Interview with Joshua Henkin, author of "Matrimony"

Joshua Henkin is the author of two books, Swimming Across the Hudson, released in 1997, and Matrimony, released earlier this year. In addition to writing, Henkin teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, Brooklyn College, and the 92nd St. Y in New York City.

In case you missed yesterday’s review, here’s a VERY short snippet about the book:

It is 1987, and Julian Wainwright, aspiring writer and Waspy son of New York City old money, meets beautiful, Jewish Mia Mendelsohn in the laundry room at Graymont College. So begins a love affair that, spurred on by family tragedy, will take Julian and Mia across the country and back, through several college towns, spanning twenty years.

First, I’d like to ask about the title of the book. When I first saw this book reviewed I skipped past it because I thought it was a nonfiction book about how to make your marriage work. Once it started showing up everywhere I finally settled down to see what all the fuss is about. So, my questions: Why did you choose the title Matrimony? Also, do you get any criticism about this title?

You’re not alone in seeing the title and thinking it might be nonfiction, and yes, I’ve had some people think it’s the wrong title for the book. I myself am ambivalent about the title, but on balance I stand by it. I tend to think that the best titles are evocative of the novel without telling the reader too much about it. My first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, is a good example of that. Swimming across the Hudson is simply an image from the book; it’s not a novel about aquatics, certainly. But you call a novel MATRIMONY and you create certain expectations. People might think it’s a self-help book, and even if they know it’s a novel, they might expect a certain kind of story that may or not be borne out by what happens in my book.

MATRIMONY is about more than marriage. It’s about friendship, class, maturing over the years, among other things. But I certainly couldn’t have called it MARRIAGE, FRIENDSHIP, CLASS, AND MATURING! OVER THE YEARS, though Alice Munro has a story collection with a title not so far from that. But she’s Alice Munro, and as far as I’m concerned she can do whatever she pleases; she’s that good.

In the end, the title MATRIMONY felt true to what the book was about, in that the central relationship is a marriage and the book is really about several other marriages as well—Carter and Pilar’s marriage, Mia’s parents’ marriage, Julian’s parents’ marriage. But I didn’t want to call the book MARRIAGE. I liked the more amorphous feel of MATRIMONY, as well as the implied phrase “holy matrimony,” which of course is belied (or at least rendered more complex) by what happens in my novel.

Are sections of this novel autobiographical? Where did you get your inspiration for writing this type of story?

In very deep ways, MATRIMONY is not autobiographical. I met my wife many years after college, her mother didn’t die of breast cancer, and my wife didn’t sleep with my best friend. Or, if she did, no one has told me yet! And, regrettably, I’m not nearly as wealthy as Julian is. The only character in the book who’s based on a real character is the dog, Cooper. Aside from a sex and breed switch, Cooper is a dead ringer for my wife’s and my beloved golden retriever, Dulcie. But all the other mammals in MATRIMONY are products of my imagination.

It’s interesting that many people assume that the book is autobiographical and, if it is, that I must be Julian. If anything, despite certain superficial similarities (like Julian, I grew up in New York and have moved back there; we’re both writers; our names both begin with “J”), I’m probably more similar to Mia than to Julian. I’m Jewish; she’s Jewish. I’m the son of an academic; she’s the daughter of an academic. Not that there aren’t some key differences between Mia and me that go beyond gender. Still, the home she grew up in, with certain notable exceptions, was much more similar to the home I grew up in than Julian’s home was.

The only qualification I’d add is that in the broadest sense Julian, Mia, and Carter are the kinds of people who are familiar to me, who I might have hung out with at various points in my life. If they showed up at a party I was at, I wouldn’t be surprised. I’ve lived in some of the places they’ve lived (I spent eight years in Ann Arbor, and four years in Berkeley/the SF Bay area; I’ve lived almost half my life in college towns), and I share, in the broadest contours, some of their concerns. In this sense, I was doing what Professor Chesterfield said, which is writing what I know about what I don’t know or what I don’t know about what I know.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say where I get my inspiration, other than that everything for a novelist is a source of inspiration. The people you meet, the situations you encounter, and, of course, your imagination pure and simple. A fiction writer obviously needs a certain facility with language, but just as important is an abiding curiosity about people and about the world. Novelists are psychologists in many ways, and so it’s not entirely surprising that Julian and Mia end up together. When I was a toddler, I apparently made my mother pick me up so I could look into every store window we passed. Even now, you take me to a party and hand me a stranger’s high school yearbook and I can entertain myself for an hour. I’m a gossip; in another life I’d have had a talk show. In that sense, I’m like Julian – the Julian who snoops through Mia’s closets, trying to get to know her. For me, this is one of the appeals of visiting book groups. It’s intellectually stimulating, certainly, but beyond that, I like meeting new people. It’s not every day that you get invited into a stranger’s living room!

In the same vein, did you have an inspirational teacher like Mr. Chesterfield in the novel?

I’ve had a number of influential and inspirational teachers. Professor Chesterfield isn’t based on anyone exactly (he’s quite different from any writing teacher I’ve ever had), but he’s loosely inspired by my first writing teacher, Leonard Michaels, a terrific writer whose star fell precipitously after a very promising early career, and whose work has just recently been reissued posthumously (his collected stories were published last year by Farar Straus) and who is finally again getting the attention he deserves. Lenny was a complicated guy and not a particularly good teacher by traditional standards (he often didn’t come prepared to class), but he was smart and passionate and funny, and he encouraged me early on in ways that were very important to me.

Also, are you a teacher like Chesterfield, or have you met teachers like him (teachers who have commandments about how to write)?

