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Author Podcast: Joshua Henkin

abstract:Edith Wharton satirized New York carriage society's attitudes to love, marriage and fidelity at the turn of the century in her novel, The Age of Innocence (Oxford World's Classics). Richard Yates captured married life in the bedroom communities struggling outside of New York in the '50s in his novel, Revolutionary Road. In this week's BookBuffet podcast interview we speak with best-selling author Joshua Henkin who tells us about his second award winning novel, Matrimony: A Novel recently published in paperback by Vintage, 2008. Matrimony: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) captures contemporary couples dealing with the complexity of relationships in today's age. Julian, Mia, Carter and Pilar meet in an East coast liberal college and the book follows their lives for the next twenty years as they navigate adulthood and the most important aspects of life: love, friendship, careers and commitment. If you love Wharton and you know Yates, then you'll enjoy meeting Henkin.

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September 17, 2008
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The Interview

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  • PART I: Comparing MATRIMONY with the literary canon
  • PART II: Book groups in shouting matches over MATRIMONY
  • PART III: Moving plot in a character-driven novel
  • PART IV: Balancing Teaching with family and writing

Interview Transcript

PART I:

BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for BookBuffet.com and today we're speaking with Joshua Henkin. Josha is a two-book author whose novels have met with success on both coasts. His first novel Swimming across the Hudson published by Putnum 1997 was voted the Los Angeles Times Notable Book Of The Year, and his second novel Matrimony: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) published in hard cover by Pantheon in 2007 and released just this week in paperback, was voted a New York Times Notable Book Of The Year.

Joshua writes about intellectual, often Jewish characters, who are dealing the big and small issues that confront people in: marriage, fidelity, sickness and the death of a loved one.

Joshua joins us from his home in Brookline. Welcome Josh!

JH: Thanks. I'm happy to be here.

BB: When I received your book for review I noted the back cover has a review that compares your writing to John Cheever and Richard Yates. By coincidence, I was reading Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road just before starting Matrimony. The first distinction that comes to mind when comparing your books is that Yates writes a more biting satire set in the 1950's that makes a social commentary on the bedroom communities of America. I compare him more to the style of Edith Wharton whose 1920’s novel The Age of Innocence scathingly captured the elite class of New York socialites from the turn of the century.

Matrimony, to me, is a kinder-gentler examination of four contemporary characters from middle and upper middle class backgrounds. Does your book reflect a modern approach to socio-sexual politics, and what contemporary authors do you feel close to?

JH: Sure, that's a great question. I mean I certainly am very flattered to be compared to Yates and I think Revolutionary Road is a great book—it's an amazing book. It's one of my favorites and I am glad it's about to be turned into a movie, because that means that more people are going to read it.

I do think it's a darker book than Matrimony. It was written in a different era. I think that in some way Matrimony is a more contemporary book, expressing more contemporary morays. Yates' book takes place in marital suburbia, and Matrimony takes place in college towns. And it starts when the characters are younger and it follows them for a period of time.

One of the books that Matrimony has been compared to by a lot of the reviewers and critics is Crossing to Safety (Modern Library Classics) by Wallace Stegner. It's a book I realized only in retrospect how much it influenced me... Crossing to Safety is a book about two couples. It's about the writing life. It's about academia and it covers, probably about 50 years, even more time than Matrimony does. It's also about marriage and friendship and the ways success and failure have an impact on friendship and on marriage, and I think my book Matrimony certainly does that.

Among contemporary writers it is difficult to say who exactly influences you, but I would certainly say that writers like Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, Amy Bloom, Laurie Moore, Alice Munro, people like that. I don't know if for sure they have influenced me. I think they have. I certainly admire them.

BB: Right, I do see how your writing corresponds to the ones you've just mentioned in subject matter and style.

I’d like to give our listeners a synopsis of Matrimony and wonder whether you’d mind encapsulating it for us?

