Interview: Joshua Henkin Explores Family Ties in ‘The World Without You’

Joshua Henkin. Photo: Matthew Polis.

Given that it’s set against the backdrop of both the Iraq War and the ongoing situation in Israel, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Joshua Henkin‘s latest novel, The World Without You, is a political thriller. The death of journalist Leo Frankel in Iraq sends ripples through his family that spread all the way to the White House, and this is a story that might have gone in a very different direction.

Instead, Henkin uses this as the starting point for a tale of family, loyalty, and the ways that grief can both unite us and tear us apart. The Frankel clan gathers on the anniversary of Leo’s death to commemorate his passing, but everyone brings their own issues and grudges to the table. Theirs is a family in the process of falling apart, but as forces conspire against them so they cling even tighter to what they have.

The world the Frankels inhabit is one we’ve seen before in fiction, but Henkin’s treatment of it is so deft that he succeeds in imagining it anew. Despite its political backdrop The World Without You is a novel built upon its characters, and in the Frankels he draws upon a diverse – yet connected – set of new creations. From Noelle – the born-again Orthodox Jew, who spent her teen years sleeping with every boy in town – to imposing matriarch Gretchen, this is a novel that employs a true ensemble cast to keep us hooked.

We spoke to Joshua Henkin as he hit the road in support of The World Without You, and asked him about his intentions for the book, his own background, and the place of politics in fiction.

Dan Coxon: Much of The World Without You deals with the dynamics of a large family, and the various relationships and connections within that family. Do you come from a large family yourself? How much did your own family influence the Frankels?

Joshua Henkin: My mother would certainly say I come from a large family! Apparently, my brothers and I were all in diapers at the same time! I’m from a family of three boys, whereas the Frankels are a family of three girls and a boy. In no obvious and direct way is this book autobiographical. But I believe good fiction has to be emotionally autobiographical—it has to be close to the writer; the writer has to feel at risk. As Ron Carlson once said, “I write from personal experiences whether or not I had them.”

DC: The character of Gretchen, the family matriarch, is particularly memorable. Is she pure invention, or was she based on anyone?

JH: “Based on” is too strong, but there are a few characters in this novel who are inspired by actual people, and Gretchen is one of them. Interestingly, I’ve never met the person who inspired Gretchen. She’s the grandmother of a friend of mine who, like Gretchen, is very wealthy and very manipulative and has the whole family under her thumb, even those who live quite a distance away from her. Like Gretchen, she’s in her mid-nineties and lives alone on the Upper East Side and, her family believes, is too iron-willed to ever die. Aside from that, I know nothing about her.

DC: In fact, the strongest characters in the novel are all women. Why did you choose to write from a largely female point of view, and what challenges does it pose?

JH: It’s hard for a novelist to know why he chooses what he chooses. Writing is an intuitive process; these are simply the characters who came to me. As for the question of gender, it’s a challenge, I suppose, for a male writer to write from a female point of view, but no more so than for a young person to write from an old person’s point of view, a poor person to write from a rich person’s point of view, or a gregarious person to write from a shy person’s point of view. I don’t see why gender should be a more insurmountable barrier than other ones. I believe good fiction can transcend difference, that it can take us out of our own experiences and allow us to inhabit the experiences of others. It’s what happens, ideally, to the reader, and in order for it to happen to the reader it has to happen to the writer too.

A couple of years ago, I gave a reading from an early draft of The World Without You, and I was reading with a woman novelist who read a section of her novel told from the point of view of a man. When the reading was over, she, too, was asked the gender question, and she said, “Are you kidding me? I spent half my life flirting with boys. I know them far better than I know girls.” She was kidding, sort of, but I think there’s a real truth there. In a lot of ways it’s easier to write from the perspective of someone different from you. We’re so close to our own experiences that we don’t see ourselves as clearly as we see others.

DC: There’s also a strong connection with political events in the outside world, from the Iraq War to the ongoing situation in Israel. Did you consciously want to connect the narrative to international events?

