The Benefit of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: Talking with Joshua Henkin


Joshua Henkin loves families. He loves them big, small, extended, adopted, blood, chosen, feuding, loving, confused, hopeful. They are his bloodroot. His characters grapple—sometimes gracefully, sometimes clumsily, but always with great earnestness—with their place within the world, within themselves, but most importantly within the tribe. These are not easy reckonings, but Josh handles them with such generosity and gentle humor that even the most flawed amongst them is met with compassion.

All of his novels (which also include Swimming Across the Hudson, Matrimony, and The World Without You) examine the joys and complexities of family, but with Morningside Heights, Josh homes in on the impact of one of the members falling ill. In this case, it’s Spence Robin, the father of Sarah and Arlo, husband to Pru, and a much-revered professor of English literature at Columbia University. Diagnosed in his late fifties with early-onset Alzheimer’s, the Shakespearean scholar, the youngest to receive tenure in his department, goes from picking up his future wife on his moped and joyfully whizzing her around the streets of Manhattan to having to be picked up by his now-wife because he’s had an embarrassing accident and has locked himself in the department bathroom.

Yet there’s as much hope as sorrow in these pages. Rather than dwell exclusively in Spence’s personal struggles, we track with Pru, Arlo, Sarah, and even his Jamaican caregiver, Ginny, and her chess player son, Rafe. Each is uniquely affected by Spence’s crumbling mind and fading body; each uniquely awakens to parts of themselves they’d not previously been required to know.

Josh writes with astounding precision and drive. He packs into one paragraph what for many writers requires an entire chapter. Morningside Heights received glowing reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, along with a starred and boxed review from Publishers Weekly. Josh directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College. His short stories have been widely published with several included in Best American Short Stories.

I’ve known Josh for several decades now, and he’s as generous with those around him as he is with his characters. We spoke recently about the importance of life’s small moments, writing from a place of danger, and how generating three thousand pages helps one find the path through the forest.


The Rumpus: You love writing sprawling family stories. What draws you to them?

Joshua Henkin: I’m interested in depicting characters over the long haul, and family—at least ideally—is a long-haul enterprise. Also, family is about desire, and desire is the lifeblood of fiction. As James Salter wrote in Light Years, “Life is weather. Life is meals.” I agree. I think the small moments in life, if they’re evoked well, are most revealing, whereas the bigger moments can sometimes flatten distinctions of character. In Morningside Heights, specifically, I’m most interested in the moments of small, revealing surprise, such as when Spence confuses the word “festive” for “formal” and shows up at a costume party in black-tie. Or when there’s a mouse in his and Pru’s apartment and he insists on trying to catch it with his own two hands.

Rumpus: Arlo’s lack of family is troubling for him. His grandparents are all dead. He has a difficult relationship with his mother and a complex one with his father, sister, and stepmother (Spence, Sarah, and Pru). He’s, in part, driven by his desire to fit in somewhere meaningful. What sort of influence do you think family has on shaping us? And how can lack of family impact us?

Henkin: I’m not one to make big pronouncements about the impact of family or anything else. I’ll leave that to the philosophers and the developmental psychologists. But instinctively, I think our experiences help shape us, and for most of us family is our earliest (and often our most enduring) shaper. As for Arlo specifically, he certainly has had a rough childhood, toted around by his hippie mother and misunderstood by his brilliant father. He interests me because he’s so full of conflicting emotions, fueled as he is by both neediness and rage. His experience working at an independent bookstore sums him up. I’m thinking specifically of this line: “His father had told him that it was one of the best bookstores in the country, and what Arlo heard was that he, Arlo, was one of the best people in the country.” Arlo, who so desperately wants to please his father, takes this job in order to please his father, yet almost as soon as he shows up he starts to intentionally mis-shelve the books because he’s furious at his father, who got him the job.

Rumpus: How do your characters first come to you? For instance, did you decide Spence needed a somewhat estranged son for the story to unfold properly or did Arlo just appear and start doing his thing and then you had to catch up with him? Or something else?