JH: Sure. Matrimony is the 15 year history of a marriage. The couple meets their freshman year in a laundry room at a fictional college in New England called Graymont, that is based loosely on Hampshire College in North Hampton, Massachusetts. They're together freshman year, junior year and sophomore year. Then I'm not ruining too much by saying this, because it happens fairly early in the book, but during senior year, the woman in the couple - Mia - her mother gets very sick and is diagnosed with breast cancer. And it's clear that she's dying, and so Julian and Mia decide to get married right after college so that Mia's mother can be at the wedding. And that to me is a central event in the book, it's what changes everything.

To get a sense of who Julian and Mia are, these are people who go to a college like Hampshire in the late '80s early '90s. These are not the kind of people who get married at 22. Their parents might have gotten married at 22, certainly their grandparents might have gotten married at 22, but these are the kind of people who get married much later. And although they love each other, I see them as people who if Mia's mother's death had not come along, they probably would have split up. Not because they don't love each other, but because of circumstance and timing. So much of life is about timing.

The book follows them over the course of the next 15 years as they move from college town to college town. Julian is trying to be a fiction writer, and the book is in part about the writing life. Mia is studying to be a therapist. She's getting a degree in psychology. The book chronicles the successes they experience and the travails they endure.

But I feel that on a more metaphoric level the book is about what it's like to be in your 20's and 30's, and in some cases early 40's when you're waiting for your life to begin and at some point you realize that your life has already begun, and that life is what's happening when you're not paying attention. So in that sense, the book is really about a generation.

BB: Hmmmm. It's interesting that you say that because I remember reading a study that was comparing the intellectual and emotional levels of maturation along with milestones reached between the last generation and this current generation, and they say there is about a 10 year difference between when people got married before, and when they get married now; when they complete school and begin their careers, and when they purchase their first home - all the basic milestones of life have changed, really, within the last generation.

JH: Right, and I think that's true - it may be particularly true in college towns, and college towns are the focus of much of my novel. I've lived in a lot of college towns: Cambridge Massachusetts, Ann Arbor Michigan, Berkeley California, and I guess the unkind way to put it is that it fosters arrested development. A kinder way to put it is that there is something vibrant about college towns - that sense of youth and eternal renewal. I was living in Ann Arbor when I was 30 and at some point I realized that everyone around me was either 19 or they were 55...

BB:[laughs] You say that in the book. And it's really true!

JH: And so I think [that comparison] is very true, but there may be other reasons for that 10 year gap. Part of it may have to do with life expectancy. If people are only living until 40 or 50 they have to get going earlier if they want to do the things they want to do. Young people today have a sense, correctly or not, that they're going to live a long time. So there isn't that sort of force to push them forward. Then there are economic reasons too, and obviously cultural ones that are associated with economic reasons. It's a tough economy. It's not easy to be supporting yourself, and if people want to be living in big cities as some of my characters do and a lot of people I know do. Rent is expensive so the phenomenon of kids moving back home after college is fairly prevalent. So even though my characters don't move home in the book, they do represent a generation that is moving more slowly through the milestones of life, as is happening in this generation.

PART II

BB:Matrimony is a book about love and loss and relationships. Let’s talk about the relationship between Julian Wainwright III and Mia Mendelsohn with respect to their own family backgrounds. I’m intrigued by the way you show each character’s emotional profile as the product of their upbringing.

JH: Yes, I think it's interesting, and it's crucial because in terms of actual page space, the respective parents, Julian's parents and Mia's parents, are not on the page that much in the book...

BB: Yes, but they have such a huge effect on how they behave!

JH: A huge impact. They hover over the book. You know, Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that once he has the first paragraph for his novel, everything else follows, which for him that's also why a collection of short stories is 12 times as hard as a novel, because he needs 12 first paragraphs. He was being facetious, but I think it's true. I didn't realize this when I was writing the book. Matrimony took me 10 years to write and I threw out more than 3,000 pages, and I had a lot of false steps along the way. But the first paragraph of the book, with some small revision, is largely as it started.

