Joshua Henkin Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Joshua Henkin
Photo: Matthew Polis

Joshua Henkin

An interview with Joshua Henkin

Joshua Henkin talks about his third and fourth novels, The World Without You and Morningside Heights The first set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War and the second which explores the relationship between a wife and her husband diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

Morningside Heights

Joshua Henkin is the author of four novels, including Matrimony and The World Without You. His fourth novel, Morningside Heights, explores the relationship between Pru and her husband, Spence, as he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

There are multiple story threads in this novel--was there one that started as the seed?

I wrote over 3,000 pages for Morningside Heights. That's how I always work: write thousands of pages, throw most of them out and, eventually, I find the heart of the novel. Morningside Heights started as a very long short story that took place at a class for caregivers at a Jewish community center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The seed for the book was my mother's experience in a similar class when she was caring for my father. My mother is not the kind of person who gravitates toward such classes--toward adult education in general--and I was interested in what it would be like for someone like her to be thrust into contact with strangers in this way. The first draft of the book began at the JCC. By the 20th draft, the JCC was in the garbage pail, though one character from the class remains.

That's a lot of drafting! Is it safe to assume, then, that you don't work from an outline?

I definitely don't start with an outline; I don't even start with an idea. A college classmate of mine wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how 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 that kids are more natural storytellers than adults are. The fiction writer's job is to think like a child again--albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel is like driving on the highway in the dark. The lights illuminate only the few hundred feet ahead of you, but if you keep driving a few hundred feet at time you get across the country. I start with a character or a situation, or sometimes just with a line of prose. I eventually outline, but that's many years in, once I have the mess of thousands of pages in front of me.

Morningside Heights is very character-driven, was there a particular character whose story you found easier to get into? Or harder?

They're all impossible. That's why it took me seven years to write this book! Writers need to be a lot of things, but they need to be compulsive most of all. I wouldn't say Arlo was easier than any of the others, but there was something about discovering him that really opened up the book for me. I was a couple of years into writing when I said to myself, What if Spence had been married previously, and what if he had a son? I gave it a try, and the book moved in directions I couldn't have anticipated. Although the book's central character is definitely Pru, Arlo's influence on the book is at least as great, and he may have been the most important character in terms of shaping the book and determining its form.

One of the difficulties of writing a book about someone who has Alzheimer's is that there isn't much tension in the disease itself. There's a lot of variation in the particulars, but the overall disease course is unfortunately inevitable. So the tension and uncertainty have to come from somewhere else. And Arlo is all tension and uncertainty. Also, because he disappears and reappears and disappears again, his absence and reemergence help mark time in the book.

Was it hard to write about the ways Pru lost Spence, slowly and then all at once?

Absolutely. I think if you inhabit your characters, as any good novelist must, then their pain is your pain. Although much of Morningside Heights is invented, it is, in many ways, my most autobiographical novel to date. My father, like Spence, was a professor at Columbia who developed Alzheimer's, though my father developed it much later in life than Spence did. In writing about the ways Pru lost Spence, I was re-experiencing my mother's loss, and my brothers' and my loss. And it's a perpetual loss because you're losing someone bit by bit. I think in certain ways that the earliest stages of the disease are the hardest. There's a passage toward the end of Morningside Heights that captures what I'm getting at: "Early on, when [Spence] was sufficiently himself that [Pru] almost wouldn't have known anything was wrong, the bad moments were made worse because she had his old self to compare him to. That was when she would rage at him, when she would tell him to try harder, to concentrate.... Now, though, he was so far gone that to rage at him would be like raging at a stone.... Finally she was able to be kind to him in a way she hadn't been before."

Morningside Heights
also felt to me like a story about what we owe each other: love, connection, time, continuity. Absent formal vows, as in a marriage, who defines the parameters of a relationship and how much is one expected to give?

Those are great, unanswerable questions. In fact, what makes them unanswerable is also what makes them great. I'm paraphrasing here, and also going from memory, but in Martin Amis's The Information, the writer protagonist is asked by an interviewer what his book is about, and he says, "It's not about anything. It just is. All two hundred thousand words of it. If I could have written it in fewer, I would have." One of the things that draws me to fiction is that there are no shortcuts to portraying a life. Good fiction is irreducible. Which is another way of saying that a novel is much better at asking questions than it is at answering them.

This interview by Kerry McHugh first ran in Shelf Awareness and is reproduced with permission.

The World Without You

Q. Why did you set The World Without You in the Berkshires on the Fourth of July, 2005?

A. This will sound counterintuitive, but I thought it was the perfect setting for a novel about a journalist killed in the Iraq War. I was interested in the contrast between war in the Middle East and the cloistered life of the Berkshires. The Frankels are privileged. The kids went to Yale and Princeton and Wesleyan; the family is made up of doctors and lawyers and future Nobel laureates and celebrity chefs. These are people with strong political opinions, but the war in Iraq remained an abstraction to them until it touched them in the most horrific way imaginable. What is it like to experience that horror in the Berkshires, whose very purpose, it can seem, is to eradicate all trace of horror? What is it like to mourn when the rest of the town - the rest of the country - is celebrating?

Q: Was there a particular event or idea that inspired The World Without You?

