I’d like to welcome Joshua Henkin, author of Matrimony today for a great interview. Miss my book review? Check it out and then come back here and give a warm welcome to Joshua for his first appearance on the Maw Books Blog. Josh does a wonderful job discusses his new book. If you’ve already read the book or if you’ve yet to read it, you’ll find it insightful.
Maw Books: Welcome! Would you like to take a moment and introduce yourself to those readers not familiar with you or your book Matrimony?
Joshua Henkin: Thanks for these questions, Natasha. I’m really happy to be doing this interview, particularly because I so love your blog. I’m 44 and live in Brooklyn with my wife and our two daughters, ages 5 and 3, and our golden retriever, Dulcie. I’m the author of two novels, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, which came out in 1997, and, most recently, MATRIMONY, which was published in 2007 and was named a New York Times Notable Book. MATRIMONY recently came out in paperback. I’ve had the good fortune to meet lots of my readers online, by phone, and in person—I’ve participated now in about 100 book group discussions of MATRIMONY, an experience I’ve written about on a lot of blogs, including an essay that I wrote on Lisa Munley’s Books on the Brain last spring. In addition to being a novelist, I teach creative writing to undergraduates and MFA students at Sarah Lawrence College and to MFA students at Brooklyn College.
Maw Books: When people ask YOU what Matrimony is about, what do you say? In other words, what do you think it’s about?
Joshua Henkin: It’s certainly about a marriage—about several marriages, really—but it’s also about other things. It’s about friendship and class (poor people who want to be rich and rich people who want to be poor—or at least rich people who THINK they want to be poor) and career ambition. It’s also about mortality and betrayal. But in the broader sense I think it’s about what it’s like to fall in love when you’re young and to try to stay in love as you get older. The book starts in college, and there’s something strange about college years. So many relationships that start in college have trouble continuing once college is over and the “real world” starts to impinge. So MATRIMONY is in part about negotiating that transition. In the deepest sense, though, I think my novel is about what it’s like to be in your twenties, thirties, in some cases early forties, when you’re waiting for your life to begin, and at some point you realize that life has already begun and life is what happens when you’re not paying attention.
Maw Books: Is that any different than what your readers think Matrimony is about?
Joshua Henkin: I’ve met so many different readers—probably thousands at this point—that it’s hard to generalize about their response. That’s one of the wonderful things about fiction. You give your novel to a thousand different people and no two of them react exactly the same way. It’s a different book for each one of them, because everyone brings his or her own experiences to the novel. Among book groups I’ve visited, there has certainly been disagreement about whether MATRIMONY is the right title. Some people feel quite strongly that it is, and others feel equally strongly that the title only partially captures what the book is about.
Maw Books: Why did you write this book instead of another book? Why this particular story?
Joshua Henkin: This is one of those questions where I have to try to sound less stupid than I feel. Writing fiction—at least the first draft of writing fiction—is much more like a dream state than anything else. You proceed subconsciously. You don’t know why you’re writing what you’re writing. You just sit down to write. When I started MATRIMONY I was single, living in Ann Arbor, and when I finished it, ten years later, I was married, with two daughters, living in Brooklyn. So a lot changed in my life during that time.
But I guess I don’t believe that a writer sits down to write a particular novel. At least I don’t. I just sit down to write, and like life itself, you look back ten years later and realize this is what you wrote. When I started MATRIMONY, I thought it was about a love relationship and that it was taking place at a college reunion. Well, it is, in fact, about a love relationship, but it’s about other things too, and there is a college reunion in the book, but that doesn’t come till around page 270 and it lasts for all of 6 pages. So pretty early on it became clear to me that I didn’t have a clue. Which is how it should be. When a writer has too much of a clue, that’s a sign of trouble.
Maw Books: How did the story evolve and change as it was being written? Is it anywhere close to what you started it off to be?
Joshua Henkin: My last answer more or less covers this question too, but in short, I started out blind, deaf, and dumb, with no idea whatsoever what I was doing, and over the course of 10 years I finally figured things out. To the extent that I had any idea at the start about where the book was going, I was completely, blissfully wrong.
Maw Books: Julian is not you, although you are both writers. He’s fiction, and obviously, you’re not. But how similar or different is Julian’s life as a writer similar or different to your life as a writer?
