The Rumpus Interview with Joshua Henkin

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I know almost no one who’s been directly involved in the wars of the last decade. It’s a strange thing to consider: that my country has been officially at war for nearly the entirety of my adult life, and almost no one I personally know—except, let’s see, a cousin-in-law and a friend of my husband—has had to fire a gun, or be fired upon, or, for that matter, lose his or her life, in the name of these wars.

This disconnect, as far as I can tell, isn’t an unusual phenomenon, but its pervasiveness makes it no less unsettling. Joshua Henkin’s new, forceful novel, The World Without You, draws some of its power from this peculiar disconnect between the personal and the national. The book covers a weekend in the life of the Frankel family: they have gathered in the Berkshires for the memorial service of their journalist son, brother, and husband, Leo, who was kidnapped and publicly killed while reporting on the war in Iraq. The Frankels are not otherwise, as Josh notes below, “touched personally by the war,” so what happens when the war does irrupt into their lives?

The World Without You has received accolades from Heidi Julavits, Adam Kirsch, Jim Shepard, and others; Julavits calls it “an immeasurably moving masterpiece.” Josh was one of my graduate-school professors, and it’s a measure of his passion for teaching that he tended to keep us in class for hours past when we were scheduled to be let out; it’s a testament to his wisdom that we always wanted to stay. While conducting this interview—as we discussed different ways of grieving, politics and fiction, Daniel Pearl, Leonard Michaels, mentors, truth versus beauty, and what it’s like to throw away thousands of pages—I was reminded of those late nights.

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The Rumpus: I think sometimes of something Michael Cunningham said, that we write in part because we want to read a book that doesn’t yet exist. Sometimes I think of how comparatively little fiction has been written about the past decade’s wars, and I wonder if the idea of writing The World Without You originated in any such perception of a lack.

Joshua Henkin: So little of what I do is conscious, at least for the first draft, so it’s hard to know what I was thinking. But I agree with Michael. You write a book that you would want to read if you hadn’t written it, and also because you believe in some way that there’s a lack out there and that your book is responding to that lack. All the same, I didn’t say to myself, There aren’t many novels about the wars of the past decade, so let me go write one. I think these things happen more organically, and there’s always a certain lag time between major world events and their appearance in fiction. Fiction isn’t journalism, and it takes time for these things to seep into the culture. In the same way that it took a while for September 11 novels to appear, it takes a while for Iraq War novels to appear, and now they’re starting to.

Rumpus: Such as The World Without You.

Henkin: I would also say that, though The World Without You is about a journalist killed in Iraq, and though the Frankels are a deeply political family, in most ways The World Without You is more a domestic drama than a war novel. One of things that appealed to me about writing this book was that under other circumstances my characters wouldn’t have been touched personally by the war. Like the Frankels, I come from an upper-middle-class overeducated family on Manhattan’s Upper West Side; I suspect that the Frankels, like me, didn’t really know anyone who fought in Iraq. They have strong opinions about the war, but those opinions come from afar; they live a pretty cosseted life. And then the war comes and touches them in the most personal, most horrific way imaginable.

Rumpus: I’m guessing that, since the novel centers around an American journalist who’s publicly killed by terrorists in Iraq, some of your readers will think of Daniel Pearl’s death. Of course, your novel’s fiction, and only loosely connected to Pearl’s story, but was it any different or harder for you to write a novel with a possible connection to a public tragedy?

Henkin: Ah, the Daniel Pearl question. You’re probably not going to believe this, but I really wasn’t thinking about Daniel Pearl when I wrote this book, certainly not consciously. I think it goes to show what an intuitive, subconscious process fiction writing is. I mean, once everyone pointed it out to me I saw the connection, of course, but I wasn’t consciously attuned to the Daniel Pearl story when I began to write this book. In any case, I don’t see this novel as a roman-à-clef, at least not in the traditional sense, so the Daniel Pearl tragedy didn’t make writing the book any harder.

Rumpus: How did The World Without You start? Was there an initial spark of an idea, or situation, or character?

Henkin: 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. At a family reunion 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.

Rumpus: I remember you used to say that, in writing, revision separates the men from the boys, the women from the girls. What changed in The World Without You between drafts?

Henkin: It’s absolutely true that revision separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. I tell my graduate students that no matter how talented they are, they’re not going to get anywhere unless they revise and revise and revise. What I mean by revision is just that—re-vision, seeing the work anew. I’m talking about a kind of revision that’s so deep that you’re essentially starting over from scratch. With Matrimony, I threw out three thousand pages along the way, and with The World Without You I threw out close to two thousand pages. And that’s not counting all the hours and hours I spent changing a comma here, a comma there, adding or subtracting a dialogue tag. A writer isn’t a writer if he isn’t compulsive. My editor shudders every time I sit down to revise. She makes some suggestions and then I double her down, and she’s thinking, Oh, no, who is this monster I’ve created? The changes in The World Without You are so big you wouldn’t recognize the original draft of the book. In the first draft Marilyn and David aren’t even splitting up, and now that’s the catalyst for the novel, the very thing that sets the book in motion. Also, Leo’s childhood friend Jules, who makes a brief appearance at the memorial, was, in the first draft, a major character in the book—arguably the major character. I wrote about three hundred pages of scenes with him in them, and now he’s there for just a couple of paragraphs.

Rumpus: Is it easy or hard for you to throw away those thousands of pages?