A: I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin's disease when he was in his late twenties. I family reunion thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, said, "I have two sons…." and we were all startled, because she'd once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point. It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life. By contrast, my cousin's widow eventually remarried and had a family. This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on, but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on. That idea was the seed for The World Without You. Although there are many tensions in the novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

Q: Like the Frankel children, you grew up in a Jewish family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. How did your own experience inform your writing? Are there any characters whom you can particularly relate to?

A: I think a writer's own experience always helps inform his writing, but the ways in which it does so are complicated and not always readily apparent, even to the writer himself. I did grow up on the Upper West Side, in the neighborhood where the Frankel siblings were raised, and though it's true that my family is Jewish and shares certain traits with the Frankels, in most ways the home I grew up in was quite different from the Frankel home, starting with the fact that my family was religiously observant. My father was Orthodox, the son of a rabbi, and though my mother was raised secular and remained largely secular even after she married my father, she agreed to raise my brothers and me in a kosher, Sabbath-observing home. My brothers and I attended Jewish day school and went to Jewish summer camp.  I think good fiction needs to be emotionally autobiographical, in that it has to come from a place of emotional danger for the writer.  As the writer Ron Carlson said, "I write from my personal experiences whether or not I had them."

Q: This book is written from the perspectives of various women in, or connected to, the Frankel family. What are the challenges of being male, but writing from a female perspective?

A: It's a challenge, I suppose, for a male writer to write from a female perspective but no more so, it seems to me, than for a young person to write from an old person's perspective, a poor person to write from a rich person's perspective, or a gregarious person to write from a shy person's perspective. I don't see why gender should be a more insurmountable barrier than other ones. I believe good fiction can transcend difference, that it can take us out of our own experiences and allow us to inhabit the experiences of others. It's what happens, ideally, to the reader, and in order for it to happen to the reader it has to happen to the writer too. A couple of years ago, I gave a reading from an early draft of The World Without You, and I was reading with a woman novelist who read a section of her novel told from the perspective of a man. When the reading was over, she, too, was asked the gender question, and she said, "Are you kidding me? I spent half my life flirting with boys. I know them far better than I know girls." She was kidding, sort of, but I think there's a real truth there. In a lot of ways it's easier to write from the perspective of someone different from you. We're so close to our own experiences that we don't see ourselves as clearly as we see others.

Q: There are so many strong personalities in this book ranging from Noelle, a born-again Orthodox Jew who arrives from Israel with her husband and four children, to Lily, a lawyer who goes to Leo's memorial alone, insisting that her boyfriend of 10 years stay in DC. Are there any characters you are particularly fond of or had an especially good (or difficult) time writing about?

A: You have to love all your characters - not love them as human beings, certainly, but love them as characters, which means you have to take them seriously and respect their humanity and complexity. If you don't, they won't be real and you won't be speaking the emotional truth. So while I could tell you that I'd rather go out to dinner with one than another, rather be stranded on a desert island with one than another, as characters, as my creations, they're all equal; I play no favorites.

Q. Leo, the youngest of the Frankel siblings, was killed while on assignment in Iraq. Is there a political message in The World Without You?

A: There is absolutely no message in the book, political or otherwise. Fiction that has messages is bad fiction. Which isn't to say that I don't have strong political opinions. My father was a professor of constitutional and international law at Columbia for fifty years. My mother is a human rights lawyer. You didn't survive my family's dinner table without having strong political opinions. But as a novelist, I check those opinions at the door. You should be able to finish The World Without You and not have any idea how I feel about the Iraq War or any other matter of electoral politics.

Q:  This is your third novel.  What have your learned about writing a novel from actually writing novels?

A: That most of the time it's pretty near impossible. One thing you gain from experience is the ability to deal with the mess, with not knowing whether the book is going to come together. You've been there before when things were utterly hopeless and somehow you got the book right, so you know it's at least theoretically possible it might happen again. But that doesn't mean it will happen again. The page is just as blank every time you sit down to write. The fraud police are always hanging over you.

Q:  What has been your experience with book clubs?

A:  I love book clubs.  I must have talked to about 250 of them for Matrimony, and now that The World Without You has come out, my schedule is filling up again.  I direct Brooklyn College's Fiction MFA program, where we get 500 applications a year for 15 spots, so when I'm not writing I'm spending my time with some of the most talented young fiction writers out there.  I love doing that, but it's easy to get stuck in your ivory tower.  Talking to book clubs puts you in touch with such a diversity of readers.  It gets you out of your own experience, which is really important for a writer.  And book club members keep you on your toes.  Most of them have just read the book, so they often know what's in there better than I do!

Q: What's next for you?

A: A trip to Hawaii, I'm hoping! Writing a novel takes a lot out of you. Right now, I'm trying to figure out what comes next. I promised myself I would go back to writing short stories. It's weird, I've spent the last nearly twenty years writing novels, when in so many ways I think of myself as a short-story writer. It was certainly my first love, and because I teach MFA students, I spend a lot of time reading and thinking about short stories. So last fall, when I finished the final draft of The World Without You, I immediately sat down to write a short story, and what happened? The draft I wrote was 113 pages along! And then the second short story I wrote was over 200 pages long! I still think I'm capable of writing a regular old twenty-to-thirty-page short story, but we'll have to see. In the meantime, I'm tossing around some ideas for a new novel, but it's still in the very early, incubating stages, so I'm not saying anything more than that.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Morningside Heights jacket The World Without You jacket Matrimony jacket
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All the books below are recommended as readalikes for Joshua Henkin but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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