Joshua Henkin: People tend to assume that if I’m anyone in MATRIMONY I must be Julian. I’m a writer, and he’s a writer; I grew up in New York, and he grew up in New York; my name begins with a “J,” and so does his. But if anything, I’m probably more similar to Mia than to Julian. I’m Jewish and she’s Jewish, and we’re both the children of professors. In terms of the worlds they come from, Mia’s world is much more familiar to me than Julian’s is. It’s true that MATRIMONY is in part about the writing life, and since I’m a writer, in some vague way some of that material is borrowed from my own like. And I do think almost any writer will tell you that writing is often terrifying. No matter how much success you’ve had, the fraud police is always hovering over you, and you don’t know whether you’ll be able to do it again. The page is just as blank every time you sit down. All that said, Julian’s struggles are often quite different from my own. Both his book and mine took many years to write, but there are some key differences. Julian had long periods of writer’s block. I never had writer’s block; I just wrote a lot of really bad pages that I had the good sense to throw out.
Maw Books: Matrimony took you 10 years and some 30,000 pages to write. What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, and logistical) in bringing the book to life?
Joshua Henkin: 30,000 pages! This is how rumors get started, Natasha! It was only 3,000 pages, but even that seems like a whole lot. There were many struggles along the way, things that were particular to this book. Writing about twenty years of time was one of them. How do you do that without turning the novel into a boring chronology—this happened, then that happened, then that happened. Rereading Richard Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS helped me a lot in this regard. Russo’s really good at figuring out when to pause for scene and when to skip big chunks of time; I learned a lot from him.
Also, writing about a writer was a real struggle for me, at least initially. Writers are always being told not to write about writing—that to do so is self-indulgent and navel-gazing. So in earlier drafts of the book I was writing about a writer but I was doing it much more ironically, with a wink and a nod. The whole tone of the book was more comedic and farcical. I like to think that parts of MATRIMONY remain funny, but at core this novel is a domestic drama, and when I finally realized that and when, as a result, I stated to write about writing (about everything in the book, really) more directly and more straight-on, everything changed for the better.
Maw Books: Ha, ha! I was seriously telling me husband about this author who wrote 30,000 pages! I feel so much better that it was 3,000! Thanks for the clarifcation. At what point in writing did you hate the book the most? And vice versa, at what point did you enjoy writing the book the most?
Joshua Henkin: There was a lot of hating. Probably years 2 to 9 I hated most. Year 1 I was too blissfully ignorant to realize what trouble I was in, and from year 9 to 10 is when most of the book got written—really about 80 percent of the pages that are in the final, published version. That’s how it works with me. It wasn’t that I was sitting around eating bonbons for 9 years and then finally decided to take the work seriously. I was working hard all along, but what happens (if you’re lucky) is that eventually you live with your characters long enough that you start to figure them out. In general, I love rewriting and revision and I hate doing the first draft. The only thing that keeps me going during the first draft is knowing that eventually I’ll be able to revise.
Maw Books: What’s your favorite scene from the book? Or, if you don’t have a favorite, which one has changed the least since you first came up with it?
Joshua Henkin: It’s hard to choose among scenes, though there are certainly some I gravitate more to than others. When I give public readings, I tend to read the opening scene about peer contraceptive counseling since it’s funny, and funny is good for readings, and that scene captures something about the feeling of those early college years. I also often read the scene when Julian and Mia first meet in the college laundry room. I like that one, and the couple of scenes that follow it—the way they give the feeling of that high of new love. I’ve sometimes read the scene when Mia visits her mother in the hospital after her mother’s surgery. I’m partial to that scene, because it gets at something essential in that mother-daughter relationship. When I’m reading to writers, I’ll sometimes read some of the writing workshop scenes, since writers and writing students get a kick out of those scenes.
But there are a couple of other scenes that I’ve never read aloud but that I really feel strongly about for whatever reason. The scene pretty early in the book when Julian and Carter go camping together and they get into a discussion about why Henry Kissinger is having more sex than they’re having. Julian and Carter’s friendship is really essential to my conception of the book. In fact, that relationship came to me before Julian and Mia’s relationship did.
Finally—and this will probably come as a surprise to you—the scene with Derek, Mia’s friend from Japan, is quite important to me, even though Derek is a relatively minor character in the book. That scene came to me early on in the writing process. In fact, it was once the second chapter of the book, as opposed to coming as it does now, much later. And what happens (or doesn’t happen) between Mia and Derek when they’re together in France really helps set the stage for Mia’s meeting Julian and for defining Mia as a character. Why doesn’t Mia allow herself to fall in love with Derek? She doesn’t know. Why do we fall in love with the people we fall in love with? Why do we end up with the people we do? It’s a mystery, as so much of life (and so much of fiction) is. When Mia meets up with Derek again later in MATRIMONY, we get the following thoughts from Mia (they’re on page 264, for those following at home): “She wondered what would have happened if she’d let herself love Derek. She imagined herself in Kyoto, mother to his children, and for a moment it seemed as possible as the life she lived, as any path she might have taken.” That, to me, is what MATRIMONY is about. Why do we end up making the decisions we do? Who knows? So much in life is about timing and circumstance.
