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Joshua Henkin: Why I Write

June 12, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Books, Guest Posts

[As a novelist Joshua Henkin (Matrimony, Swimming Across the Hudson) has written of family and his latest book, The World Without You — releasing a week from today, Tuesday, June 19, 2012 –, features the same subject.

Indeed, families are ripe with complex storylines but, in Joshua’s case, family might also explain why he chose to write.]

Why I Write

I was recently at my twenty-fifth-year college reunion, and I was on an authors panel where the group of us had to speak about how we ended up becoming writers, so I’ve been thinking a lot about this question. My path to becoming a fiction writer started with my family, specifically with my grandfather and my father, both of whom were quite well known, at least in the worlds in which they each traveled. My grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi who emigrated from Russia to the United States and who lived on Manhattan’s Lower East Side for fifty years and never learned how to speak English. It simply wasn’t necessary. He lived on the Lower East Side of yore, a place where you could speak Yiddish and nothing else; the secular world didn’t impinge on you. He wrote about matters of Jewish law, and Jews from all over the world would come to consult with him. To this day, I could go to an Orthodox synagogue anywhere in the world and my last name would get me invited over to strangers’ houses for a Sabbath meal.

My father chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps and instead of pursuing the rabbinate he went to law school, clerked on the Supreme Court, and ended up a law professor at Columbia for fifty years. He was a scholar of constitutional and international law, and in another world, a very different world from my grandfather’s, his name carries a lot of weight. I was always Rabbi Henkin’s grandson, Lou Henkin’s son, and while there were real pleasures in this, it was also at times a burden. My father, who died a couple of years ago, and whom I very much loved, was also, I think it’s fair to say, overly invested in my education. When I was in eleventh grade and the SAT was impending he would come home from his office with a list of words he happened to run across while he was at work. The word “quondam,” for instance, which I have never encountered since and whose meaning I know simply because of those daily vocabulary sessions.

At college, we had to take expository writing freshman year, and we were asked to choose between different options—history, literature, social studies, and the like. One option was fiction, and if you enrolled in it you would write essays about fiction and you would also write some of your own short stories. When I mentioned this to my father, he said, “I wouldn’t begin to know how to write a short story.” And I thought, Aha, that’s what I’m going to do.

That’s what set me on the route to becoming a fiction writer. It seemed to me a way to carve out my own path in the world. I also found that I loved doing it. Yet after my first semester, I stopped writing fiction and instead took a more traditional academic path. I studied political theory and I planned to go on to get a Ph.D. in it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a fiction writer; I very much did. But I also wanted to be a basketball player, and at a certain point you realize you’re neither good enough nor tall enough. That’s how I felt about fiction writing. It seemed to me a delusion, a dream. But then I graduated from college, moved to Berkeley, and found a job working at a magazine, where one of my tasks was to be the first reader of fiction manuscripts. And I was struck by how terrible most of them were. I didn’t necessarily think I could do any better, but I was impressed by the number of people who were willing to try and risk failure. I found it oddly inspiring. I thought I should be willing to try and risk failure, too. So I started to take some workshops, ending up moving to Ann Arbor to get my MFA, and the rest, as they say, is history.

But the fact of trying and risking failure hasn’t changed. Richard Ford came to Ann Arbor when I was there. This was around the time that he won the Pulitzer Prize for Independence Day, and so he’d had a lot of success, but what he told the graduate students, and I really think this is true, is that when he sits down to write the page is just as blank as it is for anyone. Just because you’ve done it once doesn’t mean you can do it again. And it’s that fact—and the terror that accompanies it—that makes fiction writing both a challenge and a pleasure. Writing fiction is about creating something out of nothing, which is another of its pleasures. And I’m a gossip, which I believe most fiction writers are. We’re interested in people, and what better way to feed your interest in people than to make them up? My mother tells a story that when I was a toddler and she would walk with me down Broadway, she couldn’t get anywhere because I insisted on being picked up so that I could look in every store window. I wanted to see everything and everyone. To me, that’s what a fiction writer is—someone who wants to look in every store window, who’s always hoping to discover something.

* * * * *

A moving, mesmerizing novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy.

It’s July 4th, 2005, and the Frankel family is descending upon their beloved summer home in the Berkshires. But this is no ordinary holiday. The family has gathered to memorialize Leo, the youngest of the four siblings, an intrepid journalist and adventurer, who was killed on that day in 2004, while on assignment in Iraq.



The parents, Marilyn and David, are adrift in grief. Their forty-year marriage is falling apart. Clarissa, the eldest sibling and a former cello prodigy, has settled into an ambivalent domesticity and is struggling at age thirty-nine to become pregnant. Lily, a fiery-tempered lawyer and the family contrarian, is angry at everyone. And Noelle, whose teenage years were shadowed by promiscuity and school expulsions, has moved to Jerusalem and become a born-again Orthodox Jew. The last person to see Leo alive, Noelle has flown back for the memorial with her husband and four children, but she feels entirely out of place. And Thisbe—Leo’s widow and the mother of their three-year-old son—has come from California bearing her own secret.



Set against the backdrop of Independence Day and the Iraq War, The World Without You is a novel about sibling rivalries and marital feuds, about volatile women and silent men, and, ultimately, about the true meaning of family.

TRUTH: How appropriate are those bursting fireworks on the cover of The World Without You? Very! For both symbolize a celebration of life — despite loss — and an emotional explosion in family dynamics. Profiling the parents, sisters, wife, brother-in-laws, and children left to deal with the present and future minus a loved one, Joshua Henkin focuses on memories of the past. With each family member telling a different perspective of Leo, the book explores how individual grief varies and reminds readers of the adage that no parent should have to bury a child. Yet the reality is that they do and the world continues on.

