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How Did I End up Doing This?

Thursday, June 21, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Joshua Henkin talked about his father and grandfather and explored the question: "Are you a Jewish writer?". He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

For a long time I wanted to be a fiction writer, but then for a long time I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. So despite dipping my toes in fiction writing, I studied mostly political theory in college and planned after I graduated to get a Ph.D. in political theory. But first I decided to take a year off, and I moved out to Berkeley and got a job at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ended up moving to Ann Arbor get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn't mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look into every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look into every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.

My new novel, The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. Leo Frankel was a journalist killed in Iraq, and a year later his parents, his three sisters, his widow, and his young son descend on the family’s country house in the Berkshires for his memorial. People often ask me where the idea for the book came from, and while I don’t believe in “ideas” when it comes to fiction (I start with a character, or a situation; ideas are for politicians, or sociologist, or rabbis), the book grew out of the following memory. 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. Every year on Purim my father’s side of the family gets together to read the Megillah, and one Purim, 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.

Joshua Henkin's new novel, The World Without You, is now available. He is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

A Conversation with Joshua Henkin

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Joseph Winkler

At one point, I couldn’t tell if I was interviewing Joshua Henkin, author of the splendid new book, The World Without You, or if we were engaging in a dialogue of friends. For the first fifteen minutes, he asked me questions about my life, then we discussed his book. Most of his answers—erudite, poetic, and insightful—leaned toward the didactic, which makes sense given that he heads the creative writing program at Brooklyn College. In The World Without You, Henkin writes deftly about the inner dynamics of a family in mourning, but here we discuss Henkin’s methods, challenges, inspirations, and his joy of writing.

Joseph Winkler: Your books lack a central protagonist. This method plays an essential role in this book. Was that planned?
Joshua Henkin: In general I plan very little when I write fiction. I like to think of writing in this way: adults think in terms of concepts, and kids think in terms of story. To be a good fiction writer, you need to learn how to be a child again, albeit a precocious child. In the first draft, I try to proceed intuitively and then when I revise I bring my intellect back in.

Specifically, about the lack of protagonist, I like to think of books as we think of relationships. Most relationships are rebound relationships from the one before, so too with books. I spent ten years with my first book, Matrimony, and for the most part there are only two voices in that book. Coming off of Matrimony I wanted to write a different book, more compact and yet more spacious. More compact because Matrimony took place over twenty years, and more spacious because I did want more than two voices, but this was all mostly instinctive.

The initial inspiration for the book came from different personal experiences. My grandfather was an important Orthodox rabbi; however, the next generations experienced assimilation. Consequently, he wouldn’t be able to see us all on holidays because he didn't want us traveling on a holiday. The one time he would see the whole extended family was Purim, because you can travel on Purim, and the holiday remains as the familial gathering in my family. At a recent Purim gathering, my aunt spoke about her two sons despite the fact that one of her children died of cancer. She wasn’t delusional at all. Rather she was expressing the point that a parent never gets over a lost child. Later, I went to a wedding of a man whose first wife died and left him with an eighteen-month-old child. At this wedding, his previous in-law were there, bawling, and both of these moments really stayed with me.

Consequently, Thisbe, who lost her husband, and Marilyn, who lost her son, were at the core of the book. I thought of Thisbe as the central character, but she's not. Eventually the sisters became more important. What really allowed the book to expand in terms of protagonists was the need to figure out how to give the book focus. Granted it’s a short period of time, and there's a memorial, but something still felt missing. One of the trickier things to negotiate was trying to figure out how all these strands fit together. They are all connected by this dead person, Leo, but he is gone, and the sisters are all different, and Thisbe is from a different world. How do you connect everything? Finding that answer pushed the book into the territory of numerous protagonists and voices.

JW: The book feels dense in the sense that it not only juggles numerous disparate characters, but also plays host to countless themes: liberal or conservative politics, death, mourning, divorce, money, unemployment, economy, and the war, to name a few. Did you feel challenged in balancing all these parts?
JH: As a writer I don't think about those things at all, about themes, per se. I think in terms of story. To me fiction is about character. Obviously language is extremely important, but, at the end, I don’t necessarily want my reader feel like the character, because this isn't a popularity contest, but rather that they know the characters well. Fiction writers use the particular to get to the general. If you create a thoughtful, engaged character then the themes will come through the backdoor. The key is to get to know your characters, something I tell my students all the time. I like to think of it as a spine. If you have the right spine going through your story, then you can have loads of nerves throughout that spine jumping all over the place. Once you have focus, you can reach out as far as you want.

Read the full interview here.

From Grandfather to Father to Son

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Henkin explored the question: "Are you a Jewish writer?". He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

The story goes that, in 1923, when my father, age five, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to speak to the immigration officials, and there was some suspicion that he was a deaf mute and the family would have to be sent back to Russia. My grandfather kept trying to get him to speak, but my father refused. Finally, my grandfather decided to ask my father a math question. My father answered the question, and the family was let in.

