Skip to main content

Interview: October 5, 2007

October 5, 2007

It’s been 10 years since writing instructor Joshua Henkin published his debut novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, but MATRIMONY proves to readers that it was worth the wait. His sophomore effort tackles the complex relationships of marriage, friendship and parents and children over the course of more than a decade. In this interview,’s Cindy Crosby talks with Henkin about his latest book, what he believes is his most important task as a novelist, why he doesn’t recommend that young writers live in New York City and the one thing he hopes no one ever leaves on his pillow. How did you come to write MATRIMONY?

Joshua Henkin: When I began MATRIMONY, I was 33 and living in Ann Arbor, where I had gone to graduate school. My first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON, had just come out. I had also just met the woman I would eventually marry, and no doubt that influenced the course of the book. In addition, I had recently attended my 10-year college reunion, and so I suppose I had reunions on the brain. When I started MATRIMONY, I had this image of a couple attending their college reunion. That was all I knew --- the beginning of the book. As it turns out, I didn’t know even that. Yes, there’s a college reunion in MATRIMONY, but it comes 250 pages and 20 years into the novel and it’s a relatively short scene.

BRC: You’ve married and had children since crafting your first novel, SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON. Do you think you could have written MATRIMONY without experiencing marriage yourself?

JH: I do. I’m a big believer in the imagination. SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON is about two brothers who are adopted, and I’m not adopted, and neither of my two brothers is adopted either. That said, you’re always borrowing --- if not from your own life, then from other people’s. And fiction writers need to be engaged with the world. If you’re not interested in people, you’re not going to write compelling characters, and for me, fiction is about character above all else.

BRC: The description of Julian and Mia falling in love feels so authentic, right down to the tiniest detail (I loved the Peppermint Patties on the pillow). Where do these rich and vivid details come from when you write?

JH: The honest truth is, I have no idea. Occasionally I’ll think of a detail in advance and I’ll write it down, but often what seems compelling in the abstract doesn’t work when you actually sit down to write it. I’m not a big believer in mapping out my work in advance. And, of course, what you see on the page is the result of years of revision. MATRIMONY took me 10 years to write! As for the Peppermint Patties, I have no idea where I got them from. I don’t even like Peppermint Patties. I hope no one leaves them on my pillow.

BRC: You change points of view throughout the novel, writing from a woman’s perspective as well as a man’s. Is this difficult?

JH: Originally, the book was omniscient, employing many points of view, but in the end I decided that since the novel is about Julian and Mia’s marriage, I wanted it told exclusively from their points of view. In terms of writing from a woman’s point of view, I don’t see it as uniquely difficult. I believe that fiction involves getting outside your own experience. The same way that it’s possible for a rich person to imagine what it’s like to be poor, a young person to imagine what it’s like to be old, and a shy person to imagine what it’s like to be gregarious, it’s possible for a man to imagine what it’s like to be a woman and a woman to imagine what it’s like to be a man.

BRC: One of the most poignant moments in the book is when Mia helps her mother shower after learning of her mother’s breast cancer. Explain how you used Mia’s experience with her mother’s cancer as part of a book on marriage and why you felt it was important to the plot (if indeed you do feel this way!).

JH: I see it as very important. Although MATRIMONY is about a love relationship that starts in college, the novel takes place over the course of 20 years and is multi-generational in scope. When you’re in your 20s and 30s you go through a lot of changes, and one thing that changes is how you relate to your parents now that you’re an adult. For Mia, the issue is particularly stark because her mother gets diagnosed with breast cancer. And without giving too much away, I’d say that the consequences of that diagnosis are considerable. Julian and Mia’s decision to get married so young, where they end up living, the career path Mia chooses, how Mia relates to her sister --- all these things are intimately connected to what happened to her mother.

BRC: I expected your novel to explore some gritty issues --- grieving, hope, relationships --- but I wasn’t prepared to laugh out loud as much as I did. How difficult was it to achieve this sort of balance in your novel, or was it something that came easily?

JH: Nothing comes easily in fiction; it only looks easy once it’s done. As for humor, it’s very important to me. I really admire writers who can write about serious subject matter but who know how to inject it with real humor. Philip Roth, Lorrie Moore, Francine Prose, people like that. I can’t imagine writing a book without at least some humor in it.

BRC: In MATRIMONY, Mia wants Julius to have a “real job,” not just depend on being a writer. Pilar ends up steering Carter to law, instead of him becoming a writer as well. Have you encountered this attitude yourself? If so, explain.

JH: In some cases I have encountered that attitude, but not from my wife. She’s a professor --- she spent several years writing her dissertation, and then a couple more years turning it into a book --- so she appreciates what it’s like not to take the conventional route, as well as how much focus you need to complete a book project. With my parents, though, it was a little different. My mother has always been supportive, but it took my father longer to come around. He expected me to get a Ph.D. and become an academic. But once SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON was published, he became more receptive. I was fortunate to start writing fiction after college, when I was living in the San Francisco Bay area. Living in Berkeley and San Francisco, you’re surrounded by other people in the arts, so no one wants to know why you’re not in law school. In fact, if I’d been in law school I’d have had more explaining to do.

BRC: Julian reflects, “There was something about movement (and cooking) that prompted the creative juices to flow.” Do you find that walking or cooking helps your own creative juices to flow? Or do you have other ways of stimulating your creative muse?