Maw Books: What made you decide to be so accessible to book clubs and what is it that has made you keep going back for more?
Joshua Henkin: The principal initial motivation was to sell more copies of the book, and that continues to be one of my main goals. The book business is in serious trouble these days, and if writers don’t have readers, if they don’t sell copies of their book, they won’t continue to be published. I’m very practical-minded about this, and I feel that what I’ve done has helped MATRIMONY a lot. But if I didn’t enjoy doing it, I wouldn’t continue to do it. Life’s too short. I’m a relatively social person, and talking to book clubs, just like teaching, gets me out into the world, which is important to me, because writing can be so isolating. And I’ve learned so much from book clubs. Prior to the rise of book clubs, the only people writers heard from were their friends and book critics. Now we have access to thousands of readers, from all walks of life, and hearing what they have to say has been immensely helpful and interesting to me.
Maw Books: From your interviews, blog tours and book club visits what is the one question that you get asked the very most? And what’s the answer?
Joshua Henkin: It’s been different, depending on the context. Interviewers have noticed a lot of similarities between MATRIMONY and Wallace Stegner’s novel CROSSING TO SAFETY, and they’ve wanted to know whether I was influenced by Stegner. I read CROSSING TO SAFETY years ago and loved it, but I wasn’t in any conscious way thinking about that book when I wrote MATRIMONY. But enough people asked me the question that I went back and reread Stegner, and, sure enough, I see the influence. And I’m flattered by the comparison. CROSSING TO SAFETY is a great, great novel.
With book clubs (and here those of you who haven’t read MATRIMONY should stop reading, so as to avoid spoilers), the most common question I’ve been asked (and this surprised me at first, because MATRIMONY was reviewed widely and I can’t think of a single reviewer who mentioned the issue) has to do with Julian and Mia’s splitting up over an act of sexual betrayal that took place nine years before, when they weren’t married yet. Book groups tend to feel very strongly about this issue. To some people it makes perfect sense, and to some people it doesn’t; some people side with Julian and some people side with Mia. Almost always, the book group members inject themselves into the situation and say what they would have done in similar circumstances. People feel very strongly one way or the other, and this leads to really good discussion.
My answer as to why they split up is long and complicated and can’t be adequately compressed here, but the short version is that for me, Mia’s mother’s death is the central incident in the novel—it’s what makes Julian and Mia get married far earlier than they would have (and should have). Julian’s learning about Mia’s having slept with Carter may be the event that most immediately precipitates the separation, but it’s not the reason for the separation—certainly not the whole reason. The reason they split up, as I see it, is that they got married too early (you can see from the Ann Arbor section of the book that there are already some significant problems in their marriage well before the issue of infidelity comes up) and they need time on their own to grow, and to determine whether they really belong together.
Maw Books: I married at the age of 21 to my college sweetheart. I could relate, but no splits for us! What is the strangest, weirdest, odd ball question that you’ve been asked about Matrimony? The answer?
Joshua Henkin: “How did you know I fold and hide my underwear when I go to the gynecologist?” This question (and I’ve been asked it more than once) comes in response to a scene when Mia visits the gynecologist and folds and hides her underwear before the doctor comes in. She feels foolish doing this—she’s going to be seen naked by the doctor, who will be doing an internal exam—but she does it nonetheless. It’s a relatively minor scene in the book, but it’s come up a lot in book groups. People want to know whether I went undercover to the gynecologist. It’s part of a bigger question for some people, having to do with the fact that some readers find Mia to be the most compelling character in MATRIMONY, and they want to know how a man can write effectively from a woman’s point of view.
The short answer to both questions is, first, the only times I’ve been to the gynecologist was when my wife was pregnant, and I wrote the scene in question before that happened; and second, I think fiction is always about the imagination, about getting outside your own experience (that’s why I read, and it’s why I write), and so someone outgoing will often write about someone shy, someone young about someone old, and so on. Writing from the perspective of a different gender is just another example of that. I’m not saying it’s easy, but nothing about writing fiction is easy. The job of the writer is to make it look easy (to make the novel feel seamless and true), but in fact it’s unbelievably hard.
Maw Books: And what has been the most touching story that you’ve been told from somebody after they read Matrimony?