Henkin: It’s incredibly easy. In fact, it’s a sheer pleasure. Some people talk about going to a spa for a detox. Well, I detox by cutting out the flab from my work. If someone told me in advance that I was about to write thousands of pages that I would have to throw out, I probably would have trouble writing those pages, but thankfully I’m not told that in advance, and once those sentences have been written I can’t get the time back. It’s what economists call sunk costs. And the fact is, nothing is a waste. The bad sentences are investments in the good sentences, the bad days in the good days. Another way to put it is that those initial drafts are part of the discovery process. They’re helping you figure out who your characters are and where your story lies.

Rumpus: How did you know it was done?

Henkin: A book is never done, exactly. There just comes a point when you’re finished with it, when it’s the best book it can be and to work on it any further would make it worse rather than better. Also, you’re so sick of the characters that you know that you can’t live with them any longer. But that’s years and years into the process. And even when you’re done, there’s still the temptation to make changes. I remember seeing an author give a reading from his published novel and he stopped in the middle of the reading to write down a change. And I thought, Now, that’s a writer after my own heart. As a writer friend of mine once told her publisher, “Just because you published my book doesn’t mean I can’t keep revising it.”

Rumpus: Did you have any teachers or mentors who were especially encouraging or instructive?

Henkin: Among my early writing teachers, Leonard Michaels and Ethan Canin were particularly influential. Lenny was, loosely speaking, the inspiration for Professor Chesterfield, the writing instructor in Matrimony. On the face of it, Lenny wasn’t particularly committed to teaching, at least not in the classroom, where he was known to come into class not having read the stories and then just read them aloud to the students. But the way he read them—you just heard things in the rhythms that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own, and he was absolutely brilliant. I would go out for coffee with him, and he would just rant, but I learned more from those rants than from just about anything. He taught me to be precise with language. Every word, every comma, counted. I remember he was going over the galleys of his latest book and he was perseverating over the right way to spell the word “smidgen”—whether it should be “smidgen” or “smigeon,” like pigeon. He was incredibly preoccupied with that question. I loved that about him.

Rumpus: Leonard Michaels. I’m crazy about him. A friend turned me on to him, and I think I’ve read everything he’s published in book form, some of it multiple times. Not very many people seem to know about him, which is too bad. But you also mentioned Ethan Canin…

Henkin: Ethan was a different kind of teacher—really focused and analytic in a very nuts-and-bolts way, and he probably influenced me as a teacher more than any other writing instructor I’ve had. He was particularly good at mapping out a story, and he helped demystify the writing process, which was very important to me at the time.

At Michigan, too, where I got my MFA, I had some incredibly influential teachers, including Charles Baxter, Nick Delbanco, and Rosellen Brown, all of whom were extremely important to me.

Rumpus: You direct and teach in Brooklyn College’s creative writing program (and you’re, incidentally, one of the best instructors I’ve had). How have you found that teaching has influenced your writing?

Henkin: Thanks, Reese. I love teaching, and that’s in large part because I get to teach writers as good as you. I’ve always preferred teaching graduate students to teaching undergraduates, and in most ways I have the dream job. In a typical year at Brooklyn College we get 500 MFA fiction applicants for fifteen spots in our incoming class. So you’re dealing with some of the very best young writers out there. In the last few months alone, five of our recent graduates have gotten book contracts. There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing. For me, it was the opposite. I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories. I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me. I’ve been at this process longer than my students have, but we’re all struggling with the same thing—how to write convincing stories; how to make our characters comes so deeply to life they feel as real as, even realer than, the actual people in our own lives; how to use language in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true. That never changes. So in a way, even though I’m the instructor, we’re all students in the room. Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives me the chance to be with other people and to talk about what I love.

Rumpus: I want to ask you more about using language “in a way that’s precise and beautiful and utterly true.” Lately, as I revise my novel, I’ve thought a lot about the beautiful versus the true—as much as I love a beautiful sentence, it seems as or maybe more important to me that a novel be written believably, with a voice that feels alive and real and not necessarily quote-unquote writerly. I found that The World Without You struck that balance in a way that felt authentic, and I wonder if this is something you think about as you write.

Henkin: Absolutely, and given the choice between the beautiful and the true, I’ll choose the true. Or maybe a better way to put it is that in fiction truth (and by that I mean emotional truth) is the real beauty. I like a beautiful sentence as much as the next person, but I’m not interested in beautiful sentences for their own sake. If someone is, he’s more likely a poet than a fiction writer. I start with character, and I believe language has to be in service of character. What that sometimes means is cutting your most beautiful sentence if it’s getting in the way of your story.

Years ago, an undergraduate student of mine who had real talent said to me, “Josh, I just write poetically.” This was true, but it was also the writer’s biggest problem. A fiction writer shouldn’t simply write poetically. She should write poetically when poetry is called for and not write poetically when poetry isn’t called for. In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien is brilliant at varying his sentence cadences so as to reflect the sentiments of his characters and the mood of the scene as a whole. This is beauty in service of truth.

It’s worth noting, too, that there are different kinds of beauty. I’m struck, for instance, by the beauty of the sentences in Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life. For the most part, these sentences are neither elaborate nor lapidary, but what they have is a beauty of simplicity. Reading that book, you feel as if the writer has receded—as if Wolff isn’t there at all and the book has simply written itself. In many ways, that’s the kind of beauty I aspire to—the beauty of effortlessness. But I know from experience, as Wolff no doubt does too, how much effort it takes to make something seem effortless.


Reese Okyong Kwon's writing is published or forthcoming in the Believer, American Short Fiction, Gulf Coast, Kenyon Review, Missouri Review, and elsewhere. She has received scholarships from Bread Loaf and the Norman Mailer Writers' Colony, and was named one of Narrative's "30 Below 30" writers. She can be found at www.reesekwon.com. More from this author →