Henkin: Certain characters such as Ginny, the caregiver, I knew from the start were going to be in the book. That relationship between employer and caregiver is so loaded and complicated. There are issues of race and class at play, important questions of power dynamics, and I knew I wanted to explore those tensions. Arlo, on the other hand, as important as he ends up being in the book, didn’t come along until I was several drafts in. And when I did decide to include him, it’s not as if he emerged fully formed. None of my characters do. They develop through the writing, over pages and pages and years and years. But fairly early on I sensed that I needed something more than a family with a daughter who meets her parents’ expectations and a disease that takes its inevitable course. I needed something that would blow the book open, and though Arlo at that point was just a murky presence in my mind, I had the feeling that a son who grew up with a very different mother and who himself was a very different kind of person from Spence would blow the book open in the way that I wanted it to be blown open. And as soon as I started to write Arlo, I realized I was right.

Rumpus: Your writing is so precise and succinct, your scenes stripped down and hyper-focused—yet also so lush and elegant and often tender. What is your writing process like? Do you start with something bigger and longer and then chip away at it?

Henkin: I start with something monstrously long, and over many years the work gets shorter, tighter, more stripped down. It took me eight years to write Morningside Heights. I wrote three thousand pages and eventually found the book in all that mess.

More generally, you have to bark up a lot of wrong trees to get to the right tree. I’ll sometimes say to one of my MFA students that I don’t think they know their characters as well as they should, and I’ll ask them a series of questions about their characters. If they’re defensive, as they sometimes are, they’ll say, “I don’t know why that has to be in the story.” The answer is it doesn’t have to be in the story, but you still need to know the answer. That’s what Hemingway meant by the tip of the iceberg. If you really know your characters, then what’s on the page evokes what’s off the page; the tip of the iceberg implies the whole iceberg. If, on the other hand, you don’t really know your characters, then all you have is the tip.

Rumpus: Wow! Were those three thousand consecutive pages? Or the various iterations came to three thousand? And how did you find your book? How do you know if you have an iceberg or a tip? What’s your editing process like?

Henkin: It was basically three thousand consecutive pages. I really give myself permission—I require it of myself, in fact—not to revise too early, not to censor myself even if I’m sure that what I’m writing isn’t going to work. Because, first of all, I may be wrong, and second of all, even if I’m right, those mistakes that I make are essential in getting me to the right place. Again, you need to bark up a lot of wrong trees in order to get to the right tree. I’ve been doing this long enough that I’m pretty good at situating myself in the right forest, but it’s a big forest with a lot of false paths, so you need to wander in that forest for long time, and writing those three thousand pages was my way of wandering in the forest.

Rumpus: You’re so good with emotional subtleties: the way Sarah and Arlo, siblings, love and support and yet also compete with one another, the way Arlo wants to both succeed and fail—each as ways to “show his father.” The way Pru is devoted to caring for Spence, yet longs for it to be over. This holding of seemingly opposing truths can be tricky to pull off. Do they arise naturally or do you have to work them in on later drafts?

Henkin: I naturally and instinctively think of people as complicated. As for evoking these complications in fiction, nothing is natural or easy about that! That’s why I wrote three thousand pages and it took me eight years. There are no shortcuts to complexity. Beyond that, I think fiction writers are gossips at heart. You have to be curious, to be endlessly interested in other human beings. Apparently, when I was a toddler I made my mother pick me up so I could look into every store window and see what was going on inside. So, in my case it’s hard-wired.

Rumpus: You treat your characters so kindly and fairly. Yes, they each have flaws and make some bad decisions, but you don’t ridicule or punish them for this.

Henkin: Everything I do on the page is both intentional and subconscious. You better like your characters if you’re going to be spending many years in their company. I don’t mean like them as human beings. I mean like them as fictional creations. That’s one of the pleasures of reading and writing fiction. You get to enjoy the company of people whose company you might not enjoy in real life. I think all characters deserve the novelist’s sympathy, if by sympathy is meant interest, understanding, and respect.