Joshua Henkin: There have been many. Quite a number of people have told me that MATRIMONY has helped them in their own relationships and marriages. It’s also had an impact on people who have had breast cancer or who have had relatives and specifically mothers who had breast cancer. It’s funny, because I don’t think of MATRIMONY as principally a breast cancer book, but for people who have experienced breast cancer either directly or through someone they love, that part of the book feels prominent to them. And since the issue of genetic testing comes up in MATRIMONY, that has had an impact on some readers. I’ve had a couple of readers tell me that they’d not been dealing with the issue of their breast cancer risk and reading MATRIMONY got them to test for the gene and take more control of their lives. One woman wrote me and said MATRIMONY literally saved her life. That certainly wasn’t my intention in writing the book, but if that’s a byproduct, I’m certainly happy to have had that kind of impact on someone.
Maw Books: For one who has experienced cancer, I could see it. How do you balance your life as a writer with the responsibilities (speaking, promotion, etc.) of being an author?
Joshua Henkin: It’s unbelievably difficult. And it’s not just the things you mention, but other things too. I teach, and to do that well and responsibly, it takes a huge amount of time. And I have two small daughters and that’s a full-time job in itself. And I have a wife and friends, and I want to spend some time with them. Right now, as I try to type the answer to this question, my younger daughter is sitting on my lap. Life is one big test in time management, and I’m perpetually failing at it, but I do my best.
Maw Books: And I’m editing this interview with my kids jumping on the couch with me! This is a feature that I do with every single author I interview and that’s to ask for a recipe to share and I’ll try to make it later, particularly if the dish shows up in the book. Julian does enjoy cooking and Matrimony isn’t lacking for delicious dishes. Would you care to share a recipe with us?
Joshua Henkin: Wow, that’s certainly a new question for me, Natasha! I don’t know the recipes from MATRIMONY because those dishes I made up. But I do cook—in fact, I’m the principal cook in my household. Everything I cook is vegetarian because, though I’m not a vegetarian, my wife is, and our house is vegetarian. Anyway, here’s a relatively simple, healthy, and savory dish that I cook with some regularity. It’s called Spicy Cauliflower Simmered in Red Wine, and it comes from The Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook, by Jack Bishop:
1 medium cauliflower (about 2 lbs.)
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
8 large green olives, pitted and chopped (about ½ cup)
¾ cup fruity red wine, such as merlot or zinfandel
½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves (I tend to use cilantro instead)
1 tablespoon drained capers
Trim the leaves and stems from the cauliflower and cut into small florets. Set aside. Heat the oil in a large sauté pan. Add the onion and cook over medium heat until golden, about 8 minutes. Add the cauliflower, olives, wine, and hot red pepper flakes. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to medium-low, and cover. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower has absorbed the liquid in the pan and is tender but still offers some resistance to the bite, about 35 minutes. Stir in the parsley and capers. Taste for salt and add if necessary. Serve immediately or let cool to room temperature.
Maw Books: That sounds delicious! And very different! What’s the last book you finished reading and what book is on your nightstand right now?
Joshua Henkin: The last two books I read and really loved were Roxana Robinson’s most recent novel, COST, and Colm Toibin’s story collection MOTHERS AND SONS. They’re terrific books. By my bedside right now are Anna Winger’s novel THIS MUST BE THE PLACE and Helen Garner’s novel THE SPARE ROOM.
Maw Books: What are you working on right now and when can we expect to see it (hopefully not 10 years from now)?
Joshua Henkin: I’m about 200 pages into my new novel, which is already overdue at the publisher. But I’m fairly confident it won’t take ten years (famous last words!). It’s tentatively called THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, and it takes place over a single July 4th weekend. Three adult sisters (mid to late thirties) and their spouses/significant others return with their parents to the family’s country home in the Berkshires, the occasion for which is the fourth anniversary of the brother’s death; he was a journalist killed in Iraq. When he died, he left a pregnant wife, who subsequently gave birth to a son, who is now three. The wife has moved out to Berkeley, where she’s a graduate student in anthropology, and she’s fallen in love with and has moved in with another man. She may end up marrying this man, and even if she doesn’t, she’ll likely end up marrying someone else, and that person might adopt the son. The dead brother’s widow comes to the reunion, too, with her son, though without her boyfriend. The three-year-old, then, is the object of narrative struggle. For the grandparents and the aunts, he’s their grandson and nephew, respectively; most important, he’s the embodiment of the dead brother. For his mother, though he’s that too, he’s principally her son and she’s moving on. In a sense, then, the novel is about grief and the ways that in some instances, at least, a spouse gets over the death of a spouse while a parent never gets over the death of a child.
Maw Books: Sounds wonderful, I’m looking forward to it. Thanks so much Josh!
Joshua Henkin: Thanks for the questions, Natasha. I really enjoyed answering them.
Don’t forget that Joshua is giving away a signed copy of his novel Matrimony. Check out my book review to enter.
Joshua Henkin’s website.