Posted by Joseph WinklerAt 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.
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