April 20, 2012

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

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.

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 naive 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.

Read Joshua Henk­in’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Are You a Jew­ish Writer?

Sleep­ing on Felix Frankfurter’s Couch

Twit­ter Book Club

Read a tran­script from the Sep­tem­ber 11, 2012 Twit­ter Book Club with Joshua Henkin.

Discussion Questions

1. Dis­cuss the sib­ling rela­tion­ships in the nov­el. To what extent have Noelle’s deci­sions been shaped by being Claris­sa and Lily’s sister?

2. When Mar­i­lyn announces that she and David are sep­a­rat­ing, Claris­sa, Lily, and Noelle are thrown into shock. Is separation/​divorce dif­fer­ent for chil­dren when they’re adults than when they’re younger?

3 Mar­i­lyn won’t let David tell the girls their news before every­one gets up to the Berk­shires. Do you agree with this deci­sion not to tell the fam­i­ly in advance?

4. It’s been the hard­est year of Thisbe’s life, yet it’s dif­fer­ent for her. Mar­i­lyn and David were Leo’s par­ents.” What does the nov­el mean by this? In what ways is it dif­fer­ent to lose a son than to lose a husband?

5. Mar­i­lyn thinks, Moth­ers and daugh­ters-in-law: such volatile, loaded rela­tion­ships.” Is there some­thing about Mar­i­lyn and This­be that makes it hard for them to be close? Is the rela­tion­ship between moth­er-in-law and daugh­ter-in-law inher­ent­ly volatile?

6. Clarissa’s infer­til­i­ty plays a cen­tral role in the book. Orig­i­nal­ly, it was Nathaniel who want­ed to have chil­dren and Claris­sa didn’t, but now that they’re hav­ing trou­ble con­ceiv­ing Claris­sa seems more upset than Nathaniel is. Does this have to do with Leo’s death? Is infer­til­i­ty always hard­er for the woman than for the man?

7. Lily and Noelle have a par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship. Why is this? How do sib­ling rela­tion­ships change as peo­ple get old­er? Are some sib­lings sim­ply not meant to get along?

8. Mar­i­lyn and David bought kosher food and a new set of dish­es so Noelle could eat in their home, but Noelle still won’t eat there. Do you agree with Noelle’s deci­sion? In a con­flict between loy­al­ty to one’s fam­i­ly and loy­al­ty to one’s beliefs, what should win out?

9. There are some very high-pow­ered peo­ple in this nov­el. Nathaniel has two PhDs and may some­day win the Nobel Prize. Lily clerked on the Supreme Court. Mal­colm is a chef fea­tured in mag­a­zines. Mar­i­lyn is a suc­cess­ful doc­tor. Amram and Noelle, by con­trast, strug­gle pro­fes­sion­al­ly. To what extent do the char­ac­ters in this book define their own suc­cess in com­par­i­son with the suc­cess of their sib­lings and parents?

10. This­be says to Lily, Every­one who knew us says Leo and I were great togeth­er. There’s no love like the love that’s been erased.” Were Leo and This­be great togeth­er? How reli­able is mem­o­ry when some­one has died? Do you think This­be and Leo would have worked things out if he had come home from Iraq?

11. Most of the major char­ac­ters in the nov­el are female, yet the author is male. Does that influ­ence the way you read this nov­el? Is it dif­fer­ent for a male writer to write from the per­spec­tive of a woman?

12. Like the jour­nal­ist Daniel Pearl, Leo was cap­tured in the Mid­dle East and exe­cut­ed by ter­ror­ists. More recent­ly, a num­ber of promi­nent jour­nal­ists have died in the Mid­dle East. The specter of the Iraq War hov­ers over this nov­el, and the book is pop­u­lat­ed by char­ac­ters who have strong, often oppos­ing polit­i­cal opin­ions. Yet the book takes place in the bucol­ic Berk­shires, far from the cen­ter of the con­flict. Would you describe this as a polit­i­cal novel?

13. Although Lily and Mal­colm aren’t mar­ried, they live togeth­er and have been a cou­ple for ten years. Why does Lily refuse to let Mal­colm come to the Berk­shires for Leo’s memo­r­i­al? Does it say some­thing about their rela­tion­ship? About Lily herself?

14. Noelle thanks her father for being the voice that under­stands there are things you can’t know.” What does she mean by that? What makes David such a lik­able character?

15. Amram, by con­trast, is a more dif­fi­cult human being. What do you think attract­ed Noelle to him? What attract­ed Amram to Noelle? The nov­el says that This­be under­stands Amram’s appeal. He has a kind of bul­ly­ing charis­ma.” Do you find Amram likable?

16. Judaism, Lily likes to say: just anoth­er install­ment in the ran­dom life of Noelle Glucks­man.” Lat­er, Noelle tells This­be that it was ran­dom that she end­ed up in Israel and that she could just as eas­i­ly have land­ed in Swe­den. What role do ran­dom­ness and coin­ci­dence play in Noelle’s life? In the lives of the oth­er characters?

17. This­be thinks: Every­one wants to know about the mile­stones — Leo’s birth­day, their anniver­sary — and those are hard, of course, but it’s the every­day things that are the tough­est.” What does This­be mean by that? Do you agree with her observation?

18. Gretchen’s wealth plays a role in this nov­el, and the fam­i­ly all responds to it dif­fer­ent­ly. Dis­cuss the role of mon­ey in the nov­el in general.

19. The book says that David mourns for Leo no less than Mar­i­lyn does even if he isn’t bel­low­ing it into bull­horns … In a way he thinks his response is more dig­ni­fied.” Is David’s response more dig­ni­fied? Are there bet­ter and worse ways to mourn?

20. When Amram final­ly returns after hav­ing been gone for two days, Noelle is livid. Lat­er, she hits Amram in the eye with a ten­nis ball, and Amram accus­es her of hav­ing done so inten­tion­al­ly. Do you think Noelle hit him inten­tion­al­ly? Whom do you sym­pa­thize with in this scene?

21​.At the book’s end, where do you think the var­i­ous char­ac­ters will be in ten years?