If you look at the first paragraph of Matrimony, the seeds of the book, even though I didn't first realize it, are there from the start. In some ways the first sentence of the book is what spawns the book, and this gets at your question. The first words are, "Out. Out. Out." and these are supposedly the first words that Julian says at the age of 15 months. And that becomes a sort of metaphor for the whole book, I think.

This is a book about characters who are on some level determined to escape their past, to transcend their past, to get out of the way of their parents. On some levels they succeed, and on some levels they don't. If you take Julian, the male protagonist grows up in an extremely wealthy upper Manhattan Eastside home. His father is an investment banker, a Republican and Julian wants nothing to do with that. He wants to get out of there and he wants to be a writer, and he doesn't want to rely on his parents. Matrimony is in many way about class. Take Julian and Carter's friendship for example. Julian is a rich guy who doesn't want to be rich and Carter is a poor guy who doesn't want to be poor. And I think Julian spends much of the book trying to stake out his own path. And he does to a large extent. He becomes a writer, he doesn't rely on his father for help, and yet at the end of the book, he and Mia are back in New York where he grew up, and they're living in a very expensive brownstone, thanks to Julian's parents' largess.

And if you really look at it character by character, certainly Mia; you know Mia's parents met in Boston when they were in graduate school, and then they moved to Montreal because of the father's job - he's a physicist at McGill. And Mia in some ways, is very determined not to repeat her mother's past. She disapproves of the fact that her mother was a graduate student herself who gave up her career to become a mother and move to Montreal. And so Mia, acting at least subconsciously, is retracing her mother's steps. She ends up back in the Boston area for college. She's determined not to follow Julian where ever he wants to go and she reverses things on him. She makes him go where she wants to go...

Now Carter, the third character of the book, is a guy who has a real chip on his shoulder. He's not really poor, but he grew up comparatively poor living in Marin County in California. He wants nothing more than to be wealthy. At some point in the book he becomes very wealthy thanks to the dot com craze. And as it turns out, it doesn't make him feel any better. The ways in which he feels angry and insecure, there is not enough money to be able to make up for that. He's going to need to overcome it in a different way.

Freud has been criticized in recent years, but I think that the core ideas behind Freud are very much accepted. I certainly believe in the supremacy of the subconscious. The way our childhood has a huge impact on us, and imprints us our whole lives. So in this sense, Matrimony is a Freudian book, even though the parents are not there on the page, they are hovering perpetually, and they are helping form, in various ways - even if through rebellion - the ways that the characters express themselves.

BB: The book is divided, not by numbered chapters but instead by city locations that correlate to the phases in the character’s lives: college is dealt with in Northington, Massachusetts, post grad and early married life is dealt with in Ann Arbor, Michigan; the estrangement phase is covered in Berkeley, California; isolation is covered in Iowa City, Iowa; and resolution is dealt with in New York City. Perhaps you can describe for us how you use these divisions to move your character driven story through the plotline. When you look at what goes on in the lives of these characters, there’s a powerful universality with the book in expressing our time, (just the way Yates and Wharten capture their time).

JH: Right. That's a great question. You know, Julian took 15 years to write his novel, and I took 10, but 10 is still a lot of years. Julian had writers block, I didn't have that but... I think how do you move time along when you've got 20 years to cover? That's a lot of time and a novel is not that long, it's about 300 pages. How do you write about 20 years of time without turning it into a boring chronology? I was really struggling with structure, and it's certainly a character driven book.

When I read a novel what I like to tell people is that I don't have to like the characters, but I do want to feel like I know those characters as well as I know the people in my own life. And if the book does that to me, then I feel it has succeeded. I feel that as a writer, if I do that to my reader, then I've succeeded. That said, a book needs a story. It needs some sort of plot line. It can't simply be a series of character sketches. I think the subject of plotting in a book that covers as much time as Matrimony does is a complicated one.

