The ProsenPeople

Ask Big Questions: How Do You Recharge?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014 | Permalink

The Jewish Book Council is delighted to launch a new blog series in partnership with Ask Big Questions, an initiative out of Hillel International aimed at getting people to talk about issues of heart, soul and community. Each month, Ask Big Questions will feature a JBC author on their blog, shared here on the JBC ProsenPeople blog page, and in campus programming reaching over 10,000 college and graduate students.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel The World Without You, which was named an Editors' Choice Book by The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune and was the winner of the 2012 Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction and a finalist for the 2012 National Jewish Book Award. You can read more of his blogging for the Jewish Book Council here.

The story goes that in 1923, when my father, a shy five-year-old, arrived at Ellis Island, he refused to talk to immigration officials, and they suspected he was a deaf mute. My grandfather couldn’t get my father to talk, and the family was threatened with deportation. But my father loved math, so my grandfather asked him some math questions. My father answered the questions, and the family was let in.

My grandfather was a well-known Orthodox rabbi and, as such, a teacher of Jewish law, and though he would have liked my father to follow in his footsteps, my father was hoping to teach math. Eventually, he went to law school, and after some years at the State Department and the U.N., he settled into life at Columbia Law School, where he was a professor for fifty years.

So the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. And the apple spawned more apples: one of my brothers is a professor of history, the other a teacher of music. Did I have a choice but to become a teacher myself?

Yet I am, first and foremost, a novelist. Every morning, once my daughters are off to school, I walk the fifteen blocks to the Brooklyn Writers Space, where I find an empty cubicle, and where, keeping a promise to myself, I haven’t learned the Internet password. No food, no drink, no cell phones: although I’m surrounded by other writers, there might as well be no one else in the world besides the people I’ve invented who light up my screen.

But then afternoon comes and my stamina slackens and other obligations call. How does a novelist retool? The way anyone else does, I suppose. We watch movies and read books and eat out in restaurants. We spend time with our family, and with our friends. Two years ago, I started to take piano lessons. I’ve even begun to work out with a personal trainer: no surer sign of encroaching middle age.

But the real way I retool is by teaching. It’s strange, I know, to look at my day job in this way, but I do. I direct the fiction MFA Program at Brooklyn College, which means that I get to teach some of the finest young writers in the country. In a typical year, we get close to 500 applicants for fifteen spots.

Teaching fiction writing brings me back to my own roots as a writer. I’m often asked whether I always wanted to be a writer, and the answer is, Yes, I always wanted to be a writer, but then I also always wanted to be a basketball player, and at some point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough.

I was, in fact, a decent basketball player; I was the captain of my high school varsity basketball team. But I went to a small Jewish high school in New York City, where being captain put me in mind of that line from Ethics of the Fathers: He’vay zanav la’arayot, v’al t’hee rosh la’shooalim. Be the tail of the lions and don’t be the head of the foxes. Well, being the captain of my high school basketball team wasn’t like being the head of the foxes; it was like being the head of the mice.

And, so, I went off to college understanding that basketball wasn’t in my future. I felt the same way about writing: it was a dream. But then I graduated and got a job at a magazine where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction submissions. I saw how many terrible ones there were, and I felt oddly inspired. I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too.

I tell this story, in part, because a fiction writer risks failure every day. But I tell it, also, because I was intuitively good at figuring out what wasn’t working in other people’s stories long before I was good at writing fiction myself. I had to teach myself to become a more intuitive writer.

It’s what I continue to do when I teach my graduate students. I’m teaching them, but I’m also teaching myself. I may be more experienced than they are, but we’re all struggling with the same things: how to tell a story, how to make our characters jump off the page, how to use language that sings. Writing workshop meets in the evening, and the next morning I’m ready to take my own advice to heart, ready to log in the hours.

The other thing about teaching is you’re engaged with actual human beings. This might seem obvious, but it’s easy for fiction writers to forget this. We spend so much time with imaginary human beings, it’s a relief to be in the company of real ones. Teaching enlivens me. Or, in the words of my late father, whose mother tongue was Yiddish, it’s a mechaye.

