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.

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