One thing that helped me was when I was reading Richard Russo's Empire Falls. Even though that's a different book from mine and it covers a different time period, one thing that Russo does really really well is that he's good at is figuring out when to skip time, and when to stop and arrest time. And he's also very good at plotting important information in flash-back. Re-reading Empire Falls allowed me to conceive Matrimony in a new way. That's when I figured out that I was going to do these jumps in time where it's sort of like presidential elections. Every four or five years I start a new section in a new place. Slowly you figure out where you are and there are a lot of things you learn in actual time, and there are some things you learn in back-story. For example, we never actually see Mia's mother's funeral. We never actually see their wedding. But we do find out important things about the wedding and the funeral through a flash back. And so I think it's a combination of being able to find those moments where I could pause, and also weave in stuff through back-story that is really important... For example Julia and Mia learn that Mia's mother has died while they're on their honeymoon. Mia finds that out because she calls her mother's hospital...

BB: ...and the nurse says, "Which patient?" That was crushing.

JH: Yeah, it's a crushing moment and it actually comes at the very end of the book, essentially in the Afterword. Now I could have told that part in chronological order, but there are various reasons that are sort of hard to explain. One of the things that I discovered when writing Matrimony is that it's not just the information you provide, but when you provide it, and in what context. I think that a lot of fiction - especially fiction that covers as much time as Matrimony does, that it is the slow accumulation of knowledge you have about a character over time. You think you know one thing about a character early on, but you find out much later that things are more complicated. So I could see it as a sort of process of building blocks where the book seems to be about one thing, but then it opens up into ways that you hadn't designed. And I think that was true for me as a writer.

I never know where my book is going. It's very important for me to not start with a pre-ordained plan because I think the relationship between plot and character is symbiotic, just like in our own lives. We as characters create our plots, we create our stories, but our stories also create us. And I think the person who maps out his or her work in advance ends up injecting their characters into a pre-ordained plot, and they get what a friend of mine calls, "Lipton cup-a-story."

PART III

BB: A lot of the reviews I read of Matrimony singled-out the compelling writing of Mia as she confronts her mother’s terminal illness and her own genetic predispositions through the Ashkanazi gene she inherited. But what caught me were the uncanny details of your writing of this character that describe the feminine perspective. For example, the way Mia folds her underpants into her outer clothes in the changing room before her doctors examination, so that this initimate garment would not be seen. How did you manage to capture these nuances of the feminine perspective?

JH: [laughs] It's so funny that you mention that Paula because I mean, I've been visiting a lot of book groups. I've probably visited between 50 and 60 book groups that have been discussing Matrimony, most of them in person but a few by phone and online, and I've been so struck by the number of times that the gynecologist scene comes up in discussion.

I didn't think that much about it at the time; it's not a major scene in the book, but it has struck so many people. Everyone has a different favorite character, but certainly for a lot of people it's Mia and people want to know if I grew up with sisters? The fact is that I actually grew up with brothers. There were three boys. I now have a family of women, I have a wife and two small daughters and our golden retriever is a girl, so I'm the only guy in the family.

The only time I've been to the gynecologist was with my wife when she was pregnant but that is long after I wrote this scene... I think I should say a couple of things. In order to be a writer you have to have some skill with language, but even more important than that, I think you have to be curious. In that sense I'm like Julian. The book is in very deep ways autobiographical. I'm probably more similar to Mia than I am to Julian... I'm Jewish, Mia is Jewish; my father's an academic, her father's an academic; the world she comes from is certainly more similar to mine. But one way in which I am similar to Julian is that he's a very curious guy, and I'm a very curious guy...

...in some ways I am old fashioned because I'm a big believer that fiction is all about getting out of our own experience. Even if a writer is writing a book that is autobiographical, which this isn't, there's still only one character that is the writer. He still has to imagine other characters. So a gregarious person has to imagine what it's like to be shy and an old person has to imagine what it's like to be young. And I know that people like to sort of fantasize and think that it's a hurdle that is harder to hurdle than others, but I guess I don't feel that way... I believe in the imagination. I believe in empathy. I think that a writer who does his or her job, always has to imagine what other characters are like. I wasn't imagining what it would be like to be a woman, I was imagining what it would be like to be Mia.