Sleeping on Felix Frankfurter’s Couch

Friday, June 22, 2012 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Joshua Henkin talked about how he came to write his latest novel, his  father and grandfather, and explored the question: "Are you a Jewish writer?". He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I want to talk a little more about my family of origin. My father, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was the son of an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned English. My father himself, by contrast, eventually left the world of the yeshiva. He went to Harvard Law School, then fought in World War Two, and when he returned he made a career for himself, first at the State Department and the U.N. and then in academia—he taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia Law Schools for a total of fifty years. He remained Orthodox until he died, yet he had hardly any Orthodox Jewish friends, hardly any observant Jewish friends at all, and I suspect many of the people whom he spent time with didn’t know or were only dimly aware of the fact that he was observant.

There are, I believe, many reasons for this. The woman my father married, my mother, is Jewish, but she was raised in a nonobservant home, and though she compromised in raising my brothers and me (she agreed to keep a kosher home and observe the Sabbath for the sake of the family; my brothers and I were sent to Jewish day school and Jewish summer camp), she never herself became observant, and the world in which my mother lived—the secular world—became my father’s world, too, had already, in fact, become my father’s world by the time he met her. And my father was a private, modest man. He wasn’t someone to flaunt his religious observance or anything else about himself, and so when he was saying Kaddish for his father in 1973 and he convened a daily mincha minyan at his office at Columbia, I, who was only nine at the time, already understood that this was unusual for him to be so openly, publicly Jewish. My father liked to quote Moses Mendelssohn—be a Jew at home, a human being on the street—and it’s only now, looking back from my vantage point as an adult, that I find something strange, or at least noteworthy, in an Orthodox Jew using the words of the founder of Reform Judaism as his motto.

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago when I received an invitation to participate in an authors panel at Hunter College. I would describe my own relationship to Jewish practice as idiosyncratically observant, and among these idiosyncrasies is the fact that I don’t travel on the Sabbath but if I can get myself somewhere without traveling, I’m happy to engage in conduct that, while not technically Sabbath-violating, isn’t, as they say, shabbesdik. The panel was held on a Saturday, and shabbesdik or not, it isn’t particularly sane to walk eight miles from Park Slope to Hunter College and eight miles back, all to participate in an authors panel. But then my new book was coming out in less than two weeks, and when new your book is coming out in less than two weeks you tend to do a lot of things that are neither shabbesdik nor sane.

As I was walking through the rain to Hunter, I was put in mind of another such incident more then twenty-five years ago when I, about to become a college junior, spent the summer in Washington, DC, and one Friday night I was invited to a party somewhere in suburban Maryland, and I prevailed upon a friend of mine, herself not even Jewish, let alone Sabbath-observant, to walk with me to the party. It was a seven-mile walk if we followed the directions correctly, but we didn’t follow the directions correctly, and thanks to a wrong turn and a three-mile detour, we ended up at the party at one in the morning, where we didn’t even know the host (the party was being held by a friend of a friend), and we ended up of having to ask strangers whether we could spend the night on their living room floor.

What lesson can be drawn from this other than that I, at age twenty, was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to attend a party? Perhaps not much. But it occurs to me that in certain ways I was my father’s son—my father who never would have done what I had done (he didn’t like parties), but who was of a generation that, for better or worse, didn’t wear its Jewishness on its sleeve. My father wore a yarmulke only in synagogue, and when he clerked on the Supreme Court for Felix Frankfurter he would on Friday nights secretly sleep on Frankfurter’s office couch because he couldn’t travel home on the Sabbath. He’d acted similarly a few years earlier when, at Harvard Law School, he had a final scheduled for Shavuot, and he hired a proctor to follow him around for forty-eight hours, and then, when the holiday was over, he took the exam.

By contrast, nearly fifty years later, when I was an undergraduate at Harvard and graduation was scheduled for Shavuot, many Orthodox Jews (and a good number of non-Orthodox Jews, too) staged a protest to get the date changed. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, who himself had been raised an Orthodox Jew, was, if I recall correctly, instrumental in the protest. When I told my father about the protest, he was mystified. Ask Harvard to change graduation because of Shavuot? You didn’t ask for special treatment. The world did as it did, and you accommodated to it. There were differences in temperament between my father and Alan Dershowitz that are too numerous to count. But one additional difference was a generational one. American Jews had been one thing then, and they were another thing now.

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.

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.