Joshua Henkin, (JH) author of MATRIMONY
(Live interview via phone, by KH (AKA “Bingo”)
Recently, I had the honor of interviewing the author of Joshua Henkin via phone. He was friendly and open and a pure joy to talk with. He is an inspiration and I am jealous of his creative writing students who get to learn from him. This interview was personally transcribed by me, and any changes, mistakes, or form that is incorrect is strictly my fault including all grammar and punctuation but how do you transcribe a casual discussion like we had? I tried to transcribe exactly what Joshua said so one would get the feeling of the conversation I was privileged to have with him. I am posting this today and this evening will be speaking with him again as he calls to speak to my book club that chose MATRIMONY as our book for this past month. What a treat we are all in for this evening. Check out tomorrow’s post for follow-up of the “Readaholics Anonymous Book Club” meeting Joshua Henkin via phone!
KH: What is the next or current book you are working on?
JH: My next book is over due and it is tentatively called THE WORLD without you and its another novel….due to publisher a while ago and I’ve gotten my deadline extended. Matrimony took me 10 years to write, this one is hopefully going to take me less but I’ve got probably about 175 pages and I think its going to be another couple of years but hopefully it is going to be as good as it can be.
KH: I read where when your computer broke; you went to writing by hand which I thought that was extremely interesting.
JH (laughing): Yes
KH: What have you just finished reading or do you have time?
JH: Right now I am in the middle of a novel by Roxana Robinson called COST and I think it’s a terrific book and I really like her work in general. She’s a great short story writer also…and I just got a review copy in the mail…it looked very interesting to me. You know I teach Creative Writing also so I spend a lot of time reading my students’ work….
…Next on my list is a book called THE SPARE ROOM by Helen Garner. She’s an Australian writer…and actually a terrific book of stories that I’ve just read recently is called MOTHER AND SONS by Colm Tobin, an Irish writer…a really amazing book of stories.
KH: Where do you teach creative writing?
JH: I teach mostly at Sarah Lawrence College and a little bit in the graduate program at Brooklyn College. At Sarah Lawrence I teach MFA students and undergrads, and at Brooklyn College just MFA students.
KH: What gets you started on a new book? A character or story idea or….?
JH: Yeah, its very hard to know, I mean I certainly for me character is at the heart of fiction like when I read a novel what I want at the end of the book is not necessarily to like the characters, because there are plenty of great novels where the characters aren’t particularly likable like Richard Yates’ REVOLUTIONARY ROAD or Martin Amos’s work but I think in a good novel you feel at the end of a book that you know the characters as well as or better than the people in your own life and so if a book does that to me when I read than in fact the writer has done well by me, and that’s what I’m trying to do as a writer…and so the character is central to me but I think that the relation between plot and the character is symbiotic ….we both create our stories and are created by them. So in thinking of terms of character, I’m usually trying to set my characters in a situation where something’s at stake, something big can happen…I started MATRIMONY---I basically start with no clue----but I started MATRIMONY with the first three words “out, out, out” and with the idea the novel would be about a love relationship and it was taking place at a college reunion. And it is about a love relationship although it’s about other things and there is a college reunion but it doesn’t come until page 270 and lasts for only six pages. So pretty early on it was clear to me that I didn’t have a clue and I think that really important that it can really hamper him in knowing too much. So I start with character and I place them in situations and I see where I go from there but it’s basically the characters get developed incrementally … you don’t know them until you actually write them so to me its about being blind for the first draft and then about going back once you have this mess and trying to figure out how to make it more coherent.
KH: Yes, I read where just recently in that blog that you had said that writing that first draft that you have to, you kind of let go of control, and that especially new writers should write kind of like in a dream state and don’t keep reviewing just cause you may never get past the first chapter.
JH: And not just new writers, everyone and I think most strongly about that.
KH: What is something about you that you would want people to know about you that we probably don’t know?...or maybe there isn’t something?
JH: (he laughs) Something about me that I want you to know, ummm, you mean in terms of writing?
KH: In terms of anything...it could be your favorite ice cream…
JH: Actually I’m not a big fan of ice cream in general I prefer salty to sweet food, and I tend to prefer sorbet to ice cream…and I don’t like chocolate, to the great horror of my wife and two daughters.
KH: Oh my goodness….well, let’s see… were you born in Brooklyn?
JH: I wasn’t. I was born in Manhattan and I lived there for the first 18 years of my life and then I spent a year between high school and college in Israel and then I went to college. I was at Harvard for college. I moved out to the Bay area for 4 years. After that I lived at Berkley in San Francisco, and then I spent 8 years in Ann Arbor and moved back to New York and have been living in Brooklyn for the last 9 years. The only exception being last year when I was living in Philadelphia for the year because my wife is a professor and she had a fellowship at Penn so we moved down to Philly for a year and I was commuting up here for book stuff and for teaching.
KH: What is your best advice to anyone, including young people since I teach 6th grade, who want to be writers?
JH: I would say that I have two pieces of advice. The first, the most important thing to do is to read. To read, you know, deeply and widely. I think the best education for writers is other work. A lot of people think, sort of thanks to Hemingway, the way to become a writer is to run with the bulls in Pamplona or I guess the modern version would be to hike in Nepal. And they are perfectly good things to do but if I had advice to an undergraduate student of mine who was graduating and said to me, “I could take a year hiking in Nepal or I could spend a year reading the classics. Which should I do if I want to be a writer?” I would certainly choose the latter. I think that Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has lived to the age of ten has enough material to write about for a lifetime. So I think there is a mistaken sense that you have to sort of do crazy, unusual things in order to write. And I don’t think that is true. I think you have to live but you also have to read and part of living is reading. That would be first piece of advice.
For the second piece of advice, is not to wait for inspiration that if you want to write you have to write and you have to treat it like a job and carve out time and, you know, write as frequently as you can. To me, it’s really, I mean there is such a thing as talent, but to me it’s really about effort and perseverance and rewriting and revision as much as anything else.
KH: I think that’s right, because I know any little bit of writing that I do now, I say that to myself…that I have to write at a specific time and nothing should come between that and my writing. Hopefully, I am getting to that point but I’m not at it yet.