A far-flung family; a yahrzeit for the untimely death of a man who was a son, husband, brother, and father; and a gathering in a limited space are the elements of Joshua Henkin’s beautifully written third novel, The World Without You. Henkin writes of the high emotional stakes for a family after its youngest son, a journalist, has been killed in Iraq, in echoes of Daniel Pearl. Like Pearl, this son, Leo, was married and the father of a very young child. The book’s epigraph, “Things seldom end in one event,” from a short story by Richard Ford, tells readers that the book’s subject is how this death has an aftermath for the various family members.
Some of the book’s best lines are given to the ironically named Noelle, now a ba’alat teshuvah living with her husband and four young sons in Jerusalem. The ways in which her religious and political views are completely antithetical to the liberal secular progressive views with which she was raised create an interesting source of tension and dynamic within the novel. “We shall do and we shall listen,” she says, to teach her non-Jewish sister-in-law to carry on even in the face of what she does not understand.
The greatest strength of Henkin’s writing here is his ability to create emotionally resonant, three-dimensional characters and his careful control of the narrative, which contains so many points of view. From the young Israeli sons taken with the wonders of America to the dead son evoked so carefully in the recollections of the family who loved him, to the fabulously wealthy ninety-four-year-old grandmother who can, when and if she wishes, use her riches to control almost any aspect of the family life. The World Without You has the pain and splendor of an enchanting family with an important story to tell.
A Conversation with Joshua Henkin
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.
JW: This book appears to obsess over its characters. They are vividly drawn, unique, and unpredictable. Do you ever get to a point in which you think you are done with a character?
JH: I don’t really think so, unless you kill one off. For example, in this book so much is left open, and I like books like that. People ask me what will happen to these characters, but if I did my job correctly then any reader can guess as much as I can what will happen in the future. I think that fiction, like life, contains the potential for plausible surprise. I have been with my wife for fifteen years and my kids for however old they are, but every day I feel capable of being surprised by them. I don’t want to be in a place where people I love don’t surprise me at all anymore.
JW: Your book makes no pretense to hide a lot of very detailed Jewish facts, ideas, and characters, and yet, it is a universal book. How do you balance the particulars of the culture you know with the desire to create something for everyone?
JH: I understand the question, but I don’t really feel the tension all that much. Do I think of myself as a Jewish writer? You know, all these types of qualifications tend to delimit the person, when I think all writers want to be universal. But of course, every writer uses the particular to get to the general. Everyone has their own cultural material. In terms of accessibility, there is always that tension. Morrison writes from her black experiences, but she still writes universal masterpieces. I think, given this tension, you often have a different problem in which an author over explains. On the other hand, I don’t want my audience to need to know Orthodox practice. I want the book to be comprehensible to those who don’t know a word of Hebrew or don’t know anything about Judaism. Obviously, an Orthodox Jew reading the book, especially in certain sections, will read it differently than someone else. I am fine with that. The balance is something I shoot for, and I don’t think you need to know anything about Judaism to appreciate the book. I am writing for any intelligent, thoughtful reader.
JW: Your book essentially tells the story of complex family dynamics in an extreme situation. In a sense, this book, or this idea, has been done many times before. As an author how do you bring something fresh to this kind of plot?
JH: For me, I don’t feel the anxiety of influence. It’s not because I think I am so great. Someone once said there are only two stories in the world: a stranger comes to town, or a person goes on a trip, which I think makes sense. Conversely, I see the bad effects of the anxiety of influence. Students and other authors write many contrived plots or ideas because no one has done it before. I see that my students suffer from under-confidence in this sense. King Lear is pretty clichéd when you think about it. I tend to think everything done badly is a cliché, and everything done well is not a cliché. We live our lives, we get married, even though everyone else has gotten married. Certainly, broadly speaking, many books are similar, but for me the characters are different, as is the voice. Of course, every writer has the fraud police over them, but that is just part of the deal, but it’s also a pleasure and a challenge. I don’t sit down and think family and the literary tradition. I think these subjects are endless because these are our lives. No one doesn’t get married because everyone has done it before.
JW: You touch upon a point that many teachers and writers talk about in describing the younger generation. Mainly, that they suffer from a lack of confidence hidden by cynicism. How can young writers get around that problem?
JH: I do see that. Many of my students are very self protective in their stories. In young writers, their cynicism gets in the way of their heart, and you need that, because you want your reader to have an emotional reaction. A writer has to be open to the world in a naïve way. It’s easy to be clever, but much harder to move people.
JW: One trend in literature, whether today or through time, is the lack of happy characters. Even in this book, most of the characters are unhappy, or feel empty and lost. Do you see these characters as happy, as capable of happiness? Do you see literature as capable of using happy characters?
JH: Tolstoy did say that all happy families are alike, and there is something to that in regards to the nature of fiction. You need conflict in a book; without it, it’s boring. Depth of character tends to come out in conflict. My students write lovely sentences but nothing happens. If you do nothing, if you just sit there and think, then you will elicit no reaction. Look, fiction is condensed, it is the highlights of life. You are always putting characters into conflict to find out what they are about and capable of. Fiction, by its very nature, requires trouble. In this book, it’s hard to be happy at the present moment because Leo died the previous year, but I do feel confident that a few of them are temperamentally happy. I believe that you can write characters who are dispositionally happy, but you need to put them in situations that make them potentially unhappy, in that moment. It’s the nature of fiction.
JW: Is there anything that you don’t usually get asked in an interview, or something you want your readers to know?
JH: The things I always want to stress more come from the teacher and student of literature inside of me. Readers see the final product, but don’t see the numerous, countless missteps along the way. I threw away 3,000 pages from Matrimony. I like to think of my style as one in which the author feels invisible. I try to write like that, but it takes so much time, revision, and effort to become invisible. It’s important for me that people know the importance of true revision.
JW: Well, in that vein, what was the biggest revision in this book?
JH: Jules, a very minor character in the finished version, was slated to be a main character, but more importantly, I first wrote the book without the prologue that indicates that Marilyn and David are splitting up. I gave the book to a friend of mine and he said, “What’s really at stake here? What’s the actual conflict?” What would Richard Bausch do? I am a big believer in revising as re-vision, really seeing something wholly anew. When you revise on the fly, you end up making unnatural decisions about the flow or plot of the book, and it feels inorganic.