JH: When I tell people what this novel is about, they immediately say, “Oh, Daniel Pearl.” The fact is, I wasn’t consciously thinking about Daniel Pearl when I wrote this book, but his death was in the air at the time. The Iraq War was in the air, too, and that’s probably what got me thinking about it for this book. Beyond that, on a practical level, it seemed to me much more interesting to write about a journalist who was killed in Iraq than about a guy who died in a car crash.

That said, I’m not a political writer, and any novelist who considers himself one is worse for it. The only obligations you have are to the truth—to your characters, to your story. If you’re concerned with anything else, then you’re telling lies. I believe it was John Gardner who said that you shouldn’t have a character make an argument in a novel, and if he does you better disagree with it. Gardner’s overstating things, but at core he’s right. With my graduate students’ stories, with some published work, too, I’ll often see a character who’s too obviously the mouthpiece for the author, and it’s not a pretty sight. My feeling is if you want to be a political writer, go write speeches for Obama or, if you must, for Romney. Go be a political scientist. Don’t write fiction. Which is not to say that I don’t have strong political opinions. My father was a professor of constitutional and international law at Columbia for fifty years. My mother is a human rights lawyer. You didn’t survive my family’s dinner table without having strong political opinions. But as a novelist, I check those opinions at the door. You should be able to finish The World Without You and not have any idea how I feel about the Iraq War or any other matter of electoral politics.

DC: The Frankels are obviously a fairly wealthy, and ‘privileged’, family. Did you have any concerns that this would make them less sympathetic? If so, how did you address those concerns?

JH: My feeling is that people are people, and they merit as little or as much sympathy as they merit whether they’re rich or poor, healthy or sick, beautiful or ugly. There’s a strand of anti-elitism in American culture (you can see it every day, tirelessly, in our politics—our politicians fighting over who grew up more illiterate, who was raised in a more uninhabitable shack), and you see it, too, in certain attitudes toward literature—the idea being that only the humble, the uneducated are worthy of our fiction. But I find the idea pretentious; it smacks of a kind of reverse snobbery. In any case, tell it to Fitzgerald, or Cheever, or Yates. One of the things good literature does is it humanizes people we might not otherwise be drawn to. And it allows us to enjoy the company of people on the page whose company we might not enjoy off the page. Which is another way of saying that sympathy doesn’t matter in fiction, at least not sympathy narrowly construed. In fiction, as in life, some people are likable and some people aren’t likable, and the world would be boring if everyone were likable. The fiction writer’s job is to make his characters complex, interesting, fully human, not (or at least not necessarily) likable.

DC: The novel’s timeframe is actually very brief. What attracts you to writing about such a short period of time, and condensing the action into a few key scenes?

JH: In the same way that people speak about rebound relationships, I think of my novels as rebound novels. Matrimony took place over twenty years and focused on a small cast of characters, and I wanted to write something different this time. So I set out to write a book that was more compressed, on one hand (it takes place over 72 hours instead of over 20 years), and more spacious, on the other hand (there are many more characters, and we go into many points of view).

I went back and reread Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, like The World Without You, takes place over a single July 4th holiday. I also returned to Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm—another book that takes place over a single holiday (Thanksgiving) and told (at least seemingly) in several different points of view. I was thinking, too, about Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, also a family saga told in relatively (if not quite as) compressed time, with the various family members arriving from their respective cities and lives. All this was percolating around inside me, and I was thinking about the challenges of writing books like those, all of which I admire a lot.

DC: I know you also teach at an MFA program. What would be your advice to writers just starting out on their career?

JH: First of all, not to think of it as a career. They have to think of it as a passion. If they’re lucky, they may be able to make a career out of it, but it’s an art first and foremost and they shouldn’t forget that. One of the paradoxes of fiction writing is that the ones who make it are the ones who would continue to write even if they didn’t make it; you have to feel that it’s the only thing you can do. On a practical level, I tell my students how much sweat it takes. Revision is what separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. And by revision I mean just that—“re-vision,” seeing things anew. If you look at the first draft of this book and the last draft, they are unrecognizable as the same book. I threw out three thousand pages in writing Matrimony and two thousand pages in writing The World Without You.

The World Without You is available now from all good bookstores, or the Random House website, priced $25.95.

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