I myself don’t resemble Professor Chesterfield–I’d like to think I’m a good deal kinder than he is, and I’m certainly less scary! I don’t write commandments on the blackboard, nor do I speak in terms of commandments. That said, I think most of his commandments have a big kernel of truth in them (on balance, I agree with most of what he says), and I do have a reputation for being a traditionalist as a teacher and thinking aspiring writers should learn the “rules” and then break them knowingly, and with purpose, instead of doing so out of ignorance.

I’m all for experimental writing if it’s good, but there’s a lot of terrible experimental writing out there being perpetrated by 18- and 19-year-olds. There’s an attitude that a lot of undergraduates, especially, bring to class, which is, essentially, “Hey, dude, it’s creative writing, so I can do whatever I want.” Well, you CAN do whatever you want, as long as it works – which turns out to be a pretty daunting limitation.! At the end of every semester I’ll have several students say to me, “I never realized fiction writing was so hard.” It pleases me to hear this, because I know this means they learned something.

What did you ultimately hope readers would take away from your novel?

The reason I read fiction is get out of my own experience – to have characters I didn’t know before I started the novel come sufficiently to life that I know them as well as or better than the people in my own life. If a novel does that to me, then it has succeeded, and if my book does that to my readers, then I feel that I have succeeded.

For me, plot and language are important, but they’re important as vehicles for exploring character. Beyond that, I’m not looking for the reader to take away anything from MATRIMONY, or from any other piece of fiction I write. It’s a common but mistaken assumption that novels are supposed to make statements or have points. Novelists aren’t in the business of making arguments, statements, or points; they aren’t in the business of teaching lessons. If you want to make an argument or a statement, if you want to teach a lesson, you should become a philosopher, an economist, a theologian, or a lawyer, all of which are perfectly good professions. They’re just not my profession. A novelist is in the business of creating characters and telling stories—nothing more, nothing less.

I’d also like to ask about writing in general. What are your writing habits? And what suggestions do you have for young writers? You write about Julian’s struggles with writing his novel, his worries of never finishing his novel, and, at one point, a problem with writer’s block. Have you had the same types of struggles? What do you suggest writers do to keep imagination going?

Writing fiction is incredibly difficult, and you have to go about it singlemindedly. It took me ten years to write MATRIMONY and I threw out more than three thousand pages. No matter how much you’ve accomplished in the past, there’s always the risk of failure, always the fraud police hanging over you. With novels, especially, unlike stories (I write those, too), it takes a leap of faith. With a story, you can sometimes see the whole in advance, but not so with a novel; you can’t see the forest for the trees. It takes a couple of years before you know not whether it’s a good novel but whether it’s a novel at all. You need to just plow forward and not think about it. The best way to look at it is that you’re not writing a novel; you’re writing a page a day, two pages a day, half a page a day, and then, at the end of a couple of years, you have a whole bunch of pages, most of which are likely to be a mess, but you hope that over time you’ll begin to figure things out.

The suggestions I have for young writers are the same suggestions I have for myself. Treat it like a job, because it is a job. If you wait for inspiration, you’ll never write. I don’t believe in inspiration; I believe in tying yourself to your chair. It’s not that there’s no such thing as inspired work. But I find that inspired work doesn’t correlate to feeling inspired; if anything, the relationship is inversely proportionate. If you’re feeling too inspired, you’re likely to fall in love with the sound of your own voice, and what comes out is self-indulgent and maudlin. Often my very best work comes from when I’m feeling least inspired.

I try to write every day or as close to every day as I can, and I keep a calendar in which I mark down to the minute how long I worked each day, and if I didn’t write at all on a particular day I put a big fat zero next to the date, and that’s my guilt zero. Even if you have very little time, it’s better to write regularly! I tell my students that, given the choice between writing ten minutes a day six days a week or an hour on a Saturday, I’d choose ten minutes a day six days a week. That way, you’re living with your characters, and you come up with ideas even when you’re not writing.

In terms of similarities to Julian, I certainly experience many of the same insecurities he does, but unlike him, I never had writers block. I was always writing. I just was writing a lot of bad pages along the way, and it took me many years to figure the book out.

Lastly, I’m curious about your decision to market your book through book blogs. What was your reasoning behind that? And, did you use book blogs to help market your first book? Has it been a successful endeavor?

The Web was in its infancy when I published SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON (1997), and beyond that, the world of publishing has changed a lot. It’s become a much tougher, bottom-line business, and writers have to do whatever they can to sell copies of their book. It’s hard to isolate the impact of my marketing MATRIMONY through book blogs because I’ve been fortunate with MATRIMONY on many fronts.

The reviews have been terrific, which has helped the book a lot, as, no doubt, has the fact that it was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. And my publisher, Pantheon, sent me on a long book tour and put advertising money into the book, and there’s no substitute for that kind of support. That said, with the publishing world being as difficult as it is and book sales suffering across the industry, authors who take initiative can really make a difference, and what I’ve done on the Web, both in terms of book blogs and in terms of using the Web to reach book groups that end up choosing MATRIMONY, has clearly had an impact and, I hope, will continue to have an impact when MATRIMONY comes out in paperback at the end of August.

Thanks, Rebecca, for these really thoughtful questions. If you or your readers have any follow-up questions, I’d be glad to try to answer them. Also, if anyone would like to see further thoughts I have about MATRIMONY and about the writing process, check out the online book group discussion of MATRIMONY that I participated in at mothertalk.com.

As always, I’d be delighted to participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY. If you would like me to join your book group discussion, you can contact me through my website, or directly, at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.

Josh

Me again (Becca): Also, I found this article about Josh Henkin in the New York Times. It’s and old one, but if you’re interested in reading more about him and his book, I recommend checking it out.

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Published in: on May 30, 2008 at 2:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

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