JH: In that sense, at least, I’m exactly like Julian. I get my best ideas when I’m walking or driving. When I’m stuck, I go out for a jog. I’m going in circles around the Prospect Park loop, but by the time I get back to my house I’ve made progress.

BRC: Tell us about your work as a teacher.

JH: It’s very important to me. I came to writing first as a critic in that I had a good natural sense of what made fiction succeed; I just wasn’t sure I could do it myself. I learned to write through studying the writing of others. I’ve been teaching in one MFA program or another for the last 15 years, and for me, figuring out what’s not working in someone else’s work is extremely helpful for figuring out what’s not working in my own work. Also, I’m a social person, and writing is a solitary endeavor. It’s good to have people to talk about writing with.

BRC: Does living in Brooklyn influence your writing?

JH: I love Brooklyn. It’s my home. And it’s true that there are a lot of writers here. But I’m not sure how much it influences my writing. Most of my friends aren’t writers, and I don’t spend a lot of time going to writers’ parties. In fact, I think living in New York can be a distraction for a young writer. Everything is so expensive, and there’s so much going on. I tell my graduate students that they should consider leaving New York after they finish their MFAs. They’re likely to get more writing done. I certainly did. Ann Arbor was the best place for me to write SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON. It was only when I was a little older and more experienced that it made sense for me to return to New York.

BRC: Speaking of Ann Arbor, anyone reading your novel would think you must be a rabid Michigan fan (your alma mater). True? Or is this just a fictitious passion?

JH: I am indeed a big Michigan sports fan. Michigan is mostly a football school, but I wasn’t particularly interested in sitting in the cold for three hours, so I followed the basketball team more closely. I have a bit of a basketball history myself (I was captain of my high school team), and I happened to come to Michigan in 1991, the year the “Fab Five” arrived on campus --- five freshman who took the team to the NCAA finals, which was a singular moment in college basketball history. I have to admit that now that I’ve been away from Ann Arbor for several years, my passion for college sports has waned a little. I teach at Sarah Lawrence, which is as different from Michigan as possible. My students like to joke that they fulfill their phys. ed. requirement by walking to the store to buy cigarettes.

BRC: In a recent blog entry on your website,, you mentioned that you grew up in an observant Jewish home. How do you believe this influences your writing today?

JH: I have no doubt that it has a very strong influence on who I am, but I’m not conscious of my Jewish background as I sit down to write. As a novelist, I’m very interested in time, and perhaps that grows out of my relationship to time when I was a child, which I associated with the start of the Sabbath on Friday evening and the end of it on Saturday night. But is a concern with time a singularly Jewish phenomenon? Obviously not. SWIMMING ACROSS THE HUDSON dealt very directly with Jewish identity, whereas MATRIMONY, though it has some Jewish material, is less directly about that. I was writing about different kinds of people from one book to the next, so it required doing different things.

BRC: What do you believe a novelist’s principal task must be?

JH: To bring to life complex, believable characters. If the characters don’t jump off the page, the greatest story in the world isn’t worth anything, nor is the prettiest sentence.

BRC: Your novel reminded me a bit of Wallace Stegner’s CROSSING TO SAFETY in some ways. What’s on your nightstand? What books or writers do you gravitate toward?

JH: It’s funny you should mention CROSSING TO SAFETY. Others have said the same thing. I love Stegner and think CROSSING TO SAFETY is a great book. During the course of writing MATRIMONY, some of the books that influenced me most were Jonathan Franzen’s THE CORRECTIONS, Richard Russo’s EMPIRE FALLS, Curtis Sittenfeld’s PREP and Claire Messud’s THE EMPEROR’S CHILDREN. I love John Cheever and Richard Yates. And William Trevor. Just about anything he writes speaks to me. And Ian McEwan. What a great book ATONEMENT was! And I recently finished ON CHESIL BEACH, which I thought was terrific, too.

BRC: Great list! Anything else?

JH: Lorrie Moore’s short stories are wonderful. Alice Munro is a master. Her stories are like peeling an onion --- you keep discovering more layers. There are other novels I’ve admired over the years, some of which have been forgotten or didn’t get as much attention as they deserved. Robert Boswell’s MYSTERY RIDE, Robert Cohen’s INSPIRED SLEEP, David Gates’s PRESTON FALLS and a little-known novel by Max Phillips called SNAKEBITE SONNET --- these books have all really stuck with me. I recently finished Andrew Holleran’s GRIEF and Helen Schulman’s A DAY AT THE BEACH. I liked those a lot. They’re still on my bedside.

BRC: What do you hope readers come away with from reading MATRIMONY?

JH: I want them to feel that they know my characters as well as or better than the real people in their lives. I hope they miss my characters when they’re gone. If I’ve done that, then I know I’ve succeeded.

BRC: What’s next for you, writing-wise?

JH: I’m about 150 pages into my next novel, which is tentatively called THE WORLD WITHOUT YOU. The book takes place over a single July 4th weekend and is about a family reunion. Three adult sisters return with their parents to their vacation home in the Berkshires to commemorate the anniversary of the brother’s death. He was a journalist killed in Iraq. The sisters come with spouses, boyfriends, etc. There are some surprise guests, too. More than that, I’m not saying --- in part, because I don’t know.