This story gets at some core truths about my father. He was excellent at math—he would later major in it in college—and he remained a shy man until his death nearly two years ago. Yet what I remember most clearly was how he told that story—with a trace of embarrassment, it seemed to me, as if he’d committed an indiscretion. He’d answered the math question and gotten the family in, but he’d been guilty of showing off.

My father was a law professor, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then at Columbia, for over fifty years. He loved teaching, and for him teaching was also a way of expressing love. His own father, an Orthodox rabbi, certainly expressed his love through teaching, and my father inherited that from him. In the first paragraph of the Shema prayer in the Jewish liturgy come the words v’sheenantam l’vanecha—you shall teach your children—and in synagogue, whenever my father came to those words, he would reach out his prayer shawl and kiss my brothers and me.

My father was facile with language and he loved it, loved language perhaps the way only an immigrant can, a boy whose own father lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English—he never needed to—whereas he, my father, saw English as his entry into America. He used to help my brothers and me pass the time on airplane trips by giving us word jumbles. And when I was seventeen and the SAT loomed, he started coming home from the office with a list of vocabulary words he had run across that day. Some of these words were long and hard to pronounce and others were short and easy to pronounce, but they had one thing in common, which was that they had never appeared in the history of the SAT and they would never would appear in the history of the SAT and what in the world kind of books was my father reading such that he came across these words? Quondam, for instance, which means erstwhile, which means former, and which I will forever associate with my father, just as I will forever associate with him the word incognito, which he once opened the dictionary and proved to me was in fact pronounced incahgnitto, not incogneeto, just as he proved to me that it should be kilomee-ter and not kilahmeter (I can still hear his voice: “A thermometer is a measurer of heat, but a kilahmeter isn’t a measurer of kilos.”)

I think of him, too, when I hear the word impertinent, which was the punchline of a joke he once told, a joke I was too young to understand and don’t remember any longer, a joke about an Englishman and a Frenchman arguing over which is the superior language, English or French, the punchline to which is impertinent, which doesn’t mean not pertinent, it means rude, the joke, as I recall, being on the Frenchman, or the Englishman, or both, but it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that I can’t read or say or hear the word impertinent without thinking of my father. It’s true of a hundred other words as well, and since I speak English every day, since English is the only language I speak with any measure of fluency, I’m thinking about my father all the time—can’t stop thinking about him, can’t even listen to rock music without thinking about him, my father who had no interest in rock music but who overheard me once singing the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and there he was, my father, saying, “Don’t you think those young men could have come up with a better rhyme for dog than log.”

At college, we had to take expository writing freshman year, and we were asked to choose between different options—history, literature, social studies, and the like. One option was fiction, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fiction and you would also write some of your own short stories. When I mentioned this to my father, he said, “I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short story.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s what set me on the route to becoming a fiction writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. But it was also a way of following in my father’s path. Because when I hear English spoken, when I read it, when I write it, it’s my father’s voice that comes to me and will, I suspect, for the rest of my life.

Joshua Henkin's new novel, The World Without You, is now available. He is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

Are You a Jewish Writer?

Monday, June 18, 2012 | Permalink
Joshua Henkin is the author of The World Without You, Matrimony, and Swimming Across the Hudson. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

First of all, I want to open up my week of blogging by saying how happy I am to be here and have you all be the ones who are helping me shepherd my new novel, The World Without You, to publication tomorrow. And if any of you live in New York or are inclined to get yourself there, the launch party for the book is tomorrow night, June 19th, at 7PM, at Bookcourt in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Please join me for cheap wine and cheddar cubes and lots of merriment. And if you are one of the few people left on this earth who still believe that Manhattan is the superior borough and you want to skip the wine and the cheddar cubes and focus solely on the merriment, I’m also reading at Barnes and Noble on 82ndStreet and Broadway on Thursday evening, June 21, at 7PM.

Are you a Jewish writer? This is a question that Moment Magazine asked a number of writers recently, and it’s a question I often get asked, and by and large most writers I know who get asked this question end up bridling or being flummoxed or acting generally tongue-tied. I know I do. That’s because I’m not sure what the question means. I’m a Jew, and I’m proud to be one, so on some level by definition I’m a Jewish writer, just as I’m a Jewish father, a Jewish New Yorker, a Jewish eldest child, a Jewish basketball fan, and a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show.

But I’m not generally asked whether I’m a Jewish eldest child or a Jewish watcher of The Daily Show, and I think therein lies the rub. Because when a writer gets asked the Jewish writer question, something more seems to be going on, something having to do with the writer’s own relationship to Judaism or whether the book he has written qualifies as Jewish based on the number of Yiddish phrases contained therein or the amount of whitefish consumed by his characters. And this is where things start to feel reductive.

