Thursday, February 14, 2008

Joshua Henkin

From an interview with Joshua Henkin where he talks about his new novel Matrimony, teaching writing, and the writing life:

The novelist Dani Shapiro describes Matrimony as "at once sprawling and economical." The prose and the scenes are very tight, yet the book takes place over the course of twenty years and is set in numerous locations--New York City, western Massachusetts, Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Iowa City. How does a writer cover this amount of territory while keeping a novel's focus? Did you map the book out in advance?

I'm not a map-things-out kind of writer. I believe it was Mary McCarthy who said that she writes in order to find out what will happen, and I'm that way myself. I always start with what I believe is the beginning--it's important to me to be writing forward--even if it turns out that I'm grossly mistaken. In the case of Matrimony, I started with a college reunion because that was where I thought the book began. Now there is a college reunion in the novel, but it comes twenty years and nearly three hundred pages into the book. My next novel I've mapped out a little more, but even that's a very tentative mapping out, and I want to make sure that I allow myself to veer from the path I've staked out for myself. This is a tension that any writer faces--between planning out too little and planning out too much. If you plan out too little, you can end up writing a lot of pretty sentences about mountains and sunsets that don't go anywhere. If you plan out too much, you can end up injecting characters into a preordained plot and you get what a friend of mine calls Lipton-Cup-a-Story. What I try to do is to set my fiction in situations where something important can take place--where there's potential for conflict--but not to know too far in advance how that conflict will play out. That way the imagination can take over.

How would you summarize Matrimony?

Jonathan Franzen once said that the better a novel is, the more difficult it is to summarize. The protagonist in Martin Amis's novel The Information says something similar. He's a writer himself and he's being interviewed about his novel and the interviewer keeps asking him what his novel is about. Amis's protagonist, who, like many Amis protagonists, is a pretty difficult fellow, says something to the effect of, "It's 150,000 words, and if I could have said it in any less I would have." I sympathize. But if I had to describe Matrimony, I'd say it's about the twenty-year history of a marriage (it's about two marriages, actually--arguably three) and that it's about love and friendship, and the pleasures and perils that attend to those things. More generally, the novel is about what it's like to be in your twenties and thirties--even your forties in some cases--when you're waiting for life to begin and you find to your surprise that it already has begun and that the decisions you make have consequences that you're not even aware of yet. This is particularly pronounced in the case of my protagonists, Julian and Mia, since they get married at twenty-two, right out of college, and find themselves a year later living in Ann Arbor among friends for whom marriage is the last thing on their minds. College towns can perpetuate an eternal adolescence--I know; I've lived in a lot of them. And there's a real divide between married people and single people, the way further down the line there's an even bigger divide between people who have children and people who don't. So Julian and Mia have done what seems like the supremely adult act--getting married--even as in other ways they are far from fully formed. This is certainly true professionally. Julian is struggling to finish his novel; Mia is slogging away on her psychology dissertation. In that sense, the book is about what happens when life calls even when you're not ready for it to come calling.

Read the full interview.

The Page 69 Test: Matrimony.

--Marshal Zeringue