Rumpus: At the heart of this story is Spence’s struggle with dementia. Yet rather than tracking exclusively with Spence and the fears, sadness, and challenges he faces, we go through the experience with the whole family and are privy to how it affects each of them. Why did you decide to make this a shared rendering?

Henkin: Morningside Heights isn’t really about Spence; it’s about how what happens to Spence has an impact on those who love him. I wasn’t interested in telling the book from the point of view of someone with dementia. There’s something too performative about that, and I’m not a performative writer. More fundamentally, the challenge of writing a novel about Alzheimer’s is that, at least as things stand medically, there’s no tension in what’s going to happen to the character with the disease. As I tell my MFA students, you write a story about a ball rolling down a hill, and the ball is going to roll down the hill. The tension has to come from what the characters who don’t have Alzheimer’s do—the characters who know and love Spence and how they accommodate to (and in some cases don’t accommodate to) his disease.

Rumpus: Was it ever difficult to write these moments? To enter into the fear, grief, and anger your characters variously feel? And did any of their reactions surprise you?

Henkin: It’s difficult to enter into the fear, grief, and anger of your characters, just as it’s difficult to enter into their joy, into the full range of emotions that a character—that any human—experiences. But that’s the writer’s job, and it’s a job I embrace. It so happens that, narrowly speaking, Morningside Heights is probably my most autobiographical novel to date, but in most ways writing it didn’t feel any different from writing my other, less autobiographical novels. That’s because all good fiction is emotionally autobiographical. You need to write from a place of danger; you must put yourself at risk. That’s what gives a novel heart. If the writer isn’t feeling things, the reader certainly won’t feel things. Sometimes the writer feels things and the reader still doesn’t feel things, but if the writer himself doesn’t feel things, then the book is dead on arrival.

Rumpus: In the background of this story is Judaism. Pru tends toward Orthodox and Spence toward secular. Neither is particularly observant, though Pru does make sure their kitchen is kosher, yet the more Spence declines the more Pru circles back to the faith of her childhood. Why did it feel important for Pru to reconnect with this?

Henkin: I often write about characters who are immersed in and who struggle with Judaism. My paternal grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who lived on the Lower East Side of Manhattan for fifty years and never learned to speak English. He spoke only Yiddish. My father was an Orthodox Jew, and when he was saying kaddish for his father, he held prayer services in his office at Columbia Law School. My own childhood was so suffused with Jewish ritual that when I was six or seven and we were moving the clock forward for Daylight Saving Time, I asked my parents, “Do non-Jews move their clocks forward, too?”

As for Morningside Heights, I see Judaism as a kind of present absence, especially for Pru, who grew up quite observant but who has lost her faith. Now, with Spence sick and her feeling isolated, she wants that faith back. But it’s not as simple as setting foot in a synagogue to say a prayer for your dying husband. I have a lot of secular friends who are nostalgic for a time when they had more faith or, if they never had faith, for a more faithful life, as they imagine it. There are many things we want in life that we can’t easily achieve. At least, that’s the case for Pru.

Rumpus: You direct and teach in the MFA program in fiction writing at Brooklyn College. Does your teaching influence your writing, or do you keep those realms separate?

Henkin: In a lot of ways, I was a teacher before I was novelist. I mean, I always wanted to be a novelist, but it seemed as likely as my being a ballerina. But when I graduated from college, I worked for a magazine where I was the first reader of fiction manuscripts, and I saw how bad most of them were, and I thought if other people were willing to try and risk failure, I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. There are writers who are more naturally intuitive than I am. I had to teach myself to become more intuitive. Teaching my MFA students has helped me become a better writer, and it continues to help me every day.


Photograph of Joshua Henkin by Michael Lionstar.

Jane Ratcliffe’s work has appeared in The Sun Magazine, O, The Oprah Magazine, LARB, Tin House, New England Review, Creative Nonfiction, and Longreads, among others. More from this author →