To take my own work as a case in point, my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson, had lots of Jewish subject matter; my second novel, Matrimony, had very little Jewish subject matter; and now The World Without You has lots of Jewish subject matter again. Does that mean I was more of a Jewish writer for the first novel, less of a Jewish writer for the second novel, and more of a Jewish writer again for the third novel? That’s just silly. I’d also add that these kinds of questions serve to ghettoize a writer when good fiction is good fiction and should reach as broad an audience as possible. No one asked Cheever whether he considered himself a male writer. No one asked Updike whether he considered himself a WASP writer.

And now, in good Jewish tradition, I’m going to contradict myself. I’m very interested in time in fiction, and I think this interest comes in large part from my own relationship to Judaism. My last novel, Matrimony, took place over the course of twenty years, and when I started to write The World Without You I wanted to write a book with a very different relationship to time, so I set the book in compressed time, over the course of seventy-two hours.

Might I have been interested in doing this if I weren’t Jewish? Of course. But I do know that my own interest in time is directly connected to what time was like for me as a child–Shabbat starts at 6:32 this week, it ends at 7:35, there are two Adars this year so Passover is later, that kind of thing. The story goes that when I was about five and we were moving the clock forward for Daylight Savings Time, I said to my parents, “Do non-Jews switch their clocks forward, too?”

Joshua Henkin's new novel, The World Without You, will be available tomorrow. He is the author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across the Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in Best American Short Stories, and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

The Birth of a Book Cover: Moving Waters

Monday, June 18, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Ever wonder about the story behind a book's cover? Well, we do. All the time. So, we asked Racelle Rosett, and the team behind her beautiful cover for Moving Waters, Will Deutsch (the artist) and Charlotte Strick (the designer), a few questions about how their cover came to be:

Racelle Rosett: I did a reading last spring of the title story from my collection Moving Waters at a launch party for Zeek (sponsored by LA Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, the Jewish Artist Initiative, Jewlicious, and the Six Points Fellowship). 

I met Will Deutsch there and had an immediate affinity for the work he was doing. Both of us were attending to the question of ancient Jewish ritual in modern Jewish life here in LA — I came to it as a writer and he came to it as a visual artist. Later we arranged to meet at the Farmer’s Market in Hollywood and he brought along his originals, over a hundred images, and I was really taken by them; I felt like there should be a set of them in every Rabbi’s study. This year Will was awarded the Six Points Fellowship for Emerging Jewish Artists and has been selected as the Artist in Residence for the Federation in Southern California. The mikvah image was so specific and correct for the collection. I loved that, as a reader, you felt like you were stepping into this pool, that you would soon be immersed in this world.

I have been a fan of Charlotte Strick’s work for many years. So often I would see a wonderful book cover and I would flip it over and see that it had been designed by Charlotte. This was the case recently with the cover Listen to This  I crossed the floor at B&N just to pick it up and look at it  the sign of a very good cover. It was a joy to have Charlotte bring her talent to this project. When we started this process she asked me which covers I liked best and I said “yours”. It was easy and a pleasure to entrust her with these decisions. I brought her Will’s image and she understood immediately how to enhance and support it.

Will Deutsch: I was inspired by Racelle's treatment of her characters as they found themselves bumping into ritual in their day-to-day existence. In many ways this paralleled my own artistic practice and interests. It was in this intersection that we became good friends and now artistic collaborators. Though this particular piece was done before Racelle and I ever met each other, it seems like it was made just for this book. And, in a way, I think it was.

This image actually comes from a larger body of work collectively titled 'Notes From the Tribe'. It’s a series of 124 illustrations depicting various Jewish traditions and experiences as well as characters from the Torah. The impetus for this art came from my experiences growing up in Orange County (where there are more strip malls than Jewish people). In my family alone there is a Conservative Cantor (my mother), an observant Orthodox Jew, an atheist and an agnostic; yet all of us identify strongly as Jews. So I took it upon myself to make paintings that encapsulate the essence of what it is that ties us all together. In regards to this specific image, I had never seen a depiction of a woman in this day and age bathing in the mikveh. Her back is turned to the viewer as this is her own private ritual.

I wanted the images I created to incorporate the Jewish cultural aesthetics that I had come to know and love but had not yet been brought together in any specific way. So I began with the object that is the genesis for all our stories, laws and traditions…the Torah. So each piece I make is done with a quill in black ink on a parchment like paper and in multiples of 62. However, a Torah is not supposed to contains pictures….which is a problem when that is what you are creating. So, I started to look at what is actually in a Torah-Hebraic calligraphy. My line work, especially in the faces, references various parts of the Hebrew letter broken down and reappropriated, from the okets (small protrusions which can be seen around the eyes to the gag (often the bodies of Hebrew letters which I use as cheek bones)) and even small taggin (crowns). One can see by the cover of this book that the process of drawing intricate lines in this manner helps to create what I feel is an intimate relation between the viewer and the subject. Both the form and content show reverence for that which inspired them.