Fiction is very much about the particular. It's not about the general. I've had a lot of book groups ask me, "What is your book trying to say about matrimony?" or "What advice could you give?" I've had women in their 50s who are older than me and have been married for many more years asking me for advice about marriage, and I guess that's the risk you take when you call your book, Matrimony.

I do think it's a problem with how people sometimes look at fiction; they're looking for a message. They're wanting to know what I was trying to do; what I was trying to say. And what I'm always saying is... all I'm trying to do is create believable characters and tell a story and move the reader in some way. BB: I guess people are thinking about authors like John Irving who did have something he wanted to say about abortion in Cider House Rules, in order to create some thinking there.

JH: Well I don't want to cast aspersions, and I think Cider House Rules is a good book, but I guess what I would say is, in general - well, I think John Gardner said this, "A character should never make an argument in fiction. If your character makes an argument, the writer had better disagree with that argument. What Gardner is saying is that if you start to use your characters as mouth pieces for your point of view, then you're going to reduce your character and you'll reduce your fiction to something smaller than it is. Good fiction always has to be complicated and irreducible. So, it's not that I don't have ideas. It's not that Matrimony or any other book I write shouldn't make you think, but I think that if a writer sets out saying, "Oh, I'm going to write a book about how I feel about abortion or war or love or poverty," then you might end up writing a good political speech, or a good sociology paper, or a good economics paper, all of which are good things - but they are not what I do. What I do is I tell stories and I try to create characters, and I feel at the end of a book that someone has taken a lesson from it, then I think that I have failed. If there's a lesson to be drawn from my book, it's too complicated of a lesson to be reduced to a number of sentences.

When I was in college a friend of mine wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects, and how kids group objects. The adults grouped the apple with the banana, and the kids grouped the monkey with the banana. And that's a way of saying that kids are more natural story-tellers than adults are. We live in a world of ideas, and of categories, and I think in order to be a fiction writer you have to teach yourself how to be a child again. Like a really smart, sophisticated precocious child. But you have to character and narrative seriously. You don't want to reduce it to category or idea.

So I am aware that calling a book, Matrimony opens me up to those kind of questions, but I really stand my ground on this, that the book is not saying anything about marriage... or teach a lesson.

BB: Conversely, the male perspective in Matrimony covers friendship, class, jealosy, and betrayal between Julian and Carter his college composition classmate. Their writing skills and aspirations are the equalizer in their relationship, and the dividing aspects are their social class and the monetary success that Carter achieves when he sells his share in the software company for $17 million. But the real schism between them comes when Carter confesses to having sex with Mia way back when they all four lived together in college. I was surprised by how the characters all dealt with that. Do people today feel this strongly about infidelity or were you speaking to a greater aspect of trust and vulnerability in the story?

JH:

BB: There is one short – forbidden- if you will relationship between Julian and one of his students, Trilby. And I must say that I found the energy between them enticing – I really wanted Julian to consumate that flirtation and that made me wonder why I felt that way? It brings to the fore all the taboos between teachers and students, or doctors and patients and why society controls these sorts of impulses under the auspices of protecting the “weaker side” or OUR weaker side?

JH:.. I had to tread very carefully writing that, because I think it's something of a cliche, the professor having an affair with the grad student. Even though Trilby is beautiful, it's not a case of the professor sleeping with the bimbo. What Julian falls in love with is the fact that she has good grammer and she know the difference between which and that.

It's really important for a writer to defy stereotype, to not go in the direction of cliche. Especially when you're treating subject matter that has been covered a million times before. So I really struggled with that part. And even though Trilby is not a major character in the book, I found her interesting and I found the scene between her and Julian interesting. So she was an important part of the book, even though she's not a major character in it.

PART IV:

BB: Speaking of teaching you have teaching responsibilities at three different institutes, and your own young family and happy marriage, I’m intrigued to know how you manage to find time to write?

