Joshua Henkin wanted to be a fiction writer when he was growing up but, like so many of us, feared he wasn’t good enough. But his second novel, Matrimony – which took him ten years to complete – was named a notable by both the New York Times and the L.A. Times, and now his third, which releases June 19, is poised to make an even bigger splash. Publisher’s Weekly, in a starred review, says of The World Without You, “Henkin tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate . . . The author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.” – Meg
I always wanted to be a fiction writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point reality sets in; you’re neither tall enough nor talented enough. That was how I felt about writing fiction—I wanted to do it, but I didn’t think I possibly could. So in college, when my friends were taking fiction-writing workshops and working for the literary magazine, I was studying political theory, planning to pursue a PhD after I graduated. I’m the son of an academic, and so I had the skewed, crazy idea that getting a Ph.D. in the humanities was the safe career choice. Senior year I applied for fellowships in England, and when I didn’t get any, I decided to take a year off, after which I would go to graduate school in political theory.
I grew up in New York City, in Morningside Heights, a few blocks from Columbia University, where my father taught, and one of my earliest memories is of my mother taking me to nursery school in 1968 and our having to turn around because of the student riots. No school! It was my version of a snow day! Perhaps as a consequence, I grew up with a romanticized image of the student protest movement. Since I was a New Yorker, I also had a romantic image of California, especially of Berkeley. I saw Berkeley as Columbia’s bigger, wiser, more handsome West Coast cousin.
I mention all this because it helps account for why, in August of 1987, two months removed from college, I landed in Berkeley for what I thought would be my year off. In good post-college Berkeley tradition, I had neither a job nor a place to live. For two weeks, I slept on the floor of a friend’s apartment, and I lucked into a job at a magazine in Oakland, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts, the best of which I would pass on to the fiction editor.
Well, with rare exceptions, the submissions were terrible. And I felt curiously inspired. If other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure too. I count my experience at this magazine as the single most important catalyst to my becoming a fiction writer. If I hadn’t taken that job, I would be teaching political theory at some small college god knows where. Beyond that, the lesson I learned from working at that magazine remains with me until today. You always have to risk failure, and the rejection never stops.
Case in point. That first year I was living in Berkeley (what started as a year off eventually became four) I began to take writing workshops and got some encouragement, and eventually I landed in Ann Arbor, where I got my MFA. While in graduate school, I published a few short stories, but the path was always circuitous. The story of mine that has done best, that has gotten the most attention and been anthologized, was rejected by 47 places before it got published. Other stories got accepted almost immediately and no sooner were they published than they disappeared from sight.
In my second year at Michigan’s MFA program, a few months before I graduated, I panicked, realizing that soon school would be over and there would be no more workshop, no more deadlines. If I never wrote another word, no one would care. I liked writing short stories, but I found that the time between stories was difficult: what would I write next? I had no idea how to write a novel, but I also knew that with a novel I wouldn’t have to wonder what I was waking up to. Those periods between stories come every few months, but the periods between novels come every few years.
With two months to go in the semester, I determined to write a hundred pages of a novel before I graduated. I wrote those pages, and they were terrible. But they paved the way for my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, which I began shortly after I graduated. Swimming Across the Hudson was a publishing good-luck story. I wrote fifty pages, found a terrific agent, and she sold the book to a big publishing house a week later. Hey, I thought, this is going to be easy!
Little did I know. Swimming Across the Hudson did in fact get published, and it got strong reviews. But my editor got sick and was dying by the time the book came out, so there was no one in-house to champion it. The book sold modestly and didn’t go into paperback. And I was left to write my next novel, feeling as if I hadn’t ever written one.
And in a way, I hadn’t. Although Swimming Across the Hudson didn’t grow out of a short story, it was written by someone who had been trained in the short story, and who thought in terms of story structure. The novel is told in first-person, covers about a year, and is written in fairly short chapters. My second novel, Matrimony, was going to be broader and more ambitious. It would be told in third-person, from more than one point of view, and it would cover twenty years. How in the world was I going to do that?
Matrimony took me ten years to write and I threw out more than three thousand pages. At some point, around year seven, I considered giving up: I just couldn’t figure the book out. I started work on another novel. But I’m stubborn, so I came back to Matrimony.
Although Matrimony took me ten years to write, more than three-quarters of the pages that appear in the book got written in the final year. It’s not that I was sitting around eating bonbons and decided, finally, to get down to business. Rather, it took me that much time to get to know my characters. Eventually, after a lot of trial and error, the writer figures it out.
Or, as the case might be, he doesn’t. The story of writing Matrimony ends up happily, but it needn’t have. All novelists have books that don’t work out, and mine might be the next one, or the one after that. And the books that turn out best aren’t always the ones that come most easily. Matrimony took a long time not just in the writing but in the publishing too. Whereas Swimming Across the Hudson was bought immediately, my agent sent out several different drafts of Matrimony to a few dozen editors before she finally sold it.
My new novel, The World Without You, was inspired by a personal experience as well as by an aesthetic concern. The personal experience was this. I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties. I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years. At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons….” Well, 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 from which The World Without You grew. 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.
And the aesthetic concern was this. 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 is firmly rooted in two points of view, and I wanted to do something different this time. I wanted to write a book that was at once more compressed (The World Without You takes place over 72 hours) and also more spacious (the reader enters the heads of many different characters). 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.
When I was living in Ann Arbor, Richard Ford came to speak to the MFA students. He was on the heels of having won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, so he was doing quite well. He told the students that no matter how much success you have, you can’t translate that into future success. You win the Pulitzer, and the next time you sit down to write, the page is just as blank; the fraud police continues to hover over you. His words struck me as true then, at a time when I’d done nothing besides publish a handful of stories in literary journals. And they strike me as true now, after I’ve published three novels. A blog like this gives writers the chance to describe how they got their starts, but the truth is, a writer is always getting his start. It doesn’t get any easier. If anything, it gets harder. The more you know about writing fiction, the more you see how easy it is to go wrong. – Joshua Henkin