Thursday, June 21, 2012

1/2 Dozen with Joshua Henkin

It's my pleasure to post this half-dozen with novelist and short story writer, Joshua Henkin, who tells us a love story, gives what will now be one of my favorite definitions of a writer, and talks about his new novel THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

I , too, despise the inspiration myth. There’s no correlation between feeling inspired and writing well.  If anything, it’s an inverse correlation.  When you’re feeling inspired you’re far more likely to fall in love with the sound of your own voice.  Some of my best work has come when I felt least inspired and, against all my wishes, I turned the computer on.

In terms of what got me going with this book, I had a first cousin who died of Hodgkin’s disease when he was in his late twenties.  I was only a toddler at the time, but his death hung over my extended family for years.  At a family reunion nearly thirty years later, my aunt, updating everyone on what was happening in her life, began by saying, “I have two sons…”  Well, she’d once had two sons, but her older son had been dead for thirty years at that point.  It was clear to everyone in that room that the pain was still raw for her and that it would continue to be raw for her for the rest of her life.  

By contrast, my cousin’s widow eventually remarried and had a family.  This got me thinking how when someone loses a spouse, as awful as that is, the surviving spouse eventually moves on; but when a parent loses a child they almost never move on.  That was the seed from which The World Without You grew.  Although there are many tensions in this novel (between siblings, between couples, between parents and children), the original tension was between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, caused by the gulf between their two losses, by the different ways they grieve.

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

A good quality in a life partner is someone who respects what you do but whose love for you isn’t tied to what you do—who isn’t, in other words, overly invested in your success.  It’s hard enough when there’s already one person overly invested in your success!  

Love story:  My wife and I went to the same summer camp years ago, but I didn’t really know her because I’m seven years older than she is and the last time we were both in summer camp I was nineteen and she was twelve.  But I ran into her years later when she was a graduate student at Columbia and I was back in New York on tour for my first novel. I invited her to a reading, and she came.  She’s the farthest thing from a groupie, but that’s how we met.  It’s the most important thing writing has ever done for me.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

You always see in the back of the Best American Short Stories some anecdote about a writer whose story was rejected by seventy-five journals, and then there it is, in the Best Americans.  I once sent a short story to a well-known publication and received a form rejection, and I thought, No, this is the right story for this publication, so I sent the story back to a different editor at the same publication, and it was accepted a week later.  Sometimes you send an editor a story and they’re in a bad mood, they just had a fight with their girlfriend, they’re tired, who knows what.  I tell my graduate students to revise and revise and revise, to make the work the very best it can possibly be, and then, once they’ve done that, to go about the process of submission with discipline and dispassion.  Never take rejection personally.  That’s easier said than done, but it’s very important.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I grew up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the way my mother tells it, she couldn’t walk down Broadway when I was a toddler without having to pick me up so I could look inside every window.  That’s what writers are:  people who must look inside every window.  If you’re not curious about the people and things around you, you’ll never be a writer, no matter how skilled you are with language.  Writers are gossips.  In another life, we’d all have talk shows.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

I’m always reading, usually multiple books at once.  I’ve never understood writers who won’t read when they’re writing for fear of being influenced.  I’m always writing, so if I didn’t read when I was writing I would never read.  And I don’t understand the anxiety of influence.  Writers should want to be influenced.  That’s how they become the writers they are.  I used to plow through a book even if I didn’t like it, but now, if I’m not engaged after fifty or sixty pages, I’ll move on to something else; there’s too much that’s good out there for you to waste time on something that’s bad.  I think Tom McNeal isn’t read as much as he should be.  Last year I read his terrific second novel To Be Sung Underwater, and now I’m reading his first novel, Goodnight, Nebraska, which is also really good.

If you teach the craft of writing, why do you do it -- other than cash?

I love teaching.  These days I direct the fiction MFA Program at Brooklyn College, so I’m teaching some of the best young writers out there.  In a typical year we get 500 fiction applicants for fifteen spots in our incoming class.  There are writers who wouldn’t know how to teach; for them, writing is an intuitive process and they aren’t fully conscious of what they’re doing.  For me, it was the opposite.  I could read someone else’s short story and figure out what wasn’t working long before I could make things work in my own stories.  I needed to learn how to become a more intuitive writer, and critiquing other people’s stories helped me do that; it still helps me.  Also, I’m a fairly social person, and writing is incredibly solitary, so teaching gives you the chance to be with other people and to talk about what you love.

What’s your take on touring? 