JH: Yes, well my life is certainly busy. But it's not that bad because I only ever teach at two places at once, and both of those are part time, but between all of the places I do end up with a full load. I take teaching very seriously. Even though Mr. Chesterfield in the book is a funny teacher, he's not a conscientious teacher. I certainly like to think of myself as a conscientious teacher. I guess what I would say is a bunch of things. I've been doing it for quite a while so I've become quite efficient. While teaching takes time away from my writing, it ultimately helps me with my writing because figuring out what is not working for a student in their story, helps me to figure out what is not working for me in my story.

Also, I'm a relatively social person and writing is a very solitary. So for me teaching is a social outlet and it's a chance to talk about writing. You know, it's very hard to talk about writing. If you're a more traditional academic, if you're an anthropologist or a philosopher say, and you have an idea for a book, you can talk about your ideas, you can sort of bounce them off a friend or colleague. But with fiction there aren't really ideas. I could say, "I'm going to write a novel about marriage." and someone would say, "Well, OK, go ahead and do it."

The only time I can talk about my work is when I'm talking with you, or if I happen to show a draft of my work to my editor. So the writing life is very solitary and the people I spend time with are my characters, and so that is why it's important to me to make them real...

Having a busy life is important to me... my wife and I have a good schedule. She is a professor and an academic and so we work both at the office and at home. Even though we're both really busy, we can both go and pick up the kids from daycare, etc., and so we have a nice schedule... My older daughter is about to turn five and she's starting kindergarten. The grandparents are around, my wife's parents have been amazing in terms of helping to take care of the kids, so we've had help. But certainly I'm busy, and part of the reason my book took ten years to write is that I was trying to figure it out, but it probably would have taken a little less time if I'd had more time to play with. But that's life. Life is busy and I want to be doing more things than just writing... I feel fortunate to be able to

BB: Well as a reader and reviewer I want to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Matrimony and I'm going to pick up a copy of your other novel. I highly recommend book groups pick up a copy of Matrimony: A Novel (Vintage Contemporaries) for their next discussion and visit your website for the reading group guides and blog updates at www.joshuahenkin.com and it's nicely designed so that book groups can connect with you.

JH: Thanks Paula, I give the credit for that to my web designer. But as I mentioned before I've visited close to 60 book groups and I live in Brooklyn so what I like to say is that I can drive up to two hours for a large book group, if they'd like to meet in person. Otherwise I can do it by phone or by video. But I hope all of your listeners would feel comfortable contacting me, because I really do enjoy the process of meeting them...

BB: Absolutely! We encourage that, and we've actually organized it a lot. Well thank you Joshua.

JH: Thanks to you.

[Later note from the author] Vintage will set up a phone chat for your book group with the author to discuss MATRIMONY, his NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE novel, which has just come out in paperback. Normally, only five book groups are chosen among the entrants, but Josh has agreed to talk to all book groups that sign up. Here's the link to do so. http://www.randomhouse.com/vintage/read/chat.html

Praise for Matrimony

A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a National Booksense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection:

"In the tradition of John Cheever and Richard Yates ... a novel about love, hope, delusion, and the intricate ways in which time's passage raises us up even as it grinds us down. It's a beautiful book. Here's to its brilliant future." --Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of The Hours

"Truly an up-all-night read." --Adriana Leshko, The Washington Post

"Mr. Henkin writes with a winningly anachronistic absence of showiness.... This is just a lifelike, likable book populated by three-dimensional characters who make themselves very much at home on the page." --Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Beguiling.... [Henkin write] effortless scenes that float between past and present. [He creates] an almost personal nostalgia for these characters." --Jennifer Egan, The New York Times Book Review

"[A] charming novel ... Henkin keeps you reading with original characters, witty dialogue and a view that marriage, for all its flaws, is worth the trouble." --Tom Fields-Meyer, People

"Radiates the kind of offbeat shoulder-shrugging charm that made Michael Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh so memorable.... [Matrimony] gets to you and stays with you." --Kirkus Reviews

 

 

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