Tuesday, 28 August 2012 12:01
Joshua Henkin is one of my favorite writers: his 2008 novel, Matrimony, was chosen as a NY Times Notable Book and reviewed here four years ago. His newest novel, The World Without You (2012) has received stellar reviews—phrases like "subtle and ingenious," "blazingly alive...a living, breathing world," "powerful and unexpected...compassionate and beguiling." See LitLovers Book Review.
Q Not a lot happens in The World Without You in terms of plot—though a good deal does happen among characters. You seem to prefer character-driven over plot-driven stories. Why is that?
You’re not the first person to say that not a lot happens in The World Without You in terms of plot, and while I understand what you’re saying, I disagree. A son has been killed in the Iraq War. His parents are splitting up from the grief. His widow has a new boyfriend. There’s a lot of plot there.
That said, I think you’re fundamentally right, in that my fiction is always less concerned with what happens than with the characters who act and are acted upon. I think plot is important for fiction (you are, after all, telling a story, and a writer should never forget that), but the greatest plot in the world won’t be of interest to the reader if the characters don’t come alive on the page.
To me, fiction is first and foremost about characters. I want my readers to feel at the end of my book that they know my characters as well as or better than they know the people in their own lives. If I’ve done that, then I’ve succeeded.
Q The characters in The World Without You are beautifully realized—each clearly delineated from the others. How do you invent them—all the grainy details of their personalities and behavior? Do you find yourself, say, brushing your teeth...when an idea jumps out at you? Do you deliberate? Do you hold conversations with them? Do the characters ever take over? How does the miracle occur?
The miracle occurs slowly over time. You live with your characters day in and day out for years, and eventually they come to be fully formed. Who is your character? the writer should ask. Where did she grow up? What kind of work does she do? Does she like spinach? Does she sleep on her back, her stomach, or her side? It may seem inconsequential to know (much less describe) how a character sleeps, but not if the gesture is laden with meaning, as all gestures in fiction should be. Does the character who sleeps on her side do so because she doesn’t like the smell of her husband’s breath? Does she do so because she hears better out of one ear than the other and if she sleeps on her good ear she won’t be able to hear when her child cries out at night?
In my last novel, Matrimony, Julian meets his eventual-wife Mia after having spotted her in their college facebook. He dubs her Mia from Montreal. I wrote that phrase instinctively, probably because my own girlfriend freshman year of college was named Laura, and my roommate called her Laura from Larchmont. I liked the alliterative sound of those words.
Before I wrote Mia from Montreal, I had no idea where Mia came from. But she had to come from somewhere, and Montreal seemed as good a place as any. But then I had to own up to what I’d written. How did Mia’s family get to Montreal? Had they lived there for centuries? Were they expatriates, and if so, from where? And how did Mia end up back in the States, in western Massachusetts, for college?
I could have chosen Mia from Madagascar or Mia from Maryland, and if I’d chosen Mia from Maryland, there might have been, for all I know, a long section in Matrimony about her family’s tangled relationship with the clamming industry. But she wasn’t Mia from Maryland, she was Mia from Montreal, and so I discovered that her father had gone to teach physics at McGill, forcing her mother to abandon her career in the process, and that Mia, out of loyalty to her mother, decided to retrace her mother’s steps back to Massachusetts.
I knew none of this until I wrote the words Mia from Montreal, just as the writer who has a character who sleeps on her side doesn’t know why she sleeps on her side until she does so.
Q Noelle is the hardest character in the book to like (though we come to develop sympathy, maybe even affection, for her). How difficult is it to create characters that you know readers will find irritating? Do you dislike them as you write them?
As a writer, you have to love all your characters—not love them as human beings, certainly, but love them as characters, which means you have to take them seriously and respect their humanity and complexity. If you don’t, they won’t be real and you won’t be speaking the emotional truth. So while I could tell you that I’d rather go out to dinner with one than another, rather be stranded on a desert island with one than another, as characters, as my creations, they’re all equal; I play no favorites.
But that’s a different question from making your characters likable. This is one of the great myths of fiction writing—that characters have to be likable. Think of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories. There’s not a likable character in the bunch. But those are some of the most brilliant, most affecting stories around.
In fact, it seems to me that one of the pleasures of good fiction is that it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we wouldn’t enjoy in real life. The writer’s obligation is to make his characters interesting, complicated, fully human, not to make them likable. A complicated, fully human, flesh-and-blood jerk is far preferable to a dull nice guy.
Q The book centers around Leo, who was killed before the book begins. Yet he gradually takes form and shape—to the point where he seems as developed as the others. Is it difficult to bring a dead character to life on the page when he can't speak for himself?
Leo is, in fact, the great hovering absence in the book, and the issue you’re pointing to gets at one of the challenges of writing a novel like this one—not just in terms of Leo but in general. In a book that takes place over seventy-two hours and that is so engaged with the past, you need to fold in a lot of flashback without slowing down the forward movement of the book.
That was probably the biggest aesthetic challenge I faced with this novel. In terms of Leo specifically—yes, it’s a challenge to bring a character to life who’s not there to speak for himself, but what I would say is that what this novel needs to do is less allow Leo to speak for himself than allow others to speak about him.
Because The World Without You isn’t about Leo—he’s dead. It’s about the family’s memories of Leo and their often contradictory interpretations of who he was, clouded as these interpretations are by grief and by different experiences of him when he was alive. That’s where my interest lies—not in Leo, but in how the rest of the family perceived him.
Q You've written elsewhere about a book's "theme," warning readers against looking for a central idea or lesson. Can you explain what you mean? If not a central idea, what do you hope your readers will come away after reading The World Without You?
Critics think in terms of theme; novelists don’t. A friend of mine in college wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. Adults group the apple with the banana, and kids group the monkey with the banana. That’s a way of saying that kids are more natural storytellers than adults are, and it’s the writer’s job to teach herself to think like a child again, albeit like a smart, sophisticated child.
Critics are apple-banana people, and novelists are monkey-banana people. Which isn’t to say there aren’t themes in my novels, just that I don’t and can’t think about them as I write. I have to keep my eye on the prize, and the prize is my characters and my story. That’s what I’m focused on, nothing more and nothing less.
Q Let's talk about book clubs, of which I know you're a huge supporter. You wrote once that book clubs are smart...that they've offered insights into your work that has surprised you. Can you be more specific?
I’ve talked to so many book clubs that it’s hard to remember what I learned from whom, but I do think book clubs are incredibly valuable. I direct Brooklyn College’s fiction MFA program, so I spend a lot of my time with some of the most talented young writers around, and when I’m not spending time with them I’m spending time with my characters. It’s good to get out of my daily life, and out of my head.
I’m not in a book club because my life is a book club, and what I like about talking to book clubs is that you’re in a room with a dozen really smart people whose lives aren’t book clubs. These are just regular readers who take a day a month out of their busy lives to discuss your book, and it gives you a whole new perspective on what you’ve written, and so I’m incredibly grateful to them for that. Also, they’ve just read your book, so a lot of times they know your book better than you do!
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