I’m about to embark on a sixteen-stop tour, so mostly what I feel is grateful to my publisher, particularly since book tours are all but extinct these days.  If I’m in a city where I have friends it’s nice to see them, but I look at touring as a job, and I think a writer is wise to use every second he has to help out his book.  If you’re lucky and your publicist has gotten you on local radio, that can be a huge help.  But beyond that, I try to go to every bookstore within driving distance to sign stock.  A writer shouldn’t lose heart if her reading isn’t well attended.  Especially with independent bookstores, you’re reading more to the booksellers than to the customers who come to the event.  The booksellers are the ones who will hand-sell your book in the weeks and months to come.  More than once I’ve read to very small audiences only to learn a month later that my book had been on the store’s bestseller list for several weeks running. 

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novel MATRIMONY (Pantheon, 2007, Vintage, 2008), which was named a New York Times Notable Book and a Book Sense Highlight Pick of the Year. He is also the author of the novel SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, which was named a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His short stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, The Southern Review, The Yale Review, Triquarterly, DoubleTake, The North American Review, The New England Review, and Boulevard; they have been cited for distinction in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES and broadcast on NPR's "Selected Shorts." His new novel is THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,

1/2 Dozen for Christopher Beha

I met Christopher Beha in a hotel lobby in New Orleans which sounds more exciting than explaining that we were at a booksellers convention  doing bookish things. My husband, Dave, Beha, and I shuffled around the World War II Museum for a while, looking at gas masks. (What kind of picture does this paint of the life of writers? I mean, what would Tennessee Williams think?) In any case, Beha has a new novel out with Tinhouse -- a press I deeply admire -- and it's one I've been looking forward to -- WHAT HAPPENED TO SOPHIE WILDER. (You've probably already read Beha's work ... Harpers, The New York Times, that memoir on reading the entire 51 volumes of the Harvard Classics Library?)  

And now here's a 1/2 dozen:

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

If I didn’t love to write, I don’t think I would do it. I’m under no illusions that the world is waiting for my work, and there are certainly better ways to make a living. That doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult or frustrating sometimes, but the satisfaction that comes when I’ve figured something out, solved a problem in the work, or achieved some kind of insight, is essential to my general wellbeing, and I know that it’s the hard work and frustration that allow for that satisfaction. Writing is my chief way of situating myself in the world, and so I tend to feel lost when I’m not doing it. It isn’t something I can just not do without there being consequences. It would be melodramatic to place it on the level of eating or breathing, but I can honestly say that most of the time the question of whether or not to write doesn’t really come up for me. I just do it.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

I don’t know if this is a tip, in the sense that I’m not sure how much it is within the writer’s control, but I will make explicit what I’ve been implying above: in the current literary environment, you’re unlikely to get much encouragement from the outside world, so you need to take pleasure in the doing of the work itself.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

I write a fair amount of criticism myself, which makes it easier to remember that a review is just one person’s response to your work. Naturally, you’d like that response to be thoughtful and well considered. As a fellow book reviewer, I get annoyed by lazy reviews that get basic plot points wrong, that seem not to reflect even a carefully reading of—let alone a serious engagement with—the work. Sadly, such reviews are surprisingly common, even in established critical outlets. They offend my sense of professional pride, and they annoy me even when—perhaps especially when—they praise the work. Praise of that sort is less than empty. Beyond that, reviews don’t really do much for me one way or the other. It’s just not why I’m writing in the first place. In the face of both positive and negative reviews, I remember how critics treated someone like Melville, say, or William Gaddis. It makes the negative reviews sting less, but it also puts the positive reviews into proper perspective, since even the most glowing review will not make me place my work beside Moby Dick or The Recognitions. I do like getting emails and notes from readers who are moved by my work.
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

I don’t really draw a distinction between my writing life and the rest of my life, which seems to offer a kind of balance, though the people who are forced to share that life with me might disagree.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

To be perfectly honest, I’m not really sure what people mean when they refer to a place as a “character,” which carries with it the implication that setting is inherently less important than characters and so when place is very important it must be something more than “just” a setting. But place is definitely important to me. My new novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, is set mostly in New York City, where I grew up and where I continue to live, as is the book I’m working on now. In both cases New York is not just incidentally the setting for the story but an important part of the meaning of the books.

What's your worst writerly habit?

I tend to complicate things. This sounds like I’m actually trying to pay myself a stealth compliment, but I’m not. There is a difference between complexity and complication. The world is a complex place, and good fiction reflects that fact, but it does so in the most elegant way possible, which usually means the simplest way possible. My goal in writing is to be as simple as I can without being reductive, to reflect and pay tribute to the complexity inherent in the world without creating my own needless complications. I often find myself creating complications that don’t add to the richness of the work. Instead they just make it less elegant. When I’m struggling with a problem in the plot, when something I’m trying to do just doesn’t seem to be working, I generally find the best answer is the simplest one. Sometimes it’s really a matter of just removing the problem entirely.

CHRISTOPHER R. BEHA is an associate editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of a memoir, The Whole Five Feet, and the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. His first novel, What Happened to Sophie Wilder, will be published in the spring by Tin House Books.

To read more 1/2 Dozens by novelists, essayists, poets,