Now please read an Excerpt of The World Without You, available next Tuesday, June 19th.

More about Joshua Henkin can be found by on his website, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Book Giveaway: The Divining Wand is giving away one copy of The World Without You by Joshua Henkin — in a random drawing — to anyone who leaves a comment on this post by 11:59 p.m. EDT tonight! The winner will be notified by email tomorrow.

The Revealing of Joshua Henkin

June 06, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Profiles, Q&A

Author Joshua Henkin (Swimming Across the Hudson) follows up on his successful New York Times Notable Book Matrimony with The World Without You available on Tuesday, June 19th.

The book is briefly described in the following sentence:

A moving, mesmerizing new novel about love, loss, and the aftermath of a family tragedy.

Too sweeping and general? Please take note of these *starred* reviews:

“When conventionalists claim, ‘They don’t write novels like that anymore,’ this is the sort of novel they mean. Yet the very familiarity and durability of the setup suggests that the traditional novel remains very much alive and healthy as well, if the narrative momentum and depth of character here are proof of vitality. . . . A novel that satisfies all expectations.” 
—Kirkus (starred review)



“Like a more bittersweet version of Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You or a less chilly variation on Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, Henkin tenderly explores family dynamics in this novel about the ties that bind, and even lacerate . . . The author has created an empathetic cast of characters that the reader will love spending time with, even as they behave like fools and hurt one another. An intelligently written novel that works as a summer read and for any other time of the year.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)



“An American Jewish family gathers at its summer home in the Berkshires to mourn the youngest of the four children, a journalist killed while on assignment in Iraq. Henkin excels at characterization, and he outdoes himself here in a novel that might have been called Six Characters in Search of Family Happiness.”
—Commentary (Summer Reading Preview)


The Divining Wand has scheduled a return visit with Josh on Tuesday, June 12, 2012 but today let’s meet the author through his “official” bio:

Joshua Henkin is the author of the novels MATRIMONY, a New York Times Notable Book, and SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book. His new novel, THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU, will be published by Pantheon in June, 2012. His short stories have been published widely, cited for distinction in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES, and broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He lives in Brooklyn, NY, and directs the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College.

And now here’s the opportunity to get to know Josh upclose and personal:

Q. How would you describe your life in 8 words?
A. Wife, daughter, write, read, friends, dinner, dog, sleep.

Q. What is your motto or maxim?
A. Never listen to mottos or maxims.

Q. How would you describe perfect happiness?
A. Having finished a good day of writing, dinner with wife and daughters, Dulcie, our eleven-year-old golden retriever, at my wife’s and my feet while we watch Jon Stewart, a good book waiting by my bedside.

Q. What’s your greatest fear?
A. I’m not a big fan of mice.

Q. If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you choose to be?
A. I kind of like where I am right now, writing at my desk, soon to go out for a run in Prospect Park.

Q. With whom in history do you most identify?
A. No one I can think of offhand.

Q. Which living person do you most admire?
A. The home daycare person who took care of my daughters when they were toddlers. Fifteen kids demanding things from her, and she never lost her cool, was happy to be with them all.

Q. What are your most overused words or phrases?
A. “Actually, I am the boss of you” (to my six-year-old)

Q. If you could acquire any talent, what would it be?
A. I’ve started to take piano lessons, and I wouldn’t mind being really good at the piano. I’d kind of like to fly, too.

Q. What is your greatest achievement?
A. Is it possible to say marrying your wife and fathering you kids without sounding like an idiot and/or Oscar winner?

Q. What’s your greatest flaw?
A. Impatience

Q. What’s your best quality?
A. Curiosity

Q. What do you regret most?
A. That my daughters didn’t really get to know my father before he got sick.

Q. If you could be any person or thing, who or what would it be?
A. I’ve never really wanted to be anyone other than me, which isn’t to say that being me is so great, just that I’m very happy being who I am.

Q. What trait is most noticeable about you?
A. I ask a lot of questions

Q. Who is your favorite fictional hero?
A. Emma Bovary

Q. Who is your favorite fictional villain?
A. The bible salesman in Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”

Q. If you could meet any athlete, who would it be and what would you say to him or her?
A. Roger Federer. How in the world do you do it?

Q. What is your biggest pet peeve?
A. Bad grammar and syntax, malapropisms. I’m not proud of it, but I’m a schoolmarm at heart.

Q. What is your favorite occupation, when you’re not writing?
A. Reading

Q. What’s your fantasy profession?
A. Writing

Q. What 3 personal qualities are most important to you?
A. humor, honesty, intelligence

Q. If you could eat only one thing for the rest of your days, what would it be?
A. Di Fara Pizza in Brooklyn, even at almost 5 dollars a slice.

Q. What are your 5 favorite songs?
A. “Radio Sweetheart,” Elvis Costello; “Choice in the Matter,” Aimee Mann; “A New England,” Billy Bragg; “Bad Reputation,” Freedy Johnston; “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected Number 4,” Elvis Costello

Q. What are your 5 favorite books of all time?
A. I hate ranking books. It’s like choosing among your children. But I guess Madame Bovary and Lolita would be on the list. Among more contemporary novels, I’d say Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. Probably Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Just about any short story collection by Alice Munro.

Discover more about Joshua Henkin by visiting his website, following him on Twitter, liking him on Facebook, and Pre-ordering The World Without You.