rest of the day saying to myself, “I need to go to the gym.” I often write in the Brooklyn Writers Space, which is a quiet space for writers where I’m a member and where I’ve studiously avoided learning the Internet password. But I work at home too sometimes. I think it’s important not to be too wedded to a particular time and place to write. A writer needs to learn how to write under any circumstances, even with your kids sitting on your lap, which is something I’ve gotten adept at doing.

MF: Interesting. What writers have influenced you the most? Why?

JH: It’s hard to know. You hope it’s the writers you like more than the writers you don’t like. I love Fitzgerald, Cheever, and Richard Yates. I’m a big fan of the short stories of Alice Munro and Lorrie Moore. A lot of people have compared Matrimony to Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, which I certainly take as a great compliment. Crossing to Safety is a wonderful novel.

MF: I'm always looking for good books for my reading list. What are you currently reading? What five books do you think every person should read?

JH: I recently finished Roxana Robinson’s most recent novel Cost, which I thought was terrific. I’m not very good with top-ten lists or top-five lists. I certainly think Lolita is an amazing novel. So is Revolutionary Road—a great book long before Kate Winslet graced the cover.

MF: I'll have to look those up; thanks! And, if you don't mind telling, what can we expect from you next?

JH: I’m about 200 pages into my new novel, which is already overdue at the publisher. But I’m fairly confident it won’t take ten years (famous last words!). It’s tentatively called The World Without You, and it takes place over a single July 4th weekend. Three adult sisters (mid to late thirties) and their spouses/significant others return with their parents to the family’s country home in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the fourth anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq. When he died, he left a pregnant wife, who subsequently gave birth to a son, who is now three. The wife has moved out to Berkeley, where she’s a graduate student in anthropology, and she’s fallen in love with and has moved in with another man. She may end up marrying this man, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely end up marrying someone else, and that person might adopt the son. The dead brother’s widow comes to the reunion, too, with her son, though without her boyfriend. The three-year-old, then, is the object of narrative struggle. For the grandparents and the aunts, he’s their grandson and nephew, respectively; most important, he’s the embodiment of the dead brother. For his mother, though he’s that too, he’s principally her son and she’s moving on. In a sense, then, the novel is about grief and the ways that in some instances, at least, a spouse gets over the death of a spouse while a parent never gets over the death of a child.

MF: Sounds intriguing. Thanks for your time, Josh!

JH: Thanks for doing the interview. I really enjoyed it!

You can find out more about the author, his involvement in reading groups and his books at his website.

1 comment:

Mahesh said...

"Nice post! Thanks for sharing!"