Designer Charlotte Strick dives in further and answers a few of our questions about her process:

  • Can you tell us anything interesting about the design process for this cover?

Lucky for me, Racelle came to this project with an illustration that not only made sense for her new collection of stories, but also which I could instantly see would make a strong cover image (with plenty of room for type).

  • Do you have any previous drafts you could share?

I have been creating book jackets now for over a decade, and sometimes the designs are labored over and go through many rounds while others, like Moving Waters, just come together quickly. As soon as I saw Will's illustration it was obvious where the type would sit. Racelle has a clean, modern aesthetic, and this type style paired well with her writing. The title type was designed to feel like it was being revealed to us in the ripples of the pool.

Note from Racelle: I loved Charlotte's choice of the modern type style paired with the almost biblical imagery of the mikvah - the stories reside just at the place between ancient ritual and modern Jewish life so it felt just right to me.

  • What are the top 3 favorite covers that you've designed?

This is a very hard question to answer! It's like being asked who are your three favorite children (assuming you have a brood at home). A few recent favorites would have be Threats by Amelia Gray, All We Know: Three Lives by Lisa Cohen, and two plays by Denis Johnson Soul of a Whore and Purvis.

Editor's Note: Charlotte Strick also designed the cover of another recent "Book Cover of the Week": Network author Rich Cohen's The Fish That Ate the Whale, as well as the following covers on the JBC site:


Read more about Racelle, Will, and Charlotte here.

New Reviews

Friday, June 15, 2012 | Permalink

This week's reviews...


Jewish Book Carnival

Friday, June 15, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This month's Jewish Book Carnival features posts about Maurice Sendak, book reviews, essays by Randy Susan Meyers (on her Jewish Book Network tour!), Lesléa Newman, Linda Cohen, and Ann Kofsky, and reading lists. Find the Carnival here.

2012 National Jewish Book Awards

Friday, June 15, 2012 | Permalink

The 2012 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines are now available:

2012 National Jewish Book Award Guidelines and Submission Form

Rising to the Top

Friday, June 15, 2012 | Permalink
Earlier this week, Pnina Jacobson and Judy Kempler wrote about the aging Jewish community, the Australian Jewish community, and about their decision to self-publish their cookbook One Egg Is A Fortune. They have been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Food has always been central to Jewish life – it holds both biblical and historical significance and often reflects our Jewish heritage. One Egg Is A Fortune shows that food is a great equaliser and, while considered a "Jewish" cookbook, appeals to the broader community all over. That being said, with thousands of books published annually, it's sometimes difficult to rise to the top. Wikipedia quotes that in 2009 the U.S. alone published 288,355 new titles and editions. There are also a prolific number of cookbooks published with the popularity of cooking TV shows. 

Book competitions are a way to promote awareness and sales. As self-publishers we entered some international competitions to increase the potential for a successful product. And it worked! One Egg Is A Fortune has been recognised on the world stage. It has won 3 awards:

  • Winner at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in the Australia/Pacific fundraising category (Paris, March 2012)
  • A silver medal in the cookbook category in the "World’s Largest Book Awards Contest” for independent authors and publishers in the United States (May 2012)
  • An Indie Excellence Award also in the United States (May 2012)

To be among the multi-award Jewish cookbook winners, including Gil Marks, Claudia Roden, Joan Nathan, Ruth Reichl, Marlena Spieler and Faye Levy, is humbling.

Equally humbling: being acknowledged by our non-Jewish community. Irina Dunn, who runs the Australian Writers Network, wrote: “this is without doubt the most beautiful and original recipe book I have ever laid my eyes on...remarkable in its conception, perfect in its production, beautiful in its execution."

Zechariah Mehler, a widely published food writer who specializes in kosher cuisine wrote: “A buffet of stories and recipes benefit elder care ... one of the most innovative cookbooks to be released in the kosher world."

We'll leave you now with a summer recipe: 

Watermelon Salad

(Serves 8–10)

1 medium seedless watermelon
1 small white onion, very finely sliced
1 tablespoon fresh mint, finely chopped

Remove the skin and any seeds from the watermelon and cut into 2cm cubes.

Toss watermelon and onion lightly together in a large bowl and chill well. Sprinkle with fresh mint before serving.

Book Cover of the Week: The Mothers

Thursday, June 14, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Although Jennifer Gilmore's newest novel, The Mothers, won't be available for almost another year (sigh!), it already has a cover. And a gorgeous one at that. Obviously, you'll hear more about this one in 2013...